Category Archives: 2017 England

Cambridge 2017 – Colleges and Books

Having made a brief stop off in the outskirts of Watford yesterday we then spent today in the city of Cambridge. Like the Harry Potter Tour we have been to Cambridge several times before. Despite that we managed to do plenty of things today that we have never managed on previous visits.

One reason for this was that rather than wandering aimlessly we followed a prepared route from the GPSmyCity app. This highlighted many of the colleges but also gave us some history and directions between the points, which was useful. The other great thing was that this weekend was “Open Cambridge” meaning that we had freer access to the colleges than we otherwise might have had.

We started the walk at the Great St. Mary’s church and went up it’s tower as you can’t beat the view from the top of a church tower. That said I wasn’t quite so pleased on the way up when I cracked my head on a low beam. The expletives were, however, drowned out by the bells that were peeling at the time. The view was good but limited – you really can’t see very far but what you can see is perfect.

Back down below we progressed on to our next stop trying not to look too much like tourists as Cambridge seems to be teeming with people wanting to sell you walking tours and punting trips. This seems to be peculiar to Cambridge as I don’t remember ever having such a problem in Oxford.

Finally we reached our ultimate destination – the Botanic Gardens. Now I don’t know if it is because of the person I am or I am just getting old but I do love a botanical garden. I’m not sure if it is the plant life, the peace and quiet or both but they are great places to be. Quite often oasis of calm in the middle of a busy city. This one was particularly good with an excellent restaurant too. Pity that the moment we sat down at the tables outside to eat that the heavens opened! Fortunately it was only a short shower which meant we were able to enjoy the gardens.

An Evening with Anthony Horowitz

Somewhat randomly, when we were planning what to do on this trip, a tweet appeared on my stream advertising an evening in conversation with Anthony Horowitz. I’ve made it sound like it was some intimate little tête-à-tête between us but, in fact, there was probably about 100 people there.

I’ve seen lots of Horowitz’s work but never heard him speak before and my first impression was just how posh he sounded! The second thing was just how much he talked, he was unstoppable. The interviewer, the author Elly Griffiths, had several attempts to reign him in but failed to do so. The discussion, including questions from the floor, went on for about an hour and was fascinating, although one wonders how many times he has repeated some of those stories.

I’m not sure that I should confess to this but I really like Horowitz’s new book. No, I don’t mean the words, I mean the actual book. I sat for most of the evening with the book on my lap stroking the front cover! It is one of the most beautifully tactile books I have ever felt and you should buy the hardback simply just to feel it for yourself. 

So all-in-all I enjoyed our weekend in Cambridge but if I’m honest I probably prefer Oxford. This could be because it is local to me. It could be because they don’t have the pestering tour guides. Or it simply could be because it is the home to Morse and the Radcliffe Camera.

A Wizarding Anniversary

So you know that each year that you have been married is associated with a certain gift? So year one is paper, five is wood, 25 is silver and so on. It turns out that the gift for 27 years is wizard wands and so Helen and I decided that we would have to go to Watford to pick a couple up.

If Watford doesn’t seem like a very likely place for magical wands then let me explain that it is home to the Warner Brothers Studio Tour, although that is a complete misnomer. The Warner Brothers Studio Tour is about one thing and one thing only and that is Harry Potter. And yes we have been there before (whisper it – “three times”!).

It was a dreary day outside but inside was full of wonder. The Harry Potter tour, as I’m going to call it from now on as it is more accurate, you can visit multiple times as it is constantly changing. Last time we visited they’d added the Hogwarts Express and new for this visit was the forbidden forest complete with Aragog the spider. Something that I hadn’t noticed on previous visits was that there are now two additional shops (by said train and  forest) where you can buy items that are only available in those shops. Talk about applying additional pressure on parents as they go round.

That aside it is an incredible place if you are into Harry Potter as it not only includes sets on a large scale (such as the great hall and Diagon Alley)  but also offers a look at the making of that you wouldn’t see otherwise. The best example of the latter is a series of videos featuring Warwick Davies showing how the animatronics were done. The time, effort and money spent is mind-boggling.

