The Red Bull Soapbox Race is held at Alexandra Palace in London every summer. After years of watching it on TV (races from around the world, not just London), I decided to go and see it for myself.
It’s a long walk from the station to Alexandra Palace, and it’s up a pretty big hill, too. (Naturally – they need a hill for the race). Not going to lie, I was shattered by the time I got to the top. It was a warm day, too, which didn’t help.
Refusing to descend the hill again until the end of the day, I made sure to hang about near the top of the course. Here, I could see the soapboxes begin their races, as well as take in the pre-race “show”. Soapboxes queued up here waiting their turn, so I was able to get a good look at them before they set off. My favourite was the Mr Bean-inspired soapbox, with one member of the crew dressed as his teddy.
The one downside of attending the event in person is that you only get to see the soapboxes at one stage of their race, potentially missing out on spectacular crashes further down the line. There are a few video screens here and there, but you have to be in the right position to be able to view them. Still, you do get to experience the great atmosphere.
I used to go to Cumbria a lot when I was little, as my mam’s family all live there, and we used to go and stay with my nana. I don’t go half so often these days, so the prospect of going to stay with my mam’s cousin for a few days was too good to pass up.
The chief reason we were there was my cousin’s wedding, which was great fun: it was a lovely day and it was great to catch up with family. It did mean, however, that my mam and I were both pretty hungover on the Sunday, so we didn’t get very far, driving out to Seascale for a bit of fresh air. I did have some unicorn ice cream though.
We also had a bit of a walk around the small village of Gosforth, which has a surprising amount of history. St Mary’s Church has two tenth century ‘Hogback’ Viking tombstones, while the ancient sandstone cross is the tallest such cross in England and bears a variety of pagan and Christian symbols.
By Monday we were feeling better, but in typical fashion, the weather was worse. This didn’t stop us going out for the day, though. (I must confess here that it almost stopped me – it was only at my mam’s insistence that we went out to do something).
Our destination of choice was the Ratty, formally known as the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway. I was last here as a small child over twenty years ago. Naturally, things have changed a great deal since then, although I did find that I actually remembered some of it.
A specially exciting part of the journey was travelling past the mill where my ancestors used to live and work.
Luckily the weather wasn’t so bad that the journey was miserable, although we were freezing by the time we got to Ravenglass and had to have a cup of tea, which we had to drink hurriedly in order to catch the next train back.
Next we headed out to Wasdale and past Wast Water, England’s deepest lake (which happens to be next to the highest mountain, Scafell Pike). This was terrifying. Many of the mountains in Cumbria are quite bleak, which I usually like, but this was ridiculous. The glowering cliff seemed actively malevolent and the road runs uncomfortably close to the edge of the water. I had visions of the car sinking into the lake, which appeared positively gleeful at the prospect of claiming an unwilling victim.
I had a bit of a Withnail and I moment as we reached the end of the road and parked at the village green – the village which seemed to consist of one solitary house. We then had to head along a dirt track in the rain as bemused sheep watched. It all seemed to be worth it in the end though when we reached St Olaf’s Church. It’s a lovely little place: the roof beams are thought to have come from Viking ships.
On our last day we visited Keswick where it absolutely poured down and my mam and I had to borrow her cousin’s cagoules, neither of us possessing anything sturdy enough to cope with the Cumbrian weather.
Despite the rain, both of us had a good time. It’s rare that I get to go to Cumbria now but in spite of the weather it’s a great place to visit. There are so many things I’d love to see – maybe next time!
Twickenham: home of rugby, and now, home to some of my friends, whom I went to visit recently. I’ve been to the town a couple of times in the past (to go to the theatre, surprise surprise), but I’d never been for a proper look round or visited any of Twickenham’s impressive pubs.
We began with lunch by the river and took a detour to wander through the York House Gardens (passing a working Victorian urinal on the way) and view the Italian Fountain (a.k.a. the “Naked Ladies”). We visited some more pubs and made a doggie friend before heading to comedy in the brewery.
I spent another day in St Albans at the weekend in order to spend time with some friends. We alternated visits to pubs with various cultural activities. I was excited to finally get the chance to go up the Clock Tower.
This is located on the High Street of St Albans. It was built between 1403 and 1412, the only medieval town belfry in England. It is designated a Scheduled Ancient Monument. It’s possible to go up the tower at weekends during the summer months, at a cost of £1 for adults (children go free). The climb is very steep and rather tough, so if you’re unfit you may wish to reconsider!
We were exhausted by the time we got to the top of the tower, but it was worth it because the views were amazing.
Later we visited the Roman remains in the park, before finishing off in a number of pubs.
At the weekend I visited some friends who have recently moved to St Albans in Hertfordshire. We embarked on a magical mystery historical tour.
Our first stop was Verulamium Park, so called because it lies on the site of the Roman city of Verulamium. It has a pretty lake with ducks and moorhens and on the edge there is a pub, called Ye Olde Fighting Cocks. We didn’t visit the pub on this occasion, but we did have lunch there the last time I visited. Apparently the pub holds the Guinness Book of Records title for being the oldest pub in England.
