Kew Gardens

Despite having lived in London for over two years, I’d never been to Kew Gardens. At a loss for something to do on Sunday, however, I decided to finally visit. I caught a bus from my home in west London which dropped me off outside, however there is also an Underground and Overground service nearby in the form of Kew Gardens station (you could also try wombling free – sorry, bad joke).

Though Kew opens at 9.30 am in the summer, I didn’t get there until 1 pm, and wished I had turned up earlier as there was a bit of a queue – I only had to wait around fifteen minutes, however. Kew is huge – the site covers 132 hectares (326 acres) and there is a lot to see. It is possible to take the Kew Explorer, a kind of open bus, around the gardens, with regular departures at key points plus a commentary – but this costs £4 (£1 for a child) so I didn’t bother. I wished I had by the end of the day, though, as I was shattered!

The Temperate House (along with its neighbour Evolution House) is currently closed for restoration until 2018. This was a shame, as it is the largest surviving Victorian glasshouse in the world (opened 1863, the same year as the first London Underground line) and I would have liked to see it. Still, I suppose they’ve got to do their restoration work sometime – and it was one less thing for me to visit.

Instead, I headed right and went into the Palm House. As the name suggests, this glasshouse holds an amazing variety of palms. Not being a gardening expert, I grew slightly bored after looking at a few, but the general atmosphere of the house was evocative. In fact, it was rather TOO evocative – up on the walkway, it was so hot and humid that I thought I was going to faint! Underneath the glasshouse, there were – bizarrely – a number of fishtanks.

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Palm House

Outside, I popped into the nearby Waterlily House. Though it was small, the waterlilies were amazing – but there was the same humidity problem I had experienced in the Palm House, so I made a fast exit.

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Waterlily House

As a respite from the humid greenhouses, I decided to have a look inside the Plants & People exhibition in a stone building behind the lake. This looked at the ways in which people make use of plants, from food and housing to furniture, jewellery, musical instruments and pain relief. The exhibition was fascinating, if a little too packed to take everything in.

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Next, I headed towards the Princess of Wales Conservatory, which was one of my favourite parts of Kew. Inside, varying climates are replicated in different areas to show the different kinds of plants that grow in varied climates. For instance, cacti and plants such as aloes grow in the desert – I was fascinated by one species that resembles a group of stones, which helps protect it from predators. Delicate orchids grow in more temperate climates, while leafy palms prefer tropical environments. I was also interested in the room of carnivorous plants: I spent some time watching a fly hovering round the edge of one to see if it would be eaten – luckily it survived this time!

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Princess of Wales Conservatory
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Alpine House and rock garden

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After this I wandered over to Kew Palace (open April – September 10.30 – 17.30). This palace is small by palatial standards, resembling a small country manor more than a royal home. Famously, it is the place where George III stayed during his bouts of ‘madness’ (probably porphyria). Poignantly, the dishes from which he was fed during his worst days are on display, as are letters relating to his illness. The rooms at the top of the house are unrestored and stripped back, allowing us to get an idea of what they would have been like when Georgian princesses lived in them. Round the corner from the Palace are the Royal Kitchens, the only remaining part of the former palace complex that stood on the site.

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Kew Palace

After stopping for a piece of cake and a cup of tea at the White Peaks Café, I spent some time exploring the top end of the gardens. There were fewer people at this end and it was peaceful and pleasant, with beautiful plants and trees everywhere. At one point I was walking by the river. Eventually I passed the Badger Sett, which is designed for kids to explore – obviously I didn’t go in here but it looked like the kids who were there were having a great time!

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Historic, gnarled tree

Eventually I came to the Treetop Walkway, which allows you to see round the gardens, although I couldn’t see much except the tops of the trees (and the Temperate House through a gap in some of them). The walkway is high and there are lots of stairs, but there is also a lift. The walkway itself can be worryingly wobbly, but it seems sturdy enough, and the barriers around it are high.

