A Day at Kew Gardens

My birthday weekend provided a perfect opportunity to escape the city and visit Kew Gardens, a Unesco World Heritage Site famed its 300 acres of beautiful gardens and landscape.  I’m not much of a gardener, but Kew promised a beautiful day out, lovely tea rooms and glorious grounds for picnicking.

We took the tube from Central London to Kew, which only took 25 minutes.  The walk from Kew station to the garden entrance (cross up and over the footbridge) took 15 minutes, not including a detour into  Oliver’s Wholefoods to pick up picnic supplies.  The little shop area also has a Tesco, handy for grabbing  a bottle of wine or two.

We decided to buy a Kew membership and a handy map at the admissions gate (admission details below) before heading into the gardens.  We knew that our late arrival to the gardens meant we  had to prioritize what we wanted to see/do.  We considered the tram that takes guests on a 40 minute overview tour of the gardens for a fee of  £4 adults, £1 children, but opted to walk to The Orangery for a cup of tea and a planning meeting.

We stuffed our faces with tea and biscuits and started our walkabout at Kew Palace and the Queen’s Garden.  The Queen’s Garden and adjacent herb garden hold only plants native to Britain before and/or during the 17th century. Each herb was labeled with the 17th century name and a phrase referring to the plants healing properties. There were numerous chunks missing from the Galium verum section…perhaps hopeful tourists were inspired to help themselves? Tsk, tsk.

One of the most magical qualities of Kew Gardens is the ability to find innumerable quiet spots and tranquil spaces despite the large number of people who visit the park. It has acres of lovely meadow…

garden pathways…

and quiet woodland glades.

Most importantly, it had a perfect spot near the Minka House for my birthday picnic!

After filling ourselves with wine and cheese (eating is a consistent theme in our travels) and finishing the Sunday paper , we continued our walk to the lake and across the lovely Sackler Bridge to the Treetop Walkway.

The walkway is officially known as the Rhizotron and Xstrata Treetop Walkway.  It was designed by the same architects that designed the London Eye (which I haven’t visited due to my traumatic childhood ferris-wheel experience at the hands of my cousin Debbie).  We’ll save that story for another day.  Unfortunately/fortunately, we didn’t have time to see Kew from the top of the walkway and planned on returning in a few weeks when the leaves start to turn. I was really looking forward to seeing the child-favourite Badger Sett, but it was closed until 2013 and almost closing time for the glasshouses.

 We waited until the end of the day to visit Kew’s glass houses because of the heat and ended up rushing a bit as the houses close earlier than the rest of the grounds.  The Temperate House is the largest of 8 glass houses and holds collections from Africa, New Zealand, Asia and the Pacific. The winding Victorian stairways were a lovely highlight and a vertigo inducing way to view the collection from the roof.

Kew is currently exhibiting works by David Nash throughout the grounds and glasshouses from now until April 2013. The pieces within the glasshouses are my personal favourites, with numerous works on display in the Temperate House. Mr. Nash uses found materials from the grounds that are at the end of their natural life to create new pieces for the exhibit. The above piece,Oculus, is in the Princess Of Wales glasshouse.

This piece, Black Sphere, sits at the top of a hill.  The David Nash exhibit is evolving, with Mr. Nash creating new pieces within the grounds on an ongoing basis.  New pieces are scheduled for unveiling on 13 October. There are also walking tours available twice a day if you are interested in a more in-depth explanation of his art at Kew. Here is a an interesting clip, courtesy of Kew Gardens, of David Nash at work.

We thoroughly enjoyed our day at Kew and plan on returning at least once during each season (we’ve already been twice in one weekend).  Don’t assume Kew Gardens is only for guide-toting grannies and flower aficionados.  It really does have something for everyone.  Kew has numerous family/children programs, both educational and recreational.  There is a Climbers and Creepers interactive play zone, the badger sett, Treehouse Towers,the Treetop Walkway and acres to run through without bothering anyone.  I honestly didn’t see one unhappy child during my visit.  There is also a domesticated rooster running around, which I thought was hilarious.  He enjoys being hand-fed raisins if you can get close enough.

Also, you might consider checking Heathrow flight patterns for the day of your visit.  The flyovers were not present the first day we went, but were really distracting to the get-out-of-the-city vibe on our second visit. It seems there is a Heathrow runway switching scheme (boooring read) that involves noise before 3pm and after 3pm at Kew (avoid 27R times).

Make sure you check Kew Garden information before you go for admissions times and event information. Enjoy!

