Archive for the ‘Travel Writing’ Category

Haven’t been blogging much of late. You might have noticed. Due to major engineering works on my train line into London during the whole of my long summer holiday,  I was effectively grounded. They may well have been improving the platform lengths at Waterloo but this caused my cultural growth to be temporarily truncated. I wanted a break and I didn’t particularly want to write so I turned my focus homeward and spent my entire summer decorating, gardening and up-cycling old furniture. I had a thoroughly enjoyable five weeks, rolling out of bed straight into painting clothes, hair unbrushed and just getting on with it. More about that another time – I really must get back to some writing now the darker evenings  are drawing closer – but for now, here’s a post I found yesterday, semi-forgotten and half written in my WordPress draft box. 

And so it came to pass that, with temporary membership in hand, I left Sissinghurst (see previous post) and wended southwards to Lewes. Now Nationally trussed and fully paid up with guide book in glove compartment, I decided to check out Virginia Woolf’s house.

The journey took me through some stunning Sussex countryside and as I bowled happily along the A27, listening to my Rolling Stones compilation with my intended destination only a few miles away, I remembered somewhere else I needed to see first. A couple of years ago I visited Charleston – the beautiful home of Bloomsbury Group artist Vanessa Bell and, not so coincidentally, the sister of Virginia Woolf.  The place was so enchanting that I ran out of time to see nearby Bewick church, the interior of which was decorated by Vanessa, her son Quentin Bell and her lover, Duncan Grant.

I turned off the main road down a very narrow country lane and found the tiny church behind an old stone wall.

There was no one about; I had the place to myself.

From the outside, the building looks pretty much like any other small rural country church, but inside is a wonder to behold.

Not only are the walls adorned with these fantastic murals, the pulpit also retains its original Bloomsbury design. 

Pleased I’d made the minor detour, I sallied forth (I’ve always wanted to say that: it seems to fit in here) to the tiny village of Rodmell, just south of Lewes in East Sussex. It was devilishly difficult to find. Usually there are plenty of brown signs indicating a tourist attraction but there were none.  I’d consulted the map before I’d set off. When I say map, I mean a paper one. I don’t have or want a Sat Nav although I do use Google Maps to help plan a journey beforehand but on the road I stick to my trusted old, much thumbed, AA version that is unravelling from its spring binder. The old-fashioned way worked a treat. At the end of a narrow village lane, encrusted with soil deposited by recent tractor wheels, I discovered Monks House, the 17th century country retreat of Virginia Woolf and her husband, Leonard.

The house is small and unassuming, set in a garden which was a riot of colour when I visited. Bought by Virginia and her husband during the 1920’s as a bolthole from their increasingly busy London life, the couple added to and improved the house over the years until in 1940, they began living there full time after their London apartment was damaged during wartime bombing.

The living room is a mismatch of colour, pattern and styles…but it works.

 

The delicate painting on the backs of these dining chairs is the work of Virginia’s sister, Vanessa Bell.

And I can’t resist a jumble of plates and miscellanea on an old dresser.

Virginia’s bedroom is approached by its own door from the outside – an extension to the original building. One immediately gets the sense of her own private domain. It is a shame that none of the books filling the shelves actually belonged to Virginia – especially as the volunteer guide cheerily informed me that when the Trust took the place over the house was crammed full of the couple’s reading material: it literally was stacked all over the place, their shelves having long since proved inadequate. On closer scrutiny of the books  displayed, I discovered that most of them were titles printed after Virginia’s death. This kind of lack of attention to detail really infuriates me so when, later on, I was wandering around the garden and another kindly volunteer, dressed as who I can only assume was supposed to be Lytton Strachey, asked me if I’d like to listen to his reading of part of one of Virginia’s novels, I declined.

Above – two views of the stunning garden and out to the orchard behind. Beyond this is the river where, on 28 March 1941, Virginia drowned herself by wading out, her pockets filled with pebbles.

