Sunday, August 29, 2010

All the world's a stage

Yesterday was one of the more hedonistic days I've had in London since arriving here about 10 weeks ago. I woke up feeling a little dusty, and so very tempted to stay in bed all day. I am so glad that I ignored that little voice because as it turned out, today was amazing.

Actually the word that most accurately captures my day today is overstimulating. I cannot adequately describe to you the excitement I felt getting off the train at London Bridge, walking along the River Thames towards Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.

I had bought myself tickets to see both parts of "Henry IV" and it was weird going into the productions not knowing a thing about them (beyond what I read in the program). We hadn't studied these plays at school or Uni, so I was flying a little blind. I did know that the famous character of Falstaff appears in these works, so I was really looking forward to meeting him.

The Globe is such an unusual building. The first thing I noticed is that the chairs are mostly wooden benches and not at all comfortable. For 1GBP you can rent a cushion to sit on, and that's precisely what I did. Because I bought my ticket at relatively short notice, my seat for Part 1 was all the way at the very top of the theatre, in what they call the "restricted view" seats. I'm not sure what I missed out on though, because I felt like I could see everything.

The ground-level area is where "the groundlings" hang out - tickets in that area are only about 5GBP but you have to stand for the whole production. I'd probably find it quite uncomfortable after a while and yet, there is something to be said for being right up against the stage, with all the actors playing right to you. Trouble with being a groundling is that when the rain starts, as it did at intermission today, you get drenched. The Globe is a round theatre with an open roof you see, so everyone in the audience is really exposed to the elements. Plus it's a little distracting when the onstage drama reaches fever pitch and a QANTAS jet bound for Heathrow rumbles overhead.

"Henry IV - Part 1" was fantastic; full of boundless energy and lots of laughs. The audience profile was so random too. Lots of grandparents, a couple of couples (!), and quite a few teenagers which threw me a little. But everyone seemed to enjoy themselves and I think we all agreed that Falstaff totally stole the show, as I'm sure he does every time.

With a two-hour break between productions, I wandered down the street to Tas Pide, a nearby Turkish restaurant that was offering inexpensive 2-course meals. I am still not a fan of eating alone but I didn't really have a choice and in any case, I enjoyed sitting still for a while in the warmth of a restaurant and pre-reading about "Henry IV - Part 2" while stuffing myself with red lentil soup and a spinach and mushroom pide pizza.

Returning to The Globe, I had a different seat for the second show. This time I was in what they call The Gentleman's Quarters, which basically just means box seats - with padded chairs, do you mind?! I was so excited because my view was so much better than it had been for Part 1 and the sky had cleared so I knew there wasn't likely to be any more rain. That said, the cold wind off the Thames rolled in so I rented a blanket for 3GBP and it turned out to be an absolute winner. I snuggled in and wrapped myself up, leaning onto the balcony and in no time at all, I was utterly absorbed in the production.

The content of Part 2 is much darker than Part 1 - it's mostly about the evils of getting old and having to surrender your control over things. It talks about what kind of legacy you'll leave to your loved ones and how it becomes important how you've treated people during your lifetime. Falstaff again stole the show and it's little wonder really. The part is terribly physical and relies so much on physical comedy, wit and wordplay. The actor playing Falstaff had the audience in the palm of his hand and with a raised eyebrow here, and a sly wink there, we were all in fits of laughter. Not bad for a play that was first performed around 1586, eh?

At the end of Part 2, I was still marveling at how talented the actors were to have remembered all of those lines so flawlessly - and before I knew it, we were filing out into the streets to begin the journey home.

In total today I spent 6 hours absorbed in all things Shakespeare and while I am a bit Bard-ed out at the moment, I wouldn't have done things any other way.

Cider Saturdays

Yesterday was one of those unexpected days; both in terms of the weather and the entertainment. Weather-wise the week itself had been quite annoying. We had grey skies, drizzly rain, but not so much cold so as a result, London had a tropical feel about it which did not seem to suit at all. Entertainment-wise, I had a really busy week at work, preparing for my first formal event that I'm hosting this coming Tuesday. I collapsed into bed on Friday night really quite exhausted, and wanting to sleep for 100 years.

Saturday rolls around, as it always does, and London residents were rewarded with clear blue skies, and no sign of the rain or humidity that had been dogging us earlier on. I too awoke to Saturday feeling bright, refreshed and ready to face the weekend.

