Next Stop Bruges

It’s hard to believe my time in Wales (land of giant bumblebees and pigeons – I swear both are about three times as big here as they are at home!) has come to an end.  Thanks to my wonderful hosts I’ve managed to get a well rounded overview of Wales and had a fantastic time.

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Chris and Sharon have been to a few of the places I have on my itinerary so I’m fully armed with tips and must see’s.

But time has come to an end here in Wales has and I’m moving on to Belgium, first stop Bruges (via London and Brussels) – gonna be a long day!

I share the train from Swansea to Cardiff with hordes of locals off to see a game (I’m assuming by all the red shirts).  It’s absolutely packed – standing room only.  I’m glad I was at the front of the queue and managed to get a seat. The mob is buzzing, fuelled by the cans of alcohol they are consuming well before 11am in the morning.  At each station more people pile on – I don’t know which spaces they are squeezing themselves into!  Finally the train arrives in Cardiff and departs with a much lighter (and quieter) load.

At Paddington I grab a taxi and head off to St Pancras to catch the Eurostar – my first trip on it in fact.  I clear customs and have a while to wait before my train, but with this massive backpack there’s no way I was going to fill in time wandering around.  Soon enough the Eurostar is departing and I settle in for the ride.  It’s only a few hours to Brussels and I don’t even notice the train going underground across the channel.  I swap trains and despite the lack of English around, end up on what seems to be the correct train to Bruges.

Out the window of the train, two baby deer frolick at the edge of the woodlands alongside the railway line, and startle at the noise of the train passing by.  Quaint little towns pass by the window and it’s not long before Bruges station comes into sight.  I am a little anxious as to whether this is my stop as the monitor on the train only seems to speak German.  Luckily many German words are similar to English words and I feel I know enough to be sure I can get off here.

I arrive in Bruges just as the sun has set and darkness is just starting to set in.  I  punch in the code I have been given before arriving to access my room and climb the narrow circular stairway to my room.  It’s very cute and clean with a view out of the tops of the surrounding buildings.  I want to head out and join the crowds of people in the town square.  It’s not far from my hotel, although I’m not sure which way, but I follow the noise and soon enough reach it without trouble.

Diners pack the tables surrounding the square, with people walking and cycling around the outskirts.  It’s quite clear that the town is full of tourists.

I can’t wait to get out and explore the city tomorrow (along with al the other tourists).

Swinging into the Future, Catching up on the Past

Enough of the serious stuff, for today we are going to get our ape on.  Not far from Swansea town, located in Margam Country Park is Go Ape – a high in the tree-tops zipline adventure park.  This two to three hour long adventure starts of with a thorough safety briefing and kitting up into safety harnesses.  During the briefing, I look to the trees.  It’s kinda high.  I’m not scared of heights, but it’s kinda high.

Our guide supervises us one by one as we navigate the first platform and wires, making us repeat any mistakes, until she is 100% confident that we are doing it properly.  Off we go, climbing to the platforms, sometimes navigating sky-high wobbling plank steps and flying down the ziplines to the next stage.  Our guide is never far, appearing out of the bushes like magic if anyone needs help.

Some of the platforms are so high off the ground I have to second guess myself, but one you make the leap of faith it’s great fun.  The hardest part is making any landings look stylish and by the end of the session it’s safe to say, there are woodchips down the back of my pants.

The park itself is a beautiful destination, with Margam Castle, a 19th century Tudor Gothic Mansion standing proudly on the grounds.  There’s also an Orangery and the ruins of Margam Abbey.  For those who are interested – or might recognise the buildings in the photos below, the BBC have used Margam Park as the location for several Dr Who episodes, since 2007.

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This afternoon is special.

You may recall from my trip to Poland last year that my family on my Father’s side was originally from Poland.  When my Father’s family was forced out of Poland during World War II, it was a hard and sad time for them.  They had ‘lost’ Poland and not ‘found’ anywhere else to belong.  A group of them travelled together – my Babcia (grandmother) – who had been visiting her sister and family in the countryside from Warsaw – her mother, her sister Sofia, Sofia’s husband Ignacz, and their children Bogdan and Alicija (Ala).  Ala was only young a the time she left their farm in Ostrow.  At the end of the war, she settled in Coventry, whilst my Babcia and Father emigrated to Australia.  Through the wonders of technology, I have been able to chat briefly to her via Skype over the years, but Chris (her son) and Sharon have arranged for her to visit Wales from Coventry for a couple of days during my visit.  I can’t tell you how excited I am for the opportunity to meet her, and perhaps also put together some more pieces of the puzzle.

We meet Ala off the bus and she says “I never thought I’d be seeing Wlodek’s daughter in my life”.  She asks to look at me properly to see any likeness to my Father.  She thinks I’m more like my Mother.  But she’s very excited to meet me.  Likewise.

Our chatter in the car is a variety of things – how was her bus ride, snippets of family information, questions about my trip.  She didn’t bring her mobile because it needed a new SIM card so Andrew (Chris’s brother) was fixing that, but she does have her IPAD, which she loves.  She can’t believe how much information about the Polish deportations is on the internet.

She has an excellent grasp of the English language and has a brilliant memory.

She wishes I could have come and visited her home city in Coventry.

I am only at the beginning of the research trail into my family history and whilst I know some things and have some questions for her, I feel anxious to fill in the gaps now so I can speak to her more.  It’s really incredible to speak to her about her experience as a displaced person, learn what my Babcia and Dad’s father were like and also just to chat to her about her life now and what she likes and doesn’t like.  I am incredibly thankful to Chris and Sharon for making this meeting happen and I can’t wait to meet with Ala again, next time in Coventry and hopefully I’ll be armed with much more of my family history.

Ala

The Real Valleys

So what of the Valleys?  “The Valleys” were a number of industrial towns in South Wales stretching from Carmarthenshire in the west to Monmouthshire in the east and from the Heads of the Valleys in the north to the vale of Glamorgan and the coastal plain around Swansea Bay, Bridgend, Cardiff and Newport.  The Rhondda and Cynon Valleys formed the rough centre.

