Eltham Palace, a Medieval Festival and NEON!

I spent a rather varied day yesterday. I discovered a medieval tournament was going to happen not too far away so I caught a train, then light rail, then a bus, and arrived at Eltham (pronounced elt-am) Palace just after the event started. I hadn’t really thought about the fact that the thing was going to be held in a field so I only ended up staying for two hours (hay fever) but they were very enjoyable!

Tickets to the tournament also entitled everyone to wander around the buildings.

Eltham was originally a church, then a royal residence for one of the Henrys, then fell into disrepair. At the beginning of the 20th century it was bought by a very wealthy couple who restored it and built on a stunning art deco house.

They were keen entertainers and everyone from politicians and royalty to movie stars came here to get away from it all. The ceiling in the photo above was my favourite part – not lights, it’s a glass and cement dome.

However much of it was damaged in the Second World War and the owners moved away. Eventually it was taken on by the National Trust and is used today for a range of events including weddings.

The tournament was happening in a field out the back and so I had a wander around, watched the falconry show, and chatted to the guys in the beer tent who told me that rubbing nettles on myself might cure my hay fever. Nice try, I said, and didn’t.

I drank some rhubarb cider…

And ate a traditional medieval burger…

And listened to some story-telling…

Then it was time for the main event! The jousting!

The jousting was an entirely authentic experience (well, as much as could be). The four men and horses who performed the jousts were professional jousters, which I didn’t realise was a thing, and I learned ( in the beer tent) that each horse cost a thousand pounds to insure for the day.

The jousting, once the talking-it-up and the make-the-crowd-hoarse-with-cheering bit was over, was quite fast paced and very impressive. The rules were explained and everyone in the crowd got right into it.

If my eyes hadn’t been filled with pollen or grass seed or whatever I would’ve stayed all day.

Before I left I had a walk around the interactive tent-displays and chatted to various stall holders about how they got into doing what they were doing and historical accuracy and the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism, a global medieval revival group that I was once part of) which is not very big in the UK, since they probably had all their historical recreation stuff in full swing before the SCA got going in America.

After leaving Eltham I caught a dizzying array of public transport to Walthamstowe. Even though I had to change buses and trains a bunch of times the longest I had to wait was 10 minutes and having Google maps to direct me at every stage made the whole thing so painless I couldn’t help but reflect on what a difference technology has made to travel in the last two decades.

I was in Walthamstowe because I’d read there was a neon store that was Instagram-tastic.

And there was.

God’s Own Junkyard was terrific.

It was glorious. I love lights and colour and this place immediately lifted the spirits.

I think I heard someone say all the signs were for sale!

When I win the lottery I will come back.

There was also a craft brewer and a gin place next door. If you have time and you’re in east London on a weekend I highly recommend making the trip and trying the apple pie, which I feel goes well with something as all-American as neon.

Barrow-In-Furness

It’s not really fair to come to a town like Barrow-In-Furness after walking through the quiet sylvan dells and lofty, windswept heights of the Lake District. It’s not fair for the town and not fair for me either.

However I had problems to solve that sleepy coastal villages and emerald vales couldn’t help me with. Namely, my debit card wasn’t working, I was low on cash, and I was suffering crippling hay fever. I’d also checked my bank account and discovered that some scamming website was withdrawing $21 a month.

No problems that were insurmountable, but taken altogether I felt frazzled and anxious. It wasn’t pleasant.

Overlaying my genuine issues were the rather joyless surroundings I had unwittingly chosen. I could feel my mood darken as I wandered around town.

For example, look at this for a town theatre building and arts centre.

Urgh. Also, despite a fairly usual number of rubbish bins this sort of scene was pretty common.

Just.. why?

However a chat online with Luke gave me a few ideas re money and I’d booked into a Wetherspoons hotel/pub so I could regroup and consider my options. I don’t generally use chains when I can avoid them but Wetherspoons, apart from having reasonably priced rooms, allows the use of an app for table ordering. This means I can use my credit card without needing the PIN, which didn’t arrive before I left home. It’s also a convenient way to order food from the table while avoiding bar queues and, as a solo traveller, it means not having to choose between leaving my bag unattended or dragging everything with me to the bar.