The last part of the tour is an interior of, one assumes, Olivanders which is full of boxes of wands. The end of each box is labelled with the name of someone that worked on the film, which is a nice touch. Then, inevitably, you exit via the gift shop. And what a gift shop! You name an item and they’ll have stuck a Harry Potter logo on it!

I’d like to say that we celebrated 27 years of marriage by buying each other his and hers wands but Helen was very restrained and decided one wand wielding person in the house was sufficient. So only I will be able to turn on the lights through voice alone. Unless Helen talks to Alexa of course!

One for the Vyne

I love that naughty feeling of being somewhere that you shouldn’t and others aren’t, don’t you? Sneaking off behind the scenes away from the crowds and experiencing something you feel only few before you have. However, at the same time I am a huge conformist and no rule breaker and so would never nip off somewhere I hadn’t been invited. So an open invitation to visit the roof of the National Trust property The Vyne seemed to tick all the right boxes!

The Vyne is an attractive property in Hampshire that seems to be in pretty good nick given its age. However, a huge storm a few years ago revealed that the roof was leaking like the proverbial and needed desperate measures to get it back into shape. And so the Trust embarked on a multi-million pound project to restore the roof on the property.

The Trust could have decided just to get on with it and reopened once it was done. However, it is commendable that instead they chose to design the scaffolding so that members of the public could walk above the ongoing works and see areas that you would never normally see and won’t see again. And wow, what a thing of beauty the scaffolding is.

The intension had been to go up with my Dad and leave the women folk down below with a cream tea but everyone expressed a keen interest in going up and the lift provided made this easy for all. Once up there Mum took great pleasure in finding all the Lego mini figures that had been left in interesting places!

From the ground the roof looks like one single continuous unit but once you are up on the scaffolding several metres above the roof level it is very clearly not the case. The roof goes off in all sorts of directions, presumably where the property has been extended over the years.

The work involves not only replacing the roof tiles but also adding insulation, righting leaning chimney pots, replacing poor stone work, repointing and installing Sky multi-room (only joking). It is a major project and is costing over £5M.

While the roof work was interesting it was the scaffolding itself that I found fascinating. The notices said that it took “months” to design and four months to put up and I can well believe it. Having had scaffolding put up over our conservatory once I know just how expensive that can be.

All in all it is a great experience and if you are in the area it is well worth a visit particularly as it is no additional cost and certainly more interesting than the inside of the house 😉 !

Outdoor Cinema in August in the UK – What Could Possibly go Wrong?

Sometimes what seems like a bad idea becomes inspired after the event and other times, well, let’s just say putting on an open air cinema in August in the UK is a brave thing to do.

Originally we had intended to visit the Cult Screens open air cinema in Reading last year, however, for various reasons this didn’t happen. When we saw that this year they were showing La La Land, a Thompson favourite, we decided to try again.

I’d been watching the weather all week and the forecast suggested that we might be lucky and avoid a soaking. On the day though the rain was heavy and I swear at one point there was snow coming down for one brief moment. Anyway, as the allotted hour approached the skies were dark but it was at least dry so we set off.

When you booked you had three seating options: bean bag, deckchair or bring your own (and consequently sit at the back). We elected for a bean bag which was more bag than bean but perfectly adequate.  Unsurprisingly these were allocated on a first come, first served basis but the view seemed pretty good no matter where you were.

A change from last year was that you are now able to bring in your own food which plenty had done and we too wished we had. This is what I had which was fine but I wished that there were a few more options.

Of course, the most important thing is the film. By eight thirty it was reasonably dark and the film started – no lengthy ads or previews of forthcoming features here. The screen itself was what appeared to be an inflatable with a white frontage – perfectly adequate given the surroundings and sound was pretty strong too.

On some balmy summers evening  I’m sure that this would have been a pleasant experience but there was a cold wind that was blowing from across the Thames. Lying down on the bean bag helped present a low profile to the wind but I was also grateful for the blanket we had plus a wooly hat… In August!