The Valleys were only lightly inhabited until the second half of the 18th century when the iron industry was established in the Northern valleys, at which point South Wales became the most important part of British ironmaking – the centre of the industrial revolution.

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From 1850 until the outbreak of WWI, the South Wales Coalfield (SWC) was developed to supply steam coal and anthracite.  The SWC attracted huge numbers of people from rural areas to the valleys.  The population of the Valleys was generally young and male, with migrants often coming from other parts of Wales or further afield.

The coal mined in the valleys was transported via railways and canals to the ports of Cardiff, Newport and Swansea – Cardiff was among the most important coal ports in the world and Swansea among the most important steel ports.

The coal mining industry was artificially buoyed throughout the war years, though there were expectations of a return to the pre-1939 industrial collapse after the end of WWII.  However, nationalisation of British coalmines in 1947 meant a steady decline in the output from the Welsh mines.  The post WWII decline was a country wide issue, but South Wales was affected to a higher degree than other areas of Britain.  Oil had superseded coal as the fuel of choice in many industries and there was political pressure influencing the supply of oil.  The few industries still reliant on coal, demanded quality coals, especially coking coal which was required by the steel industry.

Half of Glamorgan Coal Co’s product was now supplied to steelworks, with the second biggest market being domestic heating, which the “smokeless” coal of the South Wales coalfield became once again fashionable after the publication of the Clean Air Act.  These two markets now controlled the fate of the mines in South Wales, and as demand fell from both sectors the knock-on effect on the mining industry was further decline.

The other major factors in the decline of coal were related to the massive under-investment in South Wales mines over the past decades. Most of the mines in the valleys were sunk between the 1850s and 1880s, which, as a consequence, meant they were far smaller than most modern mines.  The Welsh mines were comparatively antiquated, with methods of ventilation, coal-preparation and power supply all of a poor standard.

In 1966, the village of Aberfan suffered one of the worst disasters in Welsh history when a mine waste tip on the top of the mountain slid down the valley side and destroyed the village primary school, killing 144 people, 116 of them children.

Margaret Thatcher’s free market economics policy clashed with those of the National Coal Board and after the government announced plans to close many mines across the UK, the workers went on strike.  The failure of this strike led to the virtual destruction of the UK’s coal industry over the next decade.  The movie Pride, which is based on the true story surrounding these times for the miners, tells the story of a group of gay and lesbian activists who raised money to help the families affected by the British miners’ strike in 1984.  It’s a great story for a glimpse into this era, with a twist.

The Valleys are now home to around 30% of the Welsh population, although this is declining slowly because of emigration.  The Valleys suffer from a number of socio-economic problems including drug abuse, high rates of teenage pregnancy and high unemployment.  In fact, in the mid 1980’s, unemployment rates in the Valleys were among the highest in the UK.

We spent the day in Blaenavon, located in Monmouthshire.  The town grew up around it’s ironworks, with the steel-making and coal-mining industries following.

The Blaenavon Ironworks date back to 1789.  The cutting edge technology of the day enabled the power of steam bringing the industrial era to new heights.  The ironworks played an important role in the development of cheap, low quality, high sulphur iron ores worldwide until they closed in 1900.

The ironworks, which is free to visit (though you can make a gold coin donation if you wish), is a wonderful look back in time and well worth the visit.  The site also contains a row of houses decorated to replicate the miners huts through the different eras, including a local truck (or company) shop from the 1840’s.  Workers would be paid in tokens which could only be used in these (usually overpriced) truck shops to buy food and other essentials.

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Big Pit stands on the eastern rim of the South Wales Coalfield, not far from the ironworks.  As mentioned above, both coal and iron were transported to the coast by road and canal.  However in 1852 the railway from Newport reached Blaenavon and production started to soar. The first coal was worked in levels dug into the hillsides, following the outcropping coal seams.  Dodd’s Slope, was rediscovered in 1989 and its entrance now forms part of Big Pit’s surface attractions.

Big Pit stands on the site of an earlier mine called Kearsley Pit.  The shaft was sunk to a depth of 39 metres in 1860.

Big Pit came into being when the shaft was deepened to a depth of 89 metres.  It got its name from the size of its elliptical shaft, which at 5.5m by 4.6m was the first in the area wide enough to wind two trams of coal side by side.

At its peak, the colliery was producing more than 100,000 tonnes of coal from an area of about 12 square miles.  Nine different coal seams were worked at some stage during Big Pit’s life and the coal it produced was first-class ‘steam coal’ for which South Wales became famous around the world. 

Mechanisation did not come to Big Pit until 1908 when a mechanical conveyor was installed.  The pit was among the first in South Wales to be electrified, and by 1910 the ventilating fan, pumps and underground haulage system were all worked by electricity.  

Output of coal peaked in South Wales in 1913 and at its busiest Big Pit employed 1,300 men.

Big Pit closed in 1980 and is now one of the world’s leading coal museums.  The highlight of a visit to Big Pit is the hour-long underground tour, led by ex-miners, which takes you down in the pit cage through underground roadways, air doors stables and engine houses built by generations of mineworkers.

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Blaenavon’s Ironworks, Big Pit and town centre were heritage listed in 2000.

I did Caerdydd

‘WHAT?’, ‘yeah?’, ‘yeah?’ ‘Well I’m not listening to this s*&t, I’m on the train, I’m leaving and I’m hanging up!’

Heads turned toward the new arrival on the train, announcing his situation at the top of his voice and we all silently thought, yep, probably a good idea to hang up.  Seconds later – ‘F*&% off, I’m hanging up’.  Followed by another call and another.  And on it kept for at least half our trip to Cardiff – ah domestic bliss it seems – something I’m yet to achieve (luckily?).  By the end of the trip, we knew the calls were being recorded on the other end of the line and he had had enough and was leaving ’cause she had issues’.  Is he from the Valley’s? I wonder.

About an hour later, and we reach Cardiff (without our vocal friend) to see the sights.  Cardiff was pronounced the capital of Wales in 1955, but it began life as a Roman fort around about 55 AD.  Cardiff town was founded when the Normans conquered Glamorgan and Robert Fitz Hamon (himself a Norman) built a wooden castle within the walls of the old Roman fort.  A town soon grew up around the Castle.