Anyhoo. I was in a slightly cranky mood and had perked myself up by deciding to walk around town and make a collage of all the most unappealing sights and then write a sarcastic post about the place.

Apart from just general grot there were some really obvious signs that town wasn’t booming.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a thorough boarding-up of a shop front on a main drag.

Believe it or not, the mall below contained actual, open shops. Not that I was willing to walk down and see what sort of shops they were. I assume gang supply stores or something. Speaking of which, when I googled Barrow the first news story that came up was about there having been 12 gang murders in one year and more expected in future. Shame, Barrow!

But at least the city centre was bustling on a Friday afternoon.

Just kidding.

Anyhow, that building on the left of the photo above was quite magnificent, so I thought I’d wander around and take a few photos of what turned out to be the town hall.

Here’s a weird panorama photo. The hourly peals from the clock tower were quite impressive.

Around the back (which turned out to be the front – a fact that I later learned was a source of frequent confusion) was a car park where people could park right up against the building. How convenient! And it doesn’t detract at all from the grandeur of the only grand building in town, either.

I noted stained glass in the upstairs windows and thought I’d go in, if possible, and have a look. I tried to open the doors but it was all locked up and it was at this point a security guard asked me what I was doing.

I explained that I was a tourist and had been curious about the stained glass and so he explained that the building was always kept locked because of people ‘kicking off’ when they came for their unemployment benefits etc (shame, Barrow!) but then, very kindly, he took me inside and arranged for one of the stewards, a lovely lady named Sue, to take me on a spontaneous guided tour!

Things had started looking up. There’s nothing I like more than doing something unexpected and this turned out to be brilliant.

For someone who hadn’t worked there very long, Sue knew a great deal about the place. She also gave me a leaflet at the end.

First stop was the little waiting area for visitors. I didn’t really hear any information about this but I like the austerity of the artwork. Also I imagine carved slate is difficult to damage if people ‘kick off’. Very practical.

Next the stained glass windows. They were very detailed and interesting. There were repeating motifs that represented the local toffs (the Cavendish family, represented, rather ominously, by a snake – also not the banana-growing Cavendishes as far as my ten seconds of googling can tell), the shipping industry and a delightful little visual reference to the actual name of the town – a bee and an arrow – B-arrow! It feels a bit like something you’d do if a town hadn’t much going for it but someone had, rather annoyingly, left a blank space in the middle of your new civic emblem and you thought it looked a bit bare.

The stained glass was in a space called The Queen’s Room.

I hesitate to say it looks like something out of Harry Potter because that’s really just ignorant tourist-speak now for anything that looks more than 100 years old … but it did. A bit.

The red-carpeted steps leading up were wide and shallow to accommodate the dresses of 19th century ladies, apparently.

I walked through several very grand rooms that were still used almost daily for a range of services including meetings of the local council, the coroner’s court, celebratory events and many other things.

It was all very grand and in the Victorian gothic style.

The job of the stewards seemed very varied. Taking tours (Tuesdays and Thursdays if you’re in the area and you’d get to go up the clock tower too), moving furniture, keeping an eye on council sessions – if the councillors get too rowdy the stewards may remove the mayor’s official mace and end the meeting! Sue seemed very hopeful of the prospect that she may one day get to wield such awesome power.

‘Semper sersum’ means ‘always aim high’ in Latin. An admirable sentiment that goes nicely with the arrow, if not the reality of the place.

That’s the snake, not a pretzel, in the arms under the ships.

Sue kindly took photos on me in a few spots and I walked away from the Barrow town hall feeling much better than when I’d walked in.

Although I’d seen barely anything of the city I felt I’d seen enough (and I didn’t have energy to walk around Walney Island or any of the actually nice spots not too far away) and retired to my room to plan my next move, deciding to go to London for a few days. There’s a branch of my bank there, I can avoid pollen, and there’s plenty of things I wouldn’t mind doing within a short distance.

