Horses, Horticulture and History: A Day Out In London.

I was up early and decided to walk some of the way towards Kew Gardens from my Airbnb room in Lambeth.

I was walking along Grosvenor St beside the Thames when I heard a great clattering noise behind me.

About fifty horses out being exercised! It was both a magnificent sight and sound. All the more special because I was virtually alone on the street when they went past. I daresay this is a regular occurrence so if you want to see them try going to the spot at about 8:30 on a Sunday morning.

Alternatively, you could also hang out at Sloane Square, where I saw them again ten minutes later.

I caught the tube from Sloane Square to Kew Gardens and then had to wait a short while to get in. I was glad I’d bought my ticket online as I walked straight through when 10am rolled around and by then quite a queue had formed at the ticket window.

Kew Gardens are huge.

A whopping 326 acres in which there are a wide variety of themes gardens, artworks, wide avenues and, most famously, architecture.

The structure above is the Palm House, the largest Victorian glasshouse in the world. I imagine it would be a treat to step inside on a cold, winter’s day. On a stunning 24 degree English summer day it was far too hot and steamy. Still interesting though.

I wandered all over the gardens and admired it all. My favourite aspects would have to be the wide grassy avenues…

The walled gardens…

and the absolute highlight was the rose garden behind the Palm House.

Obviously it looked outstanding but the magic was the scent. So many roses so close together on a hot, windless day – the perfume just hung in the air like a heavenly cloud. I cannot, in words, express how delightful it was – you’ll just have to go see for yourself.

As I left the gardens (it took me 3.5 hours to see nearly everything) many more people were coming in. The parts of the gardens round the entrances and cafes were heaving with people but it was easy to get away from them by walking only a few hundred metres.

Next stop was the British Natural History Museum, a weird but wonderful hybrid of Victorian Gothic and fanciful Egyptian architecture. I don’t know who designed it but I can tell they had a great time.

I didn’t really have anything I wanted to see, I just thought I’d wander around. Apparently the other half of London (who weren’t at Kew) had thought the same thing.

Lucky it’s a huge building! I first had a look at a display of shells. It reminded me of a conversation I’d recently seen on Facebook about political correctness and insulting people effectively. If you want to be creative try one of these on for size:

I wouldn’t be pleased if someone called me a ‘three knobbled conch’! Baffle your enemies by letting them know they’re a…

‘Distaff spindle’! That’ll really leave them worried. Or how about a ‘distorted anus shell’?

Maybe not.

There’s a lot to be learnt about self defence from our underwater friends.

All this was getting a bit HP Lovecraft so I went to have a look at rocks.

Now I’m hungry.

Two kilos!

The pyramid of little sparkly stones shows all the colours diamonds come in. Not too impressive in a photo but very interesting in reality. Also many glow under uv light!

There was also an interesting display of taxidermied pheasants (interesting to me and no one else probably) and apart from that I just wandered about trying not to run into people or get frustrated at all the slow walkers.

Eventually I exited through the gift shop and walked home via a pub for dinner.

All in all a great day out! Here’s a few more photos of Kew to finish with.

Lovely in both the macro and the micro.

Belfast Bits and Pieces

Belfast is certainly a different city to the place I visited in 2003. Admittedly the amazing weather and longer time I’ve had to see it have played apart, but it can’t be denied that there is a much more cosmopolitan vibe to the place now.

On our last day of driving around we kept things low key and stuck to Belfast, seeing Danny’s new house and a few tourist attractions, starting with a ‘Melbourne breakfast’. Obviously it was avocado with fancy bits on sourdough but also a smidge of vegemite too. Very nice!

Ulster Museum was on my to-do list after I’d seen it online and it was a great place to get a feel for Northern Ireland’s history, from prehistoric times to the current day.

They used to have dragons!

On the very top floor of the museum is a display dedicated to Ireland’s current #1 tourism drawcard – you guessed it – Game of Thrones.

An enormous tapestry (currently 84 metres and growing) tells the story in the style of the Bayeux Tapestry. Having seen all but the most recent season, it was interesting walking along and picking out the plot points.

The signs warning people not to touch the cloth were also in keeping with the theme.

The Museum also has a partially-unwrapped mummy. Danny said it gave him nightmares as a child. I can’t think why.

The Belfast Botanical Gardens are worth a visit if you like that sort of thing, and if you’re there on a cold day I’d definitely recommend a stroll through the heated Ravine building, which contained tropical plants from around the world.

There’s also a Victorian glasshouse with some very interesting specimens.

We took a stroll around the gardens of the big building (um… parliament? Danny, help!) in the very first photo and also drove up to Belfast Castle. It was built in the Scottish Baronial Style in 1862 by the Marquis of Donegal.

A little bit Hogwarts?