This painting of Virginia by her sister, Vanessa Bell, hangs in the living room of the house. I wondered what her state of mind was when it was painted. She has a troubled look doesn’t she? She struggled with depression all her life.

As I left the peaceful village of Rodmell and drove home on a glorious early summer evening, I pondered the link between depression and the highly creative. It seems to haunt so many people who have brought great art (in whatever form) to the world. I found this article which made interesting reading.

There is, it seems, a high price to pay for prolific creativity.

Now back to my furniture…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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It was half term a few weeks back. The SSF was away (on some sort of endurance test to northern climes, as it turned out) and I had unmitigated freedom to contend with. On a whim, I set about redecorating the kitchen. I like painting and I like orderliness. I was orderly. I was methodical. I wrapped my brushes in cling film every evening. Things were going surprisingly well until, after flicking through a few home design magazines, I had the brilliant notion of a ‘feature wall.’ I tried a few test pots out on designated wall, creating a Kandinsky-ish effect. The results were hideous. None of the shades I had chosen remotely resembled those advertised. This spontaneous need for colour injection had slowed my progress. Hastily I covered the mess with a calming neutral and decided an outing was required.

I have a list of Places-I’ve-Been-Meaning-To-Visit. Checking through this by now extensive directory, the thought occurred that several sites I had highlighted belong to the National Trust. So, quicker than you could spit at the mention of Michael Gove, our new Environment Secretary (latterly the destroyer of our education system as we knew it), I performed a complete moral U-turn and decided to sign up for membership. I can’t believe I’m even admitting this, so critical of this institution have I been in the past. And still am and probably still will be.

It didn’t start well.

To explain fully the signing up scenario I’ll have to confess to a recent personal event. I had a birthday. A fairly monumental one as it happens but one that comes with a few welcome perks such as free prescriptions and eye tests, a national rail card and reduced price entry to practically everywhere. Everywhere it would seem, except the National Trust.

After a lengthy drive eastwards to deepest Kent one morning, I arrived at my first planned property intending to join up there and then. However, wielding my driver’s licence as proof of age cut no ice with Miss Twinset who filled in my particulars. She very sweetly and ever so slightly smugly told me that to qualify for a Trust discount one has to have been a member previously for five consecutive years.

Unusually I held my tongue, bit my lip and whatever else most people do in situations such as this while thinking that with age must come acceptance. I imagine if I’d have had a membership of anywhere for five consecutive years then the chances are I’d have done everything on offer pretty much to death anyway: what would be the point of a monetary enticement?

I kept quiet. The new old me signed up meekly and, clutching my temporary pass in my gnarled old hand, I picked up a welcome pack which, I was horrified to discover, included an emblematic sticker for my car. I had now well and truly joined the ranks of those who frequent gift shops to buy local jam and tins of themed biscuits.

I had arrived at Sissinghurst Castle Garden, former home of poet and writer Vita Sackville-West and her diplomat and author husband, Harold Nicholson. The couple bought the place in 1930 and set about making a home for their family. Vita developed her love of gardening here and took delight in planting, designing and experimenting. She lived a fairly wild existence, had many liaisons with other women and a decade long affair with Virginia Woolf but always remained married to Harold.

 

 

When she died in 1962, Harold decided that her legacy should be preserved for us all to enjoy and left the place in the hands of the National Trust. I have to say, they’ve done a good job. The place is beautiful. It helped that the sun was shining and the day warm, but I spent two or three hours just wandering around the gardens and taking the long walk around the lake.

I even had time for a quick lunch in the ubiquitous cafe before heading off to the next place on my list. But that’ll have to wait for another day. This membership thing may well catch on.

