Chislehurst Caves

Chislehurst Caves Entrance

Chislehurst Caves have been on my list of places to visit in and around London for ages. I finally got round to going on Bank Holiday Monday, along with a friend. I thought they would be an ideal place to visit whatever the weather turned out to be like – they’re underground, after all! The Caves are really easy to get to – Chislehurst station is about fifteen or twenty minutes from Charing Cross, Cannon Street or London Bridge, and the Caves are only five or ten minutes walk from the station.

Artefacts on display
Artefacts on display

The only way to visit the Caves are via guided tour, which can be booked on arrival. While we were waiting for our tour, we had a look around the visitor centre – displaying various documents and artefacts associated with the caves – and eating in the good-value cafe. The website states that tours take place once an hour, but they seem to vary this according to demand: it was fairly busy when I went and there seemed to be tours every fifteen minutes. Our tour lasted about an hour, and we got a good look at the Caves and heard plenty of stories about them – some true, others more dubious.

Map of the caves
Map of the caves

While the name would suggest a natural phenomenon, Chislehurst Caves are in fact entirely man-made, mined for flint and lime-burning chalk from the thirteenth to the nineteenth century. William Nichols, the Vice President of the British Archaeological Association, theorised in 1903 that the mines were made by the Druids, Romans and Saxons. This is the theory put forward on the tour and it was only when I got back home and did some searching that I discovered it has now been more or less discredited.

Modern sculpture in the caves
Modern sculpture in the caves

This doesn’t prevent the tours from focusing on the Druids quite heavily, including a mock demonstration of a Druid sacrifice (which, to be fair, was emphasised to be only speculation). At one point we stood very still and had our lamps taken away so that we could experience what the caves were like in absolute darkness. This was quite exciting albeit somewhat spoilt by some idiot using their phone as a light. I do wish the website instructions about not using flash photography or the light function on mobile phones had been adhered to, as it would have made the tour a more pleasant experience for everyone.

I enjoyed hearing about the resident ghost, supposedly a woman whose skeleton was found when a natural pond was emptied and filled with rocks during the war. During the second half of the twentieth century, a reward was offered to anyone who successfully stayed in the Caves overnight; only one person ever successfully completed the challenge, and it is no longer running.

The underground chapel
The underground chapel

During the First World War, the Caves were used as ammunition storage by the Royal Arsenal. In the inter-war years, mushrooms were grown in the damp tunnels, but this came to a stop with the outbreak of World War 2. One of the most fascinating aspects of the history of the Caves is their use as an air raid shelter in this war: local families spent their nights here in specially-allocated bunks, and there was a hospital area on-site. One baby was actually born here, and christened in the chapel we saw at the beginning of the tour. The Caves later opened as a tourist attraction, and many rock stars played concerts here during the 1960s, including Jimi Hendrix and David Bowie.

Reconstruction of an air raid shelter
Reconstruction of an air raid shelter

The Caves are definitely an interesting place to visit and a tour is a good value way to spend an hour or so. I do wish it was made clearer which stories about the caves are true and which myth: I felt the tour was rather sensationalist in parts, and really the caves are interesting enough without this. Still, I did enjoy my visit and I do recommend Chislehurst Caves.

Entrance during the air raid shelter days
Entrance during the air raid shelter days

FACTS

Address: Caveside Close, Old Hill, Chislehurst, Kent, BR7 5NL

Website: chislehurst-caves.co.uk

Opening Hours: Tours on the hour 10am-4pm, Wednesdays to Sundays and Bank Holidays (except Christmas and New Year), every day during local school holidays.

Prices: £6 adults, £4 seniors and children

Warwick Castle

Warwick Castle
Warwick Castle

I’ve wanted to visit Warwick Castle for years – it’s one of the major historical sites in the UK and every time I go to Stratford on the train I go through Warwick and see the signs to the Castle. As a birthday treat to myself I decided to finally visit.

History

The beginnings of the Castle go back to 914 when Ethelfleda, daughter of Alfred the Great, ordered the building of a ‘burh’ or an earthen rampart to protect the small hill top settlement of Warwick from Danish invaders. In 1068, William the Conqueror founded a motte and bailey fort, consisting of a large earth mound with a timber stockade around both the top and base. This mound is still visible as part of the Castle today.