It is always nice to see historical buildings being in regular use and this castle is now a function hall and restaurant. The gardens contain sculptures, topiaries and mosaics of cats. We walked around and found a few after having a drink and a sit in the sun.

A post about the sights of Belfast would be incomplete without some photos of the murals that can still be found in various places around the city. Since my knowledge of NI history is far from complete I won’t comment on the political situation except to say that many of the more violent murals we saw years ago have been replaced but there are still a few giant paintings of men in balaclavas with machine guns in hand.

In the city centre there is plenty of (what I think of as) Melbourne-style street art. Beautiful and quirky images that go well with the new bars and restaurants.

The last bar we had a drink in was The Sunflower. Years ago people had been shot in this bar, hence the gate at the door. Now it’s a gay friendly meeting place with ukulele jam nights.

How things change!

I was sorry to leave Belfast but felt certain I’d be back.

Thanks so much to Danny and Peter for their outstanding hospitality and I look forward to repaying you in Australia!

Next stop: Carlisle and finishing off The Cumbria Way. But just before I go, a last Ulster Fry…

Cambridge: Gardens, Churches and the Beer Festival

I’ve made an effort to see a few things that I didn’t do when I lived in Cambridge. So before I get into the Beer Festival here’s a couple of things I did when I wasn’t taking advantage of Andrew’s washing machine, tv and couch.

Kings College Chapel

Despite the fact that this is one of Cambridge’s most iconic buildings I didn’t even consider going in until one of my co-workers, Tim, came here a few years ago and I saw pictures of the inside.

It’s £9 to have a wander around. There are side rooms with informative displays but the main attraction is the long room and it’s astonishing fan ceiling.

The big dark thing in the middle of the first photo is an oak room divider that was donated by Henry VIII. I think it’s awful but my opinion seems to be in the minority. It houses the pipe organ and keeps the riff raff in the back half of the chapel out of sight.

When visiting these kinds of edifices it always pays to look for amusement in the small details.

I don’t know what led up to this scene, but this guy’s thinking ‘I have made a terrible mistake.’

This guy looks like the textbook definition of ‘chief executor’. Or possibly ‘grand vizier’ .

The Cambridge University Botanical Gardens

I wandered down here before our first Beer Festival session. Beautiful.

The gardens were much bigger than I expected and full of students, draped like cats over every available sunny bench and table.

The gardens have lots of ‘rooms’, as well as actual rooms in glasshouses. All are well-labeled and interesting.

The chronological bed was a concept I’d never seen in any other gardens.

I had two favourite parts to the gardens. The first was the lovely scented garden, which is a bit hard to share on a blog page.

The second was the way that grass/meadow plants had been left to grow into islands and borders around perfectly manicured lawns. The contrast of soft meadow and smooth green was delightful. Also difficult to really convey in photos but you’ll just have to trust me.

I sat for a while and read my book – Great Expectations. If anyone had told me how funny Charles Dickens was I would’ve read it years ago. Although perhaps I wouldn’t have appreciated it then? Who knows.

The 45th Annual Cambridge Beer Festival

One of the longest-running beer festivals in the UK (and probably the world.. outside Germany maybe?) it is put on by CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale society, who are a group that works hard to promote small scale brewers and keep traditional English Pubs out of the hands of criminals who gut the insides and replace all the dark wood with IKEA pine board or worse – turn them into offices.

The Cambridge Beer Festival is no small deal. It runs for six days, two sessions a day (12-3 then 5-11) and costs £3 to get in (per session), unless you’re a CAMRA member, which costs £20 per year and gives free entry to all their events.

I attenedd the festival with Andrew, who is thrilled to have my company.

This year we’re here on Tuesday evening and then both sessions Wednesday as I’m off to Belfast on Thursday.

I decided to approach my cider and perry choices this year (beer is revolting) in the same way I choose horses at the races – amusing names.

So far I’ve had ciders called ‘Virgin on the Ridiculous’, ‘Weasel’s Wevenge’ and ‘Monk and Disorderly’. I also tried one called ‘Ghandi’s Flip Flop’ but it was revolting.

Of course it’s not all about drinking. There’s an outstanding cheese counter too.

And don’t forget the pork pies. There’s also terrific curries, roasts and fish and chips.

Could anything be more British?

We were even first in line on Wednesday – and what a line it was.

If you’re ever in Cambridge at the end of May, and particularly when the sun is shining, I highly recommend going, it’s a great day (or six) out.

The Dales Way

But you haven’t finished the Cumbria Way! Yes, I know. I am thinking I will come back after Belfast (which is where I am going after Cambridge) and finish the Cumbria Way by walking from Carlisle to Keswick, then go and do the rest of the Dales Way from Burneside to Ilkley.