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View of the Temperate House from the walkway

After this, I wandered over to the bottom corner of the gardens to admire the Pagoda and the Japanese Gateway before walking in the direction of Victoria Gate (the main gate, where I came in) once again. On the way, I entered the Marianne North Gallery and the Shirley Sherwood Gallery of Botanical Art. The former contains hundreds of beautiful watercolours painted by Victorian artist Marianne North, while the latter is currently displaying beautiful and intricate paintings of flowers and vegetables (which are more interesting than they sound!).

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Pagoda
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Marianne North Gallery
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Marianne North Gallery
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Ruined Arch

I was really exhausted by this time, so after a quick look at the Mediterranean Garden, I headed off. Not before treating myself to some hand cream and wildflower body spray in the shop first, though!

***Visitor Info***

Kew has several entrances: the Victoria Gate is the main gate on Kew Road – other gates can be found to the left of the Victoria Gate (Lion Gate), the right (Elizabeth Gate) and by the river (Brentford Gate, for cars and motorbikes only).

Tickets are priced at £16 for adults (£14.50 without the ‘voluntary’ donation – I hate this practice but loads of places do it nowadays), but I was able to get in for half price with my Art Fund pass. Concessions are £14 (or £12.50) and children under 16 go free. This summer, it is also possible to buy a “lazy summer afternoons” ticket for £7 if you turn up after 3.30 pm.

Opening times vary with the season; in summer the gates open at 9.30 am and close at 7.30 pm, though most attractions within the gardens close at least half an hour earlier.

I had a really lovely day at Kew and I would recommend it to anyone. I think you’d get the most out of it if you have a particular interest in gardening or plants, but I haven’t and I still managed to have a good time. I would like to visit again at a different time so I can get an idea of how it changes with the seasons.

Great British Beer Festival 2013

On Saturday, for the first time, I visited the Great British Beer Festival. Held at Earl’s Court in the past, the event has moved to Olympia owing to the former venue’s imminent demolition. I’ve heard that aficionados have bemoaned the potential heat damage to the beer owing to Olympia’s glass ceiling, but I was too impressed by the Victorian beauty of the place to care. I’m sorry Earl’s Court is going, but seriously, that place is ugly.

I couldn’t believe the size of Olympia. There were tons of stalls stretching away into the distance: some of them sold chocolate, cheese, or other beer-related accompaniments or paraphernalia (I also, bizarrely, saw an RSPB stall), but most simply sold beer. As the Saturday was the last day, lots of the beer had run out, with only one or two casks per stall still going. However, I was still able to sample plenty. Among the beers I supped were a Cumbrian concoction and a beer from Beamish Museum, all in my special GBBF2013 glass.

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We were sat at a table to one side of the far end and kept seeing people walking by wearing a fascinating variety of hats, including sombreros, traffic cone hats, and even a fez. I was most intrigued by the balloon creations – the couple next to me had a dinosaur and a pig. Hayley and I went in search of some balloon creations of our own and I asked (of course) for a penguin.

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The penguin drew several comments, both from fellow festivalgoers and, once we left, the general public. At first I had it on my wrist, but later I attached it to my hairband and wore it as a jaunty fascinator. It was probably the best thing about the entire festival to be honest.

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Extinction: Not the End of the World? – Natural History Museum

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Natural History Museum

On my trip to the Natural History Museum last week, I also managed to fit in a visit to the summer exhibition, Extinction: Not the End of the World? I really enjoyed the exhibition, which was fascinating and thought-provoking.

Extinction is always thought of as a Bad Thing. However, this exhibition explores the idea that it is not always negative. Species have to die out to make way for others. We humans wouldn’t be here at all if it wasn’t for extinction.

This isn’t to say that we should become complacent about rare and endangered species, or simply shrug our shoulders and allow it to happen. If a species dies out this could disrupt the ecosystem, with lasting consequences. Human action is accelerating decline in many species and this could cause considerable problems.