I met up with LW at the Borough Market for an early breakfast. LW works across the hall from me and is still new to London too. I had been raving about the Markets and the delicious bubble breakfast I'd had a few weeks before so LW agreed to come with me and see what all the fuss was about. Fortunately the bacon, cheese and bubble breakfast got a big gold star from both of us. LW's family is also back in Australia and we toasted her Dad's birthday with a half-pint of medium English cider, which I'd never had before but I really enjoyed. I hope LW's Dad appreciated that we were toasting him at 10.05 on a Saturday morning but that goes to show it's never too early for London cider, right? We wandered around the market stalls and tried a bunch of free samples. My favourites were the traditional Turkish delight (took me right back to the spice markets in Istanbul); and the 'Ubriaco' (drunk) cheese, from the Veneto region in Italy and is actually fermented in red wine. The flavour of the wine really does influence the cheese and it was delicious, if not a little intense.

LW volunteered to help me find the Bramah Museum of Tea & Coffee, which is somewhere I have wanted to go for weeks and can never find. I know the place exists, because there are street signs for it, and websites for it (even though the latter has not been updated in a while). Sadly even with LW's help, I came up empty. We followed the street signs as directed, but we must have walked past it or something, because we found nothing.

Well it's not entirely true that we found nothing. We ended up wandering down to the Embankment, looking out over the Thames and along the riverfront precinct leading up to Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. I'm spending much of my day there today, so I'll write about that separately, but it was fun to actually be up there and looking at the signs for all the upcoming productions. The authentic mood was kinda shattered for me when a woman playing a lute, in full Shakespearean garb rollerbladed past us. Yes, you read that right. I guess it takes all kinds!

LW and I bonded over our love for Bridget Jones as we walked across the pedestrian-only Millennium Bridge, with the imposing dome of St Paul's Cathedral up ahead. We stuck our head in the Church, but neither of us was particularly inspired to pay the admission fee to look around properly. There wasn't even an old lady on the steps charging tuppance a bag to feed the birds, so we left! Wandering up Fleet Street in the direction of our office, I've never seen so few people around. Normally you can barely move, what with all the lawyers and office workers shuffling past you. LW and I enjoyed the reprieve from all that and just sauntered up the street and along The Strand which again, was eerily deserted.

We called into a pub fixture on that street called The Coal Hole. I'd been there before for work drinks and there's nothing fancy about the pub, it's just been around for a long time (since the early 1830s) and it has retained its English 'pubbiness', for want of a better description. LW and I knew we were in the right place when the first people we encountered at the pub were Oompah Loompahs. In full regalia, orange face paint and green wigs and all, these guys took authenticity to a whole new extreme. Sadly they did not join in when LW tried to show me the Oompah Loompah dance. I don't think they saw her actually but it would have been amazing if they did. Patrons were taking photos of the Oompah Loompahs, but we didn't actually talk to them so I've no idea why there were dressed that way. They didn't stay too long though, and neither did we really - just long enough to enjoy some ice-cold ciders, and we were on our way.

We rounded the corner onto Villiers Street in the direction of the Charing Cross Station, and I asked LW if she would come with me to the oldest wine bar in London. We descended the skinny, rather dodgy (but obviously original condition) stairs down into the depths of Gordon's Wine Bar. The atmosphere is quite creepy - middle of the day, but you're literally in an underground grotto so the whole place is lit with candles that lend an air of magic to the mood. The flirty French bartender sorted us out with some pinot noir, with the most generous pour I've yet had in this fair city. The delicious wine paired beautifully with the grilled steak sandwiches that we enjoyed - fresh from the outdoor BBQ in the courtyard. I swear this wine bar had everything but I have to confess, it's rather unsettling being in such a dark, mysterious place when you know that at street level, the sun is shining brightly.

From there the day is probably best not described in detail. It involves going to an evil bar by Waterloo Station called Hole in the Wall, which is about as pleasant as its name suggests. We then caught the train out to my neighbourhood and had a counter dinner in a pub where poor LW kept getting interrupted by some toothless man who I think had taken quite a shine to her. Actually he kept interrupting me about LW, presumably because he was too shy to talk to her himself. Classic. Where were the Oompah Loompahs when we needed them?!

Parting ways at the bus stop across the road from the pub, I went to the supermarket and reflected on what a great day out that I'd had. We'd done some exploring, some walking around, and a lot of drinking in pubs, but it was a great day. I thought it was a really promising start to a lovely long weekend.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Kenny Rogers and the art of conversation

On a cloudy autumn’s eve, in a lift bound for her house

Gab squished in with her neighbour, and she began to speak.

Some comments on the weather, and the clouds that looked like leaking.

And then she started rambling, and flushed a deep rose pink.

The businessman looked ashen, he knew he was a captive

In a tin can with a lunatic, who couldn’t zip her lip.

So he nodded with politeness, but didn’t answer her back,

Instead he made her feel like she was on an acid trip.

She doesn’t know when to hold it, know when to fold it

Know when to cut the crap, know when to cease.

