Monday, May 25, 2015

London: Our trip ends with a visit to colourful Kew Gardens

Our last day in London was quite warm so we decided to spend it outdoors at Kew Gardens. Yet another ride stuffed into the underground and we had arrived at Kew. It was a lovely spot. Right away we had a coffee in the old station restaurant and bar before walking along a picturesque street of stately homes to Kew.

We were immediately captivated by the vast area of blue and pink forget-me-nots outside the huge palm house. It was the first large-scale structural use of wrought iron and is considered  the world's most important surviving Victorian glass and iron structure. The panes of glass are all hand-blown.

It was really pleasant walking through the gardens, even walking on the grass. We entered the steamy, hot Princess of Wales Conservatory. It houses ten computer-controlled micro-climatic zones, with the bulk of the greenhouse volume composed of Dry Tropics and Wet Tropics plants. Large numbers of colourful orchids, water lilies, cacti, carnivorous plants and bromeliads are housed in the various zones.

From here we visited the water lily house. It had a variety of different coloured water lilies mixed with huge, round, green lily pads that were quite magnificent. These were my favourites.

The Orangery, which was built in the 1700s, has gone through several metamorphoses. Today it is a large cafeteria-style restaurant. The menu and the food looked quite good. I had some leek and Stilton soup and a healthy quinoa and veg salad. There was only one catch, there was nowhere to sit. It was a beautiful Saturday in May and the place was mobbed. I did a Mr. Root and asked if I could sit at one end of a table that had some empty chairs. For those of you who don't know Mr. And Mrs. Root were a couple who travelled to various places in Italy and Spain and quite unabashedly plonked themselves in people's houses or restaurants without following the cultural norms. Now we had a seat but when I went to get cutlery, all I found was a knife. When I asked one of the people who seemed to be looking after this area for a spoon and some forks, she informed me that all the cutlery was in the dishwasher. This didn't auger well for my soup. Finally, it dawned on her that there were lots more people with no cutlery and she produced some plastic cutlery. I can't imagine what the place must be like in the summer. Anyway, the soup was very good. 

In past times lots of royals have stayed in and around Kew. Kew Palace is the smallest of the British royal palaces. It was built by a Dutch merchant around 1631, and later purchased by George III. The construction method is known as Flemish bond and involves laying the bricks with long and short sides alternating. This and the gabled front give the construction a Dutch appearance. In fact you could see how the place was built as several of the walls were taken back to the original bare bones. It was interesting seeing the palace kitchens and storerooms.

To the rear of the building is the "Queen's Garden" which includes a collection of plants believed to have medicinal qualities. Only plants that were known in England during the 17th century are grown in the garden.

Walking among the red and white blooms of chestnuts and all the various shades of the trees was most pleasant. Eventually, we found a riot of colours where the rhododendrons and azaleas were in full bloom.

There was lots more to see at Kew but sadly we had to wend our way back to the station and London. If we had more time we would have taken the boat back to Westminster.

We did have time for tea and cake and our final walk through the back streets of Knightsbridge with all the elegant homes and little, astronomically expensive boutiques before boarding the Gatwick Express. Since it would be very late before we arrived home, we made time for a Jamie Oliver sausage roll before boarding our plane. It was a delicious way to end our trip.  

Sunday, May 24, 2015

London: Carole King story makes for 'Beautiful' show

Photo by: The Guardian
We arrived back at our hotel from Bletchley with twenty minutes to change and head out for dinner, and our show for the evening, Beautiful - The Carole King Musical . I was looking forward to eating at a restaurant near the theatre that we remembered from a previous visit. Unfortunately, it wasn't very good. The crab cakes were mainly filler. I let that go but when the sole came and had the texture of mush, I sent it back. I wish I'd eaten all my food at Bletchley. Unfortunately, I didn't really have time for anything else before we crossed the road to the theatre.