Yesterday I inspected my maps and decided that a good challenge would be the westernmost leg of The Dales Way. It is a long distance walk that goes from Ilkley to Bowness and takes five or six days to travel 80 miles/124 km. It is generally considered one of the easiest long distance walks in the UK.

I got the bus to a spot outside Burneside and walked to the point where I could start on The Dales Way. I’d estimated that the walk would be about 15km but I’d already done 4 just walking from the B&B to Windermere station and then down from the main road to the first DW sign. I seem to always underestimate how far I’m going to walk but then hugely overestimate how long it will take.

Apart from an amusingly-named fish and chip shop that was next to a church…

Burneside was unremarkable. Oh, the church was nice too.

Also the weather was perfect.

The Dales Way mostly follows waterways and so there aren’t any huge hills.

There were lots of lovely scenes but also the smell of cow manure and many many flies.

I ended up walking 20km/13.5 miles and it was the easiest day’s walking I’ve done so far – I was home by 3:30 and now I have to work out what to do with the rest of the day… probably plan tomorrow’s big adventure to my highest peaks yet!

I have created another Technical Masterpiece below to show my journey. The red is where I walked and the yellow is where I caught the bus. The red squiggly mess is where my B&B is in Windermere.

Most of the way was through fields and a bit of footpath walking. Two fields of cows – and close cows too. That was the worst of the walk. The best was the BLUEBELLS!

I actually swore a bit when it first came into view. Such colour! Such density! It was gorgeous and totally made my day.

Then I saw another one! It was on a different hill and it was interspersed with ferns, but it was also wonderful. I was pleased that the sun was behind a cloud so that my phone didn’t struggle to pick up the colours – well not as much as last time.

Magic!

Town End, Hill Top and Beatrix Potter

On a recommendation from Luke’s Aunt Sue, I decided to visit Hill Top, the home of Beatrix Potter.

The day before I’d been to Town End, a farm in Troutbeck, and taken a guided tour. A friend of Ms Potter’s lived at Town End and she apparently visited often, though only stayed one night. Town End has been preserved very well and the tour guide did an excellent job, sharing many interesting facts about the buildings and the family who had lived there from the 15th century to the 20th.

One of the funniest things I learned on that tour was that one of the men of the house, who did a lot of furniture carving, used to carve dates like ‘1684’ into his pieces even though he was producing them in the 19th century. This made dating the furniture quite a challenge for the National Trust staff.

There were also lots of interesting associations with modern phrases. The dining table was a giant board that had a smooth side for eating off and a rough side for doing work on. The master of the house would sit at the top of the table and he was known as the chairman of the board.

Dancing on the table was ‘treading the boards’ and games played at the table were board games. I’m not entirely sure how strong the links between these and our modern expressions are but our guide was convinced.

So then the next day I set off for Hill Top.

First I caught the ferry over from Bowness on Windermere. On the boat I met a woman and her mother from Dubbo and it turned out the woman had gone to the same high school as me.

Everyone else got off the ferry and caught the shuttle bus to Hill Top but I, despite registering the name of the place, didn’t take the obvious hint and decided to walk. Well, it wasn’t the most steep climb I’ve ever made but the walk took me through some muddy paddocks and by the time I got to the right village I was puffed and annoyed with myself.

One of the local houses.

The village that Hill Top is in is quite pretty but the density of tourists was a bit of a shock for me, having spent most of my time in the Lake District by myself. Her house was lovely though and so was the garden.

It was filled with interesting objects. My favourite was her dolls house.

A peek through the window.

There were lots of guides around to answer questions, which was nice. Even a Japanese guide. I had heard someone say that Beatrix Potter was very popular in Japan and that her books were so often used as English starter texts that Japanese people came to her house like pilgrims. Maybe someone who reads this can confirm or deny?

After sneaking aboard the shuttle back to the pier then catching the ferry back over I was left with half a day to fill. I noticed a bit of a hill behind Bowness and wandered up through the back streets until I finally ended up on Brant Fell. The views were lovely (surprise surprise) and I sat there and ate my elegant repast of a piece of pita bread, a tiny piece of cheese, a hard boiled egg and some cherry tomatoes.

Classy!

I had a chat to a guy who jogged to the top but then looked kind of like he was going to die. My conversations with random people have fallen into a pretty standard pattern. First I tell them I’m from Melbourne, they tell me they have relations in Perth. Then we both express amazement at how incredibly good the weather has been for the last fortnight then it diverges into discussions about cultural differences between Australia and the UK.

I don’t think I ever think about my Australianess when I am at home but when I am overseas, particularly in the UK or US, I spend a lot of time either dispelling or reinforcing stereotypes, depending on what mood I’m in.

Anyhoo, I shall leave you with this serendipitous floral/sign arrangement and start a post about today’s walk. Then I shall be all caught up, hooray!

