Tag Archives: England

Four Days, Four Counties, Four National Trust Properties

In what is becoming an annual tradition we have once again, having seen off family and friends, got out and about to make the most of our National Trust membership. Last year we did five National Trust properties over an eight day period and the year before five visits over five counties in seven days. For reasons that I can’t quite work out we didn’t have quite so much time this year.

Once again I have included the price for the two of us had we not had annual membership.

The Vyne, Hampshire
There’s not much to see of the house at the Vyne at present as the roof is undergoing extensive renovation work. It isn’t long since we last visited and were able to go up and inspect the work and I had hoped to go up once again and see the progress but, alas, the last trip goes up at 14:30 and we arrived at 14:31. Grr! We had to make do with a muddy walk around the woods instead.
Friday 29th December

Cliveden, Buckinghamshire
A new entry, at least for our post-Christmas challenge. Cliveden is probably best know as the home of the Astors and the location for the Profumo affair which gave rise to the very famous picture of Christine Keeler, naked, looking over the back of a chair.

Now the ugly house has been turned into a posh hotel and the beautiful grounds turned over to the National Trust for the hoi polloi to roam.
Saturday 30th December

Osterley Park, Middlesex
Osterley Park must win the prize for the noisiest National Trust property that we have been to. It is bordered by the M4 on one side and the A4 (Great West Road) on the other. Add to this that it is right under the Heathrow flight path and you get an idea of just how much noise pollution there is. Nevertheless it is a pleasant walk.
Sunday 31st December

Grey’s Court, Oxfordshire
A very muddy end to our visits today but at least it was close to home.

We had intended to also go on to Nuffield Place but, unfortunately, it was closed today so that put an end to that.
Monday 1st January

Checking the National Trust website I can see that an annual joint membership is £108 a year. The total saved this year when visiting the four properties was £91 so one more trip around one of them and we will have made our membership back.

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.

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 😉 !

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.

Inside of Reading Gaol

Ballad of Reading Gaol

When I told people that I was going to take a tour around the Reading Prison the general question was “why?” My response is that other than Porridge and on news reports I haven’t been into a prison – not having the pleasure of being at Her Majesty’s pleasure and all that! It’s just not something that you get the opportunity to do normally.

When the Reading Prison closed in 2013 there was a lot of debate about what should be done with it, a conclusion to which has yet to be reached. The buildings are grade II listed and part of Reading Abbey lies underneath it, including (maybe), the grave of King Henry I, inevitably under the car park, so it can’t be ripped down and replaced with flats fortunately. So while the debate rages on the prison has been opened up for a couple of months for an art exhibition and for guided tours.


I think the first thing to state about the place and this might be stating the obvious but it is pretty grim. This is partly due to the buildings dating back to the Victorian era and the warren type nature of the place. When it first opened every prisoner had their own cell. This is not as great as it sounds as prisoners weren’t allowed to communicate with anyone else, at all, ever. Breaking this rule got Reading Prison’s most famous occupant, Oscar Wilde, two weeks in an isolation cell as punishment. This was a cell in the basement of the prison that had no light whatsoever. They were fed bread and water twice a day and that was it. I spent a few seconds in the closed room and that was enough for me, it can’t have done much for the mental state of those who spent longer.

The main body of the prison looks just like it does on Porridge long corridors with cell doors off each side and netting strung between the two sides of each corridor. The cells themselves were, of course, tiny. The picture is taken from inside Wilde’s cell. Clearly the fixtures and fittings have been updated since his time.

Inside Oscar Wilde's Cell at Reading Gaol

It was an interesting experience to see a prison up close and some more than others will have deserved to have spent time in Reading but it cannot have been a comfortable experience during the days of no communications. Now we wait to see how the building is repurposed but still retains its character – that is going to be an interesting challenge.

A Wild Weekend in Manchester

It can’t be a coincidence that on both the occasions I have visited Manchester a fight has broken out. I suppose some might see me as the catalyst but in both cases I was an innocent bystander.

We had chosen a weekend in Manchester solely because it is equidistant between the homes of ourselves in Reading and our friends in Newcastle. It isn’t somewhere that instantly springs to mind for a weekend break but is just a three and a half hour train ride away.

Our first day there was spent in the town itself looking round the odd mix of architecture on offer. We visited the John Ryland’s library a fantastic building which looked very much like the interior of Hogwarts. Also passing the central library, the imposing town hall and the surprisingly small cathedral.

