My husband and I got to participate in a very special volunteer opportunity last week. You may or may not be familiar with the art installation that’s going on at the Tower of London called Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red. When it’s finished on November 11, the moat will look like it’s filled with blood.
According to the Tower website, the exhibit marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War and was created by ceramic artist Paul Cummins, with setting by stage designer Tom Piper. The heart of the installation is the 888,246 ceramic poppies that are progressively filling the Tower’s famous moat, and each one represents a British life that was lost.
“The remembrance poppy has been used since 1921 to commemorate soldiers who have died in war. Inspired by the World War I poem ‘In Flanders Fields’, they were first used by the American Legion to commemorate American soldiers who died in that war (1914–1918).
“They were then adopted by military veterans’ groups in parts of the former British Empire: the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Today, they are mainly used in the UK and Canada to commemorate their servicemen and women who have been killed in all conflicts since 1914. There, small artificial poppies are often worn on clothing for a few weeks until Remembrance Day/Armistice Day (11 November). Poppy wreaths are also often laid at war memorials.” (Wikipedia)
A fellow embassy employee thought the Tower was kind of an odd place for the installation since it had a rather violent history as well. But I found this photo the other day in a BBC article that explained its relevance. The image is of new recruits being sworn in to join the Royal Fusiliers in the very same moat at the Tower of London. In 1914 the moat was used to swear in more than 1,600 soldiers.
The embassy was able to bring 45 people (and had a waiting list) to the Tower for a three-hour shift to help plant poppies in the moat. Both my husband and I have had family members in the military and held them in our hearts as we spent several hours last Wednesday assembling the flowers and their metal stems and hammering them into the ground.
Despite the somber theme, the volunteers were all in good spirits and seemed more than happy to be contributing to such a great project. When the exhibit is done, the poppies on display will be sold for £25 each (and are already sold out!). The proceeds will be going to several charities.
The leaves are starting to change color quickly in London. We had a freak warm spell last week caused by warm winds pushed up by Hurricane Gonzalo, and we’re still getting a ton of wind as the system blows over Scotland. But our temps are back into the 50s and 60s, and it’s not raining at the moment.
On Sunday we walked over to Regent’s Park to see a bit of Fall color and let our son run around the surprisingly-busy playground. He was only lured away with the promise of a ride across the Boating Lake on a pedal boat.
I had wanted to try one of those during the summer and had assumed that they’d closed for the season. So I was happy to fork over £13 for 30 mins of being blown around on the water and taking pictures while my poor husband did all the leg work.
We also checked out Queen Mary’s Gardens and discovered the Triton Fountain, which we’d never come across before. The center of the fountain is a bronze sculpture of a sea god blowing on a conch shell with two mermaids at his feet. The fountain was designed in 1950 by William McMillan who also did the two fountains in Trafalgar Square.
On Monday (Columbus Day) we had elaborate plans to explore the neighborhood of Chelsea, which we haven’t gotten around to yet after a year in London. But it suddenly sounded like a lot of effort…and it was supposed to rain all day. And I still have a ridiculously long list of things I really want to do. So instead, we hopped on a train and cruised over to the town of Whitstable on the north east coast of Kent.
Whitstable is very cool for a couple of reasons. The first is oysters. It is home to one of England’s ancient oyster beds…shells from which were supposedly found in the Coliseum in Rome. Second, it was once the home of Peter Cushing, a British actor famous for playing Baron Frankenstein, Dracula, Sherlock Holmes and Van Helsing many times throughout the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. He also played Governor Tarkin in the 1977 Star Wars! The novelist W. Somerset Maugham also wrote two novels (Of Human Bondage and Cakes and Ale) that were based loosely on his own childhood there. Plus it’s just a quaint little British seaside town.
Whitstable is about an hour and a half by train from the 19th-century gem that is Victoria Station in London. And tickets are pretty reasonable…about £29 return. There was even a tea service on the way back. It was also interesting to see all the school kids who commute in packs on the train from their hometown to wherever their school is located one or two stops away. Nothing like eavesdropping on a group from the local all-boys school. I’m not prone to blushing, but good lord…the things those boys said in public! Something our son would look forward to, I’m sure. ;)
After arriving in Whitstable we wandered around a bit and looked at the harbor and some of the shopping streets where we bought some yummy local cheddar, brie and goat’s brie, which I haven’t come across before. Then it was off to lunch!
