25 May 2015

The Chelsea Flower Show is heaven for gardeners!

If you love gardening, beautiful flowers or just a great day out then Chelsea Flower Show is the place for you!  For one week in late May, the grounds of the Royal Hospital, where the Chelsea Pensioners live, are transformed into a gardening heaven from the incredible show gardens to stalls selling hoses, from the creative artisan gardens to a stand selling tractors!

There is the serious business of competing for awards for the exhibitors and, for the visitors, of getting to see it all without exhausting oneself.  So, join me in a leisurely tour around the show gardens, the artisan gardens, the grand pavilion and the stunning flowers:

Arriving 2015

Looks like rather a posher affair back in the day!

Show gardens:

A beautiful garden for Prince Harry's Sentabale charity

There was an charming Alice in Wonderland theme:

The Artisan Gardens:

Celebrating old crafts

Magna Carta

Japanese order and beauty

Marking an incredible wartime escape story

And finally, the stunning plants and flowers themselves:

The RHS plant of the year, one of which is now in my garden

You can't leave Chelsea without a 'chat' with a lovely pensioner!!
Cheeky chappie

Bye for now,

15 May 2015

Historic lunch in the Houses of Parliament

There are some events that just have to be booked as soon as you hear about them and lunch at the Houses of Parliament was definitely one of these. Why you may ask? Because it's the first time they have ever let us commoners into the Peers dining room without a Lord or Lady to be our minder and keep us in order! 

I gathered a small group of equally excited friends and we headed to the mother of parliaments on a bright and sunny London day.  We were told the dress code was smart/casual and the security would be airport style so, properly prepared, off we went.  

The Houses of Parliament building is always impressive, no matter how many times I see it so I snapped a few shots before we entered the no photo zone inside. 

Houses of Parliament
Arriving at the Houses of Parliament

Big Ben
'Big Ben' from inside Parliament

Walking into the ancient Westminster Hall is always a thrill as this room has seen great moments in British history such as the trial of Charles 1 which resulted in his execution and Winston Churchill's laying in state for the public to pay their respects. There will be more about Westminster Hall later on.....

Westminster Hall
Westminster Hall
 Would you like a drink at the bar before your lunch? This was the tempting question put to us as we approached the dining room and it seemed churlish to say no! Also, we wanted to have a nose around the bar where, no doubt, the Peers spend quite a bit of time. It's a wood pannelled room with large windows overlooking the Thames, with a high ceiling and has an overwhelming air of tradition. Watched by the faces of old parliamentarians on the paintings that filled most of the available wall space, we settled in for a swift one. A very competitively priced peach bellini slipped down quickly and it was time to order our meal from the 3 course set menu. 

Peers dining room menu
Peers dining room menu

After careful consideration I plumped for the potted confit of sea trout and crab to start, followed by corn-fed chicken breast and the summer pudding for dessert. A cup of filter coffee and a House of Lords chocolate were a welcome finish. This menu is much shorter than the one offered to Peers but had plenty of choice for me and each dish was well prepared, cooked and presented. The no photo rule means I can't show you what we ate but rest assured it was well worth the £35 set menu price. 

The dining room shares many features with the bar with its wood panels, yet more paintings of royals or parliamentarians and has a wonderful painted ceiling. 

The staff were unfailingly polite, professional, and happy to chat as, when the Peers are in it's all go and time is very pressurised so they welcomed a more relaxed atmosphere and a chance to talk with their customers. They all hope this experiment of opening up to the 'ordinary people' will be repeated as it brings in much needed cash and a bit of real life into these dining rooms. Keep an eye open and you could be lucky enough to step lunch here too!

Even here in the Houses of Parliament there is a chance to 'exit through gift shop' but all the items on sale were top quality and I couldn't resist a small notebook, red with the Lords crest. It will make a great birthday gift for one lucky friend...

They say you wait ages for a bus then three come together, a phenonmenon I experienced I was back at the Houses of Parliament one week later on a full visit thanks to an invitation from their Visitor Services.  I took my time to check out the statues outside the building where Richard 1st, The Lionheart and Cromwell make an interesting pair!. 

Richard 1 Coeur de Lion (Lionheart)

Oliver Cromwell

Back in Westminster Hall I still find it hard to believe that this building dates back as far as 1099 and the enormous hammerbeam wooden roof has been in place since at least the 14th century.  It's the oldest building in this complex and survived a bomb attack during the blitz of London when in May 1941 the House of Commons and this Hall were burning and it is said a call was made to Churchill to decide what to do as the firefighters could not save both. The Commons were left to burn down and thankfully the Hall was saved. The Hall was probably the largest building in Europe when it was built and still feels impressive in its scale.The first recognisable Parliament was held here in 1265 and it was here that key trials were held as well as important speeches made. This tradition continues as Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama have addressed both Houses in here as this is the only room big enough to hold all the MPs and Peers. Plaques on the floor tell the story of some of what these walls have witnessed much of it rather gruesome given what happened following the trials of Guy Fawkes and William Wallace....