 

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How could anyone not like a museum called Geffrye? (Pronounce as Geoffrey or Jeffrey, depending on your spelling preference). I’d never heard of this place until recently whilst trawling my Art Pass guide. (Quite frankly, I’m beginning to think the Art Fund should be paying me commission, the amount of times I mention the organisation favourably on this blog). Situated right by the railway station at Hoxton – an area of London I’d not visited since the early seventies -The Geffrye Museum is now in one of the most sought after postcodes for young moneyed Londoners – especially the ones with the lumberjack shirts and beards, apparently. (I don’t know what constitutes a female hipster but I’m guessing facial hair isn’t a requirement).

Hoxton lies just north-east of the city between Bethnal Green and Shoreditch. In my student days we had to travel to Shoreditch once a week to the college annex which was housed in a building that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Dickens novel. It had one of those cage lifts with the metal fretwork doors. We used to pile into this rickety structure, overload and get it stuck on purpose every Friday just to abbreviate and alleviate the tedium of Mr. Goldstein’s Cosmetic Science classes.

Anyway, back to Geffrye. When I saw that this is a Museum of the Home, I knew that WF1 (Work Friend 1) would be my ideal companion for the day. She likes anything home design related and of course shares the same days off as me. We discovered that it’s easy to get to from Waterloo and arrived as early as our off peak train cards would allow.

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The spacious front lawns at the Geffrye

I picked up a comprehensive guide book which explains that ‘the museum is set in the former almshouses of the Ironmongers’ Company, built in 1714 to provide homes for the elderly poor. They were founded with a bequest made by Sir Robert Geffrye, a wealthy merchant who became Master of the Ironmongers’ Company (one of the London guilds) and Lord Mayor of the City of London.’

The buildings were converted into a museum of furniture and opened in 1914. The surrounding gardens were – and still are – a free space for local people to enjoy.

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Conservatory overlooking the rear gardens

The museum has arranged its collection into a series of living-rooms through the ages, depicting the way the middle classes have lived since 1630. There is plenty for the visitor to read by way of storyboards and there are ‘feeling’ samples of the textiles used in each set which enhances the whole sensory experience. We were very impressed – the curating here has been done with meticulous attention to detail.

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An 1830 drawing room

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An 1870 drawing room

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At home in 1890

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How we lived in 1910

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The height of modern living in 1935

One of the almshouses – Number 14 – has been restored so that visitors to two of the rooms can glimpse life as it would have been in the 1780’s and the 1880’s. A very knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide spends around half an hour explaining the history and restoration process which we found fascinating.

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A simply furnished bed-sit, circa 1780

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Same room, updated 100 years to 1880.

With the help of lottery funding and the work of the Geffrye Museum Trust (funded by the government) the resources available here are just wonderful. A full range of educational programmes is offered throughout the year for schools, families, youth groups and adults. WF1 and I visited during the half-term break so it was crowded with children busily finding out about how their ancestors lived. There is a delightful café on site where you have to wait to be seated. While waiting, you stand beside a delicious array of home-made cakes and pastries and when you are finally seated overlooking the gardens and bee hives, a waitress takes your order. I had home-made soup and sour dough while WF1 had a tasty looking sandwich on home-made bread. There is an option to have a full cooked meal with wine…maybe next time.

The gift shop’s not bad either: tasteful merchandise with relevance to home and garden and a good selection of books. Any trashy logo-imprinted tat was thankfully conspicuous by its absence.

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A view through the garden ‘rooms’

Outside, between the museum and the station, the gardens are divided into a series of period garden rooms reflecting the rooms inside. There is a Knot Garden; a Herb Garden, a Town Garden and so on. Going in late October doesn’t show the gardens at their best so WF1 and I have already pledged to return next spring.

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Entry to the museum is free (donations obviously welcome) and there is a charge of £3 for the almshouse tour which must be booked on the day in advance.

What’s not to like? I’d have no qualms about awarding the Geffrye five stars.