This little wooden castle, rebuilt in stone in the meantime, was passed through the hands of noble families until 1766 when it was passed to the Bute family by marriage.  It was the 2nd Marquess of Bute, who was responsible for turning Cardiff into the world’s greatest coal exporting port in the world.

The Cardiff Castle grounds are fairly expansive, starting off with a short video that brings you through the ages of it’s 2,000 year history.  Afterwards, you head into the corridors of the castle wars, following a display of posters from the time of World War II requesting citizens not to waste food and to be home early.  Extensive air-raid shelters were tunnelled out of the castle’s walls during this period, which could hold up to 1,800 people.  The castle also tethered barrage balloons (or blimps) above the city to defend against aircraft attack – the blimps would be tethered with metal cables and would damage aircraft upon collision and make attacking more difficult.

The architecture inside the medieval castle is quite something, and features a spectacular middle eastern ceiling and fireplace in the Arab Room, which was intended as a drawing room for the women of the castle.

A short train ride away from the castle is Cardiff Bay – apparently Europe’s largest waterfront development and home to the Techniquest Science Discovery Centre, the Welsh Assembly, Butetown History and Art Museum and a leisure village.

Butetown History & Art Centre
Butetown History & Art Centre
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The Welsh Assembly
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Cardiff Bay

 The welsh name for Cardiff is Caerdydd, meaning ‘day fort’.

What to Expect from Wales

This morning I’m jumping on a train and heading to Wales.  Now I don’t know much about Wales at all.  In fact, all I do know about Wales is this…

But, I’m being unfair.  There are plenty of other famous people that hail from Wales – Tom ‘What’s New Pussycat’ Jones, Shirley “Hey Big Spender’ Bassey, Anthony ‘Hannibal’ Hopkins, Catherine ‘Entrapment’ Zeta-Jones and Shakin ‘well, shakin’ Stevens.  Yes – Shakin Stevens.  Remember him?  Huh, probably not.  Here’s a reminder…

There’s a couple of other people who live here too (though maybe not so famous) and they are my cousin Chris and his wife Sharon, who have very kindly offered to put me up for my visit.  They live in Newton, in the Mumbles, the word “mumbles” coming from the French word ‘mamelles’, which translates to ‘breasts,’ so maybe I’m well prepared for my visit by having seen the episode of The Valleys after all.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to piece together the story of my Dad’s family this last year, having finally found the right kind of resources in Melbourne to do so.  So it’s absolutely awesome to be heading to Wales next to spend some time with some of Dad’s relatives.  As I mentioned, Chris and Sharon have very kindly offered to put me up for five days which I am extremely grateful for, not in the least because it’s always amazing to get a local perspective on any place you visit.

So here we go – let’s find out about the real Wales.

If only I packed my glittery red slippers…

I open the window to a beautiful blue-sky day and excitedly put on my sandals.  Normally, I would put on sensible walking shoes, but I’ve come from my first winter in Melbourne and am desperate for some warm sun and open toed shoes.  Plus I plan to take it pretty easy and apart from starting the day with a walk, I plan to public transport my way around London.  Armed with a map and a couple of old Oyster Cards from previous trips of mine and my parents, I step outside to make the most of my only full day in London.

Strolling around Hyde Park on a Sunday is a great way to start.  Cyclists mingle with walkers, joggers, horseriders and lines of cars trailing inside the park to do any number of things from boating to exercising to enjoying the weather.  Its a big plot, fields and trees unending to the eye – and of course home to Kensington Palace and the Princess Diana Memorial as well as a number of galleries.

I do enjoy finding cool contemporary galleries on my travels.  London’s Serpentine Sackler Gallery is hosting an exhibition by American sculptor Duane Hanson.  Throughout his forty year career, Duane created numerous life-like poly-resin sculptures portraying ordinary Americans as well as those that are often considered to be on the edge of society.  His works are damn realistic, right down to skin tones, wrinkles and age-spots.  You feel as though you are being watched.  Which makes their messages all the more confronting.

The figures were cast from live models in Duane’s studio, meticulously completing the details including veins and bruises.

Leaving Hyde Park, it’s time to make my way to another source of water – the canals of Little Venice.  I’m boarding a London waterbus to take a leisurely ride down Regent’s Canal from Little Venice to Camden Lock.. DSC03171

Regent’s Canal (named after Prince Regent, who later became George IV) is part of London’s Grand Union Canal and was originally built to link Grand Junction Canal’s Paddington tributary with the River Thames.  Now it’s a place of leisure for Londoners and visitors.  I’m boarding a London waterbus to take a leisurely ride down Regent’s Canal from Little Venice to Camden Lock.

Camden, or Camden Town, has been a residential area of North London since the 1790’s.  This lively area has been home to Dylan Thomas (who you’ll hear more about later) and Amy Winehouse and is also home to a great live music scene, housing the notable Electric Ballroom which has played host to an amazing and varied array of artists such as The Vaccines, Snow Patrol, The Killers, Stereophonics, Sir Paul McCartney, Alt-J, Megadeth, Kaiser Chiefs, U2, Prince, The Clash, The Boomtown Rats, Joy Division, The Smiths, Madness, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Public Enemy, Blur, Supergrass, Garbage…too many to name.

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And right next door are the Camden Markets, which are made up of three separate markets (not all in the same spot) – Union Street, The Lock and The Stables.  The Lock is the set of markets which first greet you when you disembark from the waterbus and straight away the smell of food hits you.  Good smells.  Almost immediately, I spot (or maybe more likely smell)a Polish food stall and am unable to resist a serving of pierogi – I really need to learn to make these myself.  There are all sorts of different foods here though from Mexican through to donuts.  The hardest part is deciding what to have, a close second would be trying to find somewhere to eat it!

