Tuesday, 29 July 2008
Kensington Palace is once again running a summer season of outdoor theatre. The performances take place in August in the Orangery gardens, which means you can combine the theatre and some al fresco dining, perhaps after a stroll around the grounds.
This year's productions include the ever-popular Twelfth Night, performed by the Oxford Shakespeare company, and Noel Coward's Private Lives, with a West End cast starring Sophie Ward and Simon Dutton.
It's a long time since I've seen any outdoor Shakespeare: I last saw Twelfth Night at Dyffryn House near Cardiff, and it's a play particularly suited to outdoor performances, especially for Viola's entrance, supposedly washed up after being shipwrecked. It's also makes classic use of Shakespeare's fondness for including cross-dressing and mistaken identity in his comedies - and, of course, is familiar to many who have studied it at school. Timeless.
Private Lives, on the other hand, is firmly of its time, although it is generally regarded as the best of his plays. Incredibly, it was written over just four days while Coward was convalescing in the Peace Hotel in Shanghai. The first production starred Coward, alongside Laurence Olivier and Gertrude Lawrence. That must have been some performance to watch!
The plays are an interesting choice to put together: both involve unexpressed love and desire within complex relationships, but whereas in Twelfth Night these desires are resolved in declarations of marriage, in Private Lives, a recently divorced couple, accidentally reunited on their honeymoons, come to realise the bonds they still share.
Twelfth Night runs from 2-15 August and Private Lives from 16-31 August (no performances on Mondays). Tickets can be booked in person at Kensington Palace, Hampton Court Palace and the Tower of London, on-line at www.seetickets.com or by calling 0870 264 3333. The shows are popular, so advance booking is recommended. Tickets are priced at £23 for adults, £15 for concessions and £8 for under 12s. Combined dinner and theatre tickets are available.
Monday, 28 July 2008
The Great Central is generally regarded as one of the best of the UK's heritage steam railways. It is unique in preserving a former section of a main line, and having double track running, enabling it to recreate the great age of steam-hauled expresses. (Other preserved lines tend to be former branch lines).
Its history goes back to the mid-19th Century, and the vision of Edward Watkin. He envisaged a railway running from Manchester and Sheffield, via a new high speed main line, through London to Dover and then under the Channel Tunnel and thence to France. The line would be built to the larger European loading gauge, enabling the wider, longer and taller Continental carriages to run through directly to the North of England. And all this in the 1860s!
Watkin was Chairman of the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway, the South Eastern Railway (connecting London with Dover), and also the Metropolitan Railway, so he was ideally placed to make the vision happen. A brand new line was built to link these various companies, from Sheffield down to the end of the Metropolitan line in London. The 'London extension', as it was called, was the last 19th century main line built into London, and opened through to Marylebone Station in 1899. It was renamed the 'Great Central Railway,' and quickly became famous for its fast and comfortable expresses.
Alas, the Channel Tunnel vision had to wait nearly another century before becoming reality, thanks to cost, engineering and security concerns. The Great Central was in many ways a successful line, although the company was never able to pay a dividend. But being a latecomer, and traversing the territory of more established companies, was to be its downfall: it became a victim of the 1966 cuts in British Railways, and was the only complete main line to be closed - ironically, the most modern and the only one built to the European loading gauge!
In 1969 some enthusiasts got together to reopen part of the line, and after a lot of hard work the trains started running again in 1973. The railway now runs from Loughborough to the northern outskirts of Leicester. It has a large collection of steam locomotives, from every pre-1947 company, as well as British Railway standard designs, and a wide range of preserved diesel trains and railcars. This varied collection is a delight for the enthusiast, and really helps to recreate the feel of railway in the early 1960s.
The stations are delightful: Loughborough recreates a large, busy town station of the early 1960s, Quorn & Woodhouse recreates the railway in wartime of the 1940s, and Rothley, the Edwardian period. Quorn & Woodhouse and Rothley are both excellent examples of the Great Central's standard design of small stations with a single island platform.