 

 

 

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I had a free day the other week – nothing planned, the weather was good and I felt like an outing, so I trawled through my Art Pass Guide to find somewhere to go that wasn’t too far away. It didn’t take long for the name Stanley Spencer to jump out. I didn’t know much about him other than he was an artist (slightly eccentric) who’d  had something to do with First World War paintings and who, according to family folklore, had taken tea with Dad’s artist cousin Walter Steggles on numerous occasions. It was time to check him out.

There is now a gallery dedicated to the man in his home town of Cookham in Berkshire so I consulted the map, checked the easiest route – there seemed to be several – and committed it to memory. I don’t have, nor do I want, a Sat Nav. While I know they can be an invaluable piece of kit, they are only as good as the programmer. They can default to the wrong place as we have discovered to our fury while touring in France and then Talking Woman gets increasingly agitated if you manoeuvre an unscheduled U-turn. So armed with a bottle of water, the map and my Art Pass, I set off.

Fortunately my sense of direction is reasonably accurate because when I arrived at Maidenhead, the nearest large town to Cookham, the lack of road signage is unbelievable. In my mind’s eye I had pictured Maidenhead as a leafy, broad-avenued sort of a place, stuffed full of expensive designer shops and delicatessens with willows bending towards the Thames. Possibly people in punts. In reality it is more like how I had imagined Basingstoke to be.

After an endless succession of round-a-bouts with choices to either go west for Reading or east for Slough (quelle horreur!) I ended up in a one-way system enjoying the sights of the multiplex cinema and a concrete shopping centre before thankfully peeling off through a residential area (still no signage) and ending up on the Cookham Road.

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Cookham, by contrast, is a delight. Not quite a town but too large for a village, Cookham sits sleepily beside the river Thames.

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There’s a church, a quaint little garage and the house in the high street where Spencer was born in 1891.

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Just along from this is the tiny converted Methodist Chapel which now holds a permanent exhibition of Spencer’s paintings. It is packed full of them but manages to maintain an effective layout with plenty of information. Upstairs on the mezzanine you can watch a video of his life and works which I thought I’d dip into but I ended up watching it all, it was so interesting.

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Spencer was quite a character around Cookham. He’d often paint en plein air, lugging his artist’s materials around in his daughter’s old pram. Many of his paintings depict ordinary life around the town and he included actual residents – not always with permission!

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Domestic Scenes: At the Chest of Drawers, 1936

The exhibition I saw concentrated on his paintings of the natural world – I liked these – they are striking yet have a naïve quality. His colours are vibrant.

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View from Cookham Bridge, 1936

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Rock Roses, Old Lodge, Taplow, 1957

He was obsessed with gardens and what went on behind walls and hedges as well as using religious motifs and themes throughout his work. He married an artist, Hilda Carline, and they had two daughters. I was interested to see that one of his girls, Unity, has written an autobiography, providing an insight to living with this man but also who had had a very turbulent and artistic life of her own. Before I knew it, I’d spent two thoroughly enjoyable hours in this tiny space, studying the paintings and dipping into the freely available archive material. It was fascinating. I also discovered that the gallery opened in 1962 and was refurbished in 2007 through donations and a Heritage Lottery Fund grant which makes me feel that my purchasing of a weekly lottery ticket isn’t entirely wasted. The gallery is now a charitable trust, staffed by very knowledgeable and enthusiastic volunteers – I’d definitely recommend a visit and will more than likely return as long as I remember to avoid Maidenhead.

While at the gallery I learned that Spencer had been commissioned to create a series of murals at the Sandham Memorial Chapel in Burgclere, Hampshire and I was keen to visit.  Spencer had enlisted in the Medical Corps during the First World War and these murals depict personal experiences of everyday life both in hospital and on the front line. The work, inspired by Giotto’s Arena Chapel in Padua, took him almost six years to complete.

