Last day in London

Our last day was not to be wasted and we headed out to Upton Park, deep in the East End of London (actually we walked past the football ground of West Ham) to visit a very special shop…
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The Doctor Who shop was gobsmackingly awesome. Our jaws dropped in a collective gasp as we entered, as we surveyed the shop. T-shirts! Figurines! Keyrings! Lego-style sets! There were vintage fan books, many of which I remember reading as a young Who fan, poster and memorabilia adorning the walls. We walked around in silent awe, before letting out a squeal. I’m sure the people who work there were quite used to nerdy people like us going slightly batty at all the Dr Who guff there was to be had.

The back room of the shop was fitted out as a museum of props and costumes from the series, and other memorabilia such as scripts and posters. Entry was via…a Tardis, of course! I was given the key to let ourselves into the museum.

The costumes had been purchased from auctions, and it was clearly a labour of love. We saw a gas mask from ‘The Empty Child”, a very old Cyberman and a costume belonging to Tom Baker, who had been my favourite Doctor until this gentleman turned up…

We didn’t go completely crazy in the shop as we were leaving that day and only had a small amount of space in our luggage. We then ventured out into the dismal wet weather that was London’s summer. Ha- just our luck to be there for their wettest three months on record!

We then ventured to the Museum of London, which is appropriately in the City of London. It’s somewhat less busy than Westminster, or other parts of London, and pretty much of what we saw was office buildings, which made for great wind tunnels. The weather was grey and it matched our moods. None of us really wanted to go home.

It was good to get out of the rain, albeit into a very noisy environment, with more school groups marking time in their last week of school at an excursion. The museum was great, with an effort being made to make history more relevant by having younger people involved in exhibits about their own contemporary London experience.

Modern-day items were displayed beside historical artefacts to contextualise their presence. A mosaic that would have been the floor of a Roman villa for example, was a floor upon which a couch table and modern lamp was placed.
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The kids loved playing at being firemen wearing old fashioned helmets 🙂 .
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My favourite bits were the Victorian street scene and the exhibits of 20th century London. One was cool to walk around in and the other was realising that my childhood is now a museum piece!

And then it was time to go. We headed off to my brother’s flat for a final cuppa and one last look at CBBC, then we went back to our hotel to retrieve our luggage. Bye bye London, we’ll miss you terribly.

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And now the end is near…

A smooth return trip on Eurostar, and we’re back in London. This time we’re in Angel, a stone’s throw from my brother Mark’s little flat and staying at the Premier Inn. It’s close and convenient, but the family room is basically a queen bed with a couch made up for one child and a trundle bed jammed in between. The spaciousness of other family rooms in our hotel stays in Glasgow, Lewis, and Enniskillen are sweet distant memories…

The hotel rooms are beginning to take their toll, as it is hard for the kids to settle while we’re in the same room, so it is a case of early nights for us, or a lot of arguing and settling excited children for ages.. I am finding the rooms are a bit stuffy and the duvets a bit too thick, so you are tossing and turning trying to find a cool spot, throwing off the duvet, and then waking up feeling a bit chilled.

The prospect of my own room and bed is somewhat enticing, but none of us really want the holiday to end. What is supposed to be the holiday of a lifetime has whetted our appetite to see more of what we have missed. I would love to get a Eurail Pass and see Venice and travel through Austria,  and Germany, go to Denmark and Sweden, and see more of France other than jidt Paris and see Spain for the first time. I want to visit all the places in London I still haven’t visited, like Hampton Court Palace and the Tower of London and go on a Jack the Ripper walking tour in East London. I hope there will be a next time!

Our second last day was spent re-packing our cases, to balance out the weight, while the kids went to spend some quality time with their uncle Andrew and ‘aunty’ Helen, who delighted Miss BG in giving her a makeover. I took a final stroll up and down Upper St, saying goodbye to a lovely neighbourhood.

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This was the first place we stayed in in 2001 with the lovely Miss S and her husband Mr S. It’s become a bit upmarket since we first stayed there… Real estate prices in this area do not appear to have suffered any downturn due to the recession.