The line is double track from Loughborough to Rothley, allowing a real taste of how a main line railway would have felt in the 1960s. It runs through rolling countryside and passes on two viaducts over part of the lovely Swithland Reservoir (something of a hidden gem itself). All stations have some form of refreshment facilities, and there is a souvenir shop and bookshop at Loughborough.
Apart from the trains, additional attractions include the locomotive shed and workshops at Loughborough and the Ellis tearoom and miniature railway at Rothley. Also at Rothley are the workshops of the Railway Vehicle Preservation group, who aim to preserve rolling stock such as carriages (vital work, of course, but lacking the glamour of locomotive preservation). Their pride is two sets of Travelling Post Offices, and they organise week-ends demonstrating the old automatic mail drop-off and pick-up system, made famous by the 1950s film 'The Night Mail'.
The current southern terminus is Leicester North, just south of the site of the former Belgrave & Birstall station. There are plans to extend both further south into Leicester, and northwards to join up with a section of line still extant towards Ruddington and the outskirts of Nottingham. At present there is a gap of over 300m between the two sections, with an embankment and several bridges missing.
As you would expect, the line is extraordinarily popular with 'children of all ages'. They run a number of special 'themed' days, some suitable for the die-hard enthusiast, (eg Travelling Post Office demonstration) and others orientated more towards children (eg Thomas the Tank Engine days and Santa Specials).
As it is a full working railway, children must be appropriately supervised, and the locomotive shed is messy underfoot - stout footwear would be a good idea, and it is not really suitable for small children. Full details of access and parking can be found on the Line's website.
For further details, see their website at: www.gcrailway.co.uk
Thursday, 24 July 2008
The lane is lined with old farms, brick cottages and newer houses: all are beautifully kept, not to say prosperous, with lovely gardens. In one of them, the author AA Milne and Christopher Robin once lived, and a swan from a local lake, ‘Hopper’, features in one of the ‘Winnie-the-Pooh’ stories.
The church itself is rather hidden: after a bend in the road, there is a name board for St Nicholas, but to get there you walk down the adjacent path and turn left past more immaculate gardens, around the back of Manor Farm.
The churchyard, like the rest of the village, is immaculately kept. The church is modest, and very Sussex, with flint walls and a low but well proportioned tower, with a sweeping roof of red tiles and Horsham slates. The interior is whitewashed, but charming.
Inside, the proportions give away a Saxon nave, to which was added a south aisle with an arcade of two bays of plain pointed arches and a chancel. The church guide and Sussex volume of The Buildings of England (Nairn & Pevsner) disagree about the date of the aisle: the guide gives 1180, whereas Nairn & Pevsner give 1300. I’m inclined towards the former, but both agree about a date of 1380 for the chancel. The tower was added around 1420 and the porch in 1830.
The nave and chancel are, unusually, the same height, so there is no chancel arch. Instead, the remains of a 14th century rood screen separate nave and chancel, and the composition is very attractive. There is a small Saxon window high on the north wall, and preserved below are the (incredibly rare) remains of the original wooden shutter.
Apart from the East window, which was replaced in 1830, the remaining windows are all attractive Perpendicular square-headed single or twin lights, dating from 1380 to 1420. The East window contains a small fragment of 17th century glass.
For a small country church it has a set of remarkably interesting furnishings. Pride of place goes to the brass on the chancel floor, to Walter Davy, vicar of Poling 1442-1499, decked out in his best ecclesiastical garb. The interior has other 17th and 18th century memorials, but by the south door is very rare survivor indeed: an iron-bound poor box on a pedestal. On the top are the initials Rt de H I C of A, and a date of 1285, thought to refer to Robert of Hastings and his wife, Isabella Countess of Arundel. On the front is the date 1797 (more likely to be the true date).
Above this is a stone inscribed (complete with spelling mistake): PRAYE REMEBER THE POORE. Opposite is an ancient stone tub font, thought to be Saxon, with a rather odd, modern decorated font cover from 1946. The west wall of the Nave bears a fine painted Royal Coat of Arms of George I, dated 1714.