I’d tried to make reservations at The Crab & Winkle, which has a nice harbor view. But they’re apparently closed on Mondays until next summer. So the other choice was the Whitstable Oyster Company, which was also super cute inside and right on the beach with about 600 years of history. We shared half a dozen raw local rock oysters topped with vinegar and shallots (they don’t do horseradish with oysters) and a bit of cocktail sauce, and washed it all down with a robust Oyster Stout.
For our mains, my hubby picked clean a whole plaice (flatfish similar to a flounder) with anchovy sauce, and I indulged in a whole Maine lobster. I know, I know, why order American seafood in a British restaurant?? I couldn’t help it. It was so nicely presented! And it was served chilled with lemon and tartar, which was different for me. And I hate fish for the most part…unless it’s salmon, halibut or tuna.
After our fabulous meal, we walked around town a bit more then made a beeline for The Peter Cushing. That’s right! Not only is he from there, but he has a venue named after him. And not just any venue, but a pub that used to be a movie theatre. What a perfect combination! And they did a fabulous job of recreating the ambience of the Golden Age with all kinds of great Art Deco details and Peter Cushing movie memorabilia. Even the walk up the stairs to the bathrooms was cool.
On the way home we spotted a potential next adventure. As we whizzed past the town of Rochester we couldn’t help but notice their massive cathedral and castle keep. But in the meantime, if you get the chance, I highly recommend a trip to Whitstable. :)
We went to our first London fashion show last weekend, and it was pretty cool! Everyone has probably heard of London Fashion Week. It’s one of the “Big Four” fashion weeks, along with New York, Milan and Paris that’s primarily a fashion industry trade show attended by supermodels, celebrities and fashion designers as well as fashion magazine editors and anyone else lucky enough to be invited.
The British Fashion Council states that “it is attended by over 5,000 press and buyers, and has estimated orders of £40 – £100 million. A retail-focused event, London Fashion Weekend, takes place immediately afterwards at the same venue and is open to the general public.
“The current venue for most of the ‘on-schedule’ events is Somerset House in central London, where a large marquee in the central courtyard hosts a series of catwalk shows by top designers and fashion houses, while an exhibition, housed within Somerset House itself, shows over 150 designers.” (Wikipedia)
London Fashion Weekend starts on Thursday and lasts until Sunday. There are various levels of tickets that you can purchase depending on when you want to go, how many catwalks you’d like to see and what level of access you’d like. The lowest level bronze ticket will get you access to Somerset House and all the retail shops set up throughout the halls, plus an empty tote bag, for £20.
A Luxe ticket at £130 gets you a welcome reception with champagne and canapés, a front row seat at one of the catwalk shows, access to the LUXE Lounge, a private till point with shopping collection service, complimentary gift wrapping service, and a designer tote bag filled with goodies.
We opted for something on the lower end since we planned on taking our son and figured he wouldn’t be up for too much stimulation. So we picked up silver tickets for a reasonable £37, which got us access to all the vendors, one catwalk show, and a tote bag stuffed with fun samples that included make-up remover wipes, nail polish, mascara, coffee, eye drops, a £25 gift card for a local health food delivery service and a fashion magazine. Not a bad haul!
The catwalk show was lots of fun with some beautiful outfits, and our son was really well behaved. He got a little wound up when we were looking at the vendors afterward though, so we didn’t spend as much time looking around as we would’ve liked to have.
But Sunday was a great day to go. It’s the last day of the show, and all the items are on sale. We headed straight for the accessories hall. They had everything from shoes to jewelry to sunglasses, and there were lovely £300 scarves on sale for £100…I settled for one for £30, which is more than I’d usually spend on a scarf, but it was also a great souvenir.
The shows happen twice per year in February and September. If you get a chance, I highly recommend it. Next year, we might even upgrade to a Gold ticket and see if we can get a front row seat!
We just got back from five days in the Orkney Islands in northern Scotland, and it was fantastic! After the crush and energy of London, it was so nice to go somewhere with seas and wind where there’re only 35 people per square kilometer.