The music was amazing. In fact I could trace my life from grade school through my early twenties with the songs in the show. The show begins with Carole King selling her first hit, Will You Love Me Tomorrow, when she was 17. It tells the story of her being part of a songwriting team with her husband Gerry Goffin and her relationship with fellow writers Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, and on to becoming one of the most successful solo acts in rock history. Along the way she wrote countless hits such as You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman, Take Good Care of my Baby, You’ve Got a Friend, So Far Away, It Might As Well Rain Until September, Up on the Roof, and Locomotion.

We thoroughly enjoyed the show and once again at the end we were up on our feet rocking to the music.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

London: Codebreakers' secrets unravelled at Bletchley

After another short ride on the underground we arrived at Euston Station to catch our train to Bletchley Park. Just in case you haven't seen "The Imitation Game," Bletchley, in Milton Keynes, was the central site of the United Kingdom's Government Code and Cypher School which during the Second World War regularly penetrated the secret communications of the German Enigma and Lorenz ciphers. It is commonly believed that the "Ultra" intelligence produced at Bletchley shortened the war by two to four years, and that without it the outcome of the war would have been uncertain.

Our tour began with an orientation in the visitor centre taking us back in time. From here we wandered out to the lake, and just beyond it the mansion. What a beautiful setting. In 1938 the mansion and much of the site was bought by a builder planning a housing estate, but in May 1938 Admiral Sir Hugh Sinclair, head of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6) bought the mansion and 58 acres for use by GC&CS. Inside it was beautiful with lovely thick carpets and stained glass windows. It contained the wartime office of Captain Denniston who was in charge of Bletchley. Here we saw an excellent Imitation Game exhibit complete with a lovely old bar.

From here we visited the garages housing the cars and Norton motorbikes used in transporting messages to and from Bletchley.

Most of the huts were exactly that, fairly makeshift prefab buildings. Since we were right beside the food hut we decided to have our lunch, cafeteria style just as it was back in the day. We had a meat pie in puff pastry. The lady spooned up enough beans and chips to last a week. I barely made a dent in the food on my plate while the other member of the party managed to demolish the whole thing.

Well fortified we went in the various, fairly spartan, huts seeing how they functioned from the collection of the intelligence to the code breaking. There were lots of opportunities to test our own skills at code breaking in the top secret huts. Perhaps I missed my calling. We saw the wartime office of Alan Turing.

The Poles had actually broken an Enigma code before the war started. This gave the people at Bletchley much help in their decoding except once the war started the German would reset their Enigma codes daily.  Turing's invention, the bombe was an electromechanical device whose function was to discover some of the daily settings of the Enigma machines on the various German military networks. Each machine was about 7 feet high and wide, 2 feet deep and weighed about a ton. As you can see from the picture it was terribly cumbersome and complicated. Women had to constantly clean it and reset it. This was very hot, heavy work in a confined space with oil fumes everywhere. The women didn't realise the importance of their work until many years later.

The museum in Block B including Enigma machines was fascinating. A reconstructed Turing-Welchman Bombe was demonstrated. It was very massive and very complicated. After the war all the bombe's were demolished. Not one was saved for posterity. It was only through people who had worked at Bletchley or companies associated with them that the bombe's have been reconstructed. No easy feat.

The secrecy imposed on Bletchley staff remained in force, so that most relatives never knew more than that a child, spouse, or parent had done some kind of secret war work or clerical work. Churchill referred to the Bletchley staff as "the geese that laid the golden eggs and never cackled". In July 2009 the British government announced that Bletchley personnel would be recognised with a commemorative badge.

In the museum were displays showing Japanese decoding, a difficult prospect. Hitler's "Lorenz" machine was also on display. This was used by Hitler to send personal messages. Eventually it could be decoded. An Alan Turing exhibit chronicled his life including his exposure as a homosexual and his sad, untimely death. It was interesting to see photos of non-working life at Bletchley including marriages among personnel, sports activities and parties. At the end of the war there were more than 9,000 people working there.