She could tell that her neighbour was losing will to live,

And praying for the lift to stop so he could be released.

(Repeat until the memory fades)

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Train trippin'

Every now and again I am seized by a truly geeky idea and I must follow through on it. Case in point today, I decided to take a train trip to Sandwich. To eat a sandwich.

Yeah okay fine, it's totally dumb but I never said it was a great idea; I just said it would be geeky. And I never expected that the sandwiches in Sandwich would be any better than you could buy elsewhere. I just thought that the idea of eating a sandwich IN Sandwich had a geeky poetry about it. I was all over it.

Sandwich is a little town in Kent, a little over 2 hours train ride from central London. My train left from Waterloo East station at 9.15am and I was almost immediately thrown into chaos by the train messages that suggested the train would soon be splitting in half. The conductor explained that the front 4 carriages of the train were destined for Ramsgate (the stop after Sandwich and therefore where I needed to be), but the rear 4 carriages were going to Canterbury. I walked backwards and forwards down the aisle for a few minutes, muttering to myself and trying to work out which carriage I was in, much less where I was supposed to be! Ridiculous. When I finally worked everything out, I sat down to watch the English countryside whoosh past.

Just over two relaxing hours later, the train pulled into Sandwich and I was so excited. Again, I think this is the geek in me coming out. Sandwich is a medieval town and I really love those. To me, medieval towns imply draughty churches, cobbled streets and interesting architecture. But they also mean ancient, barnacled residents who have never left the place where their ancestry can be traced back to Norman times. What's not to love about that sort of community? In these respects, Sandwich did not disappoint.

Indeed the tourist literature tells me that in its day, Sandwich was a busy fishing and trading centre. Along with Hastings, Romney, Hythe and Dover, Sandwich rounded out what was known as the Cinque Ports (cinque being French for five but in an interesting snub to the French, cinque is pronounced "sink" in Sandwich). These five towns were England's first line of defence against attacks from the sea and as major port cities in their own rights, they effectively controlled the trade and commerce that was undertaken along the shipping channels in the area. Such was the strategic and commercial importance of Sandwich in particular that a number of royals visited and stayed in the town for some time over the years. Queen Elizabeth I encouraged Dutch families to settle in Sandwich, and their influence is still apparent in the town's architecture today.

I took a one-hour boat trip on the Sandwich River Bus to putter along the River Stour. The weather was pretty rotten to be honest, but I only had to share the boat with one lady and her grandson, so I was willing to put up with a bit of rain. Unfortunately there is not much of the town visible from the River, so really all I got to see on the boat cruise were some old barges, the stinky marshes and some scrawny ducks. But it was a relaxing way to spend an hour, and I got a good feel for the town's geography but at the same time, I didn't have to worry about navigating so that was good for me. After the boat cruise, I visited St Mary's Church (1 of 4 churches in the town) and it was pleasantly draughty, ancient and in desperate need of restoration. The Guild Hall was similarly charming - a tiny museum that captures the history of Sandwich from its Roman roots to the present day. Well worth the 1GBP admission price.

One thing that did surprise me about Sandwich was the traffic. I couldn't believe a) how much traffic there was, and b) how fast motorists hooned around the tiny cobbled, one-way streets. I wanted to take photographs of some of the architecture but I was so worried about being knocked over that I didn't bother. Fortunately by virtue of its medieval-ness, Sandwich used to be a walled/fortified city. The remnants of the wall still exist and so I spent a lovely hour or so just wandering around the old city perimeter that has been beautifully landscaped to encourage walkers and cyclists alike to make good use of the paths.

I stopped in at a small pub on the waterfront, and honored my pledge of eating a sandwich in Sandwich. How disappointed I was that the pub did not offer any fancy sandwiches or even lay claim to serving the best sandwiches in Sandwich. They were literally just run-of-the-mill, garden-variety, buy-it-anywhere kind of sandwiches. So in protest, I ate half a sandwich and then ordered fish and chips instead, which were much more satisfying.

On the journey back to London, I must have slept for the first hour or so. When I woke up, we were still deep in the English countryside and I loved just sitting back and watching the fields and farmhouses pass by. Before I knew it though, the landscape changed and we were coming back to the real world where the traffic is chaotic, the people are merciless, and the sandwiches taste pretty much the same.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Happy Whatever

Today is my birthday and quite frankly, I’m totally ambivalent about it. At first I thought this disinterest might stem from the fact that I’m not at home to celebrate with my family and friends. Then I realised that I’m no stranger to birthdays in absentia, so being alone is not at the heart of it. More likely I’m just irritated about the very idea of getting older and in this respect, I know I’m definitely not alone.