A Day In Coniston

The guidebook I bought for the Lake District years ago did not have nice things to say about Coniston. It basically implied it was a tiny mining village with little to offer. Times must have changed if property prices are any to go by.

One of the main intersections in Coniston.

Actually Coniston has a number of historic pubs, beautiful views, a useful range of shops and most of the accommodation, if booking.com is anything to go by, isn’t cheap. A lot of the houses in the village are built of stone and have that dark, brooding gravitas that slate lends to a place. I really like it.

I decided, on my one full day here, to go for a boat ride around the lake then go and look at Brantwood, the home of John Ruskin. The only other person staying at the pub is an American fellow who is an historian with an interest in John Ruskin so he told me a little at breakfast and then I ended up seeing him at Brantwood later in the day.

I walked down the hill to the lake and did a little Facebook live video while I waited for the boat and went for a walk. Being a teacher, I’m perfectly happy to drone on at length about nothing in particular, although I did find myself talking about socks and wondering if anyone was still listening. When I listened back to it I realised the wind noise was unbearable but lesson learned, I will do them indoors or on still days from now on.

I had meant to go on the steam boat but this was the only one there when I got to the dock.

I was the only passenger on the boat so I had a private tour and enjoyed asking lots of questions and getting a more personal insight into the area. We motored past the island that features in Swallows and Amazons, which is a series of children’s books and two movies and is apparently a big deal even though I hadn’t heard of it until I read my guide book. I have downloaded the first book though and will read it next.

The boat dropped me off at Brantwood, which is almost directly opposite Coniston on the other side of the lake. It’s a group of buildings where John Ruskin spent the last few decades of his life. He was a great thinker, writer, artist, poet… basically a Victorian renaissance man. He went mad in his later years and it sounded a lot like bi-polar to me. The video introduction, that the man at the front desk insisted we watch, was a bit odd. Apart from having weirdly dramatic synth music playing over the top, it completely neglected to mention any female or non-famous person’s presence in JR’s life. I came away wondering if he’d ever married, which of course was a tip-off that his relationship was scandalous and not entirely happy. The gift shop had lots of books on his wife and her achievements but I didn’t investigate. Really, I was here for the gardens and wallpaper.

He designed this wallpaper himself and JR was a big supporter of my favourite art movement, the Pre Raphaelites.

The inside of the house was lovely although insanely creaky. No creeping up on anyone here!

The views from from the windows were stunning in every direction. Forest on one side, lake on the other.

The grounds were supposed to have areas with distinct themes but mainly they were semi-wild with a few bluebells and ferns. From the dock to the buildings was better maintained but I dare say it’s one of those National Trust places where the income doesn’t really cover the upkeep of everything.

John Ruskin’s chair. Surprisingly comfortable in angle but I can only assume he took a cushion or two.

Several people had touted the cafe and it was indeed very nice. I had a carrot and honey soup. After the oversized breakfast at the hotel, soup seemed like a good choice on a cold and relatively sedate day.

All in all a very pleasant day where I learned, looked and listened. My feet and shoulders enjoyed the break and by evening I felt almost ready to tear myself away from the cloud-like comfort of my bed at The Sun. Onwards and upwards tomorrow!

The National Rhododendron Gardens.


Living in Melbourne means having a reasonably diverse range of scenery on your doorstep – from miles of beautiful beaches to foggy temperate forests, snowy mountains, vineyards and dry bushland. Closest to where I live, on the eastern side of the city, are the Dandenong Mountains (well, let’s be honest, hills) that have large areas of national and state forests and hundreds of kilometres of walking tracks. There are also many gardens and arboretums and one of the best is the National Rhododendron Gardens.

The gardens are over 1.5 km in length and doing a full circuit can add up to 5km (approximately 3 miles) and it’s all quite hilly.

Right now the rhododendrons are in full flower, the magnolias are a bit past it and the azaleas are almost out.

 

The gardens open from 10 till 5 and parking at this time of year can be a nightmare so I got there at 9:55 to find the gates already open. When you’re out to take photos it’s really nice to beat the crowds.

By the time I left there were hundreds of people there, quite a lot of them tourists form east Asia and many a giant tour bus in the parking lot.

 

 

I was slightly annoyed to have completely missed the cherry blossoms again – I never seem to remember to go, despite having two blossom trees at home to remind me. I consoled myself with a piece of chocolate brownie form the new cafe (research!) and watched a bunch of elderly people complain that the shuttle bus that takes you around the gardens cost money to ride – which seemed a bit churlish considering the gardens were free entry. No pleasing some people, I suppose!

 
So if you’re nearby, go have a look! It’s well worth it and there’s acres of lawn and many a kookaburra just waiting for picnickers to leave their crusts:-).