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In and around the grounds are all sorts of stalls selling everything from orange juice to fashion. It’s a great place to be on a nice day like to day, with almost a carnival vibe.  Being a Sunday though, it’s absolutely crowded here, something I’m not very tolerant of.  So I’m in and out pretty quickly before jumping on a bus to head to my next destination.  But this is where it all seems to unravel.  The London Bike Ride is on today, and along with underground works to pretty much any station I need to get to, it’s a recipe for disaster (well, sore feet anyway).  The bus can’t go the whole way of its route and terminates early leaving me in Oxford Circus.  I need to go to Hyde Park Corner, but end up having to walk it because it’s easier, normally a great option, except for my choice of footwear, which now seems to be feeling the vibrations of every single step on the pavement as if it were a shockwave.  When I finally arrive at the Hard Rock Café, where I’d planned to have a nice drink – there is a queue a mile long out the door.  Not doing that, my feet say.  No buses are running in this area, so I walk to the Hyde Park Corner underground stop to head to the Victoria & Albert Gallery (V&A).  I’m going to be way too early to get into my timed exhibitions, but perhaps they’ll let me in earlier.

Last time I visited London, I popped into the Victoria & Albert Museum hoping to grab a ticket to the David Bowie Is exhibition.  Unfortunately seven million people also had the same idea that day, the event was sold out and I missed out (but thankfully I moved to Melbourne and got to see the exhibit a couple years later anyway!).  I started to have a quick wonder through the gallery, but I immediately knew this was a place that deserved a whole lot of time to do it any justice and I really wanted to fit in the incredibly awesome Saatchi Gallery, so I headed over there and vowed to do the V&A next time.

As luck would have it, the V&A is currently hosting another amazing exhibition – Savage Beauty, the fashion creations of the late Alexander McQueen.  And I’m right on time for the last day of the show.  McQueen was a British fashion designer and couturier best known for bringing drama and extravagance to the catwalk runways.  His works are exquisite, but unfortunately no photography allowed so you’ll just have to use your imagination or GTS (Google that s#%&).

But that’s not all, there’s also Shoes – Pleasure & Pain.  Something I am very familiar with at this point.  Even though it’s a timed entry, the exhibition is crowded.  Clusters of people stand in front of glass windows housing exquisite shoes, including Cinderella’s glass slipper and the Judy Garland’s glittery red shoes from the Wizard of Oz – I could seriously use those right now to get myself home because all of the underground stops I want to get to are closed.

The closest I can get is back to Hyde Park Corner and I am not relishing the walk back across the park, but I’m also not willing enough to pay for a cab, so my feet lose out.  Just as well its such a beautiful day.

I am totally Londoned out and am in desperate need of dinner before I hit the hay for the night.  I was planning to head downstairs to the hotel restaurant for dinner, but somehow during my nice hot shower, my feet seem to have forgotten how to walk, so a call to room service is the way to go.

Day in London – done.

Pretending to be Made in Chelsea

Day 4:  London

My love of Made in Chelsea

Grabbing a glass of champagne she toasted to the birthday boys, before adding “A second toast to my best friend Rosie for hooking up with my boyfriend Hugo Taylor when we were together and then lying about it”.  After a collective gasp around the room, she added ‘Here’s to friendship”.  Then storming past Rosie, she added “You’re disgusting!”

Made in Chelsea, Season 2, Final Episode

This was the explosive ending to Made in Chelsea (MIC to its fans) Season 2 – everything you could wish for in a final episode.  For the uninitiated, MIC is a reality tv show in the same vein as The Only Way is Essex and Desperate Scousewives, following the intertwining lives of a group of well-to-do twenty somethings from Chelsea in London.  I’ve been a fan of MIC since accidentally coming across it on Foxtel one day and have been hooked ever since.  And now I’m staying in Chelsea (well, South Kensington actually, but very, very close to Chelsea) whilst in London.  It’s interesting to note here that you can actually find on the internet, lists of the places that the MIC crew hang out in, both on the show and in real life, like a kind of a high end stalkers guide.  And whilst I’m not planning on spending my time trying to get hair-styling tips from Ollie or bumping into Millie carrying her adorable pooch Herbie around in her handbag, I am definitely going to spend some time in the area, and grab a bite to eat at The Bluebird Cafe (okay – so what if it’s where my favorite cast member Binkie likes to hang out?).  I guess it would be just a little bit exciting to get a cast sighting though – we’ll see!

Hyde Park

There are dogs bounding through the long grasses and pigeons and squirrels wandering around, as well as joggers and cyclists.  There’s a few different things to look at in Hyde Park, but I was mainly here to get a look at Serpentine Lake and Kensington Palace which also sits in the grounds.

Which way where?
Which way where?

And no, Leigh and Katie – I did not eat the squirrel for breakfast!

Kensington Palace

To be honest, I can see why Wills and Kate are renovating this place.  It is a little old.  Old it may be, but overly extravagant, it isn’t.  I was quite surprised at how plain (if that’s the word) the palace is inside.  The current exhibition is Victoria Revealed, which gave a good insight into the lives the royals led.

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Kensington Palace was also known as the home of Princess Diana.  Within moments of her death in 1997, thousands of people flocked to Kensington Palace to pay their respects.  Within just a few hours, the tributes covered the iconic gold gates to the south of the palace.  In the coming days, every piece of railing around the palace was covered and a carpet of flowers stretched out into Kensington Gardens.

Walking through the Palace gardens, I spy a couple of those little squirrels that inhabit this neck of the woods.  He must have been hungry and suspected that I had some food, because he ran half way up my leg before I knew what was happening!

Palace of Kensington
Palace of Kensington

Sloan Square

Sloane Square is a small hard-landscaped square on the border of Chelsea.  Sloan Square also lent its name to the “Sloane Rangers” in the early 1980s – young underemployed, often snooty and ostentatiously well-off members of the upper classes.  The term often applied to young women, and Lady Diana Spencer was considered the quintessential Sloane prior to her marriage to Prince Charles.  Kate has now taken up the mantle, just in case you were wondering…

Wealth, and an upper class social position is a pre-requisite for being a Sloane.  However it’s not all fun and games for the Sloane – regardless of any educational standing they may have achieved, they are generally regarded as dim-witted socialites.