When I opened this blog post, I fully intended writing something potentially meaningful about my hopes and dreams for this, my 33rd year on this earth. I seriously thought about sharing with you my reflections on getting older and (hopefully) wiser. Then I realised all of that was complete tosh and I totally couldn’t be bothered. You can thank me later.

Let’s instead spend our time much more fruitfully by wishing a happy birthday to the late Patrick Swayze, who would have turned 58 today. Happy Birthday, Johnny Castle. You never put Baby in a corner and for that (and for your topless scenes and especially the lift at the end of the movie), I know you’re still dancing dirty at the Sheldrake in the sky.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Even in the rafters, it's good theatre

Late last week, on a bit of a whim, I bought a ticket to see La Bete but when I slid out of bed this morning, I have to confess I wasn't feeling up to it. Like most things though, the effort of going along was totally worth it - the play was great.

I took my seat in the third to last row of the theatre, hovering rather precariously in the balcony seats, desperately trying not too lean too far forward. The usher had informed me that the play would be performed without an interval, so I amused myself wondering how my poor little sparrow bladder was likely to cope. Such was the disinterest I was still feeling before the house lights dimmed.

"Allo, my name is Jerome", said a voice in the semi-darkness. Turning to my right, there he was - the perfect French export. Well-dressed, well-coiffed, well-accented. Gay of course, but his all round fabulousness was immediately obvious. And as always happens when I am confronted with situations like this, I immediately forgot how to speak French, and proceeded to babble about boring crap to poor Jerome, who indulged my ramblings in a manner that can only be described as decidedly un-French. Turns out Jerome is a businessman in town for a visit to London, and he's spending the week here going to as many plays and musicals as he can. I loved him. The lights dimmed, Jerome wished me a good show (as if I was the principal actor!), and we were on our way.

It was immediately obvious to me that I had done zero research into this production, save for knowing that the cast included David Hyde Pierce (Niles from Frasier) and the ever-wonderful Joanna Lumley (Patsy from AbFab). Going into the show, I thought the play was a staging of a French classic, which of course it is not - thankfully I did not mention that to Jerome earlier (phew!). For the first 15 minutes of the production, only 1 character speaks. This is the fool Valere, who is played by the amazing Mark Rylance (sadly I've never seen him in anything before, which is entirely my loss, I assure you). Valere delivers a rambling, completely nonsensical but at the same time brilliant monologue that had all the audience cringing, then laughing, and then cringing again. Up and down it went, but the audience followed along because we were all on the edge of our seats in awe of his great talent for comedy. When Joanna Lumley ultimately comes in to the production, she too commands the stage and kicks the production into a whole new gear. The supporting cast are fantastic too and the plot moves at a really quick pace. My bladder didn't even notice that we didn't get a toilet break - THAT'S how good it was.

I lost sight of Jerome when the house lights went up and the crowd rushed for the exits. Good thing is that if I decided to find him again, he's going to see Dreamboats and Petticoats tomorrow night. Naturally.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Face to face with Britain's best

After one too many ales on Friday night, I had a rather slothful Saturday. I did the laundry and some light grocery shopping, but admittedly I did not venture too far from the couch. It was nice to be under voluntary house arrest yesterday but I was determined to get out and about today.

I set off very early from home and headed for Bloomsbury, with the intention of spending the day at the British Museum. That plan was thwarted at the last minute by construction mayhem on the Tube, so I gave up and hung out at Trafalgar Square. As I emerged from the Charing Cross station, I could hear the bells of St Martin-in-the-Fields church, pealing to signal the end of the Eucharist service. The bells rang and rang (and rang). But there was something lovely about that incessant noise as I sat outside at the coffee shop next door, with nowhere in particular to be. It was also lovely to see Trafalgar Square before the crowds arrived - peaceful and calm, as I've never seen it before.

Sitting just behind Trafalgar Square is the National Portrait Gallery, and I spent a happy few hours dawdling in and out of the numerous galleries. It is quite unsettling to see portrait after portrait, and I swear that some of the subjects were staring right back at me, following me with their beady little eyes. I started the gallery visit with the Tudors and I confess, I love their puffy collars and heavily beaded outfits (and that's just the guys!). But then I discovered the Queen Victoria gallery and that quickly became my favourite. The romantic in me still loves to see portraits of Victoria and Albert, who were so very much in love. Sadly the portraits manage to make them look completely bored, but I still love them anyway.