A final drink with friends at the Lexington and a final dinner with my brothers at Jamie’s Italian finished off the night. It was my first time at a Jamie Oliver restaurant, and it was loud, noisy and very busy. The food was very good,  with my sea bream with a salsa rosso being a very tasty main. It was just there were a lot of flavors and textures competing in what should be essentially very simple dishes- the tartness of a lemon curd slice was overwhelmed by the inclusion of nuts and berries as garnishes, and I think my tiramisu would have tasted better without the inclusion of orange peel shavings, and the coffee flavour was a tad uneven through my serving.

Still, it was a good time with my London family, who will be much missed, especially by the younger members of the BG family.
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London calling (again)

Back in London again! We were staying for 4 nights and were back in our flat that we had stayed before, much to everyone’s delight. Our little flat in Highbury feels like a second home, and the children who lived next door to us welcomed us back excitedly.

Master BG was leading us back home, changing trains with ease at King’s Cross. ‘It’s easy when you’ve done it before mum,’ he explained later; ever the seasoned traveller!

Catching up with my brother Andrew was a double surprise as we were reunited with Woof Woof, who had arrived by mail from Lewis on Saturday. The Master Independence became a little boy again as he gave his dog a big hug and never let him go for the rest of the night.

The Imperial War Museum was our first stop, and it was buzzing. There were quite a few tourists, and at least 6 different school groups, all marking time before the end of the school year with excursions to free museums. The kids were revelling in being out of school with limited teacher supervision. We tried to avoid the school groups if they were in a particular exhibit,so we didn’t see everything, but what we saw was excellent. The main exhibition hall was filled with tanks from Germany, Russia and the UK, V2 rockets, planes like a Spitfire, Messerschmitt, and a Sopwith Camel hanging from the roof.
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The next level contained a little fishing boat which was the smallest vessel used to evacuate Allied Soldiers from Dunkirk (which evoked memories of The Snow Goose for me) and part of a Lancaster bomber, which was very special to Mr BG, whose uncle Max had been a gunner on a Lancaster Bomber during the war.
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There was also a profile of a family who had lived in Lambeth during World War Two, and an exhibit on the Secret War and the roles of secret services and special forces in government and society. It was quite a thought-provoking exhibit, posing questions such as ‘Do we really need them anymore?’ It also had an Enigma machine, captured from the Germans, which was pretty cool.

We also used the chance this time to tick off a couple of sightseeing spots.

We called here but no one was home
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And it was the same story here…
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Giving up, we headed for a spot of shopping at Covent Garden and the London Transport Museum, and later at the Chapel Market in Angel…

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Next stop Stanton Lees, via Nottingham!
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Doing it for the kids part II

This is the sequel to my previous post, which is fairly apt considering we went tothe Leavesden Film Studios where 8 films were made of a little boy who lived under the stairs…
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The secret was kept until we all arrived in Watford. Master BG had struck up a friendship with a little boy from Canada on the train, who asked him ‘Are you going to the Harry Potter Studio Tour?’
‘Um…no, I don’t think so,’ was my son’s reply. When we hoped off the train, we confessed that was indeed where we were going. The response was a bit muted, rather than the enthusiastic one I thought we would get.
They warmed up as we approached the studios in the bus from the railway station, and got quite excited when we walked in and saw…the gift shop! Full of chocolate frogs (£7.95), Bertie Bott’s Beans (£7.95) and a genuine Marauder’s Map(£29.95)!
Our entry was a timed entry, and we arrived about 45 minutes early, so we were able to have lunch before joining the queue. We were escorted into a room where we were shown a brief video on the original discovery of JK Rowling’s book by the producers, then into a theatrette where we had another film on the making of the studio tour. Presented by Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint, it ended by them entering Hogwarts Great Hall through a large, ornate door. Then the cinema screen rose…and there was the door! I nearly leapt out of my seat in excitement. The doors opened and then we were in the Great Hall and the start of the tour.
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There was a guided tour of the Great Hall by one of the many tour guides who gave a presentation on its creation. After we moved from the hall, the remainder of the tour was a self-guided, to allow you to spend as much or as little time looking at the sets which had been recreated, and rebuilt, complete with costumes from the principal characters.

There was so much to see that you could easily spend hours studying everything in great detail. And everything does have such detail! From individual labels in Ollivander’s wand shop, to thousands of glass bottles in Dumbledore’s office, the richness and quality of detail only served to enhance the cinematic experience, and to employ so many set designers and dressers.