Bletchley was opened in 1993. Recently, there has been a lot of restoration of the huts with more ongoing. We really enjoyed our day and look forward to returning to Bletchley some day.

Friday, May 22, 2015

London: rain provides perfect excuse for afternoon of book browsing

Photo by: The
Rain, heavy rain, but no bother, we hadn't come to London for the weather. In fact a nice, wet day played right into our hands. Once again we crammed into the tube for a ride to Piccadilly, where we knew there was a big Waterstones bookstore. For those of you who don't know this is just one of the marvellous book shops in London. We started out with morning coffee in the basement, worked our way up floor by floor to lunch, four hours later on the top floor. This may seem a little excessive but it is more than two years since we have been in an English language bookshop. We buy all our books from Amazon UK or Kindle. It is easy to stay current by reading recommended books or reading book reviews but nothing beats looking at a book's cover and then picking it up. The constraints of carry-on luggage prevented us from going mad but it didn't stop us from compiling a list of books to buy in the future.

After this it was time to replenish the nicks at Mark's and buy some lovely sultana cake. Once again it was time for another quick change before heading to the theatre and what can be better than a really good English farce as The Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society attempt to put on a 1920s murder mystery. But as the title suggests, everything that can go wrong… does, as the accident prone thesps battle against all the odds to get to their final curtain call. Before the play started the stagehands were doing battle with the scenery that kept falling down and everything went downhill from there. The play was so funny that my face ached with laughing so much. The play, the acting, the timing were brilliant.

It was another successful day even in the rain.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

London: Tower of London and an 'audience' with the Queen

It was an early start the next morning. After breakfast we headed to the underground once again. This time we bought Oyster Cards, which we loaded up with £20, and then headed off to The Tower of London. I hadn't been there since I was eleven and Seamus not at all. It was a hot, sunny day and lots of people had chosen to visit the Tower.

We started out by listening to a Yeoman Warder guide or Beefeater, but unless you were quite close you couldn't really hear him. For some reason he didn't have a microphone so we only got snatches of his anecdotes about intrigue, imprisonment, execution and torture. There was just too much competition from the airplanes and some restoration hammering going on.

The ‘Beefeaters’, as they are nicknamed, have long been symbols of London and Britain. It is thought their nickname is derived from their position in the Royal Bodyguard, which permitted them to eat as much beef as they wanted from the king's table. They are a detachment of the ‘Yeomen of the Guard’, and they’ve formed the Royal Bodyguard since at least 1509. Their origins stretch back as far as the reign of Edward IV (1461-83). Yeoman Warders are required to have served in the armed forces with an honourable record for at least 22 years. The current contingent of warders have experienced serving in Northern Ireland, the Falklands War, Bosnia, the first and second Gulf conflicts and in Afghanistan. 

We decided to tour on our own. I remembered from the last time I was here that the ravens flew and strutted about the Tower. Today we only spotted two caged ravens, although there are more. Legend says that the kingdom and the Tower will fall if the six resident ravens ever leave the fortress. It was Charles II, according to the stories, who first insisted that the ravens of the Tower should be protected. This was against the wishes of his astronomer, John Flamsteed, who complained that the ravens impeded the business of his observatory in the White Tower.

Despite their having one wing trimmed, some ravens do in fact go absent without leave and others have had to be sacked. Raven George was dismissed for eating television aerials, and Raven Grog was last seen outside an East End pub.

We visited the towers where people were imprisoned, the armoury exhibiting armour throughout the ages and of course Tower Green which contained the evocative memorial to the people who died here by order of the state. 

Execution inside the Tower, away from the gawping crowds, was a privilege reserved for those of high rank or for those who had dangerously strong popular support. The best-known among those executed on or near the site of the memorial are the three queens of England: Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry VIII, who was in her early thirties, Catherine Howard, Henry VIII’s fifth wife, barely in her twenties, and Lady Jane Grey who was only 16 or 17.