Slowly but surely the gallery filled with tourists and so I escaped. I walked a fair bit after that, aimlessly wandering and trying to think whether there was anything in particular that I wanted to see. I ended up at the Royal Horseguards and found the Household Cavalry Museum next to it, but I got grouchy at the prospect of paying 6GBP to tour something that I didn't really care about, so I left. I got stuck in pedestrian traffic out the front of Downing Street, when most people were either taking photographs of the doorway to Number 10 (fascinating footage), or they were staring at the sky, gaping open-mouthed like goldfish at a helicopter that was circling above. Had these people not seen a helicopter before?! By this time I wanted to hurl myself over the traffic barrier and cut around everybody, but I was worried that the guards would taser me, so I shuffled along with the masses and thought very uncharitable thoughts about everyone.

Walking on past Parliament Square, in the vicinity of Westminster Abbey, Big Ben tolled midday and I could hardly believe how quickly the day was passing. Tourists were everywhere, making the most of the weekend weather. I kept walking up to Victoria Station, and wandered in and out of some cute shops that I discovered along the way. Having resisted retail therapy, I caught the train back to my hood and called in to the Jamie Oliver shop for a restorative (and authentic) flat white coffee, and to eavesdrop on the risotto cooking class that was underway.

Did not take any photos today, despite having the camera in my bag all the time. It just occurred to me that I didn't even go into the National Gallery gift shop either - so very unlike me! Gotta lift my game in those departments, I think...

Monday, August 09, 2010

A Prom, but no corsage required

The BBC Proms (or more accurately, The Henry Wood Promenade Concerts) turn 116 this year and I went along to tonight's performance of Prom 32 at Royal Albert Hall, marking my very first Prom and my first visit to the gorgeous and historic arts venue.

I couldn't believe the great seat I had. On the plan the 2nd Tier looks like a real nose-bleeder, but in reality I was front and centre. I was raised up to be sure, but perfectly so: elevated above the heads of the audience, while being far enough back from the orchestra to fully appreciate its beautiful sound. Tier 2 are the baby box seats, with only four chairs in each. My ticket was for a front row seat, so the only thing in front of me was a plush velvet barrier on which I could lean my Proms program booklet. From where I sat, as the orchestra played, they swayed in time with the music and looked to me like giant kelp in the ocean. Weird, but true.

The line-up for this Proms season is really diverse, and the performance I saw tonight was by the European Youth Orchestra. They played Fantasy Overture 'Romeo and Juliet' by Tchaikovsky; Taras Bulba by Janacek (whose name has a bunch of accents that this computer won't let me draw); and they closed with Berlioz's Harold in Italy. I wasn't familiar with all the pieces, but parts of them I know I have heard before. I didn't hum along, don't worry.

Far and away the best parts of the performance were provided by the cymballists/cymbalologists/percussionists. I just couldn't take my eyes off them. At certain points, as the music built to a beautiful crescendo, I just knew the cymbals were going to crash and sure enough, the percussionist banged them together with gusto, and I was so happy. At times he clattered a couple of teensy little cymbals that hardly contributed any noise, which was disappointing. Finally he traded up to the big ones again and clanged away for all his might; it was fantastic.

The Royal Albert Hall has a wonderful concert program lined up for the rest of this calendar year, and I pinched a bunch of brochures from the foyer. I am really keen to see the screening of Lord of the Rings at the end of next month, as the London Philharmonic Orchestra will play the score live (any takers?!). I'm also interested in a couple of awesome Christmas events too, but funnily enough I couldn't bring myself to take the Michael Bolton flyer. Duh.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

A lovely day for a BBQ

There was not a chop, sausage or hamburger in sight. But then again, this was no ordinary BBQ. Today was the Al Fresco BBQ Demonstration hosted by Jun Tanaka, Executive Chef at "Pearl" restaurant in the Renaissance London Chancery Court Hotel, a five-star property in the Marriott family of hotels.

The afternoon BBQ event was held in the Hotel's gorgeous cobbled courtyard and as if by magic, the sun shone the entire time. The weather, and the complimentary glass of champagne on arrival, got us off to a cracking start. Jun was first introduced by the restaurant manager, who is an Australian guy who warmed up the small crowd of about 40 guests with some jokes about this being the first time he's ever attended a BBQ at a 5-star hotel, but also the first time he's ever attended a BBQ in a suit! Laughter all round, everyone was in good spirits, and then Chef took the stage.

To break the ice a bit, Jun started his demonstration by joking about the BBQs that he's been to in his time, and all the typical sausage/hamburger combos he's had to eat. Phew, this is a man of the people; and obviously no stranger to the usual backyard barbie. But as he talked through the menu for the day, it was immediately clear that this was event was unlike any BBQ the rest of us had ever experienced.

The dishes we watched Jun prepare included lamb, rabbit, guinea fowl (beer can guinea fowl if you don't mind); salt bream; herb-smoked monkfish; couscous salad; green peas and broad beans on the BBQ; and even two desserts - marinated pineapple with a coconut dipping sauce; and berries with peaches and peach schnapps. Yum-mo! Recipes will be up on the restaurant's website from tomorrow, so you definitely need to check them out.