This isn’t to say that humans are the only factor. Animals may die out for a variety of reasons: increased competition, changes in the environment, or slow breeding processes. The most famous of these is probably the asteroid that (likely) killed off the dinosaurs.

The exhibition offered lots of scope for interaction, and gave viewers the chance to vote on certain issues, such as whether we should make the effort to conserve all animals, or only those that benefit humans. I was pleased to see that most people took the unselfish route and believed that all animals are worth preserving, not just those that are of use to us.

This was a really interesting exhibition and well worth seeing. It’s on until the 8th of September so there’s still time to catch it.

Sebastião Salgado: Genesis – Natural History Museum

After I’d been to the Sensational Butterflies exhibition at the Natural History Museum, I went inside the museum proper to visit a photography exhibition I’d liked the sound of. Sebastião Salgado: Genesis includes black and white images of landscapes, people and wildlife. By focusing on the natural world, Salgado invites us to reflect on our own lifestyles and our impact on the Earth’s resources.

The exhibition was divided into several sections, relating to continents, themes or peoples. My favourite photographs, unsurprisingly, were the stunning Antarctic scenes, but I also liked the images of various communities and their homes. The photographs were beautiful and impressive, and left me in awe.

Sensational Butterflies – Natural History Museum

I visited the Natural History Museum‘s Sensational Butterflies exhibition on Sunday. I’d been meaning to go for a while, and was glad to finally get there. I chose to go in the morning, before the place overheated – though as it turned out, it was rather warm anyway.

The climate inside the white tent has to be kept hot and humid, otherwise the tropical butterflies inside would die. Walking into the tent was like entering another world. Exotic green plants and coloured flowers abounded, and butterflies of all colours, shapes and sizes fluttered about. I took several photos, but they don’t do justice to these amazing creatures. Sadly, even though I wore red (as advised by a friend, who visited wearing her red coat and had butterflies landing all over her), I didn’t manage to attract any of them.

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This one was absolutely enormous.
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If you squint a little, these actually look like fish…

 

 

 

 

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As well as the butterflies themselves, there was a glass-fronted cabinet containing chrysalises. Some of them were empty but others still contained their butterfly: I was able to watch one emerging from its cocoon.

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Emerging into the light

The exhibition is compact but well worth a visit. It closes on the 15th of September, so you still have a month to catch it.

Holland Park Walking Tour: From the ‘House of all Europe’ to the tranquility of the Kyoto Garden

Holland Park is relatively easy for me to reach, being just fifteen minutes away on the tube from where I live, but I still hadn’t managed to get there to check it out. I decided, therefore, to sign up for a guided tour organised by Yannick Pucci, having read about it in a blog post by Sequins and Cherry Blossom.

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Entrance to Holland Park

On Saturday afternoon I met Yannick outside Holland Park tube station. As it turned out, I was the only one there on this particular tour so I felt very important! I was taken past some very expensive-looking houses to the park entrance, where Yannick pointed out the climbable ‘false’ terrace, leading to nowhere but providing an attractive entrance point into the garden. We then moved on to the statue of Lord Holland, after whom the park is named. This particular Lord Holland was Henry Richard Vassall-Fox, the third Baron Holland, who lived from 1773 to 1840. A lifelong Whig (his uncle was the notable Whig orator Charles James Fox), he was an interesting character with an interest in the French Revolution surprising in an English aristocrat. He caused a minor scandal by becoming involved with a married lady he met in Italy (whom he married after her divorce). The pair returned to England and lived in Holland House (built for Sir Walter Cope in the early seventeenth century and originally known as Cope Castle), entertaining a variety of celebrity guests including Benjamin Disraeli and Lord Byron (who was typically chased around the garden by inquisitive young women).

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Statue of Lord Holland

The main focus of the tour was the Kyoto Garden, a Japanese garden which has long been a feature of the park. I’m no Japanophile but I found this fascinating. The garden, landscaped by Japanese gardeners and designed to represent the world in miniature, is beautiful. We entered via the main entrance – Yannick explained that you are meant to move round Japanese gardens in a clockwise direction, observing it unfolding in front of you, though most of the other visitors clearly hadn’t got the memo and kept getting in the way.