But my favourite item is a headstone, located in the porch. It is dedicated to Alice, the wife of Robert Woolldridge, who died on 27th May 1740, aged 44 years. It has a wonderful rhyme, and one which is not entirely inappropriate for our own celebrity- and wealth-obsessed times:
The World is a round thing
And full of crooked streets
Death is a market place
Where all Men meets
If Life was a thing
That money could buy
The Rich would live
And the Poor would dye
The church is still a focus of its tiny community, and judging by the state of the graveyard and the beautiful flowers, it is well loved.
Wednesday, 23 July 2008
Kensington Gardens is the more developed bit of the gardens to the west of the road (West Carriage Drive) that runs north-south through the park and across the Serpentine: it includes Kensington Palace, the Albert Memorial, the Round Pond and the Serpentine Gallery, but not the Diana Memorial Fountain. There are several cafes, which include Queen Anne's splendid Orangery. As well as being a classy place for lunch or tea, it's also an attractive historic building in its own right.
The wooded area is more thickly planted with trees than Hyde Park, but it also has lovely expanses of lawn, particularly around the ‘Round Pond’ (which is actually more oval). The pond itself is a great place to feed the ducks, and the grassy shores are popular for sunbathing, picnics and kite flying.
The bit I like the most is the Sunken Garden, which is technically part of Kensington Palace, but free for the public to look at. It was created in 1909 and is modelled on the Tudor Garden in Hampton Court, and is beautifully maintained, with a central pond and exquisite borders. It’s also a little haven for wildlife. Because the tourists feed them, the birds and squirrels have become phenomenally tame, so it’s a great place to get a snap of your kids feeding the squirrels or the family of Moorhens in residence.
The main paths are now quite busy highways for cyclists, (which is a good thing, in terms of getting people out of their cars, and it must bed safer than cycling on the the surrounding streets) but there are paths also reserved for pedestrians only. There are toilets at both Black Lion Gate (near Queensway), Palace Gate (on Kensington Road) and Mount Gate on West Carriage Drive.
At the north end is the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Playground, a lovely small park with all sorts of things to let children’s imagination run riot, like sculptures, teepees, a sensory garden, and the centrepiece - a large pirate ship set in a sea of sand.
For adults, there’s always the Serpentine Gallery, which runs regular exhibitions of art and sculpture, and occasionally concerts, and is small enough to pop in as you are walking past. A major new attraction at the gallery is the 2008 Pavilion. Designed by the world-famous architect Frank Gehry, it is a dramatic, angular structure with great panels of glass suspended at irregular angles by huge wooden beams, rather like the sails of some surrealist ship. Incredibly, it's Gehry's first project in the UK.
Strongly recommended on a hot, sunny day.
Tuesday, 22 July 2008
It's hard to miss the giant posters of Daleks around Earl's Court at the moment. No, it's not an invasion, but more a sign that the school holidays are upon us, and there's an exhibition of the iconic Sci-Fi series to promote, taking place in the museum hall of Earl's Court.
The exhibition features some of the costumes and props from the current run of the series, including Daleks and Cybermen, as well as displays on its history and the making of the programmes (some with strobe lighting, dry ice and other special effects) since its inception in 1963, though the emphasis is on the current 'resurrected' series, produced by BBC Wales.
For much of my childhood I was an avid fan. My earliest memories are of the second Doctor, played by Patrick Troughton, fighting Ice Warriors and surrounded by lots of foam. (I think this was supposed to be a suffocating goo produced by fungi the evil Martians had sent to earth to poison the atmosphere).
I followed the adventures every week, always willing us to get to my Grandmother's on time when we visited, which was almost every week-end. One of my frustrations was that we seemed always to turn up just as it was starting, and the TV set took about five minutes to warm up. (Younger readers will never know the joys of ancient black-and-white sets with their huge valves...)
The Ice Warriors - scaly humanoids from Mars whose weakness was warmth - quickly became a firm favourite, alongside those real monster stalwarts, the Cybermen and Daleks. I must confess that I never actually hid behind the sofa, and didn't find the Daleks all that intimidating. Perhaps I was just being precocious, but I sussed early on the fact they couldn't climb stairs. (Eventually, of course, the TV producers realised they had to tackle this and showed that the Daleks could hover; in the latest incarnation, they can actually fly. In my view, that's just cheating). I therefore found the Cybermen more scary, as they were cold, unemotional, invincible and could get to the first floor without a lift. (Have you noticed that the Daleks always seem so highly strung, too? All that shouting 'Exterminate!' all over the place. So un-British.)