Throughout the self-guided tour, studio employees were on hand to provide information about particular aspects of the set, stories about the making of the film and anecdotes from cast and crew members. From them we found that as the boys grew, they either had to curl up in bed or let their feet hang over the edge out of shot, as the beds were designed for 10 year olds and not 17 year old boys
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The mechanical opening door with all the locks to the Chamber of Secrets was created by the special-effects team and fully mechanical
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The backlot component of the tour involved part of the rickety bridge, the Potter home, the Knight Bus, Hagrid’s motorcycle, and the flying car. It also had number 4 Privet Drive, where Harry grew up with Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon. The original film filmed in an actual street, which was then recreated on the back lot for subsequent films. The Knight bus was created from 3 vintage buses to make it into a triple decker bus.
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The tour also focused the greenscreen special effects used to create the Quidditch and flying sequences, the prosthetic props such as giant spiders, and set design drawings and conceptual art. The final exhibit was the model of Hogwarts which was used for aerial shots. It took eight weeks to build and it was massive in its size and detail.
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The little BGs were given complimentary passports with an opportunity to have them stamped at stamping stations along the tour. There was also the little Quidditch balls hidden amongst the exhibits for them to seek out and tick off. This, and having their uncle Andrew along, kept them well occupied. The back lot provided them with ample opportunity to clamber over props, while we enjoyed a taste of Butterbeer! (Non-alcoholic, and delicious)

We managed to escape the gift shop with a couple of frogs and all-flavour beans, and departed thoroughly pooped but all very happy. The verdict from the kids was that Legoland was better, but Harry Potter was still very good. They were both quite different, but enjoyable in their own way. For fans of Harry Potter it is a must-see, and a definite improvement on other studio tours (according to Andrew who went on a studio tour in LA).
Next stop Ireland!

Doing it for the kids

After about three weeks of visiting museums, traipsing around streets, and shopping, it was felt the kids needed a break. Actually we all needed a break from museum spotting, and we wanted to do stuff that the kids would choose to do and enjoy. Master BG had expressed an interest in seeing Stonehenge and we also had a couple of surprises in store for them…

Stonehenge, Salisbury, Wiltshire
Despite Mr BG’s fondness for Neolithic stone structures (most of our previous holidays before kids involved trips to places like Avebury, Orkney and the wilds of Ireland), he had never been to Stonehenge. Words muttered were ‘crowded, mainstream’ when asked. We took the train and took a Stonehenge shuttle bus which allowed you to get picked up and dropped off at Stonehenge, Old Sarum and Salisbury Cathedral.

The day was warm and hazy and it was wonderful to be out in the countryside. There were a few people milling about, but it wasn’t crowded- maybe due to the expanse of space around the henge. The kids were chuffed to get their own audioguide for free and we spent a lot of time just looking at the stones and marvelling at the human ingenuity which created them. We stopped off at Old Sarum and I got totally spun out with the fact it was a place where Henry II had imprisoned his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of my favourite queens of England (she ruled half of France when she married Henry and had been Queen of France previously, and was the mother of Richard the Lionheart and the evil Prince John- check out her story).

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Legoland, Windsor
Legoland is a theme park based around Lego. It has rides to cater for all ages, and enough merchandise stands to satisfy any Lego lover’s desire. The kids were suitably excited when they learned of our going to Legoland. I was a bit apprehensive of having to deal with over-excited and over-tired children who did not want to wait for an hour for a ten minute ride.
This was a mega-logistical exercise which involved four trains, a brief stop in Slough (sadly no sightings of David Brent) and a bus ride, and had Mr BG and myself repeating as a mantra ‘We’re doing this for the kids…we’re doing this for the kids…’.
But when we got there and walked through the gates, we looked at each other and the view of London from Windsor and thought, ‘Actually, this isn’t so bad…’
It was gloriously warm, and because it was a Friday, and kids still in school, it wasn’t busy- the people there were younger children, a school group or two and tourists like ourselves. The queues were no longer than 10 minutes to get on a ride, which no one minded, and as the weather was so lovely, we dried off quickly after the wet rides 🙂 . A new exhibit had opened up of Star Wars miniland which had scenes from all six of the Star Wars movies. My favourite moments was seeing the look on Mr BG’s face as he sees the Millennium Falcon rise an Miss BG’s reaction to getting drenched on a pirate ride- she hated it, then five seconds later, said ‘Can we do it again?’
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There was so much to do, we didn’t get around to going on every ride. Legoland has built a hotel next to the park so you can go through the park over a couple of days. While you are there, you can also extend your ticket for a few pounds so you can return the next day. The day was declared by all and sundry to be a great success. And we even got to see a brass band…
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There was one more outing, which was a huge surprise for the kids…but it’ll have to wait until tomorrow:-).