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The pond in the Kyoto Garden

I hadn’t realised just how symbolic and meaningful the elements of Japanese gardens are. The water and the rocks in the waterfall represent the contrast of yin and yang. The island in the centre of the pond symbolises a turtle. The number 3 is an important motif in Buddhist symbolism and it is apparent in several places around the garden, including the bridge which is formed of three concrete rectangles.

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Kyoto Garden

There are four different stone lanterns in the garden, as well as a fountain and a bamboo fence. A cracked paving stone, representing the Tohoku earthquake from a couple of years ago, lies next to the new Fukushima Garden, which commemorates that disaster.

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Drinking fountain (off limits to the public, sadly!)

I spied one peacock inside the garden, though he was rather lazy and spent the whole time lying about, showing no inclination to display his fine feathers to us. There were also several ducks and moorhens swimming about.

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Lazy peacock

Finally we walked down to Holland House, a magnificent building that was sadly almost destroyed during the Blitz. Only the east wing and most of the library (yay!) survived. The remainder of the building is now a youth hostel. Unfortunately the façade was mostly hidden by the Opera Holland Park marquee, so I couldn’t get a proper view or a good photo.

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Holland House

The nearby Dutch gardens (originally known as Portuguese gardens until England and Portugal fell out) were beautifully landscaped, albeit in a completely different manner to the Japanese garden. One area of the gardens is devoted to modern sculpture, while there are attractive buildings and a tea room nearby.

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Dutch Gardens

I thoroughly enjoyed my tour and learned a great deal about Holland Park and Japanese gardens. You can book a guided tour here: http://hollandparkwalk.eventbrite.co.uk/, or alternatively you can simply visit the park yourself and explore.

Eastbury Manor House

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Eastbury Manor House

At the weekend I visited Eastbury Manor House in Upney, east London. I’m a National Trust member so I get in for free, but an adult ticket is only £4 for non-members. There isn’t loads to see in the house, but there is some beautiful architecture and it’s fascinating to imagine how people lived in it years ago. The house is open Mondays to Thursdays in the summer months, as well as the first and second Saturday of the month.

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The front door

Built during the reign of Elizabeth I, completed by around 1573, Eastbury Manor House was originally situated in rural parkland but is now in the middle of a housing estate. The original owner was Clement Sysley, and over the years the house has changed hands several times. Though some of the rooms have been adapted or changed, the essential structure of the house has remained more or less the same.

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Fireplace with a modern surround

In the first room, an original fireplace has been complemented with a brightly coloured modern painting. This room is often used for weddings.

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Ornate mirror

I love the ornately carved wood which is a hallmark of the Tudor style.

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Remains of the mural

One room used to be decorated on all four walls with a beautiful mural, the remains of which are still visible.

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Attic

The attic was used by the family for exercise. Today it contains information boards and clothes for dressing up!

FACTS

Address: Eastbury Square, Barking, Essex, IG11 9SN

Website: nationaltrust.org.uk/eastbury-manor-house

Opening Hours: 10am-4pm Wed-Thurs; 12pm-5pm Sun

Prices: Adult £16, Concession £12.80, Child £8; under-5s free

Ghost Bus Tour

A good friend of mine came to visit the other week and asked if we could do the Ghost Bus Tour. Of course I said yes: I’d seen the bus – an old-fashioned double decker painted black – before and thought it looked like good fun.

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The Necrobus, all ready for the tour

We got on the bus, which was located at Northumberland Avenue (near Trafalgar Square) at nine on Friday night and sat downstairs (the upper deck was far too hot). I liked the inside of the bus, which was decorated with old-fashioned lamps and had red curtains at the windows. I was moved to wish that all buses could be like that.