It's funny how memory makes you associate individual programmes with specific real events. I recall missing an episode of The Curse of Peladon because of the power cuts in 1972, and it was only years later that I bought the video to find out what had happened. I'm not a great collector of videos, but it's an absolute tragedy that the film of so many of the earlier series have been lost - I would love to see The Evil of the Daleks again, just to see if it is as I remember it. Many that have survived have only done so, apparently, because networks in Australia and Singapore kept their copies. I always preferred episodes set in space, or at least on other planets (my wanderlust started early, too) and was somewhat disappointed when the third Doctor Who, in the form of John Pertwee, had a long run set on Earth. More cheating, in my view. But at some point in Tom Baker's wonderful stewardship of the role, the usual teenage interests took over, not to mention 'O' levels to study for, and going to University in 1980 marked the end of Saturdays spent in front of the telly.
Until its recent resurrection, of course. BBC Wales really did hit on something when they realised that modern cgi techniques, plus a singular lack of decent drama and a frustrated audience of grown-up fans, meant that there was a ready market for a new series.
I have to say I find the glitz and polish of the new productions a little off-putting - there was something terribly endearing about all those slightly dodgy sets, where imagination had to fill in for special effects. (Wasn't it strange how many planets looked like disused quarries?) And the monsters these days often seem too easy to polish off: the Cybermen of old really were nigh-on invincible, their only weakness being gold dust, which they couldn't breathe.
There - my anorak credentials are laid bare!
The Dr Who exhibition runs at Earl's Court until September 15th. Adult entry is £9, children £7 (plus booking fee if done over the internet) and tickets are for entry at a specific time.
Friday, 18 July 2008
It's ages since I went to Edinburgh. I first went there on day trips from Somerset (yes, you read that right: day trips) in the 1970s when I was a teenager, with friends. These were in the days when British Rail organised Excursion Trains, for £4.95 return. Even then, that was a bargain. You had to get to Weston-super-Mare for something like 4.30am, and passed through Birmingham New Street around breakfast time.
Arrival into Edinburgh was at noon, and we left again around 17:00, getting home sometime in the early hours. Travelling like that now would probably cripple me, but then it all seemed like one great adventure. I didn't really appreciate architecture much then, but I still recall being impressed with Waverley Station's great ticket hall with its circular glass dome.
Some years later, I spent a few weeks every Summer in the mid 1980s at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Inverleith Row, undertaking research for my doctorate. It was a wonderful place to work, and I used it as a springboard to travel further north to the Highlands, Orkneys and Hebrides. I recall them as very happy times, although I suspect that that also has something to do with the passage of time lending a rosy tint, and having no mortgage!
So, it was with a bit of nostalgia that I returned earlier this week for another trip - business this time. OK, I know Edinburgh is famously beautiful, but I had forgotten just how distinctive is its architecture, and the layout lent to it by the topography of the city, with the great backbone of the Royal Mile looming over the New Town's neat (and now very clean) Georgian architecture.
Waverley station is still an impressive gateway, and has been tidied up, although the spaciousness and impact of the great ticket hall is somewhat impaired by having stuck a large Costa Coffee pagoda in the middle of it. Why this insatiable desire to ruin public spaces by filling every last inch with commercial outlets? The effect on me is not to want to eat or drink there at all.
Still, that's a minor quibble in the great scheme of things. One thing that really has changed since 1986 is the availability of good restaurants, in which aspect things really have come a long way, with a wide range of cuisines - although sadly, prices seem to have edged up to London levels too.
But the biggest contrast of all was the hotel I stayed in - the very nice Ten Hill Place. I realise that I was an impoverished student at the time, but the last place I stayed was an old-fashioned guest house in the New Town, where you were woken up for breakfast by a very insistent landlady knocking on the door and calling out a ripe, 'Good Morrrning!', for breakfast at 7:30 on the dot - or else. My room had orange wallpaper with purple curtains and a green lampshade, and the bed had lilac bri-nylon sheets. I can almost feel the scratchy clamminess of them as I write!