The earliest part of the Castle
The earliest part of the Castle

Henry de Beaumont was appointed the 1st Earl of Warwick in 1088. Successive Earls followed until the title passed to Richard Neville, who married the prior Earl’s sister, in 1449. This is the part of Warwick Castle’s history I’m most familiar with, because of Neville’s role in the Wars of the Roses and his unofficial title of ‘Kingmaker’. Later, the Castle lapsed into disrepair until James I presented it to Sir Fulke Greville in 1604. In 1871, a fire damaged the Private Apartments and the Great Hall and over 100 years later the Castle was bought by the Tussaud’s Group, marking its beginnings as a tourist attraction.

My Visit

I booked online because it was a bit cheaper – also you get to skip the queue once you get there. The Castle is not far from the centre of town so it isn’t much of a walk.

Inside, there is lots to see and do. I decided to do all the rampart-climbing in the morning, before it got too hot and before I ran out of energy. There are great views over the Warwickshire countryside, and there are informative panels that explain the history of different parts of the Castle.

View from the ramparts
View from the ramparts

Underneath the main building there is a walk-through display which shows the Earl of Warwick preparing for battle. Some of the wax figures are a little creepy, but this area is also pretty informative about what is probably the most famous period of the Castle’s history. Across the grounds, there is a ‘time machine’ exhibition which uses video technology to take you through the many centuries of the Castle’s history, with Horrible Histories-style humour.

I climbed to the top of the hill, formerly the old motte and bailey castle, and then decided I wanted a rest. This proved opportune as I was just in time for a birds of prey flying display, which was amazing. I actually ended up seeing two of these, and they were fascinating, featuring kestrels, eagles, an Andean condor, and my favourite – Ernie the owl.

Ernie the Owl
Ernie the owl

I left the big part of the Castle until last. This part was rebuilt after a fire in the nineteenth century. It explored the history of the Castle as a retreat for the great and the good in later centuries, with waxworks of Victorian worthies demonstrating the weekend parties and lavish entertainments that went on here.

Newer part of the Castle
Newer part of the Castle

I didn’t visit the Dungeons, being somewhat squeamish – this part costs more to visit anyway. I didn’t visit the Princess Tour either, that being aimed at very young children.

Nevertheless, I found that there was plenty to do – I think all ages and temperaments would find something to entertain them here. I’d definitely recommend Warwick Castle for a day out.

FACTS

Address: Warwick, CV34 4QU

Website: warwick-castle.com

Opening Hours: 10am-4/5pm depending on season/event

Prices: £36 for an open-dated ticket for one adult that allows you to visit the Castle and Dungeon at any time within 12 months; discounts are available for booking a selected day in advance (as opposed to just turning up), omitting the Dungeon, and for children or concessions. Check the website for special offers. Short breaks are also available.

Birdworld

Birdworld

I was browsing the Tesco Clubcard website looking for somewhere to use up my remaining vouchers, when I came across Birdworld. It wasn’t far from me, and what’s more, it had penguins! So I decided to visit.

Walk from Bentley station
The start of the walk from Bentley station

The nearest station is Farnham in Surrey, reachable from London Waterloo. You can then get a bus which stops directly outside Birdworld. However, I followed the directions on the website which explain how to walk through countryside from Bentley station. This might have been a good idea if it hadn’t been 30°C; as it was, I arrived at the park already tired. There is also a stream right next to the car park that you need to leap over – I was convinced I was going to fall in! Next time I think I’ll stick to the bus.

Some sort of toucan
Some sort of toucan

There is a gift shop and cafe at the entrance, so once I’d bought my ticket I had an early lunch before doing anything else. I picked up a map of the park and checked out the event times before heading off to explore.

Bird
I forget what this bird was called, but it had a cool name

As the name might suggest, Birdworld is home to a weird and wonderful variety of birds, from penguins to parrots, flamingos to owls. It has over 150 species and is the largest bird park in the UK.

Flamingos
Flamingos

You can follow the recommended route, or just wander around like I did. I started with the birds near the entrance, including the owls (this area is named after Sir Terry Pratchett) and the parakeets, before moving on to the flamingos and other sea birds.