Westminster Hall

Hammerbeam roof

The only other area where photography is allowed is St Stephen's Hall with its ornately carved stone doorway which is typical of the stonework throughout the palace. This hall is where the House of Commons sat untl the old Palace of Westminster burned down in 1834 when it was rebuilt to the original dimensions.
Door into St Stephens Hall
Inside St Stephen's Hall

From St Stephens Hall, you tour the famous Central Lobby which is often on the TV as it is a cross over point between the entrances to the Lords and the Commons. The Lords Chamber takes your breathe away with its sumptuous red and gold decorations and a splendid gilded throne used only by the Sovereign when she opens Parliament. The House of Commons by contrast looks a little plain with its wood panels and green cushioning but on closer inspection it's pretty grand too. You can stand at the Dispatch Boxes where the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition stand across from each other and hurl barely disguised insults at the weekely Prime Minister's Question Time! These boxes were gifts from New Zealand and among the gifts from the Commonwealth and Empire in 1950 when the house reopened after the war damage - there were a lot of ashtrays and inkstands, gifts from another age.  Both houses are televised and the microphones, speakers and screens sit slightly incongruously with the gothic style architecture of Charles Barry, so popular with the Victorians. 

The audio guide is full of fascinating information in manageable chunks. You learn how Parliament works, its history, what each room is for, how the Queen arrives through her own entrance and how the division bell which rings to call MPs to vote gives them 8 minutes to rush in from the nearest pub where a relay of the bell rings to disturb their drinking - I mean discussions!   

There is so much to see, a visit with an audio guide would need at least one and half hours and probably more than two hours for visitors not familiar with the British parliamentary system so wanting to learn more. Everywhere you look there is something to investigate from the ornate floor tiles, the elaborate painted ceilings, the statues and paintings and wonderful stone architecture.

If you want to tour this great building check out their website and do try to fit one into your itinerary.

Bye for now,

8 May 2015

Exploring Soho's newcomers and old favourites

Soho is always changing, always interesting and always somewhere I enjoy spending time wandering around.  Constantly changing and yet keeping a great deal of its character is what makes it so worth a visit. You'll still find some sleazy sex shops but the vibrant restaurant and bar scene, top entertainment and long standing favourite make it an exciting part of London .

Ronnie Scott's has been hosting top jazz names on Frith Street since 1965 and although I've not been going quite that long (!), I've seen a good few shows in this iconic jazz haunt. Sitting at a table virtually on the stage when Georgie Fame was headlining and needed to use our table to rest while Guy Barker riffed through his trumpet solos is one of my top memories. Ronnie's probably the first place I think of when Soho is mentioned and I've seen it change over the years but somehow keep the faith. My top tip is to grab a ticket during the week when you can stay all evening and see two sets if you wish to whereas at weekends there are two sets and you can only stay for one as they clear the room in between shows. On my most recent visit w were lucky enough to see the French star trumpeter and flugel horn player Stephane Belmondo making his Ronnie's debut as a band leader - very smooth and dreamy..... 

Ronnie's classic sign

Slightly fuzzy shot of inside Ronnie's before the band arrived

If you are aiming for a late set at Ronnie's, you'd be well advised to pop in across the road get a shot of strong espresso at Bar Italia. They've been keeping London awake since 1945 and it's a great place to watch Italian football matches, but only if you support Italy or you will think you are in the wrong country!  

Any time is coffee time here
Alongside old favourites there are always new places to try out and I was lucky enough to be invited to Bar Termini and Piada Bar recently to see what they have got to offer.  Bar Termini has been on my must see list for a while and the chance to attend a coffee masterclass there was not to be turned down. 

Arriving at Bar Termini

Classy retro interior

When Marco Arrigo, of Illy's coffee university, and Tony Coniglario, of the hip cocktail bar 69 Colebrooke Row, teamed up the resulting bar was definitely going to be one worth looking in on.  Marco gave us a coffee masterclass, running through their short and original coffee menu.  He is very clear about what he believes makes good coffee and he is definitely of the school that life is too short to drink bad coffee!  We checked out their smooth espresso, bianco, latte, cioccolate and affogato - just sipping each so as not to be bouncing off the walls full of the great caffeine!  He has very strong views about 'latte art' and how it spoils a good coffee, we learned about good and bad beans, how long it takes to make their top espresso and the importance for him to be able to serve a £1 coffee option in the Italian tradition of accessible coffee. There is no doubting his passion and expertise and this comes across in the coffee, the snacks and the drinks. 

The we moved onto their drinks and I was completely taken by the bespoke bottles and matching styish glasses as much as the unexpectedly great taste of their Terroirs vodka which has flint, clay and lichen distillates - yes it was a complete surprise!   Everything about this little bar is stylish, simple and classy and has a retro feel and a welcoming vibe that will see my back for an evening very soon!

Enjoy this gallery of coffee, cioccolate and cocktails:

Led astray by the Terroirs vodka, we stayed on for a full glass of this tasty sophisticated drink, but just the one as it packs a mighty punch! 

My second invite was to the new Piada Bar - what is a piada you may ask, I did! It's a flat bread from Romagna, Italy and so devoted are they to authenticity in this bar that they import every single piece they use directly from Italy!  They have an extensive menu of different fillings from the traditional hams and cheeses to a salmon one to appeal to more English tastes and even a fruity one for a more healthy feel. They are a great snack and this bar is open all day and well into the night.  We were given a wonderfully warm welcome and some really tasty snacks along with some good wine - what's not to like!!

Classic ham piada

Irresistible cheesy piadas
Pork belly piadas

Piadas even come with fruit!

There is so much more to Soho than just these four picks, so head in and explore the area. But if you want to find these here are the addresses:

Ronnie Scott's  47 Frith Street, London W1D 4HT
Bar Italia  22 Frith Street, London W1D 4RF
Bar Termini 7 Old Compton Street, London W1D 5JE
Piada Bar 3-5 Batemen Street, London W1D 4AG

Bye for now,