Probably the highlight of the visit was the Crown Jewels. Until the early 1800s you could handle the jewels, but that ended when someone tried to steal them. The display of the jewels with many large stones such as the Koh I Nur diamond is quite formidable. The Crown Jewels, part of the Royal Collection, are the most powerful symbols of the British Monarchy and hold deep religious and cultural significance in the nation’s history. For once our view wasn't blocked with anyone taking a selfie as we were all whisked by the jewels, in a timely fashion, on a moving escalator.

With all of this we had worked up quite an appetite. It was the perfect day for sitting outside at an Italian restaurant. And what could be better than delicious wild boar pasta?

After more walking and a quick change in the hotel it was time to head off to tonight's performance — in keeping with our royal theme — of "The Audience," starring Kristin Scott Thomas. For sixty years Elizabeth II has met each of her twelve Prime Ministers in a weekly audience at Buckingham Palace – a meeting like no other in British public life – it is private. Both parties have an unspoken agreement never to repeat what is said. Not even to their spouses. The Audience breaks this contract of silence – and imagines a series of pivotal meetings between the Downing Street incumbents and their Queen. The play starts with Churchill meeting the young queen. Each Prime Minister has used these private conversations as a sounding board and a confessional – sometimes intimate, sometimes explosive.

Politicians come and go through the revolving door of electoral politics, while the queen remains constant, waiting to welcome her next Prime Minister. We see perhaps her only favorite, Harold Wilson, coming to resign because he was in the early stages of Alzheimer's. We were lucky to see a brand new post-election scene in which David Cameron seeks permission to form a new government. It was quite funny as the elderly queen nods off as Cameron is extolling his virtues but even funnier as he takes a selfie with the queen.

"The Audience" was most enjoyable as the regal Kristin Scott Thomas made an astute and witty queen. Two plays, both excellent. We are doing well.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

London: Bright lights and big shows

After our return from Porto in April came the realization that there still wasn't much to do in the village. It was still too chilly to swim although the weather was better. The Port is a summer place. With this realization and a need to have some fun and speak to people even if it was meaningless chit chat just in passing, we headed off for London.

A quick ride in on the Gatwick Express and a short taxi ride brought us to our Kensington hotel. It had been a long time since breakfast so we followed the hotel manager’s directions to an all day restaurant. Seamus had duck spring rolls, while I had a quinoa salad. It was all delicious, a good start to the food.

We wandered around admiring the clothing stores and all the little restaurants with wonderful cakes. There were still lots of smart looking Sloane Rangers, if that is still their name, in the street but they were mixed in with lots of people from the Middle East and Asia.

It was time for us to head to the Harold Pinter theatre to see, "Sunny Afternoon," the story of the Kinks and their rise to fame. We decided to take the tube but £9 return for three stops seemed a bit much. An uber would definitely be cheaper. We bought a one way ticket and headed down to the platform. There were announcements about how the network was working well. I guess that depends on how you define it. The first two trains were so crowded we didn’t even try to get on board. But with number three we pushed our way on and stood squashed together just like the garment workers we had seen in the backs of trucks in Cambodia. Horrible.

We put all this behind us we sat down to enjoy the show. It follows the band's beginnings when brothers Dave and Ray Davies started writing songs, their triumph on Top of the Pops and their troubled American tour. It follows the turbulent times, the highs and lows as the band became bigger and bigger. We shared a table with a man of a similar age, who was a real Kink's aficionado. He enthusiastically filled us in on much of the story behind the play.

The music was fantastic throughout: Waterloo Sunset, You Really Got Me, Dedicated Follower of Fashion, This Time Tomorrow and of course Lola. By the end we were all standing dancing in the aisles. What a great play!

By now we were hungry. Lots of the restaurants were closed but we found a Jamie Oliver restaurant that did lots of barbecued things. I had an organic chicken burger that was very good. We were to find that Jamie's restaurants were excellent quality and value for money.

Since it was a beautiful night we enjoyed the lovely walk back to the hotel from Piccadilly.