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Moving Day

Today is move-in day.  We said goodbye to our lovely temporary quarters near St. Paul’s, loaded all our worldly belongings into a cab and set off across the city.  Our new flat is in a lovely location, famous for its fine restaurants and prostitution. It’s….colorful.

Our flat overlooks a street filled with cafes, tiny shops and a very posh private club (excellent for people watching).  The rear of the flat looks out on a rather Dickensian scene of rooftops, chimney-pots and laundry flung out the window to dry.  Our flat, which we affectionately refer to as The Closet,  is tiny, narrow and spread out over multiple floors. We knew choosing a convenient/nicer neighborhood would mean sacrificing size and quality, but we were willing to make that compromise.  Our flat, rented as”fully furnished” (common in London)  is decorated in a  style so hideous it makes your eyes bleed.  Hopefully, adding a few  of our own things  (beds, kitchen things) will help us feel right at home and overcome the trauma of looking at this every day…

Why?

The Mister and I are really excited about our proximity to a lovely park and a tube station.  The Mister is especially excited not to have a 3+ hour round-trip commute everyday.  Well, I suppose it could still be 3 hours on a bad tube day, but so far, so good.

One of my living in London fantasies involves paying the nice man a few pounds so I can sit in the lovely park chairs and read the Sunday paper.  Maybe I can even talk The Mister into bringing me a coffee.  It’s the little things…

I better hurry!

Most of all,  I’m just basking in the glory of being in one place awhile and making London our  home.

Fascinating History, Lovely Gardens and a Few Dirty Bits.

Hampton Court Palace is an exceptional day out, especially on a sunny, late summer day.  I decided to take The Mister along, as he isn’t always able to take part in my touristy outings and hadn’t been to the Palace in years.

We collected our tickets and proceeded to pick-up audio guides from the information point inside the gate.  Yes, you can wander without an audio guide and “do your own thing” but it is included in your ticket price. It’s FREE with entry.  The narrative is excellent, easy to navigate and much easier than wandering around trying to find the proper page in a guidebook.  So, grab one…you can always wear it/not use it or turn it in later.  Better to have options.

My favorite part of any house, museum or tour is the kitchen and King Henry VIII’s kitchens do not disappoint.  Hampton Court Palace offers Tudor Cooking demonstrations on the first weekend of every month, where you can watch the cooks make chawettys, buknade and perre. Whatever those might be. I spent most of my time in the kitchen standing in front of the fireplace, toasting myself and watching all the children run around in robes (FREE from the information area), wishing I had collected one myself.

We chose to concentrate on King Henry’s portion of the Palace early in the day, leaving the Baroque section of the Palace for the afternoon.  The Great Hall and adjoining rooms are spectacular. We arrived at the Chapel Royal shortly before a Sunday service and had to return at a later time. While photography in the chapel is prohibited, I managed to find one to share with you.   Photo credit: Richmond Magazine.  The Chapel hosts an active worshiping community, frequent choir performances and occasional weddings.

Evidence of medieval graffiti , perhaps?

There are a number of options to enrich your experience within the Palace in addition to the audio tours.  Many areas of the Palace offer enhanced experiences, from the simple (film) to truly interactive (period games/entertainment) and experiential (costumed characters, role-playing). We found King Henry VIII and his first wife walking the halls, chatting with the commoners and asking for advice re: how to produce a male heir. Honestly.  The Queen was worriedly pacing the gardens later in the afternoon.

The palace gardens are spectacular, extensive and perfect for wandering.

My personal favorites are the Privy and Pond Gardens, although the 20th Century Gardens are a perfect spot for picnicking and a spot of shade on a hot day.

 “Capability” Brown planted what is now termed “The Great Vine” at Hampton Court in 1768.  The vine, cultivated within a glasshouse,  still produces a crop of lovely, sweet grapes at the beginning of every September.

You can purchase part of the harvest in the garden gift shop for a princely sum, which I did.  And yes, they were delicious.

We did wander for a few hours until I was overcome by laziness and convinced The Mister to buy 2 tickets for the horse and carriage ride around the gardens. It ended up being a somewhat anti-climactic 15 minute ride around the gardens, but the commentary was interesting and I never pass up a horse and carriage ride.

Duchess of Cleveland and Lady of the Bedchamber.  Quite.

And then I saw the sign…Salacious Gossip Tours, highlighting the less savory (most interesting) bits of Palace gossip and intrigue for the over 18 set.  7:30pm   Tickets purchased at the gate or via 0844 482 7799 (from UK) or +44 (0)20 3166 6000 (from outside UK).   L25 per ticket. Ouch.