I’ll leave you with my favourite photo from the day – my in the mayor’s seat, gavel in hand.

St Louis

So the reason we’ve trekked from New Orleans to St Louis wasn’t just to see a whole lot of American farmland that looked remarkably like farmland in Australia. The main reason was to meet up with Shannon, a lovely lady I’ve been friends with online since about 2001? Maybe 2002? A long, long time, anyhow. We met via other online friends and … well, it’s a long story, but essentially we’ve been in touch via the internet for a long time and I was very excited about catching up.

Luke and I arrived in St Louis on Friday evening and realised it was cold. Seriously cold. Literally freezing in fact. After dropping off the hire car and deciding that yes, taking a taxi four blocks was a worthwhile investment, we hid in our hotel room until the following morning.

Shannon arrived just before 11am with her husband, William, and son, Will. They live a couple of hours away in a very small town that Shannon assured me was nowhere near interesting enough for us to spend much time, so she offered to come to St Louis, where she’d lived for some time. We jumped in their car and made straight for the pride of St Louis, The Arch.

It’s a massive structure, built a long time ago … for… a reason I can’t remember. But it is known as the gateway to the west – St Louis was the mustering point for many expeditions by pioneers in the early stages of settlement. Within the arch is a lift system of tiny pods that take you up to the top – over 1000 steps in height.

Like the professional I am, I completely neglected to take a photo of The Arch itself.

The view from the top is great, even if the whole experience is a little cramped. Even the room at the top has quite a low roof and tiny windows. Well worth doing if you’re in the city though. Underground, where you enter the lift system, there’s a free museum as well. After the Arch we visited an interactive science centre that was also free and very hands-on. Will is a big animal fan and enjoyed all the exhibits. Luke and I stayed on to watch a movie about the international space station in the omnimax while Shannon and co went to check into their hotel and let Will have a rest.

Oh, I forgot to mention that during the day we went to White Castle, a take-away chain that sells the smallest hamburgers I’ve ever seen. They were a little like the ‘squishy burgers’ Luke and Lucas loved in Turkey. We ordered multiple burgers each… it was really odd!

Sorry about the mid-chew photo, Shannon;). Tiny burgers are called ‘sliders’ here.

In the afternoon Shannon came back to get us then kindly took us shopping to buy proper coats. We only had the coats that we’d had made in Vietnam, which were wool but nowhere near warm enough. I bought a thigh-length coat that had a layer of stuff that reflects body heat. It seemed quite thin but has worked pretty well. Luke got a smaller jacket without a hood but it’s puffy like a quilt and he says it’s warm. With our new clothing causing us to whine about the weather 50% less than before, we were prepared for spending a little time outdoors. So after dinner (we tried deep fried ravioli!) we drove to the Budweiser Brewery.

Budweiser puts on a huge display of lights over Christmas. I completely failed to capture this with my camera, but I do have a photo of Shannon, William and Will huddling under blankets in the back of the little train that drove us around.

They’ll tell you Will has one of those monster hats too but it’s just an excuse.

By this stage the temperature was about -10 celcius. Which is waaaaaay colder than Melbourne ever gets. The new coat helped, but only having lycra leggings on did not. My gloves also failed to keep out the cold. Inconceivable!

Shannon and William dropped us back at our hotel at about 9pm. I do like hanging out with families – I get to have an early bed time without having to make excuses ;-).

The next day we went to an amaaaaaazing place. Not that you’d guess from the name – the city museum. Sounds boring, huh? Well it was like nothing I’d ever seen before. Built into (and out of) a big warehouse building, it had a very plain exterior from most sides, but it was incredible – you walk into a child’s wonderland.

Very reminiscent of Gaudi works in Barcelona. All those metal cages and swirls can be climbed through.

