Being a Tourist in London

During last week’s heatwave we made one of our rare visits to London. I can’t remember the last time I went, probably it was over two or three years ago when I attended a course for work. Such visits meant travelling in by train, dashing to the course venue and seeing very little of London. So it was strange to be in London with the whole day devoted to sightseeing.

First we went to the Museum of London – my first time there. Some of its galleries are closed as they are being redeveloped but there was still plenty to see – the history of London up to 1666. The highlights for me were the gallery showing Medieval London AD410-1558, topical for me as I’d just finished reading Company of Liars a novel of the plague by Karen Maitland, and the exhibition of the Great Fire of London 1666. I was also fascinated by the shoes on display – the long-pointed toe, or ‘poulaine’, popular in London in the 1380s, with the toe measuring up to 4 inches long, stuffed with moss or hair. The 16th/17th century jewellry display is just beautiful.


museum-highlightsIn the Museum shop I bought a booklet of the Museum Highlights to remind me of what I’d seen, and a mug showing the Houses of Parliament and a red London double-decker bus.

Next up was a walk from the Museum along London Wall to Wren’s Monument. I was delighted to see the remains of the original City Wall outside the Museum, including a thirteenth century tower.


As we were on our way to see Wren’s Monument commemorating the Great Fire of London we didn’t have time to stop and look at anything else, but I took photos of various sights along the way including St Alban’s Church Tower, sandwiched on a traffic island in Wood Street. I didn’t know what it was but thought it looked so incongruous between modern buildings. According to various websites it may date back to AD 930. The rest of the church was destroyed in the Great Fire, subsequently rebuilt by Christopher Wren in 1685, only to be bombed in the Blitz in 1940. The remaining perpendicular tower with its pinnacles is now dwarfed by modern buildings.


The Royal Exchange (now a luxurious shopping centre) – you can just see the Gherkin in the background.


And this golden statue caught my eye


It’s Ariel, or the Spirit of the Winds, on the Bank of England on Tivoli Corner, by Sir Charles Wheeler.


And here is Wren’s Monument, a Doric order column made of Portland stone with a viewing tower. It’s 202 feet tall, which is the distance from the base of the monument to the shop on Pudding Lane where the fire started. I didn’t go up it – my legs wouldn’t take all those stairs but others with me did – maybe I can get one of their photos.



The photo above is of the viewing tower and if look closely at the enlarged picture (click on it)you can just make out my son and grandson looking down.

And finally here is Tower Bridge taken from London Bridge.


Catching Up With Myself

What with one thing and another (and another … ) I feel very behind with everything. I’ve not been at home much since July and the garden has gone wild. The only thing that is good in it really is the lawn and that is because Green Thumb have been coming along and feeding and applying weed killer, with the result that for the first time since we moved into the house we now have a lovely lush green lawn which is nearly weed free. Apparently some of the weeds are difficult to get rid of at once but will succomb after a few treatments and it is working!

I’m now so behind with writing about the books I’ve read and the places I’ve visited that I think I’ll just have to start afresh, although I do want to write about some of them. Just last week my husband and I went to Scotland to visit our son and his family who have moved to a house south of Edinburgh. I’m still sorting out the photos we took and will post some of them later. We visited Queensferry and saw the bridges over the Firth of Forth – most impressive. There is lots of information on the bridges in the Queensferry Museum, with much better photos than mine. The first crossing of the Firth of Forth was by ferry as early as the 12th century. If you click on the picture below you can just see the Road Bridge on the left – the Railway Bridge is on the right. 


Forth Road Railway Bridge
Forth Road Railway Bridge


We also went to Linlithgow and walked round the Palace, where Mary Queen of Scots was born. It is so beautiful, overlooking the loch. We were surprised to see hoards of cyclists and then realised that they were on a sponsored ride between Glasgow and Edinburgh. So a real mixture of history mixed up with modern life.

Then we were off to visit the Kingdom of Fife and in particular Lower Largo, a small, picturesque seaside resort which was the birthplace in 1676 of Axander Selkirk, who inspired Daniel Defoe to write Robinson Crusoe. Amongst other places we also visited Edinburgh Zoo and Niddry Castle – more to follow on all of these later.

Travelling almost the length of England up to the Scottish Borders and beyond entails several stops along the way and inevitably these include motorway service stations. These are not always the most interesting places to stop and eat, although I was flabbergasted at the Charnock Richard service station when we sat by the window not very far above the north bound lanes of the M6 – it was the speed of the traffic that shocked me. What seems fast enough when you’re travelling is nothing compared to the sensation when you’re sitting completely still next to the speeding cars and lorries, not to mention the motorcyclists weaving in and out of the lanes. I’ve never been to a Grand Prix – that must be exhilarating.