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Saatchi Gallery

At first I thought this was a gallery dedicated to the divine footwear creations from Saatchi.  Turns out I was wrong, but the Saatchi Gallery still looked incredibly interesting when I researched it further, so it stayed on the list of things to do.

The Saatchi Gallery aims to provide an innovative forum for contemporary art by presenting work by largely unseen young artists or by international artists whose work has been rarely or never exhibited in the UK.  The popularity of these contemporary art exhibitions has increased during the recent years as general awareness and interest in contemporary art has developed worldwide.  When The Saatchi Gallery first opened over twenty five years ago it was only those who had a dedicated interest in contemporary art who sought out the gallery.  This has all changed, and the museum was quite busy today.

The works here are amazing and so different from the mainstream.  One of my favourites is a series of shopping bags that have been sculpted into paper trees – no that doesn’t sound quite right – or do the works justice, so just have a look at the photos instead.

Tree Bag 1
Tree Bag 1
Tree Bag 2 - yes that is a McDonalds bag...
Tree Bag 2 – yes that is a McDonalds bag…

Black Cabs

According to section 51 of the London Hackney Carriage Act 1831, a London Hackney Carriage, which was the horse drawn equivalent of a taxi in those days, by law had to keep a bale of hay in the boot to feed the then horses.  Of course at some point the horses became outdated with the motor car revolution, but the law still held.  Some places actually even constructed very small bales of hay to carry in a taxi during disputes with local councils on the matter.  Along with the hay bales, the vehicles still had to be tethered at a taxi rank, and the council had to supply a water trough to the taxi rank.

Ok, so these ones aren't quite black...
Ok, so these ones aren’t quite black…

The law for this held for well over 100 years, only being amended in 1976, although some taxi drivers still carry around small bales of hay on the boot just for the fun of it.  In Australia, we also had to follow the same law and it is believed that it actually still exists without amendment.

Now I tried to flag down a black cab twice today, but each time, there was no black cab in sight!  Only coloured ones.  Oh well, they are still really cute and I love how there is so much room in the back, for all your shopping bags!

Buckingham Palace

Ok, ok, I couldn’t leave London without seeing the Queen, so before I head back to the hotel, I head to the Palace.  There’s not much going on.  A couple of snaps, and well, how long do you hang around?  Is there a minimum time period?  Some people look like they have been standing here a while.  What are they waiting for?

I've been to London to visit the Queen!
I’ve been to London to visit the Queen!

I think its time for me head back to the hotel.  Sitting on the underground for the last time, I reflect on how easy its made it to get around.  Another city that Perth could learn from perhaps…

Traditional Fish and Chips

Tonight is my final night in London, and there’s just one more thing I’ve got to do.  Try traditional fish and chips with a pint down the local, which happens to be the Stanhope Arms (side note: I love all the little pubs in London, heavily decorative and most with big pots of hanging flowers with really cute names like The Lady and Flower).  They proclaim to have the best traditional fish and chips in London, so I sit down to await my fish, chips, mushy peas and pint of Stella.  Yes, that’s right Mum – mushy peas.

The best traditional fish and chips in London?...
The best traditional fish and chips in London?…

The meal is good.  I’m not sure that I would say it was the best fish and chips I’d ever had (sorry London, but Perth has way better fish and chips), but perhaps they are the best in London – I’ll never know. But I think I’m qualified to judge given I used to work in a really good fish n cgip shop in my teenage years!

And no…I didn’t see anyone from Made in Chelsea today.  Just as well the season final is on TV tonight!

London by Bus

Day 3:  London

OMG what a noisy city at night London is.  There are constant sirens and they all seem to stop close by.  Either that or they just turn their sirens on for the time they are passing by my hotel, and then continue on their way in silence…

Anyway, it’s Sunday morning, which gives me the perfect opportunity for a slow start, and to take advantage of that I’m heading to  Bumpkin for Sunday Brunch.  A typical English Breakfast with Champagne.  Although its 10am when I arrive its absolutely empty, which feels kinda weird. The English breaky consists of scrambled eggs, a field mushroom, roasted tomato, baked beans, bacon, a sausage and a slice of toast. And yes I did eat it all to myself. Bumpkin pride themselves on using seasonal produce and so the meal certainly didn’t taste like a big greasy fryup in anyway. Of course there’ll be no lunch for me today.

For the rest of the day I’ll be occupying my time with a ….

City Sightseeing Tour

I don’t really like to resort to these types of tours, but when your time is limited, sometimes it’s just the best way to take in a lot of sights in a little time.  Plus with the interrupted sleep last night, I’m still not feeling on top of the world, so I booked a ticket on The Original Tour bus which covers over 80 stops,  on three different sightseeing routes and countless photo opportunities.

Today I’m going to start of with the Red Route which takes in the capital’s most famous sights, some of which I no doubt saw yesterday, but it will be good to get a closer look, take more photos and stop off to go inside if I so desire.

The bus is actually quite slow going probably due to it being a weekend. London is trying so hard to give me a summer’s day but there’s no hiding the clouds and the freezing wind, certainly not conducive to sitting up top on a double decker bus!

The view from the top of the bus
The view from the top of the bus

Marble Arch

Marble Arch was designed in 1825 to be the ceremonial entrance to Buckingham Palace.  It’s based on the design of the Arch of Constantine in Rome and the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.  It was deconstructed and relocated at its current position near Hyde Park corner in 1851.  Historically only members of the royal family have been allowed to pass through the arch.

Marble Arch
Marble Arch

Red Telephone Boxes

You can’t possibly think of London without thinking about red telephone boxes.  The telephone box has become an icon of British design, alongside the black taxi and the Routemaster bus.  It is part of this nation’s heritage and identity.  But as with all things these days, technology is taking over and the red telephone box is under threat, with numbers declining.  From a peak of over 70,000 in the 1980s, today there only 11,000 red telephone kiosks surviving in public service.