We walked away from the lake and came to the remains of the City walls and outline of the main London Gate. During the legendary drought of 1976, planes flying overhead could see the outlines of the old Roman city, made visible by the lack of grass, which had withered away in the heat.
The Hypocaust Mosaic is nearby, covered by a purpose-built building. It is beautifully preserved and, in one corner, the hypocaust – or method of underfloor heating – can be seen.
Following this we visited the nearby Verulamium Museum, containing many objects of everyday life, more mosaics, and a couple of skeletons. It cost £5 to enter which we thought a bit pricey, but there were some interesting things to see. We didn’t go to see the nearby Roman theatre as you had to pay separately to go in, and none of us felt like forking out more!
Walking back into town, we could see the abbey – officially St Albans Cathedral – in the distance.
We decided to go inside.
The first thing that struck me was the gorgeous ceiling.
The rood screen, known as the Wallingford Screen, dates from around 1480, but the statues date from the Victorian period and are replacements of those destroyed in the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
This figure – a replica of an original on display in a case elsewhere in the Cathedral – stood above the Poor Box.
There were several interesting things to look at, including this skull.
The shrine of St Alban still draws pilgrims to the abbey. Alban died around 300 AD; he lived in Verulamium and the story goes that he gave shelter to a Christian priest, who converted him. Alban changed clothes with the priest, who escaped, and died in his stead.
This ancient structure was designed so that priests could watch over the shrine constantly.
The Cathedral is unique in having very good and visible wall paintings, relics of the pre-Reformation days, which incredibly survived the Dissolution.
I loved this gorgeous window.
Finally, we visited the Museum of St Albans. This was a free museum and we both enjoyed it. My friend was impressed when she found her street mentioned on one of the information boards. My favourite thing was the stocks: you could put your head and hands through and be pelted by (cloth) fruit and vegetables. Hours of fun!
St Albans is a nice place to visit if you want a bit of history. There are some lovely pubs too, and I definitely want to climb the tower when it reopens in the spring.
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!
I left Somerset on the train back to London, travelled from Paddington to Euston, and hopped on another train, this time to Northampton. I was staying with my friend Elizabeth for the weekend, and she met me at the station.
The title of the above post is slightly misleading as we spent very little time in Northampton at all, at least on the Saturday. During the day we visited Coventry, which is a short distance on the train. I last visited Coventry in 2003 to stay with my cousin who was studying at the University. I didn’t get a chance to look around the cathedral then, but I made up for it this time.
Coventry Cathedral was heavily bombed during the Second World War and only the shell remains. However it has been turned into a lovely place to remember and reflect on the consequences of war, and it stands for the importance of peace. The new cathedral is very modern, but also beautiful in its own right. It stands alongside, and is connected to, the old cathedral and the two fit surprisingly well together.
We then visited the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, which had an interesting exhibition about the history of Coventry, a fascinating art exhibition, and a lovely café.
In the evening we went to see Justin Timberlake at the Birmingham LG Arena. This concert was the main reason for my trip. We both have fond memories of his tunes at University and always said we’d like to see him in concert. I normally go for standing tickets but for this gig they were £100 (!!) and I would never pay that much, so we chose the cheap seats at the back. However, the venue was small enough for us to still have a great view. I wouldn’t have gone for the cheap seats at the O2 in London; you are so far back you might as well not bother.
Justin didn’t disappoint, playing all his classic hits rather than focusing solely on his recent album. I was surprised at how genuinely talented he is – I thought I would just have a bit of a dance to the songs I knew but I was unprepared for how good his voice was, how awesome his dancing was and how well he played instruments, including the guitar and the piano. He commanded the stage and completely charmed the audience.
The next day we stayed in Northampton. Elizabeth took me to a local Sikh temple, as one of her friends had invited her. I admit I knew next to nothing about the Sikh religion but everyone was very welcoming. Later we visited the museum where she works: there was an exhibition of art inspired by John Clare’s work, and another on underwear through the ages, with a beautiful selection of corsets!
I caught the train back to London, sorry that my long weekend was over, but looking forward to the Easter break.
I had some time off in the middle of April and ended up having a whistle-stop tour of the country (or at least, of Somerset and Northamptonshire). First, I travelled to Somerset to visit my parents, and their friends who recently moved to the area. I hadn’t seen my parents for ages so it was really nice to spend a couple of days with them. I stayed with their friends who have a lovely cottage with original fireplaces and actual flagstones!
We spent a day looking around Glastonbury, which is as hippy as you might expect, with interesting shops and some unusual sights. In one of the more ordinary shops, we witnessed the following exchange:
Man (just entered shop): “Do you sell jackets for coconuts?”
Shop assistant: “No, sorry”
Man: “Oh, ok. Thanks. Bye”.
I thought I’d misheard, but apparently not! The shop assistants just said, well this is Glastonbury, nothing surprises us.
I was sad not to get a chance to visit Glastonbury Abbey – I will have to make a return visit.
The following day we visited Wells. As it has a cathedral, it is technically a city, but it is tiny. Beautiful, though. We had a look around some of the shops but sadly didn’t visit the cathedral.
I enjoyed my flying visit to Somerset: it tends to be a place people pass through on the way to get to Devon or Cornwall but it is worth visiting in its own right. I definitely want to come back.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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!).
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!
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.