Caves to crawl through, trees to climb, animals to wiggle through and all kinds of metal tunnels and ladders. Adults are allowed too but some of the passages are definitely child-sized. There’s plenty of slides – one of them is 10 stories high!

So pretty! And nearly everything seemed to be made of repurposed materials.

All the detail!

The adventure playground section is two stories. Then there’s an archeological section, a hands-on art section (my favourite), a pinball arcade inside a room full of really weird stuff – including the world’s largest underpants (allegedly).

The art room. I bought two books of snowflake patterns – animals and dinosaurs.

One of my favourites.

There’s huge ball pits outside, a school bus lurching over the roof and a plane. They look like they’re in the middle of building a castle in the grounds too.

The pylons and floors are covered with mosaics and interesting objects.. the place is full of art and very hard to describe. There’s a model train village with a bigger train you can sit in that takes you through a UV landscape. And a circus with children performing acrobatics and juggling. There’s lots of little spots to eat and even a bar for adults. Shannon said that at night teenagers come in and hang out and climb all over everything too.

Colour everywhere.

I am completely jealous of St Louis – every town should have a place like this, where exploration and discovery and imagination are promoted.

The whole gang!

Thanks Shannon, William and Will, we had a brilliant time :-).

New Orleans: Architecture.

I’ve been completely charmed by the beautiful and quirky houses that are all around the French Quarter, which we’ve walked through every day that we’ve been here.

So elegant – like doll’s houses.

New Orleans is famous for its ‘elegant decay’. The humidity, wooden building materials and rising and falling fortunes of the residents mean that there’s always a lot of buildings that are being reclaimed by nature or falling into disrepair. This leads to photo opportunities on nearly every block as the bright colours favoured by residents start to peel and fade.

Aged beauty.

Some people here go to astonishing efforts to decorate their houses seasonally. We’ve noticed some houses with a Fall theme and bowers of leaves and fruit and ribbons above the windows and doors.

Some of the houses remind me of Burano in Italy.

Mmmmm, blue.

Of course, they can’t all be winners. Apricot, white and navy? I don’t think so.

Blurgh!

 

 

Italy: Venice

Everyone knows Venice. The gondolas, the canals, San Marco Piazza and all those pigeons. I hadn’t been to Venice before but it had made a good impression on Luke and he wanted me to see it too.

Right before our trip two of our friends had visited Venice and written about it online separately. Both had mentioned the crowds. Sarah had said that you just needed to get off the beaten path to avoid them, whereas Steve had been so put off that he recommended avoiding the place altogether. Too late, though – we had our train and accommodation booked so off we went. I’m not a big fan of crowds so I would say that my expectations were pretty low.
We’d booked a hostel near San Marco, the busiest spot in the whole city and we walked from the train station across the island with our big packs on our backs. After sending many things home and finally ditching our two person sleeping bag that was taking up about a third of my backpack, carrying my stuff is becoming much easier and we walked for perhaps an hour carrying about 20kgs each. Not a bad effort!
The crowds were pretty intense in parts on that first day. We arrived in the middle of the afternoon and walked the busiest route, from the station via the Rialto bridge to San Marco then down the waterfront to our hostel. However as soon as we turned off the waterfront the little alleys and piazzas were very quiet and the charm of Venice became apparent.

So many window boxes full of flowers. Gorgeous!

I’d bought a map of the islands at the train station and it is truly a wonder to behold. The place is a real warren, few streets even run parallel. Most bend and twist and alleys that look like dead ends turn out to have a tiny passageway that joins you up to another square or a bridge. It’s quite magical.
Venice became even more enchanting the first evening when we went for a walk and found the city almost deserted. There were at least 5 gargantuan cruise ships moored near the city during our stay and many of the tourists stay off the island on the mainland where you can get much nicer accommodation for less.

Coincidentally, the day after we left Venice we saw on the news a story about people protesting these huge ships coming into the Venice lagoon. Would be ironic if it’s an environmental issue considering the standard Venetian practice is to throw all cigarette butts into the water.

