Category Archives: 2015 England

Sky Garden, London

A year ago I arranged as a present for my dad for us to go up the Shard. This didn’t work out that well as we were thwarted first by the London Fire Brigade and then by Thor. So it was with some trepidation that I booked to take my in-laws up to Sky Garden this Christmas Eve.

The auspices weren’t good as I got soaked just walking from where I had parked the car and the station. Fortunately it was only myself that suffered this having dropped everybody else off in the dry first.

Continuing the Thompson tradition of arriving way too early we got to 20 Fenchurch Street an hour before our booked time but at least it had stopped raining by this point and we were allowed in early, which was fortunate. Getting to be top is akin to boarding a flight as you go through similar security checks before taking the lift to the 35th floor.

Somewhat ironically the first thing you see when exiting the lift is the Shard. However, the top of 20 Fenchurch Street is as different as it possibly can be. Firstly, as the Sky Garden name suggests, there is greenery and quite a lot of it too. It is also a lot larger space being square and on two open levels reached by steps down either side. While it isn’t as high up as the Shard the views were still great, it’s a view of London after all.

We were lucky that the weather cleared and the sun had come out which allowed us to see all across London. It’s a view similar to that from the top of Monument but without the breeze.

It was an amazing experience made even more amazing by it being free! All you need to do is book in advance and I would highly recommend going.

A Night at the Museum

We’re not great museum goers in the Thompson household, although the Pitt Rivers in Oxford is excellent. However, we do make exceptions when there is something a bit different going on.

The last Friday in the month the Natural History Museum in London opens late (until 10pm) and what sealed the deal, for Helen at any rate, was that they also sell wine which you can sip while looking at the exhibits.

So this seemed like an excellent time to visit and blessed by fine weather for the end of October we walked from Paddington. Ideally we would have liked to have walked through Hyde Park but is was dark and shut.

The first surprise on arriving was that there was a queue to get in. We had naively assumed that it would be quiet and inside was even busier – particularly around the bar!

The second surprise was that looking at slightly faded stuffed animals even in a beautiful building with the lights down is not all that it is cracked up to be. It lacked something that the equivalent museum in Oxford had, which was a shame.

However, the dinosaur section was superb and the lighting made it incredibly atmospheric, or maybe that’s just a boy thing!

I’m not sure that I would rush back to the Natural History Museum again but next door is the Science Museum and opposite the V&A so maybe we will be back that way sometime.

Buckingham Palace & Gardens

As someone who thinks that the best place for royalty is on a stamp or coin it was strange to find myself on a tour around Buckingham Palace and gardens but the place isn’t open that often and I wanted to see just exactly where my 56p pence was going.

I’m sure you will be surprised to hear that rather than welcoming someone who subsidises her each year not only was Liz not there to greet me but she also charged me 30 quid for the privilege of looking at stuff I think should belong to the state anyway. She also had the effrontery to insist that no photos could be taken inside or out. I took that as a challenge and ended up with the picture above.

The tour itself was arranged a little bit like a trip to IKEA in that it was all one way and you were corralled to where they wanted you to go. Also like IKEA it was packed the difference being that we had paid to go round the palace. This felt a little bit greedy on the part of the Royal Collection as in some areas it was almost impossible to move and it certainly wasn’t possible to see anything.

What was it like inside? Well pretty much as you would expect. Lots of old furniture and paintings. In fact it could do with some modernisation and so I would recommend a trip to IKEA, certainly might being down that £150M renovation price tag

Following our visit inside we had booked a tour round the gardens which at least was a little more selective as about 30 of use were given a guided view of the 50-odd acres. It was not anything like I expected in that it was a landscape originally conceived by Capability Brown and he was not big on flower beds so there wasn’t much colour (other than green and browns). That might also have something to do with the fact that a lot of the plants have been gifted to the Queen over the years and nobody seems to have thought of giving her a simple potted plant.

Would I recommend it? Probably not but then I’m no great royalist.

Reading Museum Stores, Heritage Open Days 2015

It’s time once again for the annual Heritage Open Days when interesting places all over the country open their doors as payback for public money received.

Last year I went into the Reading Abbey, which is normally closed to visitors, and this year I went to the Reading Museum stores. Here are held all the exhibits that there isn’t room for in the museum itself. We only saw one floor of the stores but I was told that the ground floor held larger objects including several vehicles including a fire engine.

The tour started with a presentation explaining the work of the museum service and how they go about cataloguing all the items. You can see the fruits of the museum’s database on their website. The topics section is a good way to explore without having to know what the collection holds.