The Owl Parliament
The Owl Parliament

Along the way I passed kookaburras, peacocks and the gloriously named Tawny Frogmouths.

Baby Tawny Frogmouth
Baby Tawny Frogmouth

There is a farm right at the back, with rabbits, goats and chickens – there were even a few baby chicks. I missed out on seeing the live show in the theatre as I was a few minutes too late, but was able to watch from outside. I did get to the flight display area in time to see some of the birds of prey in action, which was very entertaining.

Baby chicks
Baby chicks

I left the penguins till last, as they are my favourites! There are two species of penguins living at Birdworld – African penguins, which live at Penguin Beach, and Humboldt penguins, which can be found at Penguin Island. I was in time to see the Humboldts being fed – they REALLY love their fish.

African penguins at Penguin Beach
African penguins at Penguin Beach
Humboldt penguins at Penguin Island
Humboldt penguins at Penguin Island

Before I left, I visited Underwater World, the entrance to which is just across from Birdworld. Entrance is included in the price of your ticket. This place has several interesting varieties of fish, and even miniature crocodiles.

Kookaburras
Kookaburras

I really enjoyed my visit to Birdworld, and if I lived closer I’d seriously consider buying an Annual Pass so that I could visit the penguins regularly. In any case, I certainly plan to visit again at some point.

Friendly cockatoo
Friendly cockatoo

FACTS

Address: Holt Pound, Farnham, Surrey, GU10 4LD

Website: birdworld.co.uk

Opening Hours: 10am-6pm

Prices: Adult £15.95, concession £13.95. Cheaper prices apply for children and under 3s are free. Prices are also cheaper off-season when the park is not fully open – check the website for details.

WWT London

WWT London entrance

The WWT London Wetland Centre is a wetland reserve managed by the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust in the Barnes area of the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames, southwest London. I had some Tesco Clubcard Days Out tokens to use, so decided to pay it a visit.

The WWT is a conservation charity with a focus on saving and preserving wetlands, which are havens for wildlife and essential to our ecosystem. There are several wetland centres throughout the country. I actually grew up pretty near the Washington centre, so have visited it several times; this is the first time, however, that I have visited the London site.

Statue of Peter Scott

I got the bus to the centre (several buses run nearby, from Hammersmith and White City) and walked up to the entrance. The first thing I spotted, in a pond close by, was a statue of Peter Scott. He founded the WWT in 1946: the first site was at Slimbridge and even then was open to the public. (Incidentally, Peter was the son of polar explorer Robert Falcon Scott. In his last letter to his wife Kathleen, Scott wrote of their son, “Make the boy interested in nature if you can”. Looks like that worked out pretty well).

Ducks

Once I’d paid and passed through the entrance building, I found myself in a central courtyard with the observatory straight ahead, a café to my right, and two possible routes ahead of me: the West route and the South route, which curve around the main lake in the centre (a map is available online). I opted for the West route first of all.

Assorted waterfowl

It was a lovely day, and I enjoyed walking past the various ponds and lakes, trying to identify the various birds roaming around. This area is divided into different sections, each one based on a wetland from a different part of the world. I had fun with some of the rather random bird names – I’m particularly fond of the whistling ducks. As I walked back I realised I was just in time for the otter feeding. There are a pair of otters here, Asian short-clawed otters, and it was fun to watch them play and dive for their fish.

Ducks having a conversation

When I got back to the entrance I went for a cup of tea before heading down the South route. This one was much quieter, calmer and more open. I passed the bat house and had a lovely view out onto the expanse of the main wetland. I ventured into a couple of the hides, but I don’t really have the patience to sit quietly identifying birds!

Ducklings

A note on accessibility: the wetland was built upon the site of a defunct reservoir, so it’s pretty flat, and most of the paths are wide. The largest hide even has a lift, so overall it seems pretty accessible.

Otters

I really enjoyed my trip to the Wetland Centre. I wonder if I made a mistake coming in the late spring: I thought this would be the best time but in fact it’s in the winter when you’re more likely to see the rarer birds. The website has an interesting guide to what you might be able to see each season, as well as lots of interesting facts about wetlands and wildlife.

Otters

Entrance is pretty pricey, but it’s all for a good cause, and if you use Clubcard tokens like me it’s a bargain. Recommended.