Thursday, 17 July 2008
We recently had a longish weekend in Catalonia, and walked from Vilanova i la Geltrú to Sant Pere de Ribes. As with many walks beginning in Spanish towns, the start wasn't very prepossessing: the outskirts are often industrial and messily planned, but in this case we soon left the warehouses and entered a world of vineyards, wineries (and some impressive mansions) and pine woodland. And it ended up at the very attractive castle and old church of Sant Pere.
For once, the July weather in this part of Spain wasn't too hot - 28C with some clouds - and the walk was deliberately not too steeply graded (my partner has MS, so we have to be sensible). In fact, it all made for perfect walking weather.
Catalonia has just had a very unseasonably wet June, so there were lots of flowers. (And another fortuitous by-product is that is has fixed Barcelona's impending water crisis.)
The full walk can be found on Qype.
Monday, 7 July 2008
Of course, everyone is looking for different things when they go out. Me? I like places which are straightforward, and honest in what they do, whether it's a greasy-spoon cafe (not too greasy, mind), an Indian or Italian, or a really upmarket joint that genuinely works hard excelling. I generally prefer places which aren't too expensive, too. (Apart from being lighter on the wallet, I often find they offer the best value - perfectly good food, decent service, and a bill that doesn't require a second mortgage.)
My worst experiences have generally been in places which are mid- to upper-range (for me, that's over £40 a head). Here, pretension often lurks behind fancy menus, and cooking that is not as good as it thinks it is. Throw in some slightly snotty or disorganised service (and 12.5% service charge automatically added) and a long wait for the bill, and you have my recipe for a ghastly night out.
Pubs with the 'gastro' label often seem to fall into this category, usually because of the service. If they're going to charge two people close to £100 for dinner, service had better be polite, efficient and friendly. Too often, it's just not.
Sadly, the UK is still one of the places where I'm most likely to feel like this. I've found the average standard of cooking in France still to be streets ahead (and, actually, this is where I think France really excels: forget Michelin stars, it is the average roadside restaurant). And I like the way I've been welcomed into a French family restaurant, even when arriving by motorcycle, in the rain. Rather than look at me as if I was about to murder them, they've made space, accommodated my damp leathers and dripping waterproofs, and then treated me just like anyone else, with decency. Isn't that what hospitality is supposed to be about?
At the other end of the spectrum, the bill may be mind boggling but I admit to having had some fantastic meals, with wine and service to match. 'Upstairs at the Savoy' in its old guise was a favorite for special occasions, and never ceased to impress, and I've had some excellent evenings at London's top hotels (OK, often with someone else paying).
My other half is even harder to please, maintaining - with some justification - that much of the food we've eaten out is not a great deal better than we could have rustled up ourselves at home (especially if one buys veg and other key ingredients in a market where it is really fresh). I know that's not really the point, but it's a real downer to be slightly disappointed with the food.
The most notable exception to all this - and it's a meal we still talk about, nearly 10 years later - was a restaurant called 'Seven Fish' in Key West, Florida. It was very strongly recommended to us, but without reservations it was a real trial to get a table. We nearly gave up (and, actually, organising their queue wasn't their high point) but we gave it ten more minutes, and then we were in.
The food was quite simply divine. Starters were perfect, the fish was simply astonishing - I recall having Mahi Mahi baked with almonds, and for one of the few times in my life I was rendered completely speechless. But the coup de grace was the dessert. We had been told that, whatever we ordered, we had to have the Chocolate Fudge Brownies, with real vanilla ice-cream.
Now, they're not something I'd normally go for, but I've still had them from time to time (being a softy for fudge), and often found them rather disappointing. But this time, both my partner and I were speechless. This wasn't just food that was better than sex, it knocked sex into a cocked hat (sorry...bad pun). I have still not tasted anything as memorable since, and I will never be able to cook something - anything - like that.