The good old red telephone box
The good old red telephone box

St Paul’s Cathedral

A cathedral to St Paul has stood on this highest point in the city, in some form, for over 1400 years.  The current building was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and is quite spectacular.  Story has that Chris was quite lucky – when he was originally commissioned to fix St Paul’s up when the restoration took place, there was no money in the budget for rebuilding, which is what he wanted to do.  He was only allowed to renovate it.  He’d just put up all the scaffolding around the church when the great fire of London spread and the church burnt down, leaving the only option to rebuild!

St Pauls - this versions only about 300 years old
St Pauls – this versions only about 300 years old

Tower Bridge

Not to be confused with London Bridge, and many do, as our cycling guide mentioned yesterday.  Now I’m not a fan of the Spice Girls, but in the movie – you know the bit where they are driving across the bridge and the gate goes up and the bus flies across to the other side?  Well that was based on an actual event.  There are traffic lights at either side of where the gates on the bridge go up, but on one occasion in 1951 the warning signals failed when a bus driver was on his way across.  He was already past the signals and he couldn’t go back, so he had no option but to go for it, flying over the gap and landing safely on the other side.  Now that would be a bus trip you’d never forget.

Tower of London Bridge
Tower of London Bridge

Tower of London

The Tower of London has been many things in its time.  Royal residence, grand palace, an armoury, a treasury – even a zoo.

But it’s most popularly known as a prison and the place where many executions were carried out.

Executions by beheading were considered the least brutal of execution methods and were accorded to important State prisoners or people of noble birth.  Killing the lower classes was usually achieved by hanging from the gallows.  The more serious the crime the more severe the punishment.  Burning to death at the stake or the barbaric method of slowly killing by inflicting unimaginable pain was by ‘Hang, Draw and Quartering’ – these methods of execution might be delivered to any class of victim.

Tower of London
Tower of London

Death by beheading with the use of the axe could be a terrifying prospect.  The executioners often took several blows before the head was finally severed.  If the executioner’ axe was sharp and his aim was true, beheading was quick and relatively painless.  If the instrument was blunt, the axeman inexperienced or careless, then the execution might take several strokes to sever the head.  This was certainly the case in the execution by beheading of the brave Countess of Salisbury who was struck eleven times with the axe before she died.

Various traditions were observed at executions by beheading.  A raised platform was built (scaffold) and covered with straw.  A minister of the church would be available to offer religious comfort to the victim.  The victim would be expected to pay and forgive the executioner.  It would be hoped that the headsman completed his job swiftly and with care.  The condemned prisoner was usually given the opportunity to address the spectators – with the King’s permission.  The heads of traitors were displayed on top of spikes on London Bridge.

Following execution the severed head was held up by the hair by the executioner. This was done, not as many people think to show the crowd the head, but in fact to show the head the faces of crowd and it’s own body!  Killing by beheading is not immediate. Consciousness remains for at least eight seconds after beheading until lack of oxygen causes unconsciousness and eventually death.

I don’t actually spend that much time here.  It was probably not a good idea to come on a weekend cause it’s really busy and there are queues to see everything which is a shame, because I’m sure it would be a good place to spend a couple of hours.  Patience is not my strong point.

Boating along the Thames

From the Tower of London, I jump on board a ferry for a ride down the Thames.  The ride is included as part of the City Sightseeing Bus price, which is a nice way to break up your day of touring.  And there’s hot chocolate on board to take the edge of this cold ‘summer’s day’.  The ferry goes all the way down to the Houses of Parliament and Elizabeth Tower, where you can get off and rejoin any of the sightseeing bus routes.

One of the many ferries trawling the river
One of the many ferries trawling the river

I jump on the yellow route for a while, but when I get to just near Oxford Street I can’t contain myself and decide to do a little bit of shopping.  I can’t believe two days of sightseeing is already done and dusted.  Obviously there is so much to see, you just can’t fit everything in.  Probably a good excuse to come back.

Wheeling Around London

Day 2:  London

I know I should probably try and sleep in this morning, but I just can’t.  Half of it is that I’m just excited, and the other half is because I just actually can’t sleep.  Oh and the fact its light at around 4am!  I may as well jump straight into it and pack as much sightseeing in as possible.  Ready…..Set…..Go!

First up is to tackle the underground.  Gloucester Road station is about a 2 minute walk down the road, which is great, and I don’t have to go that far to get to my tour meeting point.  But I am early given that I couldn’t sleep in, so I stop at Embankment station and walk across to Southbank and wander around the streets until it’s time to go to Southwark Station to meet my group.

Because I wasn’t sure what sort of brain capacity I would have today, I decided that I would join a small group cycling tour around the Thames River area.

The guide looks like a typical BMX punk with black jeans (complete with chains) and a cap.  He walks us through the backstreets of Southwark and leads us to a carparking area housing a row of 5 sheds – their office.  Hmmmm.  But it’s soon clear, that he knows his stuff.  Here’s some of the stuff we learnt:

The Millenium Wheel

Apparently no good if you are in a relationship.  Stories from the wheel include the gentleman who ‘treated’ his girlfriend to a ride to conquer her fears of height and vertigo and the guy who hired a private cubicle, violinist and all to propose to his girlfriend who said no.  Uncomfortable ride to the bottom.  If you are in London and keen to ride the wheel, perhaps do it alone.

The Millenium Wheel
The Millenium Wheel

Big Stink over the Thames River

The Big Stink was a time in the summer of 1858 during which the smell of untreated human waste, which used to flow straight into the Thames River, reached boiling point.  The stench was so hideous the MPs in central London could no longer stand it.

The Metropolitan Board of Works accepted a scheme to implement sewers proposed by its chief engineer, Joseph Bazalgette, in 1859.  The intention of this very expensive scheme was to resolve the epidemic of cholera by eliminating the stench which was believed to cause it.  An unintended consequence was realised once the water supply ceased to be contaminated; this resolved the cholera epidemic.

Big Ben

The Houses of Parliament and Elizabeth Tower (more commonly called Big Ben, are among London’s most iconic landmarks.  Technically, Big Ben is the name given to the massive bell inside the clock tower, which weighs more than 13,760 kg.  Why Ben and not Tony or Bob?  Apparently, it was named after a heavyweight boxing champion at that time, Benjamin Caunt. It was said that the sound of the largest bell, sounded just like Big Ben knocking out one of his opponents.