Not only did we get to watch Jun prepare everything, the best part of all was that afterwards we retired to some high tables nearby to actually taste small plates of each dish. I thought that at best, we would be tasting small bite-size portions of the dishes, but no...we basically got a tasting menu. Each dish was brought out separately on fine china plates with proper silver cutlery and all. It was all very civilised, plentiful, delicious and totally worth the 30GBP ticket price!

I went along to the event with a girl from work and Jun came over afterwards to introduce himself to us. I am more convinced than ever that I need to be friends with him, because he is cute, smart and desperately talented. Plus he's so darn friendly, it's just a perfect combination. I didn't ask Jun any cooking-related questions, because I didn't want to seem star-struck. Nor did I have my photo taken with him, even though I really wanted to and I had brought my camera with me just for that reason. Ugh, whatever. Play it cool, lady, play it cool.

I know it's not the last time I'll see Jun because I've decided that if this al fresco taster was any insight into Chef's talent, I'm definitely going to have to save my pennies and visit "Pearl" for a gorgeous full-sized restaurant meal. It's only a matter of time.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Visiting the home of King Henry VIII

Having spent the last few weekends lurking around central London and my immediate neighbourhood, I was in the mood to branch out a bit today. I decided to take the train to Hampton Court and tour through Hampton Court Palace. I also thought I might do a bit of a leisurely walk around the outskirts of the property (following a trail of about 5 miles or something), but when I set off from home this morning the weather was looking ominous so I figured I’d just play it all by ear.

I bought a coffee at the station in an effort to wake myself up but thanks to a rather ill-fitting lid, I slopped a sizeable amount of the liquid gold straight down the front of me. By then I was wide awake and fortunately wearing a black tshirt so the evidence of my clumsiness was not immediately obvious. Unfortunately I started wondering how long it would be before I started to smell like sour milk. Fabulous. On the upside though, I caught the right train and at this point in my tourist experience, that counts for a lot.

Disembarking at Hampton Court, finding the Palace itself could not have been easier. Observing the well-marked street signs, I led a relatively small contingent of fellow tourists across a bridge (over the Thames), and turned right into the Palace’s main entrance.

At the risk of sounding like a guide book, it probably helps to give a bit of background commentary on the Palace at this point, so here we go. The grounds of Hampton Court Palace used to be farmland, way back as far as 1338. The earliest parts of the Palace were constructed around 1494 when one of King Henry VIII’s courtiers leased the property. In 1514, Thomas Wolsey acquired the Palace. He was of humble birth, but rose to become a dominant figure in the church and politics of the period. He became Henry VIII’s administrator and cardinal, and was therefore greatly influential and wealthy. Wolsey moved into the Palace and started building extra rooms to accommodate the throngs of foreign dignitaries that his position required him to entertain. The Tudor façade of Hampton Court Palace is evidence of this building work. Wolsey formally presented Hampton Court to the King in 1525 but he stayed on and kept up the building work. When Wolsey was unsuccessful in his bid to have Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled, the King banished Wolsey from Hampton Court forever. The King then set about to remove all the Wolsey-isms from the property (including coats of arms etc) and replaced them with his own insignias. Hampton Court was then home to Henry VIII, his revolving door of wives, and his son Edward VI. Since then, many monarchs have spent time at the Palace, though very few lived there for longer than a few months at a time. King William III and his wife Queen Mary II lived at the property and contracted celebrated architect Sir Christopher Wren to make substantial additions to the Palace. To this day, you can easily see where the Tudor section of the Palace ends and the Baroque section begins. All the same, it doesn’t look tacky – it all just seems to fit together as a sign of the times. By the end of the 1700s, the Palace was empty of Royal inhabitants and for the next 200 years, the site was opened to public tours (restricted viewing), while private apartments were occupied by well-to-do ladies (mostly widows) who were friends of the Royal Family. Now, the Palace receives an estimated 450,000 guests per year – even on rainy days like today!

The first area that modern visitors see when they get to the Palace is called Base Court. It is the central courtyard from which you can access all the major parts of the Tudor palace. They have even reinstated the 16th century wine fountain, which actually flows with real wine on weekends and Bank Holidays. Because of the pouring rain and my own bad attitude towards other tourists, I didn’t get to sample any fountain wine today. Another time, maybe.

The good thing about Hampton Court palace is that with your admission ticket, you receive a free audio guide that tells you all about the major rooms in the Palace, including:

  • Henry VIII’s Apartments;
  • Henry VIII’s Kitchens;
  • Young Henry VIII’s Story;
  • Mantegna’s Triumphs of Caesar;
  • William III’s Apartments;
  • Mary II’s Apartments; and
  • The Georgian Private Apartments.