But of course a stop at a service station, or anywhere really, is an opportunity to look at books and surprisingly most of the motorway book stalls stock a variety of books – well some are the same in each, but I restricted my buying to four books, which are

  • The Outcast by Sadie Jones – I’d read about this in newbooks. It’s about life in an English village after World War II and shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction this year.
  • Roma by Steven Saylor – several bloggers have recommended this.
  • The Breaker by Minette Walters – a crime novel. I see it has very mixed reviews on Amazon!
  • Birthright by Nora Roberts – according to the author information inside the book she is “indisputably the most celebrated and beloved women’s writer today.” Sorry, but I’d never heard of her or read any of her more than 100 books. I thought I’d better remedy that and I liked the blurb on the back cover, which says that it’s set in the Blue Ridge Mountains at an archaelogical dig when five-thousand-year-old human bones are found.

These books will have to wait as I’m still reading The Gravedigger’s Daughter by Joyce Carol Oates, which as Danielle wondered is rather “unsettling”. More on that another time. I’m also reading Dear Dodie: a life of Dodie Smith by Valerie Groves, because I loved I Capture the Castle. I must update my sidebars too and check where I am with reading challenges – so many things to catch up with!

I went to the local library yesterday and although I didn’t intend to borrow any more came home with two books. My excuse is that one is a book I’d reserved so I had to bring it home – The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale. The other is The Clothes On Their Backs by Linda Grant, which is on the Booker Prize Shortlist – it was irresistible.

Exploring Britain – In Books. A Thursday Thirteen

For a while now I’™ve been reading ‘œThursday Thirteen‘ posts on a number of blogs and wondering about writing one myself. Until last week there was no theme to Thursday Thirteen, it could be whatever you wanted it to be. They have now introduced a theme, but I’ve been writing this list on books on Britain, so I’m not following the theme and here is my first ‘œThursday Thirteen“.

These are books that explore different aspects of Britain ‘“ things that interest me, landscape, places, history, architecture, writers, cookery, walking and so on. They’™re books I own and enjoy looking at; some I’™ve read and others I’™ve only dipped into. They have all provided me with hours of delight. There are a number of books reflecting my fascination with history in its physical form ‘“ standing stones, castle, churches, stately homes ‘“ others my interest in Britain’™s geography and topography. The book that triggered this list is A Reader’™s Guide to Writers’™ Britain by Sally Varlow, which I bought this week in the library book sale.

From bottom to top they are:

1. English Landscapes ‘“ photography by Rob Talbot, text by Robin Whiteman (1995). The English countryside in full colour, explored region by region from Penzance to Penrith, landmarks, local architecture, social and historical surveys, literary and artistic connections, geography and local customs. An amazing collection exploring the byways of England. A book to sit and pore over planning where to go.

2. Yesterday’™s Britain published by the Reader’™s Digest. Full of photographs this book covers the period 1900 ‘“ 1979 and is ‘œthe story of how we lived, worked an played’ throughout the 20th century. It contains personal anecdotes, eyewitness accounts and intimate stories: a ‘œfamily scrapbook of the nation’.

3. British Isles: a Natural History by Alan Titchmarsh, accompanying the BBC1 series. Beginning in the mists of time, 3 billion years ago this book traces the evolution of Britain exploring everything from geology and geography to flora and fauna. It includes a section on Places to Visit, from Stone Age villages at Skara Brae, Orkney to the Centre for Alternative Technology, Powys, Wales. A beautifully illustrated and informative book.

4. Land of the Poets: Lake District, Photographs by David Lyons (1996). The English Lake District, that much visited area of Britain, is one of my favourite places. I’™d love to live there, even though it rains and is often full of tourists. This book illustrates the drama and beauty of the countryside, the grandeur of the crags and hills, complimented with poetry inspired by the mountain streams and lakes. The anthology is mainly drawn from William Wordsworth and his near contemporaries, with photographs relating directly to the poems ‘“ The Langdale Pikes, Home at Grasmere, (Wordsworth), Helvellyn (Walter Scott) to name but a few.

5. Mountain: exploring Britain’™s High Places by Griff Rhys Jones to accompany the BBC series. I was so impressed with Griff’™s fitness as well as his great sense of humour as he climbed Snowdon and the other High Peaks in England, Scotland and Wales. These are such spectacular places, also rough and arduous climbs. Amazingly he had never done any climbing before! One third of Britain is covered in mountains ‘“ I didn’™t know that before. There’™s a bit of history in this book too.