Big Lizzy?
Big Lizzy?

The Golden Hind

The Golden Hind was an English galleon best known for its circumnavigation of the globe between 1577 and 1580, captained by Sir Francis Drake.

Pretty much, Sir Francis Drake was a pirate.

The Golden Hind
The Golden Hind

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre

Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre facts:

  1. The current building is a replica built from traditional materials and techniques – the original was demolished to make way for tenements in 1644.
  2. The Globe Theatre was stolen!  The building started life on the opposite side of the River Thames, however after a row over land leases and ownership, the building was stolen and rebuilt across the river.
  3. The Globe was an open air theatre experience and therefore exposed to the awful English weather!
  4. William Shakespeare was a shareholder.  As an astute businessman, the young Shakespeare bought shares in the theatre and benefited financially when his popularity grew.
Shakespeare's Globe Theatre
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre

Borough Market

Borough has long been associated with food markets and as far back as 1014, London Bridge attracted traders selling grain, fish, vegetables and livestock.  In the 13th century traders were relocated to what is now Borough High Street and a market has existed there ever since.

Foodie Heaven
Foodie Heaven

The market stocks all kinds of foods and goods and the air is pungent with the smell of all kinds of cheeses, baked breads and sausages.  But there’s fruit and veg, wine bars, chocolate shops, cake shops – all sorts.  If you head to the Borough’s website, there’s a heap of recipes you can try – here’s one to get you started:

Pint of Stout Brownies
Makes 16, Prep time 15 minutes, Cooking time 25 minutes

Ingredients:
350g butter

200g dark chocolate at least 70% cocoa solids
200g caster sugar
125g demerara sugar
3 eggs
200ml Irish stout
175g self raising flour
200g mascarpone cheese
250g icing sugar, sifted

Method:

  1. Preheat the oven to 180°C.  Lightly grease a 24cm square tin.
  2. Place 200g of the butter into a heavy based pan and put over a low heat to melt.  Break the chocolate and add it to the pan.  The butter stabilises the chocolate, so no need to worry.  Warm until melted and stir together.
  3. Remove the pan from the heat and add the two types of sugar.  Break in the eggs and beat them in well. Pour the stout in carefully, you don’t want it to froth too much, and combine.
  4. Mix in the flour until the mixture is glossy and thick, then scrape the mixture into the tin.  Bake for 25 minutes until it is just set.
  5. Making sure the remaining 150g butter is lovely and soft, whisk it together with the mascarpone.  Then, starting slowly to avoid dust clouds, add the icing sugar until it is all combined.  Spread the icing lavishly over the cool brownie!
  6. Cut in to 16 and enjoy with a glass of Irish stout.

London Wall

This is, or what is left of, the defensive wall built by the Romans around Londinium (the Romans early name for London), now obviously known as London.  It’s believed to have been built in the late 2nd or early 3rd century and is likely to be one of the last projects undertaken by the Romans before they left Britain in 410.  The wall remained in active use for over 1000 years afterwards.

Not many bricks left in this wall
Not many bricks left in this wall

Remants of War

This is the site of a former church, which was bombed during the blitzkrieg of WWII.  Instead of rebuilding or demolishing the church, the ruins were turned into a garden sanctuary.

St Dunstans of the East
St Dunstans of the East

A Goose Named Tom

Old Tom frequented the Leadenhall Market in the early 1800´s and remains one of the most famous characters from Leadenhall´s past.  He was due to be slaughtered along with thousands of other geese who had been sent here.  However he escaped death and became a much loved character for traders and customers, and was fed at all the local inns.  Known to the traders as ´Old Tom´ he eventually died at the age of 37 and lay in state before being buried here.

There’s also a bar named after him…Old Tom’s.

Old Tom's Bar, Leadenhall Market
Old Tom’s Bar, Leadenhall Market

We see heaps more stuff like the London Tower Bridge, the Tower of London and the Monument to the Great Fire, but I’m conscious of boring you (and I’m tired after 5 hours of cycling!).  I think London’s given me her typical weather today:  there’s been a few moments of sunshine, but the sights have been covered by a grey blanket of cloud, and there’s been a few attempts of rain.   I’d definitely recommend the Fat Tyre Bike Tour company if you are in London – we certainly saw some of the sights that weren’t just the run of the mill tourist trail, which is exactly what I like.   The tour ends now, so I make my way back to Embankment to visit something special.

St Martin-In-The-Fields

I’m going to check out St Martin-In-The-Fields Church.  This landmark church in the heart of London was completed in 1726.  Now who was St Martin, and what did he do to have a church named after him?

St Martin was a soldier posted in France.  Riding through the city gate on cold night, he saw an almost naked beggar huddled against the stonework.  Martin cut his cloak in half with his sword and gave the beggar half.  That night in a dream, Jesus Christ appeared to Martin in the form of the beggar to thank him and the next day he rushed to be baptised.

SONY DSC
St Martin in the Fields Church, London

Now upon the celebration of the Australian bicentenary in 1988, St Martin-In-The-Fields gifted the city of Perth its twelve bells.  The bells, which are recorded as being in existence before the 14th century, are one of the few sets of royal bells and are the only ones known to have left London.  The bells rang out to celebrate many occasions, including England’s victory over the Spanish Armada in 1588, WWII and ringing in the New Year for over 275 years.

The bells, embarrassingly having sat in storage for around eleven years, are now housed in the purpose built structure in Perth, Australia, known as the Bell Tower.  The building caused a fair bit of controversy when they were built with people blaming the government for spending money unwisely.  However, the building is created in the image of a swan, and I think its amazing.

The Bell Tower in Perth, Western Australia
The Bell Tower in Perth, Western Australia

St Martins-In-The-Fields is also the name of a church in Kensington, Western Australia.  And why is St Martins-In-The-Fields of any interest of all to me?  This church, which was built in 1953 and named after the London Church (there is a memento mounted in the church which is made from the original Portland Stone used when SMITF London was built), is the church where my parents got married!

