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.

The Museums and Galleries Of London

I have been to so many museums in the last week or two that I hardly know where to begin. I had no idea London had so many and I didn’t even make it to all the ones I wanted to go to – I haven’t yet been to the Garden Museum and I saw a poster for a Goscinny and Uderzo (who created Astrix and Obelix) exhibition at the Jewish Museum and I didn’t make it to the Geology Museum or the Foundling Museum either.

I’ve already written about the London Museum and the Natural History Museum (both worthwhile and both free entry) so here are the others.

The Wallace Collection (fine art and armoury)

The WC (an unfortunate abbreviation) is an excellent collection in an outstanding building and, if you like design, worth a visit for the wallpaper alone. Check these rooms out!

It is home to some very famous artworks, my favourite was The Swing. When I was little we had one large book in our house on the history of art and I loved this painting most of all. To come upon it unexpectedly made me very happy.

Although the building isn’t huge it is like a jewellery box, fully of shiny and delightful things.

I could’ve posted a dozen photos but this entry is going to be long enough as is. Just trust me, if you like fine art get to this gallery!

The Wellcome Museum (medical history)

This museum is just over the road from Euston Station and free to enter so if you’re interested in medical history I’d recommend going, just be warned that despite being in a big building the displays aren’t huge, possibly because the Science Museum is about to open a big medical exhibition using items from the WM collection. Either way, the real draw of the Wellcome is the gift shop, which has a fun range of quirky things I haven’t seen elsewhere.

The exhibitions that were on while I was there included one on …

It was kind of gross but interesting.

… and weird. Pretty weird.

There was also a small display about obesity and an art exhibition. I couldn’t tell you what the theme of it was, but one room had giant pictures of cows wearing artwork woven out of insemination straws. I’m not kidding.

Another room had a display on HIV and gay culture. I liked the wallpaper. The art was mainly messy paintings that didn’t really appeal to me.

If I had to pick two themes of my photography in the last fortnight I’d go with stairwells and wallpaper, which is not what I would’ve expected on arriving in London, but there you go.

The last Wellcome exhibition piece was a group of films by a woman who learned to free-dive and each film was a single dive. It was very atmospheric and doesn’t translate well to photography but if you’re reading this and in London, it might be up your alley. I liked it but it felt quite claustrophobic after a while.

Anyhow, go browse the gift shop!

The British Museum (ancient history)

I’m doing these all out of order – the BM was the second last museum I visited. Another great piece of architecture but it didn’t take me long to wander through and recall why I didn’t spend long here when I visited last time. I love ancient history but I have almost zero interest in sculpture or historical relics. I read through the displays in the Alexander room and that was about it.

Going to all these museums has really made me think about what interests me and what is worth my time. Admittedly I’ve had heaps of time in London thanks to my hay fever but if I only had a few days I’d think really hard about what I wanted to see because there is an almost endless variety.

The Victoria and Albert Museum (um… everything?)

I was a bit blurgh on the day I went to the V&A and the thing I liked best was putting my feet in the pool. The V&A is a weird museum, it has a bit of everything and I think I would’ve had a better visit if I’d researched and gone to see a specific thing. I did admire the William Morris dining room but otherwise I wasn’t terribly inspired. I’d certainly give it another go when I felt a bit more energetic.

The Science Museum

I wandered in here on the same day I did the V&A and therefore wasn’t probably in the best frame of mind. However I can see the SM would be an amazing place to take kids and there’s something there for almost anyone.

I didn’t even take many photos in the SM. it was certainly deserving of more attention than I gave it.

Tate Britain (art through history, excepting whatever goes into the Tate Modern I suppose).

This was the first place I visited on this trip and I loved it. LOVED IT. I love fine art and the TB (another bad acronym) has a large Pre-Raphaelite collection. It was like a ‘greatest hits’ parade of romantic paintings.

There were lots of people sketching artworks and it made the gallery feel very lived-in… if that makes sense.

The thing that tickled me most in the TB was the entry hall installation. The artist had covered the entry in tiles…

And scattered sculptures around but also had a person dressed as a squash lounging around, just stretching and wandering.

Watching people watching this person-vegetable was terrific. People smiled, made eye contact with strangers, wondered out loud what it could possibly mean.