Now, you may remember that my last post covering the Silk Mill outing took the SSF and me into deepest Hampshire, so it seemed the ideal opportunity to call in to Sandham on the way home. Which is what we did: the SSF is very accommodating. So after the Mill, we hunted down this tiny chapel, which wasn’t easy due once again to poor signage. Anyway, we eventually found the place opposite a reasonable looking pub where we stopped for a sandwich before we wandered into the chapel grounds.

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Sandham is run by the National Trust. Their properties have a formulaic uniformity to them. The volunteers are of a type. The gift shops have a certain layout and although there are often local items available (pots of jam or honey, usually), once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. They all sell tartan picnic blankets and small useless wicker hampers emblazoned with the Trust logo. They sell erasers in the shape of green welly boots. You get the picture. Unless you are a Trust Member (I am not), entry fees are expensive. Some are extortionate. Sandham falls into the latter. Occasionally my wonderful Art Pass will cover a Trust property. I always proffer my card to the volunteer cashier (sometimes I’m lucky) but usually it is regarded with snooty disdain and I’m offered the obvious alternative with a smugness that is definitely a Trust requirement – signing up there and then to become a Member. No thanks, I always say, wanting to add that I have no desire to add to their coffers which in turn allows them to turn our beautiful old heritage homes into themed opportunities with borrowed furniture of the time, contract carpeting and a re-enactor in every room. No thanks, if it’s all the same. I’m stared at as if I’ve just insulted their religion, which in a way, I suppose I have. Grudgingly I shelled out my £10 entry fee while being thankful that SSF got in for nothing because she is a member (and I don’t hold this against her. Each to their own).

A small room sporting story boards gives the visitor some brief information about the commissioner and Spencer’s work before you can then watch a short video doing much the same. Then you can get into the chapel itself which, I have to say, does provide more than a gasp factor. The place is naturally lit, the light being constantly regulated by a volunteer opening and closing blinds all day. The art work is truly amazing – the detail and extent of the work is breath-taking. These are all war paintings but not of suffering particularly, but of hope. Spencer apparently felt that toil would move him closer to God, something he strived to do all his life.

Our visit to Sandham probably lasted for a maximum of forty minutes and while I’m delighted to have seen these murals, £10 is still far too expensive. To cap it all, I was warned by Light Regulating Woman not to take photographs, so if you’d like to get an idea of Spencer’s vision, click here for a link to an article in Apollo Magazine.

Ah well, the Cookham Gallery was completely free to me, an Art Fund Member. Guess you can’t win ‘em all!

Incidentally, the photos in this post of Spencer’s paintings have been scanned in from the very excellent guide book I purchased from the gallery in Cookham for the very reasonable sum of £5.

 

 

 

 

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I expect you’re wondering whether the SSF and I have been on any outings lately, it being school holiday time and all. The short answer is yes, we have, and quite honestly two more contrasting excursions would be difficult to arrange intentionally.

The first involved a gentle drive through the countryside into deepest Hampshire. (Well, actually, just west of Basingstoke but I don’t want to spoil the illusion). SSF elected to drive on the basis that, as my passenger, she’d likely experience motion sickness and also that she knew roughly where we were heading whereas Basingstoke and its environs are undiscovered territory for me. All I’ve known about the place to this point is that we have frequently by-passed it on the M3 on route to the West Country and the fact that it commandeers several exits along the motorway suggests that the town has evolved into a large, urban sprawl. So I was pleasantly surprised as we passed through Old Basing to discover a small, quintessentially English village with very old cottages surrounded by much greenery. There is even an historically important ruin in the form of Basing House, once the largest private house in Tudor England. Sadly closed the day we ambled by, but worth a return visit, I’m sure.

Driving on through glorious farm land and speeding by the Bombay Sapphire Gin Distillery (crikey – it all happens in Hampshire, doesn’t it), we were headed for Whitchurch, a sleepy little village (and not quite as picturesque as Old Basing, it has to be said), to have a look at their Silk Mill.