FACTS

Address: Queen Elizabeth’s Walk, Barnes, London SW13 9WT

Website: wwt.org.uk/wetland-centres/london

Opening Hours: 9.30am-5.30pm summer, 9.30am-4.30pm winter

Prices: £13.49 adults, £10.09 concessions, £7.42 children 4-16, under 4s free. Slightly cheaper prices are available without Gift Aid.

Stratford Butterfly Farm

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Entrance to the Butterfly Farm
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Approaching the building

While I was in Stratford upon Avon recently I found the time to pay a visit to Stratford Butterfly Farm. This is located over the river from the theatre, a very short walk away. I didn’t find it too busy when I visited, perhaps because it was a sunny day – I can imagine it being a popular rainy day activity for families. It’s also popular with school groups.

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Wildflowers in the front garden

The entrance to the Butterfly Farm is bright and attractive with lots of colourful wildflowers. The entrance is also the gift shop, which contains an array of toys and jewellery. After paying my entrance fee I moved into the main Flight Area, a tropical paradise full of plants, with butterflies flying overhead and a pond in the middle. There is also an iguana – thankfully there were signs directing us to look up, as he was sunning himself by the ceiling and blended in so well with his surroundings that he would have been impossible to spot otherwise!

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The main Flight Area of the Butterfly Farm

The other rooms at the Butterfly Farm all lead off this main tropical room and I spent most of my time in here. The butterflies were gorgeous and there were lots of them to see. Naturally enough there were signs advising people not to touch the butterflies’ delicate wings. Signs displayed the kinds of butterflies that could be seen; some of them are bred here and others are imported. I have been to the summer-only “Butterflies” exhibition at London’s Natural History Museum and this experience was certainly comparable to that.

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Butterfly
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Butterfly

The Caterpillar Room contains several species of impressive caterpillar, as well as silk moths and pupae. Information boards explain the kinds of butterfly each caterpillar will turn into – it’s not always possible to tell from the caterpillar itself! There is also an Emerging Cage where, if you are lucky, you can spot a newly-formed butterfly emerging from its cocoon.

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Caterpillar

This room in particular, and the whole Farm in general, is also home to a family of quails. There is a sign up warning visitors not to step on or disturb these adorable little birds. The main room is also home to several brightly-coloured budgies.

I must admit I was rather worried about going into Arachnoland, as I do have a phobia of spiders. However in the end I wasn’t too worried about viewing these creatures from the safety of the other side of the glass – I was more concerned when the spider was hiding somewhere and I couldn’t keep an eye on it! If you are interested in spiders of all sizes from small Black Widows to larger tarantulas then this will be very interesting for you.

Insect City was a fascinating area, containing an incredible variety of insects from all over the world, including mantids, stag beetles, stick insects and grasshoppers. I think these creatures are amazing and I really enjoyed having a look at them. This area is also home to some impressive Giant African Land Snails, poisonous frogs and a rather cross-looking chameleon!

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Mr Chameleon

I spent around an hour and a half in Stratford Butterfly Farm and thoroughly enjoyed my visit. I had a great time getting away from it all in a tropical paradise for a little while. It’s definitely worth popping in here if you are visiting Stratford, particularly if you want a break from all the Shakespeare.

FACTS

Address: Swan’s Nest Lane, Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, CV37 7LS

Website: butterflyfarm.co.uk

Opening Hours: 10am-5pm/6pm depending on season

Prices: £6.25 adults, seniors/students £5.75, children 3-16 £5.25

Warner Bros. Studio Tour London – The Making of Harry Potter

One of my birthday presents was a ticket to the Warner Bros. Studio Tour, which is all about the making of Harry Potter. I’d been wanting to go for ages, but I’m glad I waited, as it was only recently that the Hogwarts Express was installed at the attraction.

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Shuttle bus at Watford Junction

The tour site is about 20 miles north of London, near Watford, and there is a shuttle bus from Watford Junction. My friend and I travelled from west London, catching the train at Euston, and were impressed to see references to the studio tour all over the place – it’s a popular attraction! Once there, it was VERY exciting to see the bus. It’s not free, but it’s very handy – taking you straight there and back – and there’s even a little Harry Potter video to watch while you’re travelling.