The TB, while not as outrageously fabulous as the Natural History Museum, had its own architectural beauty.

The John Soane Museum (architecture and Victorian life)

The JSM is an unusual museum on several levels – literal and metaphorical. It is the collection of one man and displayed in his house. John Soane was an architect and I wish I’d learned a bit more about him before going to his house because there aren’t labels on anything, to help preserve the feel of the experience. Photography is not allowed in the building, however I did take this sneaky shot in the toilets.

First time I’d used an original!

There were a lot of staff around who were happy to explain things but I wasn’t feeling talkative that day. Plus most of the collection is sculpture so not entirely my thing. The house itself was quite interesting with much of the original furniture in place.

The Cartoon Museum

The very last museum I visited! Almost over the road from the British Museum, the Cartoon Museum is quite small and costs £7 to enter. However if you are interested in cartoons I’d recommend dropping in.

Danger Mouse! One of my childhood favourites.

Some of the displays were familiar, some new. Some were one page of a book or series, some were one-off pieces.

The Saatchi Gallery

More like an Australian art gallery than any of the others, the SG has big white rooms and big artworks. When I went there were four or five exhibitions. I particularly liked one by a collage artist who did huge works on photographed backgrounds.

So my advice, if you want to see museums and galleries in London, is to do some research and think about what you like. Don’t waste time on a big name if you don’t actually like that style or period – for example I think the Tate Modern is outstanding, but don’t go unless you like modern art or you’ll waste half a day and walk five kilometres around the gallery for nothing. I’ve learned not to bother with miles of rooms of statues.

I enjoy variety when I travel and I think I’ve had my fill of high culture for now – the next week is all about visiting family, Luke arriving (yay!) and then back to Andrew’s and a visit to Luke’s family before Lauren arrives and we’re off to sun ourselves on Croatian beaches.

But first I need to finish writing up what I’ve done in London. I hope you didn’t think this was it!

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.

Greenwich, New York.

Whoah. Since we got here I feel as though we’ve barely stopped moving. New York is probably supposed to be like that. But before I start a long and envy-inducing list of what we’ve been doing and my first impressions, let me tell you what happened in London.

We spent a last morning shopping in Camden (when I say ‘we’ I mean I shopped and Luke watched – he’s good like that) and I bought a couple of last piecess of funky clothing. I also had a heart-stopping moment where I tried on a skirt that was labelled ‘Large’ and it didn’t fit over my knees. The shop guy and I then held it up against some smaller sized clothes and realised it was mis-labelled. Whew.

Then we went back to our adorable English pub, grabbed our bags and got to the airport about 4 hours before our flight was due to take off. Sometimes being a super early person has its advantages – when we got to the counter the lady said our flight had been delayed by 4.5 hours but the earlier flight, departing in 40 minutes, had space and we could jump on that. Win! So we half ran through the airport after Luke got stuck in security for no reason apart from his bag being full of electrical cables, and were the last ones on the plane.

We flew United, which I’d heard bad things about but it was actually a nice flight, apart from the alcohol costing money (in retrospect this was probably a good thing) and the food was nice, there were lots of films to choose from and, my favourite, the window rows had only two seats, so no being jammed in with a smelly stranger.

The plane even arrived half an hour early and we found that scary US customs involves some guy asking what’s in our bags, me saying ‘wine’ and him waving us through without even looking. We didn’t even get asked how long we were staying for, whether we had visas or were planning on working… nothing! UK customs are waaaay more intense.

We caught a bus into the city and found our accommodation pretty easily. We’re staying in a 4th floor walk up (blurgh) apartment in Greenwich, one of the more bohemian areas of NYC, for one week then we’re off to Brooklyn for a week. I might save first impressions of New York, and our catch up with friends for the next post. Right now I need to rub my sore feet and work out where to buy some more yarn for my crocheting. I made 6 squares while on the flight over – it’s so addictive. I just wish I’d started out with colours that matched anything in my house.

More tomorrow!

London and Visa Applications.

Luke and I returned from Iceland with altered circadian rhythms, a craving for fresh food and somewhat lightened wallets.