My Parents on their Wedding Day at St Martins-In-The-Field, Kensington, Perth
My Parents on their Wedding Day at St Martins-In-The-Field, Kensington, Perth

Trafalgar Square

Trafalgar Square was built to commemorate the Battle of Trafalgar.

The square is also famous for its feral pigeons.  How often does the local authority feed the pigeons?  They don’t!  It is illegal to feed them.  Trafalgar Square used to be famous for its large flock of pigeons (estimated at the peak to number 35,000 birds), which used to appear daily to be fed by tourists and residents alike.  In 2000, due to worries about the health risks posed by the pigeons, the sale of birdseed in Trafalgar Square was banned and trained falcons were used to try to discourage the pigeons from the area.  In 2007, by-laws were passed to ban the feeding of the birds within Trafalgar Square.  But if you are keen to find out what the pigeons have been up to since being moved on, make sure you have a read of http://pigeonblog.wordpress.com/.

Unfortunately I didn’t take any photos here because the square is set up for little teasers of all the West End shows and there’s stacks of people around, being a Saturday.  You know when you get to the point, you are so tired, you just want to get home?  This is one of those days – it’s been a really long day and I am really looking forward to an early night so I can really get into some more sightseeing tomorrow!

Learning to Deal with Long Haul Flights

Day 1:  London

Extremely early start this morning.  But if anyone’s used to it, it should be me.

This is my first long haul flight ever and my also my first time flying with Emirates.  I read somewhere that you can kind of counteract the effects of jetlag if you set your watch to the time of your destination as soon as you get on the plane, and sleep accordingly from that point onwards.  So that’s the method I’ve chosen to go for on the flight over and we’ll see whether that works.

I get a spare seat next to me, which isn’t as great as having no one in the other seats next to you, but at least it lets me put my legs in different positions to keep from getting stiff.  There’s some great movies on this plane and I watch about 5 or 6 of them, including some great music history documentaries on heavy metal.  I don’t sleep because I’m too busy learning how classical music turned into Black Sabbath, but I don’t feel that tired and think it’s best to try and keep awake as much as possible.  The flight lands in Dubai on schedule, but when I look at the transfer sign board, my next flight has a final boarding call!

I get held up at security cause something on me is beeping, which is odd cause I’m only wearing my clothes having been stripped of my watch and shoes.  They signal me over to a room for a security search.  I’m not sure what this details, cause they don’t actually speak to you at all – just motion to put your arms out to the side, and without any warning, she’s running her hands right down the front of my body – um, bit of warning would have been nice!  She also determines that I have nothing left on me and lets me go.

Dashing through the airport, it occurs to me that they couldn’t have made my connecting flight at a further away terminal than they have.  Just as I think I’m near my terminal, there’s a transit monorail that I have to take, then up about 40 escalators.  The flight is actually just boarding, so I’m not sure what all the final boarding call was about, but I’m so overheated from running and the plane cooling isn’t on yet, so it’s an uncomfortable wait for water while the rest of the plane boards.  Hurdle number one – flight transfers – cleared.

Please let me have a fairly empty plane for this one, I think to myself, but as I look up, I can see a small Indian girl with a cheeky grin heading my way, and I just know – she’s sitting next to me.  Yep, she’s definitely sitting next to me.  Great.  Hate kids on plans.  She talks, babbles and knocks stuff off the table tray for about 60% of the flight and cries and slaps her Mum for about another 30%.  For 10% she sleeps – which you would think is great, but this kid seems to have more arms than the Indian god Ganesha, and her little arms slapping me left right and centre while she sleeps across her mothers lap – oblivious.   Not the best flight this one but finally I land in London.

Next issue to deal with is immigration.  Wow, feel like a criminal trying to do the wrong thing.  The guy at the desk grills me.  And I mean grills me – like he even tells me he probably shouldn’t let me in cause I should have had a written itinerary of exactly what I was doing here for the next 4 days.  Because apparently just arriving for a holiday doesn’t matter.  All my printed stuff is in my suitcase, which I obviously don’t have yet and the rest is on my mobile, but I can’t connect to it because I haven’t been able to get a connection yet.  I show him the whole folder on my email about all my bookings.  He cannot believe that I wouldn’t have all this information ready to show him.  WTF?  No one mentions this in the guide books!  He finally agrees to let me in, but warns me that when I get to the US, it’ll be just as bad, if not worse.  I just can’t believe it – I am the most organised person in the world and I’ve just been ripped to shreds for being not organised enough!  Unforseen hurdle – cleared – just.

Flushed with embarrassment, I head to the luggage hall to clear my next hurdle -hoping my luggage has arrived.  I have to wait for a little while, and am starting to panic that not only is my luggage not going to show up on the conveyor, but that my transfer will have given up waiting, but I can finally see my suitcase – hurdle cleared.

I finally step out into the arrival hall where my task is to try and locate my private transfer.  The number of placards being waved around is amazing, and I begin to think that because of the hold ups my transfer is no longer waiting and I will have to find some other way of getting to my hotel.  But just when I’ve almost given up, I do one last run past of the placards, and there finally is my name.  Second last hurdle for the day cleared.

It doesn’t take long to get to the hotel, driving through the streets is reminiscent to parts of Melbourne, only everything here is so much older obviously.  The hotel is in a lovely spot in South Kensington, and the street itself contains lots of little shops, restaurants and across the road a Waitrose supermarket.  Hotel check in is smooth – no more hurdles today.

The room, despite what I’ve read about it being tiny is actually quite a fine size – obviously my travels in Japan have paid off or other travellers expect a bit too much.  I have a beautiful old window that opens – yes actually opens – out to a street that is only what I could call totally London – complete with chimneys and cobblestones.

OMG – it has hit me!  I have ONE WHOLE MONTH OFF WORK!!!!  No alarms, no meetings, no ABB.  I have four weeks to see and do as much as possible in countries I never thought I would visit.  I’m going to try new things and take it all in my stride.  This next month is going to be amazing!