Getting there and back was a pain in the butt though. On the way up we went from London to Edinburgh to Kirkwall. And they lost our bags on the way…mainly because the baggage agent at the Virgin Atlantic counter at Heathrow thought our son was soooooo cute that she let him press the button on the baggage conveyor belt…before putting the baggage claim tickets on it.
So we now get to file a £75 claim for the toiletries and pajamas we had to buy for the first night until our bags arrived. On the way back we were delayed due to fog and missed our connection in Aberdeen completely. So we had to exit security, reclaim our bags, get rebooked on a new flight, and go through security all over again. At least the little girl at the snack counter was nice enough to pour me a glass of wine in a paper cup so I could take it on the plane. :)
Transportation issues aside, I thought Orkney was quite a magical place. It’s made up of one big island called Mainland (perspective?) and a bunch of little islands. We stayed in the main town of Kirkwall (population 8,686) and found a great 3-bedroom rental cottage for only £250 per week. You can barely get a closet in a hotel for that price. So we really enjoyed it! We also rented a car so we could putter around the island.
Most of Mainland Orkney is classified as a World Heritage site called The Heart of Neolithic Orkney. It has not just one but TWO rings of standing stones (Stenness and Brodgar), one chambered burial mound (Maeshowe) and a few settlements. The most famous settlement is Skara Brae, which is considered the oldest and best preserved Neolithic settlement in Western Europe having been dated to about 3,000 BC.
The Ring of Brodgar was truly awesome, but I’m slightly more interested in Viking history. The Vikings featured heavily in the development of Orkney and even have their own saga, the Orkneyinga Saga. Even the sign above the airport is written in Norse runes. They also have an amazing red cathedral that was built in 1137 for the Viking Earls and Bishops of Orkney and their accompanying crumbling palaces.
But I think the most unique site has to be Maeshowe. Not only is it a great example of a chambered cairn…but when the Vikings plundered it, they left graffiti on the walls in runes. With 30 inscriptions, it’s one of the largest, and most famous, collections of runes known in Europe, which is phenomenal!! And their translations are hysterical. Things like: “Haermund Hardaxe carved these runes.” Basically, Haermund Hardaxe was here! “Ingigerth is the most beautiful of all women.”
Other highlights remain from WWII. There’s an Italian chapel constructed of two “Nissen” huts…the Brit equivalent of what we call Quonset huts…and beautifully painted by Italian POWs who also constructed the two massive barriers in the bays between two of the southern islands. There are also the visible wrecks of several ships that were intentionally sunk to block German boats.
And let’s not forget the food and drink. I opted for seafood for almost every meal…scallops, scallops, more scallops and a seafood platter with crab and scallops with a few sides of mashed potatoes and black pudding. And my hubby was always on the lookout for haggis, which he found. It was also his birthday, so the lovely staff at the Kirkwall hotel restaurant brought out his dessert with a candle in it. Happy birthday, baby!
Orkney also has no shortage of beverages. For an area of less than 400 square miles, they have three breweries (Orkney, Highland and Sinclair) and two distilleries (Highland Park and Scapa). Orkney beers were my favorite not just in flavor but because of their great names…like Skull Splitter, Raven Ale, Northern Light, Dragonhead Stout, and Dark Island! My hubby also picked up a lovely 16-year-old single malt from Scapa.
For the most part, our son was pretty well behaved in the restaurants…especially since my hubby had recently downloaded 20+ new episodes of his current favorite TV show, Rescue Bots. But his favorite part of the entire trip was throwing rocks in the water at the beach. I guess if we ever want to plan a trip that will make him really happy, we can keep it pretty simple.
I spent three days in Wales at the beginning of the month supporting the NATO Summit. I had visions of sleeping in with no children around, pampering myself at the hotel, touring Wales in my off time and being part of something truly important. Well, one out of four isn’t bad. I ended up on the night shift.
We took a car from the embassy in London over to Wales and arrived on Wednesday afternoon. On Thursday morning I worked from 5am to 11am. I also killed four spiders in my hotel room, so needless to say I didn’t sleep much before I reported back to work at 1am on Friday morning. I worked until 9am and then went back at 5:00pm to help break down the office we’d set up.