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Entrance
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Chess pieces

The entrance to the building is exciting in itself, with a number of props dotted around, including a number of the chessmen from the first film. Elisa and I took the opportunity to get a selfie in front of the attraction!

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Harry Potter selfie!

The main lobby is huge, with a cafe, a gift shop and cloakroom (and toilets of course) – there are even some attractions here, like Ron’s car that was used in Chamber of Secrets. We had loads of time to kill before our tour, so we went for something to eat in the cafe.

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Main lobby

Afterwards we checked out the gift shop, as you do. Everything was incredibly expensive. I did buy a little something later on, but I might have bought more if it hadn’t been so pricey.

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When it was time for our tour, we got in the queue and were thrilled to notice Harry’s cupboard under the stairs as we were passing.

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Harry’s cupboard

We were taken into a room and shown a video, with the main actors from the films – Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint – introducing the experience. Then it was into the Great Hall!

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Entrance to the Great Hall
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Inside the Hall
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The fireplace
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Laden tables
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Hourglasses showing House points
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Teachers’ costumes
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The Hall

I loved the Great Hall. It was an amazing feeling to be in the space where so many things happened over the course of the eight films. There were tables laid out with food, and costumes from some of the characters, including the school uniform and the teachers’ robes. The Great Hall doesn’t have a ceiling, because it is meant to reflect the night sky, and CGI stars were added after filming.

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The Gates of Hogwarts

Once out of the Great Hall, the rest of the building is full of amazing props from the Harry Potter series, complete with information boards explaining how particular tricks were done and how things worked on screen. There were so many things to see, from the Gryffindor common room to the Potions classroom, Dumbledore’s office and game props from Quidditch and the TriWizard Tournament.

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TriWizard Ball costumes
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The Mirror of Erised
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Gryffindor Common Room
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Dumbledore’s office
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TriWizard Cup
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Quidditch balls
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The Golden Snitch
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Potions classroom
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Hogwarts paintings
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Entrance to the Chamber of Secrets

I really liked the “green screen” section which explained how broomsticks, Hagrid’s bike and other objects were made to fly.

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Quidditch outfits
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Motorbike and sidecar
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Broomstick

Later in the exhibition, the displays focused on sets outside of Hogwarts.

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Borgin and Burke’s
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The Malfoy mansion
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Umbridge’s office

The next part was one that I was really excited about – the Hogwarts Express! You can see the train in all its glory, and even climb inside the carriages.

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The Hogwarts Express
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Logo on the side of the train
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The station
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Costumes from the final scene from the last movie (sob!)

Following this we arrived at a cafe, which was perfectly timed – we were pretty tired by this time, having spent a good couple of hours wandering around, and wanted a sit down. You can bring your own food for a picnic if you like, or you can purchase food here. We weren’t hungry, but we did fancy trying the Butterbeer. It was very sweet: Elisa hated it, but I quite liked it!

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Sampling the Butterbeer

Luckily it was a fine day, as the next bit was outside. We got to see the Knight Bus (made from two genuine double decker buses), Privet Drive, the moving corridor at Hogwarts, the cottage at Godric’s Hollow, and Ron’s car.

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The Knight Bus
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Bus sign
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Inside the bus
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No. 4 Privet Drive
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Sign
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Corridor
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Cottage
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Inside the car

Back inside, there was a fascinating section on animatronics and how they were made and manipulated for the Harry Potter films. I was particularly interested in Dobby and in Hagrid’s huge head, not to mention Fawkes the phoenix.

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Fawkes
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A mandrake

Next we made our way into Diagon Alley, which was full of shops from the movies. I loved this section – I only wish it was really possible to go into the shops and buy wands and delicious sweets for real!

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Diagon Alley
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Florian Fortescue’s ice cream parlour
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Flourish & Blott’s
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Madam Malkin’s robe shop
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Diagon Alley

The next section was all about concept art and models for the sets, which was fascinating. Finally, we got to see the incredible model of Hogwarts which was used for overhead shots. The detail on this model is incredible and my picture really doesn’t do it justice.

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Hogwarts

I had an incredible time at the studio tour and it is a must-see for any Harry Potter fan, or even anyone who is interested in how films are made. It’s pricey, but worth it in my opinion as there is so much to see.