Interspersed between these fine old buildings were the usual mix of glass fronted shopping centres, run down high streets and huge numbers of coffee shops.

We had the second day of our visit all mapped out. We were to get a tram out of Media City at Salford and visit the BBC where we had booked a studio tour. Much of Manchester seems to be being dug up at the moment while upgrades are made to the lines. When we checked the tram times to Media City we were disappointed to discover that the line out that way was shutting until August starting… today! So we got a cab.

It was while sat in said cab that we looked across while waiting at a set of traffic lights to see two blokes throwing punches and wrestling each other to the ground while partners tried to pull them apart. This was road rage taken to the extreme. I have to admit that I was pretty flabbergasted at the scene but not as much as when our friend undid his seat beat, got out of the car and ran across to help break it up!

Media City is vast, sparse and modern and home to the BBC in the North. We had booked on one of the regular tours laid on by the BBC and I am really glad we did. I had been a little concerned about just what we might be able to see and whether we would be able to take any pictures. I needn’t have worried as two incredibly knowledgeable and friendly guides took our small group through a fascinating tour right into the heart of the action.

2016-06-26 11.02.39

First it was into a radio studio used primarily for BBC Radio 6 Music. Rather than being held back we were encouraged to sit at the desk and take as many pictures as we wanted. Next, it was into a radio drama studio where we were shown how it was setup to allow them to record any number of different scenarios including a set of steps with four different types of tread on them to get different sounds.

Finally, we were taken to the studio where Blue Peter is recorded. Another myth shattered – it was tiny! The presenters apparently have to take smaller steps to ensure that they don’t cross the floor too quickly!

2016-06-26 11.49.08

All the way round the guides imparted a number of great stories that were entertaining and informative. Telling us, for example, that people write in to the Archers to say things like “the migratory birds you played was wrong as they would already have left the UK by now” and that Blue Peter has between 8 and 10 people whose sole job it is to reply to all the letters they receive. They also made me look at wildlife shows in a new light and said that they practice the announcement of the death of the queen twice a year. So she not only gets two birthdays a year but also two deaths!

And that was our two days in Manchester. Would I recommend it? Well the BBC studio tour is definitely worth it and there are some interesting places to visit and but it’ snot somewhere we’ll be coming back to regularly I suspect.

Chelsea Flower Show 2016

Like many people I have a bucket list of things that I want to do and this week I managed to tick another one off the list with a visit to the Chelsea Flower Show.

I’m sure that if I could go back to my younger self and tell me that one day I’d have a hankering to go to a flower show I would have laughed so hard it would have hurt. However, tastes change and as you mature you appreciate different things – is the line I’m now taking to explain this volte-face! And so it was that last Thursday we found ourselves setting off early to join the crowds of other horticulture aficionados at the Royal Hospital Chelsea.

It’s a curious thing, holding a flower show in the grounds of an old people’s home, but that is what the Royal Hospital Chelsea is and there were plenty of Chelsea Pensioners enjoying the displays in their back gardens.

While the hospital grounds are a large area for a few hundred pensioners it isn’t really large enough to accommodate all those that wish to attend the flower show. When we arrived it was comfortably busy and with a little patience and a little light elbowing you could get to the front of the displays. By midday, however, it was heaving and it became necessary to employ more devious tactics. The numbers weren’t helped I suspect by the great weather we had with the sun pouring down making the displays look magnificent, as you can see in this short video.

There is an amazing amount of work goes into all the displays and there is plenty on display that is flowering at what must be the wrong time of year. Having never been before I can’t be sure but I am pretty certain that there must be some sort of floral arms race going on with people trying to out do what others (and themselves) have done in previous years.

There is a good reason to put on a good show as there are prizes but the whole thing did seem to have the feel of a junior school sports day where everyone wins a prize just for turning up. Every stand seemed to have received a certificate or gong of some description.

One worthy winner, however, was this unassuming grey box looking a bit like the Pandorica in Dr Who. There was a queue wrapped twice around the box to get to see what it contained and being typically British we joined the end.

When you reached the head of the line and to the box itself there were three holes drilled at different heights on two sides through which you could look in and see the miniature garden within. It was, like so much else at Chelsea, incredibly well done. You can see some pictures of the inside of the box and many of the other features on display below.

Helped by glorious weather we had a great day and we will certainly go again.

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.

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…