And if you don’t believe me here’s a picture taken on the night with me not looking at the camera for some reason.

We had a good evening but in future I think that we would make a late booking when we could be more certain about the weather and we’d also take along our own food but it was certainly a different experience to your usual trip to the Vue or Showcase.

Yorkshire by Plane

Last weekend, for the first time, we made the trip to my in-laws in Yorkshire by plane. Normally we would make the 200 mile journey either by road or rail. We prefer to let the train take the strain if we can as we prefer to let someone else drive and we can avoid the inevitable queues on the M1. For some reason this time I checked the prices of flights from Heathrow to Leeds/Bradford and was surprised that the cost was very similar to the train prices. By catching an early flight we could be in Yorkshire for breakfast – something that wouldn’t have been possible with the train.

So early Friday morning (it was the Easter weekend) we made our way to Heathrow. Of course the headline price didn’t include parking at the airport which bumps up the price but if we’d wanted to we could have taken the bus which would have helped.

What you don’t get on the train are the security checks required of modern plane travel and it was with dismay that I saw our only bag selected for additional screening. This was not good news as the queue was long but when we did get to the front the reason was explained to us – the scan looked as if we had put liquid in our case. We hadn’t but we had to empty the contents to prove it. This wasn’t as easy as it sounds as we had packed a number of presents for people which were wrapped. We had visions of being asked to unwrap them all to prove that they weren’t liquids. Fortunately the security officer was able to identify the offending item which we told him was a set of wooden flowers. Once they had been rescanned and swabbed we were good to go without further delay.

British Airways, in its drive to go downmarket and compete with the likes of EasyJet and Ryanair, no longer provides anything in the way of food and drink for short haul flights so we breakfasted in the airport before flying. While I understand that BA wishes to be seen to be competitive on price taking away the last differentiator doesn’t seem to be to be the best way to do that. Of course the low cost carriers don’t fly from Heathrow… yet.

The train journey to Yorkshire takes over four hours and involves a change of trains at York. The plane is direct and takes only 45 minutes – not long enough to comfortably complete an episode of Blakes 7 as I discovered! That meant that flying we were out of the airport and on our way by 9am. On the train by 9am we wouldn’t be much further than Oxford.

There is, however, one similarity between all modes of transport – when you reach your destination the weather will be exactly the same and in our case grey and drizzily.

York, England, 2017

We have a busy year of travelling planned for 2017 which started with a trip to York last weekend to meet some friends. As usual we got the train up from Reading arriving late Friday afternoon to a decidedly chilly platform. As it turned out that was to be the high point as far as the weather was concerned and affected our decisions on where we went.

Saturday morning we met up with our friends and decided that given the cold, wet conditions we needed to start with something indoors and so we made our way to the York Museum. Actually I think that’s a bit of a misnomer as the museum is less about York and much more to do with social history of the UK. There are some interesting exhibits but the real attraction is the recreation of a Victorian street. Turns out that the shop fronts here are all originals taken from streets from across the UK – no doubt now replaced by big glass fronted windows. The street goes on for a surprising distance and includes quite a variety of shops.

Exiting the museum the rain was just as hard as when we went in. Hoping that it might ease off over lunch proved not to be the case and so another dry option was sought. First choice was to visit the minster but the £10 per person price tag was off putting and so finally I got to go round the cathedral like building that houses the railway museum!

Now I’m no train spotter but there are some beautiful machines housed in the enormous museum buildings. They have managed to collect together a vast range of machines spanning both ages and continents. However, I really only have eyes for the marvels that are the steam trains, such magnificent pieces of engineering, some of which have wheels taller than me.

Unlike the minster entry to the Railway Museum is free but I’d have happily paid to go round and so made a donation instead.

Sunday was spent plodding round the wet streets of the Shambles, a narrow set of quaint streets around the minster. No doubt in days gone by they would have been selling snacks and souvenirs to tourists visiting the minster. Not much has changed as there between the Fat Faces and the White Stuffs are shops selling bags of fudge and tacky fridge magnets.

York is a lovely place which much to do and see but try and go when it isn’t wet and cold.