Timed tours are in operation and you do need to book in advance. My friend and I didn’t book far enough in advance for a Saturday in July so we ended up having to choose a later timeslot. The attraction doesn’t close until late so this wasn’t a big problem for us, but I think the earlier in the day you can go the better, as there are likely to be fewer people.

The tour was definitely a highlight for me, as a huge Harry Potter fan, and I’m so glad I went.

FACTS

Address: Studio Tour Drive, Leavesden, WD25 7LR

Website: wbstudiotour.co.uk

Opening Hours: Times vary, but it is open 7 days a week, usually from 9 or 10am until 6-10pm with the last tours scheduled three hours before closing. You MUST book (well) in advance.

Prices: Adult £35, child £27; family tickets and studio tour packages are available

The Garden Cemeteries: London’s Magnificent Seven

Recently I’ve decided to visit the cemeteries in London known as the “Magnificent Seven”, the garden cemeteries established in the nineteenth century in order to alleviate overcrowding in parish cemeteries. The cemeteries were originally established on the edges of the city, but the expansion of London over the next two centuries ensured that they are now well and truly part of the city.

    The cemeteries are:

  • Kensal Green Cemetery (established in 1832)
  • West Norwood Cemetery (1837)
  • Highgate Cemetery (1839)
  • Abney Park Cemetery (1840)
  • Nunhead Cemetery (1840)
  • Brompton Cemetery (1840)
  • Tower Hamlets Cemetery (1841)

I hope to visit them in the order in which they were established, starting with Kensal Green.

The book I’m using as a reference and guide is Turpin, John and Knight, Derrick, The Magnificent Seven: London’s First Landscaped Cemeteries. Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2011.

On with the adventure!

London Aquarium

The London Aquarium, located near the London Eye in the old London County Hall building, is somewhere I’ve been meaning to visit for a while. I used to love going to Sea Life centres as a child – I have vivid memories of taking the cable car from the top of the cliff at Scarborough towards the white, pyramid-shaped Sea Life building by the sea. It’s been years since I visited one, however.

My auntie visited at the weekend and although we had a couple of theatre visits planned, it was a bit of a struggle to think of things we could do to fill the rest of the time. We’ve both done things like go on an open top bus and visit Buckingham Palace, and she isn’t that keen on history, so the exhibitions and museums that would normally be my first port of call were out. However, when I mentioned the London Aquarium, my auntie said she thought it sounded like a good idea, so off we went.

As it was such a hot day, we had hoped that everyone would be too busy enjoying the sun to visit indoor tourist attractions. However, this sadly proved not to be the case. We had to wait around an hour to get in, but luckily we were able to stand in the shade until then. Despite the huge queue, everyone seemed to spread out once inside, so it wasn’t as full as we were expecting, luckily.

The Aquarium is, I think, very expensive: over £20 for one adult. My auntie very kindly paid for me, but if I was to go again I would look for a special offer – for instance, the London Days Out offer which gives you 2 for 1 tickets when you travel in by rail. A child ticket is only £5 less than an adult. There are various ticket packages available: if you book online you save a couple of pounds (25% if you go for a special After-3pm ticket) and you can buy ticket packages for other attractions including the London Eye and the London Dungeon.

Inside the Aquarium, you follow a path taking you through all of the zoned areas. There are toilets at various points on the route and a buggy park at the beginning. The centrepiece of the Aquarium is the huge tank which is home to several black tip reef sharks. The Shark Reef Encounter, as it is known, begins as you walk over a glass floor looking at the sharks below, and continues as you walk through a glass tunnel, seeing these amazing creatures swimming over your head. There are various points within the Aquarium where you can stand or sit beside the tank and look at the creatures inside.

Other zones included Pacific Wreck, Atlantic Depths, Tidal Reach and the River Thames Story, to name just a few. Each zone showcased sea creatures native to that particular area, with information about each fish or other creature that you would find there. It was really fascinating to see so many sea creatures. I particularly liked the brightly-coloured tropical fish, and I loved the ray tank, with friendly rays showing off at the surface of the water.

One theme running through the whole Aquarium was that of conservation. There were regular notices explaining which creatures were endangered and how we can help to save them, from conserving energy to help prevent global warming to giving up eating certain types of fish (such as cod) to help their numbers recover. The Aquarium is doing its best to research, care for and breed the creatures in its care in order to ensure their survival. I really liked learning about this side of the Aquarium’s work, and it made me think about how I could make changes in my own life to help ensure the survival of endangered species.