In addition to the audio guide, on weekends there are actors at the Palace who recreate the wedding of King Henry VIII and his sixth and final wife, Kateryn Parr. From 11am to 4.30pm, tourists can basically stalk the actors as they move through the Palace providing commentary on key activities during the celebration day. This sort of entertainment is usually provided for the benefit of children of course, so I wasn’t too eager to follow the troupe. That said, my audio guide commentary was interrupted on a number of occasions by actors and stalkers bursting into the room I was occupying and launching into the next act of their pantomime. Needless to say, when that happened I took my cue and made a hasty exit, stage left.

The excellent audio guide comprehensively covers the interior of the Palace but it does not provide commentary on the 60 acres of exterior Palace grounds. This hardly matters because the grounds are very extensive, well sign-posted and are easy to navigate on your own. The map that the guides give you is easy enough for even a knucklehead like me to read!

By the time I got out to the Gardens, the weather was turning pretty rotten. In retrospect I probably should have toured the grounds first and then retreated indoors to tour the Palace. Oh well, hindsight is a wonderful thing, isn’t it?

During the summertime, Hampton Court Palace has horse carriage rides and I decided that it would be a fun diversion. So I paid my fare, piled onto the carriage and was immediately adopted by an Indonesian family who happily took photos and chatted to each other over the voice of the tour guide who was trying desperately to share with us all the weird and wonderful sights of the Palace gardens. I didn’t mind not being able to hear her because I was just happy to be out of the rain, but still seeing the sights. We saw the grounds that King Henry VIII used to hunt in, and where deer and rabbits and foxes can still be found. We passed 200-year old yew trees that have been shaped to look like umbrellas (very a propos for today’s climatic conditions, I felt). And we could see into the Privy Garden, which has been restored to how it would have looked in King William III’s day, and was used as the monarch’s private retreat area, even though it is now swarming with tourists.

Having enjoyed the carriage ride, and noticing that the weather had somewhat improved, I set off on foot. I walked to The Great Vine, an amazing mass of grape vines, planted in 1768. The vines are still producing fruit and the vines are even in the Guinness Book of Records! Pretty amazing stuff. Staying outside, I skirted around the back of the Palace and to King Henry VIII’s indoor tennis court, which looks as you would expect. Even today members of the Royal Tennis Club are allowed to practice on the court (and two guys were there doing exactly that, but they were old, slow, and stopping to chat every 2 seconds so I couldn’t be bothered hanging around to watch them).

I was going to see the famous Hampton Court hedge maze, but the clouds were greying rapidly. As I had no intention of actually doing the maze itself, I figured I probably didn’t really need to see it. Instead, I retreated into The Tiltyard Café and settled in with my lunch at an outdoor table, under the protection of a gigantic umbrella. There I remained for probably an hour or so, watching silly tourists run back and forth under the English summer rain.

Finishing my lunch, I became one of those silly tourists that I had earlier derided and made a mad dash for the souvenir shop, in the pouring rain, before legging it to the train station.

From the safety of my apartment, I looked back over the photos I took today, to relive the enormity of the Hampton Court Palace. The site is truly impressive in size and it has been lovingly restored to give people an insight into the characters that built it and lived there.

You can view some of my Hampton Court photos by clicking here. Enjoy!

Monday, August 02, 2010

Gotta Push, Gotta Shove

Waterloo Station - Concourse Windsor Side
Originally uploaded by Tristan Appleby.

One of the first things I was told about Londoners is that they are, by and large, an aloof lot. I was warned not to expect any conversation on the Tube; in fact, eye contact is almost unheard of and if someone smiles at you, they are more than likely psychologically suspect.

Having come from Australia by way of the US, you can imagine how much of an adjustment all this has been. Don't get me wrong, I'm not likely to grin like the Cheshire Cat at complete strangers either, but I'm not averse to issuing a cordial 'good morning' or nod of acknowledgement here and there. That doesn't jive here, apparently.

From what I can already tell, the advice I received was pretty well spot-on. Londoners are notoriously private and enjoy a public transport commute free from interruption or interaction. But once they hit the train platform, Londoners have absolutely no trouble invading each other's personal space and pushing and shoving to get where they need to go.

Being vertically challenged as I am, I bear the brunt of this physicality quite often. In my 8 weeks here, I've already had my share of stray elbows to the face and backpacks to the head, mostly inflicted at Waterloo Station (where all bets are off, and human civility ceases to exist). Don't wait for apologies because they will never come. A peak hour Waterloo Station commute is Darwinism in the flesh.