We next moved into the storage space itself starting by looking at a number of objects related to Reading Abbey. It was fascinating to see objects that were so well preserved, particularly when you look at how well the abbey itself isn’t preserved!

I was really impressed with how much thought had been put in by the staff to draw out relevant and interesting objects from the collection and how much freedom we were given to wander between the racking and inspect items held there. The racking (and the objects, obviously) were clearly of some pride!

We also had a talk on the maintaining of the collection which is a bit more complex than just a bit of light dusting, especially when it comes to things such as taxidermy, something of which the museum seems to have a reasonable amount of.

Once again it was a fascinating way to spend and hour and a half visiting somewhere that normally you wouldn’t get to see. As it turns out the stores aren’t entirely off limits, you can make arrangements to go to look at specific things, but it is only on days like this where you get such a guided tour.

I’m looking forward to what will be on offer next year.

Out for an Early Bath*

We had decided to spend the day in Bath and given that it is easy to get to from Reading we elected to do so by train. It is always cheaper to buy train tickets in advance and as we also had a railcard it made it reasonably cheap too. When we picked up the tickets at the station I suddenly realised that I had left my railcard at home so the tickets weren’t valid – I was pretty upset.

This left us with a few choices: try our luck and just go with what we had, use a photo of the railcard I had on my phone, buy new tickets or cut our losses and go home. The first thing I did was to check the photo of the railcard and was amazed to discover that it had expired in March! In the end we bought a new set of tickets and, of course, they were not checked once either out or back so could have got away with the original tickets but at least I was honest…

Once at Bath, however, it was all plain sailing and it is a beautiful place. The weather was gorgeous and so the place was packed with locals and tourists alike but like in so many places you only have to walk a short distance out of town for it to be nearly deserted.

In our case we choose to walk out along the river, through the botanical gardens, past the Royal Crescent and then back into town. The first part of the walk was empty and while the Roman Baths are fascinating the river walk and the gardens were beautiful and fairly tourist free. Understandably the Royal Crescent was pretty popular although right outside the properties themselves it was quiet unlike the green area in front which was busy with people taking in the sun and barbecuing.

Having done the culture bit we spent the rest of the afternoon in the town and wandering around the shops which are a heady mix of the high street staples, quirky local offerings and touristy outlets.

Finally it was back to the station only to find that our train had been cancelled.

As a postscript to the train story once I got home I decided to rid myself of the expired railcard only in doing so I found that I had renewed it and it was in date after all!

* The title is supposed to be a clever take on two sporting metaphors harking at both the Ashes and rugby played in Bath while also indicating where we went. I think that it horribly misses its mark and is awful for SEO but I just can’t be bothered to think of a better title.

A Day at the Races

It’s been about 35 years since I last went to the horse races. On that occasion it was Ripon and I was too young to bet (well, directly anyway. I do seem to remember bets being made by proxy). However, I was given a pair of tickets to go to Newbury for last night’s meet and so off we went. It was a lovely evening for it but given we were in the premier enclosure a jacket was in order which was a little warm but I did feel smart.

I was surprised at how many races there were – seven in total – one every half an hour. This meant that by the time you had selected “your” horse, placed your bet and watched the line up that half an hour went pretty quickly.

We watched the first few races and investigated how the betting went before we placed any bets ourselves. Given it was all a bit of fun we selected horses based on spurious criteria and placed (very) small bets to win on the tote. We lost a total of £7 in the end (the last of the big spenders) but had some fun doing so.

Had we not been given the tickets it would have cost us £25 a head and while it was a good night out I’m not sure that I would say it was worth that to me. So while I might not leave it 35 years until I visit again I probably won’t be racing back…

London Zoo Sunset Safari

It was last year, I think, that I first saw London Zoo advertised and thought that it sounded like an interesting idea – to open up the zoo in the evening over a few weeks in the summer and to lay on other events and food too.

Tickets are cheaper in advance but, of course, you also take a chance with the weather. We rolled the dice, booked early and got a beautiful evening. That was just as well as we had decided to walk from Paddington, a trip of just over two miles along the beautiful Regent’s Canal.

The first thing we noticed on arriving was just how quiet it was. We had really expected it to be heaving with people but despite being told later that it was busier than during the day, it was still possible to easily get to the front of each enclosure.

After a quick pit stop for food (there was a huge choice of fried offerings at inflated prices) we hit the animals, so to speak. First off were the penguins which were as adorable as ever. Next, at the butterfly house one in particular took a great liking to me and I carried her around until I had to shoo her off at the exit!

In the end we did a complete circuit taking in many different animals but the best bits were when you could go into the enclosures and be with the animals, particularly the monkeys. It was a photographers paradise although we were warned that one or two monkeys had a penchant for whipping phones and cameras! I held onto mine tight and get some great shots, which you can see below.