We booked a cheap B&B in West Drayton, apparently home to the kind of people who enjoy spending a sunny Saturday afternoon with their shirts off, large stomachs on display, drinking pints outside a sticky looking pub by the side of a major highway, shouting at each other incomprehensibly. The B&B was a tad dodgy and the room was tiny but we were close to a train station so we could get into the city.
After an unexpectedly dark night’s sleep after the twilight of Iceland, we caught the train (remarking frequently, as I’m sure all Australians do, how amazing public transport is here) into the city. Our current mission was to acquire our Tanzanian visas.

So we navigated to Bond St, dropped off out passports and forms and then went back after 3 hours and they were ready to collect. Simple! All other embassies take note. If there was a TripAdvisor section for embassies Tanzania would get 5 stars from us.

While we waited I had lunch (Luke watched because he said he wasn’t hungry) at a place called ‘Pitt Cue‘, which I’d read about in one of the newspapers. Only about 30 seats and a very limited menu, they served American style bbq dishes. I had the ribs, which were possibly the best beef ribs I’ve yet had (not that there’s been much competition) and a really great potato and (bone) marrow mash. I highly recommend it if you’re in London and like meat. There’s no booking, you just show up about 15 minutes before opening and are seated elbow-to-elbow with strangers. The service was quick and friendly. The prices were high-ish but this is London, after all.

Served in a tin dish, it made up for in taste what it lacked in presentation. Which isn’t helped by me taking the phone in dim light with my phone.

I also spent a bit of the wait time window shopping around the area and found a shoe shop that many of my female friends would love. Insanely colourful, decorated heels, some reminded me of Carmen Miranda, others were like drag queens crossed with Mexican wrestlers.  The prices weren’t bad and I’m sorely tempted to go back and get a pair of the less insane ones.

I don’t know where I’d wear something like these, or what I’d wear them with but damnit, I’d find a way!

The next day we tried to book two more nights at our B&B so we could go in to the Rwandan embassy on Monday but they were all booked out, so we took it as a sign and decided to head back to Cambridge and grace Andrew with our presence. Lucky guy. First though, a trip back to Camden markets for a wander around in the sun. We ate a giant burrito between the two of us, had ice-cream made freshly in front of us using liquid nitrogen (this means there’s no ice crystals and I must say, it was exceptionally creamy and smooth) and I bought a couple of things.

A splodge of heaven.

After this, what with the weather being pretty much perfect, we agreed Hampstead Heath would be the ideal place to chill out. We were oh-so-wrong. The closer we got to the Heath the more my eyes itched until, once we got there, I could barely concentrate thanks to my sneezing and scratching. Curse you, hayfever! I took some tablets… actually I took a lot of tablets… and we headed back to Van Failen. Luke drove home and I semi-slept in the car then crashed out for several hours after Andrew told me I looked like a hedgehog. I’m still not entirely sure what he meant.

Here Comes The Planet 25 – England 01

We finally reach the United Kingdom! During this episode we catch up with Amanda’s old housemate Andrew, and he takes us down to his local pub as well as his local Tesco – Britain’s third largest in fact, and just behind his house! We also catch up with friends from Australia while exploring Camden Market, and our good friend Matt takes us sight-seeing in London.

Also, DICK TURPIN.

Castle Howard and Hampton Court

In the last few weeks I’ve visited two stately homes, Castle Howard near York and Hampton Court in London.

Mum and I stopped in at Castle Howard on our way back down to Cambridge after two days in Edinburgh. We arrived quite late in the afternoon – in fact 15 minutes before their last entry time to the inside of the house. We bought our tickets and raced up the driveway to see an extremely imposing sight.

Castle Howard is interesting on a number of levels. I’d been reading about its history in Bill Bryson’s book, At Home, as it was built to the design of a man named Sir John Vanbrugh who was commissoned by the Earl of Carlisle around 300 years ago. It is one of the largest private homes in the UK. The most astonishing thing about Sir John is that, prior to Castle Howard, he’d never designed a building before and was in no respects an architect. In fact he was a playwright and the wikipedia article on his life is quite interesting.

The Howard family still live in the enormous building (I think there are over 200 rooms), in one wing, and some of the rest is open to the public, although as with Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna, not quite enough of it to feel that you’ve had value for money.