This means that everyone’s pretty much gone by 8 or 9pm and you can wander without meeting more than a few dog walkers or delivery men. Even in San Marco there were only a couple of restaurants open and a few people gathered to listen to some musicians play by street light.
Needless to say, we bought gelato.
We had two full days to spend. The first we walked around the city and I got to do one of my favourite activities – orienteering! With the map and my trusty compass I navigated us via back streets and alleys to a few well known sights including the Peggy Guggenheim museum, which was not really worth the price of entry (unless you’re a big fan of surrealism and abstract art – which I don’t mind and do appreciate but the cost of entry was too high for such a small collection), although the trip was not wasted because on the way we passed a church that was having a free exhibition of work by a Chinese artist who really appealed to Luke and I. I’d describe it as fantasy-realism. A fascinating juxtaposition of lifelike portraits with backgrounds that depicted collages of objects, natural scenes, space and beautiful colours.

Stunning!

The second day we spent visiting two islands, Murano and Burano. Murano is home to famous glass-blowing factories. Although the island itself was very pretty the glass was… gosh. How do I put this nicely? Tacky as all get-out. Really, truly awful. There was very little that was even slightly appealing. Compared to the delicate precision and restrained tastefulness of Waterford, or the colourful organic exuberance of Turkish ceramics, I can’t say the stuff at Murano appealed to me at all. The worst of the lot of was the thick coloured glass chandeliers. Actually, no. The very worst thing I saw was a glass pillar on which sat a life sized glass eagle. Still, it was nice to see that while Italians might have a firm grasp on food, architecture, paintings and fashion, they aren’t perfect;-).

Sorry about the dreadful photo with all those reflections but you get the idea. I didn’t look at the price tag but how would anyone stupid enough to buy this be smart enough to earn enough money to buy this? Paradox!

I did like this funky big blue sculpture in the middle of town.

The second island, Burano, was an absolute delight. Traditionally the home of fishermen and lace makers, every house on the island is painted a bright colour and it was a photographer’s dream. I’ll let the pictures do the talking here. All I could think was ‘I want to stucco my house and paint it ludicrously bright colours… but which colours?!’.

Squee!

Heads up: when I rule the world you’ll all be forced to paint your houses like this.

My house will be this colour.

I love how the church is the only building not conforming.

We had a delicious lunch then caught the sea bus back to Venice.

Pizza-licious.

Speaking of food, we opted for dinner and some Newsroom to finish off the day in our hostel so we went to the local Co-op Supermarket and I bought a bag of salad leaves and a tin of tuna for dinner while Luke finished of the cereal we’d bought. The green salads – just a mix of baby rocket, tatsoi and a few other leafy greens, have been one of the things I’ve enjoyed most about Italy. I often feel disappointed when eating out in Melbourne and salads are presented full of leaves that are too old, bitter and wilted. Italians *get* a green salad. Tiny leaves, freshly picked, a drizzle of olive oil and balsamic. The beauty of so much of the food we’ve had here has been in its perfect simplicity. It’s been such a pleasure to eat leaves here that I’m already dreaming of getting some styrafoam boxes for growing my own salad mixes at home, hopefully year round.

So the verdict on Venice? I loved it. It’s a city that’s all about walking, which is my favourite way of getting around, and it’s hard to turn a corner without seeing something worth photographing.

Why is old stuff so cool?

Italy as a whole was lovely. Sure, there’s things not to like – people throwing cigarette butts everywhere, the spitting, begging, the ubiquitous dog mess. But the downs are definitely outweighed by the good stuff – the food, the fact that people aren’t generally trying to pull you into their shops (a very nice change after Turkey), the art, architecture and relaxed atmosphere. I think the secret to the generally excellent physiques of the locals (people here are definitely noticeably fitter than at home) is that walking is a big part of the culture here, which suits us just fine. I think we’ve been walking at least 12 kms a day and are feeling all the better for it.
So thanks, Italy! You’ve been grand.

Can you believe Luke thought this would make me look stupid? Old man.