So I didn’t end up seeing much outside of the hotel I was staying in and the one I was working in, which weren’t actually the same thing and made for an interesting commute at 4am. But at least I got to see some bright stars in the sky, which is difficult with all the light pollution in London. And I got to stay here…
And I did get some alone time. I also got to follow the Summit events on the news, knowing I was helping out a little, and that it was not too far away. And it looks like some great things came out of it. Here’re a few details:
“The summit was hosted by British Prime Minister David Cameron. Attendees included U.S. President Barack Obama, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President François Hollande, and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. There were another 180 VIPs, and 4,000 delegates and officials from approximately 60 countries.
“The following declarations and agreements were made :
- Wales Summit Declaration reconfirming their commitment to each other.
- Joint Expeditionary Force Agreement signed with partners from Denmark, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Norway, that aims to develop the Joint Expeditionary Force (JEF) so that it is fully operational before 2018.
- Armed Forces Declaration reaffirming support for the men and women serving in the Armed Forces and their families.
- Joint Statement of the NATO-Ukraine Commission pledging support of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognized borders.
- Declaration on Afghanistan thanking international and Afghan military for their support and outlining continued peace processes.
“At the end of the summit Ukrainian President Poroshenko announced a ceasefire which had been agreed with one of the leading pro-Russia separatist leaders, under terms proposed by Russian President Vladimir Putin, which was cautiously welcomed by NATO leaders.” (Wikipedia)
Last Sunday, we took the family out and met up with our favorite local friends at Granary Square near King’s Cross for “Battle Bridge”: Boudicca vs the Romans! I love Roman-British history, so I was really interested to see what fun things they’d come up with.
The area was thought to be one of the spots were Boudicca attacked London back in AD 61. The Granary Building is a grade II listed building built in 1851 that was used to hold grain and coal brought to London from Lincolnshire and northern England.
It wasn’t particularly big budget, but I thought they did a pretty decent job of putting a fun family day together. There were horse and cart rides, gladiator workshops (which unfortunately we missed because we were on one of the previously-mentioned horse rides, and there was no clear schedule of events), and Roman dress up and photos.
There was Roman food and drink advertised, but I didn’t see any of it anywhere. So we settled for cheeseburgers and mediocre pale ales from one of the vendors. But I did get a lovely hand massage from a Roman woman carrying a decanter of rosemary-infused olive oil. And I even talked my son into making me a little mosaic that I will treasure forever. :)
We also had good weather, and it wasn’t too crowded. So I’d say it was a pretty successful outing. Although I think the most fun the kids had was playing ping pong in the Granary Building right before we left.
We took a tour of Buckingham Palace on Saturday, which is the pinnacle of any trip to London! It also requires a bit of planning as the palace is only open to visitors for two months out of the year (August and September) when the Queen is away in Scotland for her summer holidays. And it did not disappoint!
This was probably one of the best tours that we’ve had, if for no other reason than we did not bring our son! Don’t get me wrong, we love him like crazy, but for once we didn’t have to chase him down the hall, attempt to keep him from touching everything in the room with a “DO NOT TOUCH” sign on it, or carry him out of the building screaming. We were able to go at our own pace, enjoy the fine things and actually listen to the audio tour the whole way through…in every room!
And the rooms were absolutely stunning. There were no photos allowed inside, so I have a few exterior shots and then a couple borrowed from the official website of The British Monarchy. It seemed like every square inch was covered in gold trim, beautifully carved moldings or silk wallpaper, and the picture gallery was full of Rembrandts, Canalettos and Rubens.
There was also a lovely exhibition called Royal Childhood that covered 250 years of family life at the palace with “objects from the Royal Collection, the Royal Archives and the private collections of members of the Royal Family, as well as previously unseen photographs and film footage.” I was particularly impressed by a watercolor of a children’s ball and the massive cake made for the sixth birthday of Prince Leopold, Queen Victoria’s youngest son.
For a little history, Buckingham Palace was built in 1703 for the Duke of Buckingham and used to be called Buckingham House. Originally it was just the main front building. “It was subsequently acquired by King George III in 1761 as a private residence for Queen Charlotte and was known as ‘The Queen’s House’.