All that said, there are advantages to being my size. I may be small but these days I've learned to be deceptively quick on my feet and can bob and weave with ease. Come to think of it, perhaps that is the REAL reason people advised me to wear ballet flats every day. It has less to do with navigating the uneven cobbled streets and more to do with just staying alive?! Food for thought really.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

This will only hurt for a second

Yesterday was a bit of a funny weather day, with the grey clouds threatening to crack any minute, and casting doubt on my plans to sit in Battersea Park and read my book (aka show off my new haircut to the masses). So I stayed local and did laundry and cleaned the house. This meant that not a single drop of rain fell. Nuts.

Today was a different story though. Rain or no rain, I was committed to heading out and exploring some new sights. I wanted to see Southwark Cathedral, as there has been a church recorded on that site since AD606, but archaeological evidence suggests that a Roman pagans worshiped on the site long before then. Rather than roam the aisles in tourist fashion, I thought it would be nice to sit inside the church and listen to its choir, starting at 11am. Sadly the tea towels I'd put in to the machine took longer to wash than I'd anticipated, and I missed the church service that I'd wanted to attend.

I still headed for the Southwark area though, alighting the train at the London Bridge station for my first tourist stop, The Old Operating Theatre Museum and Herb Garret.

The Old Operating Theatre The Herb Garret

Down a tiny side street alongside the station, and up a windy wooden spiral staircase of 32 steps, I found myself in the roof of St Thomas' Church in Southwark. According to the information sheet I was given, the entire Church was part of Old St Thomas' Hospital until it was closed for relocation in 1862. The attic space remained completely hidden for nearly 100 years until it was rediscovered by researcher Raymond Russell in 1956.

There are lots of little display cases scattered around the museum that contain samples of the lotions & potions that the apothecaries used to mix up; everything from frankincense, myrrh and opium (dried opium pods were found when the site was being restored). This space is the Herb Garret, in use from 1703 and fully restored in 2006. The museum area also displays some of the old ebony-handled surgical tools and these were admittedly a little gut-wrenching, particularly the gynecological equipment and a nifty dual-purpose device that both pumps your stomach AND gives you an enema - depending on how you use it of course! The museum also shows you how to amputate a big toe (quickly, I'd imagine), and it gives a short - but surprising - spiel about how now-famous poet John Keats was apprenticed to a surgeon-apothecary working at this site in its heyday.

Arguably the piece de resistance is the Old Operating Theatre itself, dating back to 1822 and now restored to its original condition. The theatre was only used to operate on female patients, because the male patients had their own separate theatre further east, which has now been demolished. Despite the rather primitive conditions, surgeons at the theatre performed a range of operations including amputation; the removal of bladder stones; and even skull operations! Prior to 1846, there were not many reliable anesthetics around, so operations must have been a literal nightmare. It later became more popular to use ether or chloroform to sedate patients, but the operating theatre closed in 1862, three years before antiseptic procedures were introduced.

The Old Operating Theatre The Old Operating Theatre Old Operating Table

The neat thing about the operating theatre is that you can stand around it, as the medical students and observers would have done, or else you can go right down to the operating room floor and see the space how the surgeons - and the hapless patients - would have done. The mind boggles!

Heading back down the spiral staircase and into the summer sunshine, I wandered through the Borough Market. Closed on Sundays, it was a very different world from the hustle and bustle I experienced here just last weekend. I called into a cute tapas restaurant for some munchies and a glass of Spanish sparkling wine before pressing on to the next destination.

The thing was, I didn't really have a next destination in mind. So I just wandered around the riverbank area, stumbling across The Golden Hinde, a full-sized reconstruction of the Tudor warship in which Sir Francis Drake circumnavigated the world in 1577. The ship is now open as a museum but seeing the outside satisfied my curiosity plenty, so I kept moving.

Tower Bridge, London

It was lovely just dawling along Queen's Walk today, past the HMS Belfast and heading for Tower Bridge. The skies were looking a little grey, but it was quite warm out there and I stopped for a restorative icecream and a bit of a sit-down outside City Hall.

Walking across Tower Bridge, the sirens started blaring and a voice came over the megaphone trying to shepherd tourists off the Bridge. Turns out they were raising the Bridge so that a big boat could pass underneath it. According to the tourist websites, you're supposed to count yourself lucky if you witness the Bridge being raised. The sheer number of tourists clambering to take photos of a raised Bridge was astonishing to me. I thought it was fun to be part of it, but I'm still not really sure what the fuss was about.

By the time I walked around the back of the Tower of London, I was beginning to tire and so I jumped on the Tube to come back home. I feel like from beginning to end, I spent the day seeing things that not every visitor to London thinks to see and with the exception of a couple of wrong turns at Albuquerque, I didn't get irretrievably lost!