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Whitchurch Silk Mill is the oldest silk mill in Britain still in its original building. It was built in 1815 and production there, which included weaving for Burberry and Ede and Ravenscroft London’s oldest tailor and robes-maker, continued right up until 1985 when the mill was weaving fabric for legal and academic gowns.

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After this time, work at the mill slowed and there were plans for buildings on the front lawn which caused a bit of local unrest. The charity, Hampshire Buildings Preservation Trust stepped in, injected some cash and set about restoring it.

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The Winding Room

Now, with added Heritage Lottery Funding, the Mill continues to weave fabulous silks still using the original 19th century machinery and is open for all to view. The admission is only £4.50 and for this you watch a short video on the history of silk before being allowed to wander at your will around this magnificent building.

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And herein lays the weakest link. We wandered through the workshops and the winding room before looking through glass to see the silk being woven but weren’t really sure how the process actually worked because there were no volunteers or otherwise to tell us. The place was virtually deserted which was astonishing as in the winding room there were items that could have been easily slipped into a handbag and flogged as authentic at a Surrey antiques fair.

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Beautiful old reels

There is a quirky little cafe on the first floor with wonderful views over the gardens and the River Test but the counter service was laboured to put it mildly and a bit of confusion ensued over a black coffee and a cappuccino. We patiently waited for this to be sorted, ignored the delicious looking home-made cakes and opted for fruit scones instead. We couldn’t help thinking that a concession (I do not mean Starbucks) might help bring in the punters.

So although we felt that more could be made of the Silk Mill Experience – the Gift Shop was selling silk items but on closer inspection, these were all made in China – we had a good day out wending our way around the by-ways of Hampshire while we planned our next outing.

If we needed to prove that our tastes are nothing if not eclectic then our second trip provides testament. We went to the Saatchi Gallery in West London to view the Rolling Stones Exhibition, aptly entitled Exhibitionism.

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For anyone who has grown up with The Stones – and that’s probably everyone on the planet – this show is a fun way to spend an hour or so, waltzing through the band’s fifty year career from the early days of obscurity to the stadium tours. There are nine themed galleries at the Saatchi combining over 500 original Stones’ artefacts peppered with cinematic archive and contributions from an array of contemporary artists (Warhol, for instance), musicians, designers and writers.

I particularly enjoyed the reconstruction of their first flat. They lived together in Edith Grove, Chelsea, when they were barely out of their teens and this reconstruction apparently has been created with careful reference to each of the remaining Stones. It was worthy of a Tracey Emin installation and depicts the abject squalor Mick and the boys lived in and where they began writing the songs that have since passed into popular culture.

There is also a room full of mannequins sporting the stage clothes worn on their various tours and what is most striking is how tiny these garments are. SSF observed darkly that the drugs were probably responsible. Close inspection of the clothes reveal the exquisite tailoring, the like of which I remember seeing several years ago at the Valentino retrospective.

Other rooms are filled with instruments from various decades as well as the art work for all the album covers, video footage of concerts and an interview with Martin Scorsese.

The exhibition culminates in another reconstruction – this time a generic example of the band’s dressing room and backstage space after which we are ushered through the ‘stage door’ to watch a video of their last London Hyde Park Gig. We all had to don 3D specs to watch the finale of ‘Satisfaction.’ It was possibly the next best thing to being there.

After all that excitement we stepped, blinking, into the sunshine, crossed the King’s Road and hurried into Peter Jones for a cup of tea.

Back in the real world.

Exhibitionism runs until 4th September at the Saatchi Gallery, Duke of York’s Square, Chelsea.

 

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The SSF (Sea-Sick Friend) and I were well overdue an excursion which we rectified this week by taking a trip into London by train, for old time’s sake. Long suffering readers will recall that SSF and I met years ago during our commuting days whilst stuck one evening on a stationary train going nowhere out of Waterloo Station. We struck up a conversation bemoaning the appalling service and haven’t stopped chatting since.

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The Walkie Talkie Building, centre.