Coronation Street

We have been somewhat swept up into Jubilee fever while in England. Supermarkets are promoting their goods for street parties, shops are being festooned with red, white and blue themed window displays, and there is bunting and flags EVERYWHERE.
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The United Kingdom will be celebrating the Diamond Jubilee by having a bank holiday and a public holiday on Monday and Tuesday 4-5 June, and towns everywhere will have streets closed off for street parties. In London, celebrations will be on the Thames and there will be crowds not seen since Kate and William’s wedding last year. Even in Australia, diehard republicans love the Queen for the Queen’s birthday public holiday we get in June, but I don’t think we celebrate to the same extent as the British.

It is funny to see how different countries display their national symbols. In Italy, their tricolour flag was hung everywhere, on hotels, outside shops and restaurants. In France they were somewhat more respectful and placed outside official public buildings (of which there were several hundred) like railway stations (I could spot the Gare du Nord from afar thanks to the flags). In England, the Union Jack, especially at the moment, is displayed as a celebration of being British (and a great way to brand souvenirs!). It is a symbol which draws people together in Britain, regardless of class or football affiliation- pretty much like her Maj. It can be quite easy to get carried away with all the pomp- a bit of holiday madness. I may not get a chance to take part in a street party, but I’m sure there will be a few commemorative souvenirs making their way into my luggage…

A tale of two cities

We head to the Gare du Nord on foot to catch the Eurostar, check in and head through passport control. It feels strange to be talking to an English officer in Paris in English.

Getting on the train proves to be an interesting exercise. Heading to the car we’re supposed to be on, I circle around a gaggle of elderly English women returning from a trip who are clustered around the doorway. ‘Excuse me,’ I hear from one of the women’ There IS a QUEUE.’ I haven’t yet touched English soil, and already I’m being castigated for not having minded the great English institution of the queue. ‘Sorry,’ I reply, ‘I thought you were just standing around talking.’ In my defence, there was no discernible line, and all they appeared to be doing was discussing how to get on the train. They puff up in indignagion at someone actually talking back to them rather than saying the usual response (sorry!), and an American couple smile at me. Clearly they have had experience with the queue nazis.

We leave Paris, head through some stunning countryside under overcast skies and emerge from the Channel Tunnel to…sunshine. I know! I was pretty floored- gobsmacked, flummoxed and bewildered. It feels quite alien to have sunny weather in England.

We meet my brother Andrew at the railway station and head for our accommodation in Highbury. It’s halfway between Andrew’s and my other brother Mark’s flats. It overlooks Highbury fields, another playground and is about 50 metres from a Tube station and a supermarket. The kids are also super excited because it’s a chance to see TV in English for the first time in three weeks. Actually we’re pretty excited too 🙂 .

London is familiar and alien at the same time, and the good weather makes it even more alien. People are flocking to the commons to sit in the grass and read, sunbake, have picnic dinners, throw a Frisbee, or kick the footy around (a round football). At the local shopping centre in Angel, deckchairs were available for shoppers to sunbake in the courtyard. I had seen the same type of behaviour in Paris, where small living spaces make for a great appreciation of green communal spaces and playgrounds for children. However whereas the English love nothing more than to sit on the grass, the French seem to prefer benches and chairs- all the better to avoid grass stains 🙂 .

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And just like Paris, London can keep on surprising you- we found the TARDIS at Earl’s Court! Master BG wanted to know how we knew it was there. His dad informed him he was friends with Amy Pond and she sent him an email telling him it would be there that day 🙂 .