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Inside the bus

The tour was definitely entertaining. I don’t want to say too much in case I give anything away, but the actors were full of enthusiasm and energy (several times I was convinced that the conductor was going to fall off the bus). I didn’t find the tour remotely frightening, however I didn’t mind as I learned a lot over the course of our journey.  For example: the place where Charles I was beheaded is marked by a bronze bust on Whitehall, and part of Bank tube station was built in a burial ground.

We were told that the bus was the last remaining vehicle that formed part of the Necrobus Company, used for transporting coffins and mourners out of the city. I was initially sceptical about this but it seems that it might actually be true. The company was inspired by the Necropolis Railway, which was used for the same purpose from the nineteenth century after London’s graveyards became too crowded. Apparently a fire in 1967 destroyed all but one of the Routemaster buses used for the service; this one bus is now used for nearly all Ghost Bus tours (though other Routemasters have since been purchased and brought into use owing to the popularity of the tours).

It might be touristy and a bit cheesy, but I do recommend a Ghost Bus Tour. It definitely provided a good evening’s entertainment for us.

Vinopolis

A city of wine? I must be dreaming. No, it’s true. Near London Bridge, there is a place where wine lovers can go to taste, sample and enjoy the finest examples of the stuff. I organised a trip there for my birthday a couple of weeks ago.

This place has been associated with wine for hundreds of years – archaeological excavations have shown that the Romans stored wine in the same spot. It’s nice to know that you’re contributing to history. The wine tasting experience starts with a short talk on how to taste wine – taste it properly, that is, not just swallow it like a would-be drunkard.

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Luckily, not all the glasses were this big

Finally, we were let loose on the wine. The way they do things at Vinopolis is rather clever. You are given an electronic smart card with tokens loaded onto it (the number depends on which package you opted for, but you can buy more at any time). When you find a wine you like, you put the card into a slot, press the button and the wine comes out, automatically taking the cost of the wine from your remaining tokens.

I started with champagne, of course, then worked my way down from white wine to red with fortified and Georgian wines in the middle. I ended with a flourish – absinthe followed by a shot of ‘Bloody Mary’ vodka, which was surprisingly enjoyable.

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A little too much wine had been had by this time…

What did I learn? I really don’t like Chardonnay (no surprises there) and I have a new-found love for Madeira. Overall, though, I simply enjoyed the experience, which was a unique and highly entertaining one.

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So much wine… no wonder I look happy

Propaganda: Power and Persuasion – British Library

The other week I visited the British Library to see their latest exhibition, Propaganda: Power and Persuasion. Like all their exhibitions it was excellent: well laid-out, thought-provoking and fascinating.

The exhibition explored the idea and concept of propaganda, how it can be used to unify people and also how it can create divisions. It was divided into several sections, each of which looked at a different aspect of propaganda.

The first section, Origins, looked at the history of propaganda: Roman emperors plastered their images on coins and statues, while the advent of the printing press in the sixteenth century saw the spread of propaganda more widely than ever, particularly during the Reformation (the 1523 picture of ‘The Donkey-Pope of Rome’ is a particularly good example). Next, Nation explored how states establish their legitimacy via the use of symbols such as posters, stamps and flags, and through mass media.

Enemy examined the ways in which leaders demonise others to reinforce unity within their own people, creating a climate of fear and hatred. The most obvious example is the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany and occupied Europe during the twentieth century. Linked to this aspect, War showed how morale was maintained in societies engaged in conflict through emphasis on the rightness of the cause.

Health was one of the most amusing aspects of the exhibition, showing ways in which healthy behaviour has been promoted through the use of humour and even fear. Some of the campaign posters and videos displayed were hilarious. Finally, Today showed how the use of technology means that the volume and scale of propaganda is greater than ever, but criticism of it can also be spread more easily via social media.

I liked seeing the posters used to promote particular societies, and the other items on display such as books. One thing I found particularly interesting was the video about the London 2012 opening ceremony. Danny Boyle’s magnificent show became a brilliant example of propaganda, promoting a positive vision of modern Britain.

The exhibition is on until 17 September and I definitely recommend checking it out.