This week’s outing would not be involving water other than looking down on the Thames from a great height, which SSF assured me, was fine, although I think vertigo was mentioned. We were making for the Sky Garden – an innovative use of the top floor of one of the city’s less than attractive new buildings, known locally as the “Walkie Talkie.” This unwieldy looking skyscraper hit the London headlines in the summer of 2013 when the sun’s reflection beamed intensely off its mainly glass structure into the street below and melted part of a car as well as setting a shop doormat alight.

Undeterred, as our weather was positively chilly – even for early April, we decanted ourselves from the tube at Monument Station and hoofed the short distance to 20 Fenchurch Street. The lobby security was akin to any airport rigmarole – everything and everybody screened – this was dealt with deftly and provided a natural filter for the two available lifts. Whizzing ear-poppingly to the 36th floor in cramped conditions isn’t my most favourite thing in the world but it was over with so speedily there was hardly time to wonder about a staircase option.

The lift opens to reveal another lobby – tiled in black slate and containing state-of-the-art unisex toilet facilities. Now, if there’s one fear greater than getting stuck between floors in a lift, it’s becoming imprisoned in a public lavatory. Which, for what seemed like hours but was actually less than a minute, happened to me when the lock mechanism failed to release. After moments of sweaty trauma I was able to join SSF and step into the glass domed conservatory that is the Sky Garden.

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The audible gasps are justified: this space definitely has the wow factor. The views over our capital city are amazing. The first area reached is the Cafe-Bar  which is completely free to access although booking a time slot is necessary.

 

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The mezzanine contains the Darwin Brasserie (For which SSF had booked a table) and above that, at the very top of the dome, is the Fenchurch Restaurant. Tumbling down the two sloped sides next to the staircases are cascades of tropical greenery. The air temperature is surprisingly cool but this is catered for with colourful throws and blankets provided in the seating areas.

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Here is a great view looking east towards the Tower of London and Tower Bridge with the towers of the Canary Wharf business district in the far distance. (Best place for it…).

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And here, looking west. The Post Office Tower, once one of the capital’s tallest structures can just be seen, top right while the London Eye to the left (or south of the river) and near to Waterloo Station is one of the city’s newest landmarks.

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Looking directly south, The Shard towers over everything else. HMS Belfast can just be seen in the foreground. (Or should that be fore-river?) The outside viewing platform was sadly closed during our visit due to inclement weather. Surely a reason for another trip?

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And finally, looking northwards – the “Cheese Grater” on the left and the “Gherkin” on the right. London certainly has its fair share of odd looking buildings – and judging by the amount of cranes dotted about everywhere, we are destined for many more.

So…the verdict: well worth a visit. We had a very enjoyable lunch in the Brasserie with a prime table by the window overlooking the Thames. After lunch we had a sneak peek up at the restaurant and decided that the Brasserie looked much the best option. The tables in the restaurant are too far back to take advantage of the views so we wondered what the point of eating there would be. Although there seemed to be a steady stream of people coming and going, there was no feeling anywhere that the place was overcrowded and I suspect that for health and safety reasons only a certain number are allowed in at any one time.

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Leadenhall Market

We left the building to stretch our legs around the city, taking in Leadenhall Market, Bishopsgate and Spitalfields before returning to the Underground at Bank via the Royal Exchange. This is SSF’s old stamping ground but for me, fairly unchartered territory – so a good day was had by all. With any luck there will not be such a long gap between this and our next outing –  just deciding where to go is tricky – so much to see, so little time!

 

 

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We recently spent a few days on the Cote Fleurie on France’s north coast and apart from one spectacular thunderstorm we had good weather which should be regarded a bonus for this area – Normandy is green for a reason.