Interestingly, a range of food review sites splits even Seven Fish into two distinct categories: those awarding it 5/5 with hyperbole, and those awarding it 2/5, being summed up by 'we were disappointed...' The average is somewhere close to 5/5, so the former are in the majority. But it goes to show: we are all looking for something different, and maybe even the best slips up? Who knows.
Enjoy your meal.
Friday, 4 July 2008
Well, thanks. To me, twice recently the latter has meant 'this train is being held so you are going to be late'. It makes a mockery of their published timetable information. After several such journeys recently, I now allow over an hour to get to the Angel, when in theory (and according to TfL's Journey Planner) it should be possible to do the journey in 25 minutes.
In second place in the irritation stakes, it's arriving at Earl's Court to see the train monitor displaying simply the words: 'Piccadilly Line'. That means, 'no trains for at least 5 minutes, and probably longer'. This is often accompanied by an announcement, saying 'The Piccadilly Line is currently operating a good service'. OK. But where?
It used to be that Piccadilly Line users pitied Northern Line passengers, famous for suffering daily frustrations. I seriously hope the Blue Line doesn't start giving us the blues...
Wednesday, 2 July 2008
You know how it is when you finally visit somewhere that has been on your 'to do' list for a long time? Well, today, I finally managed to see the inside of Holy Trinity Church, Prince Consort Road, the last and one of the finest examples of the work of the 19th century church architect, G F Bodley.
It was worth the wait.
Originally, the church was founded by Westminster Abbey as a chapel serving a Leper Hospital on Knightsbridge Green. It had a rather chequered post-Reformation history: it was rebuilt in 1629, again in 1699, and yet again in 1861, before finally being demolished in 1901 and moved to a new site provided on Prince Consort Road.
The architect chosen for the replacement church was G F Bodley. He delivered a classic Gothic Revival church in the best Perpendicular style, aligned north-south to cope with the very restricted site. It was begun in 1901 and completed in 1907, after his death.
Built entirely of a lovely, golden Bath Stone, its exterior hints at what is follow: a bold symmetrical façade is dominated by a huge west* window of six lights, framed by two smaller three-light windows, and decorated with niches (though sadly, no statues).
Inside, one is immediately struck (and, indeed, surprised) by the scale: a broad, lofty nave is supported by the most delicate of arcade piers, with a single, windowless south arcade and a double arcade to the ‘north’. The effect is a forest of slender columns, leading the eye along the windows of the north aisle, and to the splendid tall east window. It was intended to impress, and it does. The glass is mostly by Grylls, and includes the spectacular west window, designed as a war memorial and executed in a boldly colourful Renaissance style.
The furnishings are sumptuous and are easily a match for the architecture. Pride of place goes to the huge reredos, designed by Bodley as a triptych, lavishly carved and even more lavishly gilded and painted. This is set off by the altar, Lady Chapel triptych and the wine-glass pulpit, which are equally bold and decorated in the same gold and green colour scheme (although the pulpit wasn’t painted until 1964).
The other notable furnishings are the huge 17th-century style chandeliers, a handsome brass eagle lecturn and the memorial to Bodley himself, designed by Edwards Warren in 1910 and executed in the best Jacobean style. The church also owns a 17th century chalice given by Archbishop Laud, now on display in the V&A.
The interior is beautifully kept, and the church maintains the traditional cycle of services from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. On my visit, I was warmly welcomed by a small group of church members, hard at work, polishing and burnishing their beautiful church.
- Because the church is aligned north-south, the north becomes the ‘ritual east’, ie where the chancel is located. All references are to the ritual points of the compass.
Tuesday, 1 July 2008
Milestones have a very long and important history, from the days of the Romans until the 19th Century, when they were the direction signs of their day. They were also used for keeping coaches on schedule in the 18th and early 19th centuries, and formed the basis for postal charges until a standard postal rate was introduced in 1840.
From 1888, local authorities took over the responsibility for major roads from the turnpike trusts, and with it responsibility for the upkeep of milestones. This example, a triangular design (presumably in cast iron) by the City of Westminster from 1911, is relatively late, and is a rare survivor in London. It points from Hyde Park Corner to Hounslow - clearly an important place in 1911!