I’ve left the best until last, as my favourite part of the whole experience was, of course, the penguins! The Ice Adventure section has a number of Gentoo penguins in a specially-built enclosure designed to cater for their needs, including a much lower temperature than you would get naturally in this country. I was particularly excited to meet the newest penguin, a baby who only hatched in June. It (they don’t know if it is male or female yet) still has some fluffy feathers, and we were told that they aren’t waterproof yet, so if the baby falls in the water someone has to go and towel-dry it!

Our visit took a couple of hours, and I’m sure we could have spent longer in there. I would definitely go again, but only if I could get some sort of special offer!

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View from the Shard

I fear a lot of things – spiders, telephones, excessive social interaction – but one thing I do not fear is heights. This is just as well, since another thing that my friend and I did when she was staying with me was go up the Shard.

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Ground floor entrance to the View
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Wall of quotes celebrating London

You have to book in advance and yes, the price is extortionate (nearly £20) but the view from up there is incredible. In fairness the experience is planned really well: your ticket is timed, and you have half an hour from the stated start time on your ticket to go in. Once inside, you have to queue for a very short while in order to go through an airport-style security system. This isn’t as scary as it sounds: the staff are all cheerful and friendly. To reach the very top you have to go into two different lifts, both of which made my ears pop owing to the sheer speed of travel! I liked the moving images and videos on the ceiling of the lifts.

Once up, there are two levels: one which is fully indoors, and another, the highest, which is slightly open to the elements. Luckily the day we’d chosen was a good one, with little wind and not too many clouds, so we got a clear view over London while suffering only mild chills. The space was busy, but not too crowded, as it surely would have been if tickets weren’t timed.

And what a view it is. I’ve been on the London Eye and I’ve been to the top of the ‘Gerkhin’, but the Shard is something else entirely. My friend and I stayed up there for ages, pointing out landmarks and trying to identify random buildings. This is definitely an experience where pictures say much more than words ever could.

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The ‘Gerkhin’, the ‘Walkie Talkie’… and I don’t know the names of the other buildings!
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Looking approximately west towards the Thames
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Blackfriars Bridge, the Tate Modern and the Millennium Bridge
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The London Eye, which looks tiny from here
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St Paul’s Cathedral
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The Tower of London
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Battersea Power Station
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The BT Tower, with Wembley in the background

Epping Ongar Heritage Railway

The other weekend I decided to complete my exploration of the Central Line by visiting the final station on my list, Epping. Epping is right at the end of the line at the eastern side, in fact it is actually in Essex. It wasn’t always the end of the line though, in fact the Central Line used to terminate at Ongar. You can still see the tracks extending out from Epping station, although they have partly been taken up.

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Looking east from Epping Station

The line from Ongar to almost Epping Station still exists, though, and in recent months a heritage railway has been introduced on the line. This runs between North Weald and Ongar, with another branch extending from North Weald to the end of the remaining track near Epping. The eventual plan is to join up the track again at Epping, and build another station near the existing Epping station to accommodate the heritage railway. In the meantime, a heritage bus service – including both red central London buses and the green ones that were used in the outlying districts – shuttles passengers between Epping and North Weald stations, and are included in the price of your ticket (which is valid all day). The railway itself uses both steam and diesel trains, and I was able to ride on both during my day out.

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Heritage bus at Epping
North Weald Station
North Weald Station
On the platform at North Weald
On the platform at North Weald
A train at Ongar Station
A train at Ongar Station
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Plaque at Ongar Station
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Ongar Station
Steam train pulling in to Ongar Station
Steam train pulling in to Ongar Station
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The end of the line towards Epping – the line reaches into the forest
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Heritage bus, returning to Epping

The Epping Ongar Heritage Railway is a fun day out for the whole family: I saw lots of children who seemed to be enjoying themselves, as well as adults who just wanted an escape from busy modern life. The towns of North Weald and Ongar are sweet, too (but don’t go on a Sunday like I did – nothing is open). I look forward to seeing how it develops in the future, particularly when the awaited extension to Epping is complete.