Once we’d done the beach-sitting, people-watching and strolling around the picturesque towns of Trouville and Deauville we availed ourselves of some of the freshest seafood you are ever likely to find. The Poissonerie on the quayside at Trouville is open from seven in the morning till seven at night and is frantically busy all day. Several small market stalls are crammed together side by side and compete for business, displaying the morning’s catch in ever creative ways, tempting tourists and locals alike.

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Each stall has its own tiny ‘bistro’ attached – in reality, a few stools and tall tables under parasols where you can sit and sample the shellfish, prepared in front of your eyes by friendly staff. They will supply a chilled bottle of wine to go with the food but if you want bread, you must visit the nearby Boulangerie. Paper napkins, wet wipes and an empty bucket for the shells and then you just tuck in with your fingers – delicious!

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So feeling replete, it was time to head out for a little sight-seeing – of the historical variety.

A few kilometres along the coast to the west lays the Orne River, peacefully flowing its way through lush Norman countryside out towards the English Channel, or as is politically correct from this side of the sea, La Manche. At this time of year the river-banks are full of reeds and wild flowers and the trees, heavy with leafy greenery, dip their branches into the water while fish surface occasionally, leaving lazy concentric pools.

We stopped near this rural idyll, just outside Ranville, the first village to be liberated by British forces on D-Day (6th June 1944) and whose cemetery is the resting place for many British soldiers killed in action after a short but epic battle to secure the bridge across the River Orne. This was one of the major objectives of the British airborne troops in the opening moments of the Normandy Invasion and would prove crucial in limiting the effectiveness of a German counter-attack.

Imagine flying into an area you’ve never seen – in a glider – under the stealth of a pitch black night and landing safely within yards of the river. This is what Major John Howard and his Glider Unit of the British 6th Airborne Division did. Transported from their base at Tarrant in Dorset, they travelled in Horsa Gliders towed by bombers and landed virtually intact. One plane did land some seven miles away, near Dives, but the troops made their way through German lines towards Ranville and were reunited with British forces.

There is now a memorial on the spot where Major Howard’s glider landed, a peaceful garden adjacent to the river.

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The bridge that Major Howard and his men were tasked with capturing crossed the River Orne from Ranville to the neighbouring village of Bénouville.

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Next to the bridge, on the Bénouville side, was a small restaurant, the Café Gondrée. Here Georges Gondrée lived and worked, running his small establishment but also working for the Resistance.

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Information about explosives under the bridge and the location of a switch in a pillbox was discovered by Georges, passed on to British Intelligence and was instrumental in the success of this operation.

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Nowadays, Café Gondrée is run by members of the same family and exists as a tourist attraction as well as a café serving the worst coffee I’ve ever tasted in France. The staff were offhand – not unheard of in France, let’s be honest – although this, I felt, was scaling things to a whole new level. Large hand-written signs warned customers not to take photographs inside the building. (Son told us on our return that the newer establishment across the road is the place to go, and is full of friendly information for the visitor as well as decent fare).

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The bridge was christened Pegasus on 26th June 1944 as a tribute to the British troops who wore the emblem of the winged horse on their sleeves. Today the original bridge resides in the grounds of the Pegasus Museum. A new bridge, constructed in 1994, now spans the river.

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The original Pegasus Bridge

The Pegasus Museum was officially opened in 2000 by HRH Prince Charles and is worth a visit. Weapons, documents and photographs as well as the old bridge, a tank and a Horsa Glider are on view. Explanations of the mission are simple to understand or there is a guided tour which takes about an hour.

Heading back through Ranville it is apparent that much of this sleepy little village was rebuilt after the war. It is possible to visit the nearby Batterie at Merville where British troops overcame German forces intent on building their ‘Atlantic Wall’ – but we had done this on a previous visit and more shellfish was beckoning…

With some 4000 memorials in Normandy, commemorating acts of bravery and heroism undertaken during the Invasion, there is plenty of history here so there is always something to see, however often you visit.

The French call this area the Musée à Ciel Ouvert – ‘Open- Sky Museum.’ It makes sense.

 

 

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