“During the 19th century it was enlarged, principally by architects John Nash and Edward Blore, who formed three wings around a central courtyard. Buckingham Palace finally became the official royal palace of the British monarch on the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837.” (Wikipedia)
So many of the monarchs in the 100 years before Queen Victoria (King William III and Queen Mary II, Queen Anne, and Kings George I & II) actually lived in Kensington Palace in Hyde Park.
Speaking of Hyde Park, Buckingham Palace also has a pleasant garden area that can be included in your tour. The back lawn is huge, and it’s easy to visualize it full of garden party-goers, but the gardens themselves were pretty low maintenance and felt more like a park than a manicured garden. The arrangements in the public space in front of the palace and in St. James Park across the street are much more impressive. But there’s a little lake, a small rose garden, and a tennis court.
The most interesting part was probably the Waterloo Vase, which is “the great urn commissioned by Napoleon to commemorate his expected victories, which in 1815 was presented unfinished to the Prince Regent. After the King had had the base completed by sculptor Richard Westmacott, intending it to be the focal point of the new Waterloo chamber at Windsor Castle, it was adjudged to be too heavy for any floor (at 15 ft high and weighing 15 tons). The National Gallery, to whom it was presented, finally returned it in 1906 to the sovereign, Edward VII. King Edward then solved the problem by placing the vase outside in the garden where it now remains.” (Wikipedia)
We had about an hour and a half to kill between the end of our tour in the palace and the beginning of our tour through the garden. So we spent the majority of the time goofing around in the gift shop. Should you ever decide to visit the palace, the rates really are quite reasonable…£17.85 for adults, or £26 if you want to include the gardens. And there are some fun things in the gift shop as well. :)
Yes, I know it’s an incredibly touristy thing to do…but I’m okay with that! And our son absolutely loved it. And I like to think that only the locals are crazy enough to dress their kids in costume, which we did! So on Sunday morning we boarded our embassy-rented coach at Grosvenor Square and set off for the country.
It took forever to get out of London, but eventually we made it into a series of country roads that were so small that the hedges on either side of the road scraped both sides of the bus…at the same time. We also managed to scare one car and two cyclists who literally had to back up or turn around until they found a pull-out because there was not a hair’s breadth to squeeze by us.
We arrived around noon and headed straight for the Moat Restaurant for an overpriced hot dog, pulled pork sandwich and chicken Kiev. After grabbing a quick bite to eat we continued over to the castle itself. Unfortunately, they didn’t allow photos inside, but I imagine you can take pictures of the fancy rooms that are separated out as accommodation if you want to stay overnight in one of those, which would be pretty cool.
The castle itself “began as a country house, built in the 13th century. From 1462 to 1539 it was the seat of the Boleyn family. Anne Boleyn, the second queen consort of King Henry VIII of England, spent her early youth there, after her father, Thomas Boleyn, had inherited it in 1505. He had been born there in 1477, and the castle passed to him upon the death of his father, Sir William Boleyn. It later came into the possession of King Henry’s fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. In the 21st century the castle is a tourist attraction.” (Wikipedia)
We were determined to have a pleasant and fun family visit this time and hurried our son through the castle to avoid any meltdowns. Obviously we hadn’t learned our lesson the last two times. But he actually did really well (although he still tried to touch everything)! As a reward we let him run around the grounds for another 30 minutes and feed the ducks in the river.
The joust officially started at 2:15, so before that we all gathered in front of the castle to meet a couple knights as well as the king and queen. After a quick photo op we all hiked over to the playing field. The joust itself was lots of fun to watch…very Medieval Times. But the best part was when they called out all the children.
Once we gave him the okay, our son was off like a shot racing across the field. And I must say that my heart jumped a bit as I watched him run headlong into the unknown without even a backward glance at us. And he looked so small. Probably because he’s THREE.
So they rounded up about 25 children, formed them into some semblance of a line, armed them with wooden pikes and spears and a few foam severed heads (seriously!) and marched them around the ring. It had started raining but the kids loved it. And once they were done yelling and cheering, our son ran back to us with a huge grin on his face.
To avoid the crowds, we left the joust a tiny bit early, to visit an ice cream stall and then head back to the bus. Definitely a great family adventure. :)