We spent about three hours at the zoo including feeding time (for us not the animals!) and thoroughly enjoyed it, helped enormously by the great weather. A couple of other things that help, I think, were that the evening had a more adult theme to it, no pesky kids (not even our own) and it reminded me of being in Disney’s Animal Kingdom, somewhere we have spent many a happy hour over the years.

Sunset Safari is on for just a few more weeks this year otherwise you will have to make plans to go in 2016.

Hadrian’s Wall

“All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”

Well, they built a bloody great big wall running from the River Tyne to the Solway Firth, a total of 70 miles, and over the weekend I got to visit.

The friends that took us tried to manage our expectations but that really wasn’t necessary as I thought that it was fascinating. The weather (it was blowing a gale and bitterly cold) also really helped to give a sense of what it would have been like to be posted out there and have to keep the barbarians at bay.

The wall itself isn’t that big in either height or width but it makes the most of the rugged surrounding countryside to make it difficult to penetrate. Along the wall there are forts that would have housed the poor soldiers that had to stand freezing their nuts off offering protection and every (Roman) mile a “milecastle”.

The Romans were clearly pragmatists as the mile posts had what must have been gates in them through which one can imagine all sorts of trade passing through so not everyone travelling south was unwelcome.

We walked along a short section of the wall and it appeared to be pretty complete but it turns out that large sections of it were rebuilt by the Victorians which is why it appears so pristine. Still it does give a much better sense of what it was like complete, rather than a pile of bricks.

Apparently it isn’t possible to see Hadrian’s Wall from space…

Portchester Castle

Fresh from an exploration of a hidden London gem on Saturday we visited somewhere that has been hiding in plain sight pretty much all my adult life.

For four years I went to Portsmouth University (or Polytechnic as it was then) and twenty odd years later my son did the same. In the intervening years I was a regular visitor. Somehow it was only very recently that I bothered to look across Portsmouth Harbour from the M275 and noticed that there was a castle across the water. This transpired to be Portchester. How I could have missed it I am not really sure. Probably I was too busy concentrating on driving to notice.

This weekend while visiting some friends I got to take a look and it is equally impressive close up. Portchester itself is a beautiful little place spoilt, as so often, by the stream of cars on their way to, in this case, the castle.

Built in a defensive position overlooking the harbour to be ready for any sea attack it now offers a great view back to Portsmouth city with the Spinnaker Tower prominent. The castle buildings cover a relatively small area of the whole grounds which includes within its walls an active church. The central area is just grass today but you can imagine it teeming with people and buildings in the Norman times. You can also get great views by going up the tower.

If you are down Pompey way it is well worth a visit, especially if you are a English Heritage (or Heritage England as I think they are now called) member and can get in for free. Although the majority of the grounds are free, you pay to go into the museum and up the tower.

Hidden London – Camden to Paddington

I like London. It’s a great city. I wouldn’t want to live there and nor would I want to have to commute up there everyday to work but it is a beautiful and richly varied city.

A great example of this is the almost jarring contrast between Camden Market, with it’s brash high street and shops with large footwear adorning the frontages, and the canal-side walk from the lock to Paddington. This weekend we did the walk for the first time and is a beautiful 2.5 mile stretch of path.

At one end lies Camden Town with it’s market selling mainly tee shirts with humorous slogans, mobile phone covers and other tacky souvenirs. A number of the shops had 3D objects attached to the outside signifying what they sold: shoes, clothing etc. In a way it reminded me of the touristy shops along the 192 in Florida and those selling buckets & spades at the seaside.

At the far end is Camden Lock on the Grand Union canal. It’s a pretty spot, teeming with tourists and noisy but walk just a very short distance along the tow path and suddenly it is quiet as few bother to make the trip, which is their loss.

The tow-path is very quiet and, for the most part anyway, lined with trees. At one point you pass through London Zoo and you can see a bird enclosure on your right. A little further up on the left hand side are several large buildings. It is not clear if they are houses still but there is no doubt that they are worth a bob or two.

Eventually you reach a point where the canal passes through a tunnel which you cannot walk along and have to make your way through over the top. Once the water emerges you can see a number of boats moored where people are living permanently. While this seems great when the weather is fine like it was the day we passed I do wonder what it would be like in the winter.

Then you reach Little Venice where once again there are a number of private boats that are residences – it’s a lovely area.

Finally you reach Paddington station and there is an entrance that takes you right to the ticket barriers of the underground.

If you have the time I would definitely recommend the trip – you won’t believe that you are in London.