Some books from the castle library – the one on the left is dated 1644.

Part of the interior of the building was damaged by fire in the 40’s and the process of rebuilding is happening very slowly. You can go into the burnt-out rooms and they are currently being used to display photographs of Brideshead Revisited, both versions of which were filmed here.

The most outstanding features of the castle interior are the frescos, painted by Giovanni Antonio Pelligrini. In the main entrance hall and some of the unburnt rooms every surface but the floor is covered in completely over the top baroque artwork – flowing capes, naked women, battles and gods. It’s hard to imagine living with that kind of excitement going on around you day and night. In the unpainted rooms there’s hardly less visual excitement with sky blue and gold fabric papering the walls, covering the chairs… it really highlighted how much tastes change over the centuries. If you decorated a house with even half the colour now people would look at you as though you were mad. Then again, if you hired a writer to design your multi-million dollar mansion you probably would be mad.

The ceiling of the entrance hall.

One of the drawing rooms.

One of my favourite features of the tour was very small – a little display board devoted to the William Morris wallpapers one of the Lady Howards had used to decorate parts of the castle. I love the Art and Crafts Movement and it’s the first time I’ve seen some of these iconic prints in the flesh.

Mum and I both quite enjoyed Castle Howard but if I went back I’d definitely take a picnic and make the most of the huge lawns and outdoor views of the building rather than rush through.

Oh, it’s also worth noting that it’s not, in any way, a castle.

A sign in the garden… tee hee!

…ooo000ooo…

On to Hampton Court.

For Mum’s last day in the UK Luke and I took her to Hampton Court. As with many of the things we’ve done, I had pretty much no idea what to expect before we got there. For some reason I expected something a little like Castle Howard but it was completely different.

The Clock Courtyard. The fountain is designed to run with wine on special occasions.

The core differences come down to two factors – age and use. Hampton Court is a mostly medieval building rather than renaissance, created primarily in the time of Henry the 8th and made of (rather ugly) brick. It is nowhere near as imposing or grand (in my opinion) as Castle Howard. It has always been used to entertain rather than as a primarily private residence. Most of the main building is apartments for royal guests to use. Even before it was bought and expanded on by the church it was a waypoint between the two main royal residences.

There was an exhibition on while we were there – ‘Secrets of the Royal Bedchamber’, which, disappointingly, was nowhere near as salacious as you might hope and mainly revolved around the fact that the royals would often receive guests in their bedrooms. *yawn*.

The two things I found most interesting about the place were the tennis courts – definitely go see them if you visit and read the panels along the wall. You can watch ‘Real Tennis’ (ie the original version of the game) being played by a few of the 500 current members and learn about the ridiculous wagers Victorians made over the game (one man won a match from the back of a donkey). The other thing I enjoyed seeing was the world’s oldest and largest grapevine. Planted in the 18th century and still producing about 1000 bunches of eating grapes per year, it is an astonishing sight.

My tip for visitors to Hampton Court is to pass on a piece of my mum’s advice – make a meeting time and place when you arrive (if you’re with a group) because the place is a warren and, unlike most other similar buildings, there’s not one set route to follow. I lost Mum within 5 minutes and then Luke later on. We managed to meet up but then lost each other again. Having a meeting place also means that if one person wants to walk quickly while someone else wants to dawdle at a snail’s pace *cough*Luke*cough*, you can do what you like.

(Edit: Hey! I went as quickly as the audio guide allowed me to go. Amanda thought it was boring and didn’t follow it. I enjoyed it – it was a bit like a radio play, set during the time of Henry’s wedding to Anne Boleyn.)

The scope and variety in the rose garden was staggering. The scent was divine.

After Hampton Court we drove Mum back to her hotel in Heathrow and stayed to have dinner at the pub across the road before saying goodbye. It’s been a really great month of traveling around with her and I miss her a little already – which is funny because I only see my parents for about a week out of every year, and even then I’m probably not in the same room for most of that time, so I’ve spent more time with Mum this month than in the last decade. When we drove away a whole bunch of things occurred to me that I would’ve liked to talk about with her.

I’ll just have to wait til Christmas.

Thanks for coming, Mum – and hi to the ladies at your hairdresser’s who I know will be reading this!