 I couldn’t pass up this intriguing opportunity, so I purchased tickets and wandered into town for dinner with The Mister.  We returned to the Palace early to check-in before gathering in King Henry’s wine cellar for a little pre-tour champagne and conversation.  The group was very small, all adults (for good reason). Our guide gave a brief introduction and offered us the right to leave if we were easily offended by the f-word and/or discussions involving the creative activities involving lady/man parts.  Everyone stayed, even the lovely, white-haired, ancient grandma someone brought along.  We wandered through various parts of the Palace, some not usually open to the public, and listened to lurid and explicit tales of Palace passion. Very interesting indeed.  I’m not easily embarrassed, but each time the guide regaled us with another dirty song or tale,  I prayed the grandma-of-the-group was either hard-of-hearing or a non-english speaker.  Eh.  I stopped worrying after she spent an inordinate amount of time examining a piece of erotic art the guide was passing around.  An. Inordinate. Amount. Of time. She even took out her specs for that bit.

All in all, it was a brilliant tour. The stories were well-researched and interesting, the guide knowledgable and enthusiastic, the experience enhanced by touring the Palace at night with so few people.  You can book tickets in advance here.  Don’t bring Nana or the kids.

 If you live in or near London, I must recommend purchasing the Palace Membership, which gives you access to all five Palaces (Tower of London, Kensington Palace, Hampton Court Palace, Kew Palace and the Banqueting House.  A family membership pays for itself in approximately 2 visits, as does the dual/partner membership. My favorite perk is not having to stand in a long queue for tickets. I love to be first!  Flash your pass, exchange it for a ticket and you’re in.  I always agonize over purchasing memberships, but I’ve found that over time, having a membership means I go more often and enjoy what’s offered without agonizing over the cost.

Check dates, times and ticket costs before you go at Hampton Court Palace website.

Food, Glorious Food at Borough Market

South of the river, under an overpass lies Foodie Heaven.  Open from Monday through Wednesday (limited selections/10-3) and Thursday through Saturdays (times vary), it holds something to delight every vegetarian, carnivore and sugar fiend.

Cheese!  Cheese everywhere!  Best of all, they let you sample before you buy…artisan cheese, organic cheese, imported cheese.  Did I mention samples?

Lovely produce.  I don’t know what to do with half of it, but I bought so much of it!

One of the things I enjoyed most about the market was how passionate and dedicated everyone was about their product.  Every stall owner was willing to answer questions, offer samples and talk about everything they were selling.  It was their enthusiasm that led me to try things I ordinarily wouldn’t, with one exception ( I’m talking about you, smiling whole-pig-head-in-the-refrigerator-case).  Can’t make me. I’ll spare you the photo.

I can personally attest to the quality of these prize-winning pies.

Paella!!

I must recommend the cheesy delights of  the grilled/toasted cheese at Kappacasein.  Daughter #3 is quite the connoisseur of grilled cheese and made a beeline for the cart that promised raclette and other cheesey delectables. She was not disappointed, nor was I.  We went back to the cart 3 times.

Make sure to wash it all down with some lovely cider.

Also, take the time to wander outside of the market proper to have a coffee (Monmouth’s perhaps?) and visit Neal’s Yard Dairy for excellent advice which cheese should accompany the lovely wine you picked out.

Check the website before you venture out.

Evening Walk

London is such a walkable city.  In the Summer.  When it isn’t raining.  Wasting a beautiful evening sunset in London is a sin, so we decided a walk over  the Thames via the Millennium Bridge was in order.  There are so many  sights and sounds to enjoy on the south side of the river…

We walked past The Globe and Tate Modern, past the restaurants and bars towards Tower Bridge and Shad Thames.

Getting ready for Olympic Fever 2012!

We walked past HMS Belfast and City Hall to the winding walkways of Shad Thames.  Does this remind you of any movie from back in the day?  Think about it and I’ll clue you in later.  Think Dickensian.

View of the Tower of London…And the most stunning view of all…the night time view from the south side of the bridge to St. Paul’s Cathedral.  It just takes your breath away.

Things to know

For additional walks in London, consider signing up with the famed London Walks. There is no need to book ahead, just show up prepared for the weather (and have £9 p/p ready).  There are sight discounts for students and the “Super Adults.”  

There are a stunning number of highly qualified London Guides available for small group and personal tours. I can personally recommend two guides:  Peter Berthoudoffers a selection of tours including “Hidden Mayfair” and “The Seven Noses of Soho.”  Check his website for information and booking.  The debonair Russell Nash,  provides tours throughout London and beyond, including “Royal London”,”The Icons of St. James” and “The Men Who Made Menswear.”  Check his website for booking information.  Both of these gentlemen are excellent guides and provide  an entertaining and informative day out.