6. Great British Menu, the book that accompanied the first series on BBC2, when 14 chefs competed to decide who should cook for the Queen at the celebration lunch marking Her Majesty’™s 80th birthday. It contains recipes from the chefs representing the South East, the North, Wales, the South West, Northern Ireland, the Midlands and East Anglia, and Scotland ‘“ including Lancashire Hot Pot made with wild boar, Finnebroague Venison with Colcannon Pie and Wild Mushrooms (Northern Ireland) and Pan-Fried Cornish Lobster (South West). Delicious, mouth-watering recipes.

7. How We Built Britain by David Dimbleby, describing a journey through Britain and a thousand years of history seen through Britain’™s buildings and the people who built them. This is more than the book of the TV series, immensely detailed, reflecting Dimbleby’™s enthusiasm and delight in a hugh span of British history from 1066 to the modern day.

8. Sacred Britain: a guide to the sacred sites and pilgrim routes of England, Scotland and Wales by Martin Palmer and Nigel Palmer. This gives information about ancient stone circles and tombs, Christian and pre-Christian shrines, medieval synagogues, churches, cathedrals, holy wells and rivers, ancient yew trees and symbolic plants. It also describes 13 traditional pilgrimage routes eg the Canterbury Pilgrimage from Winchester to Canterbury (129 miles). Illustrated with colour photographs and coloured sketch plans of the routes.

9. A Reader’™s Guide to Writers’™ Britain by Sally Varlow (2000). This is a beautiful book containing maps and photographs, and giving a guide to places to visit linked with writers and books, from all parts of the British Isles. There’™s an index of authors and places with anecdotes and fascinating facts. Hours of endless pleasure reading about where to visit.

10. In Search of Stones:a pilgrimage of faith, reason and discovery by M Scott Peck. Scott Peck’™s account of the trip he and his wife took through the countryside of Wales, England and Scotland looking for ancient megalithic stones. It covers travel, history, archaeology, as well as Scott Peck’™s meditations on spirituality and mysticism. Illustrated with drawings by Christopher Peck. I’™ve read this book twice so far and have visited some of the sites he describes.

11. Mysterious Wales by Chris Barber looks at beautiful and magical places in Wales. It’™s a guide to prehistoric megaliths, holy wells, magic trees, secret caves, lonely lakes, bottomless pools and sites associated with legends concerning King Arthur, Merlin and the Devil. Illustrated with photographs and drawings. Absolutely fascinating.

12. The Hidden Places of England edited by Joanna Billing is a travel guide to some of the less well known places of interest to visit (together with other less “hidden’ places eg Stratford-upon-Avon, Bath and Oxford), with short descriptions accompanied by line drawings and coloured maps. It also has information about places to stay and eat, many in out-of-the way places. My edition was published in 1997 but it is still a useful book to find out about the history of villages and towns, churches, pubs, restaurants, cafes, tearooms, and numerous other attractions.

13. A Pictorial Guide to the Lakeland Fells: The Central Fells by A Wainwright. This is one in a series of the Wainwright walking guides to the Lakeland Fells, reproduced from the original handwritten pages and intricate pen and ink sketches of the routes and the landscape. Alfred Wainwright was born in 1907, fell in love with the Lake District and moved to Kendal in 1941. The guides describe the fell walks as they were in the 1950s and 1960s; the footpaths, cairns and other waymarks may not all be the same now and you do need to take an up-to-date map with you but, as the BBC series ‘œWainwright Walks’ have shown, the routes are very much as Wainwright knew them.

Just a Glimpse of the Orient

On Monday D and I went for a walk with a friend alongside the Wendover Arm of the Grand Union Canal. It was a beautiful, sunny day and we enjoyed these views. This is the start of our walk.

The Wendover Arm was first constructed in 1797, but as sections of it leaked it was “de-watered”. From 1989 onwards it has been restored and this is what it looks like today.

Kingfishers can be seen along the canal, but we didn’t see any on Monday. There were lots of other birds though, ducks, moorhens, coots and dabchicks (otherwise known as little grebes), busy diving and collecting nest material.

The ducks were in fine form, taking off a high speed and then landing with legs flailing before splash-down.

Further along the canal we saw a swan sitting on a large nest over on the other side.


The canal opens up into an area known as the Wides, with areas of grass and shrubs with a tiny island on the far side. Trees have invaded what was once open water and without management the canal would disappear in a few years.

Then came a surprise – a pair of mandarin ducks. I’d never seen these before; they looked very different from the other birds on the canal, but just so beautiful. The male has very distinctive chestnut brown and orange fan wings sticking up above his body, whilst the female is a duller brown with white spots. They were swimming together in and out of the trees. When I came home I looked them up in our bird books. Originally from China these ducks like streams and overgrown lakesides in broad leaved woodland and they nest in tree cavities. The canal is the perfect place for them.