Small Car/Big City = Fab Fun

I was caught in a pedestrian traffic jam on my way to an appointment in Covent Garden and the crowd was making me LATE.  I assumed the standstill was a result of tourists gawping and taking pictures of  the street performers, painted-people statues or the “man floating in mid-air” conundrum.  I was wrong.  They were admiring and cheering a line of vintage mini cars streaming through the narrow, cobbled alleyways that run through the market. It was amazing sight.  I ran to the next intersection (now I was really late) to cut them off and get a better view of the signage on the cars….SmallCar/BigCity.

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Thanks to the efficiency of the internets, I found SmallCar/BigCity and booked a fun, fab family afternoon tour.  Is there anything more British than touring London in a vintage mini?  I think not.

SmallCar/BigCity offers a variety of tours of varying lengths. We chose a Beatles/1960’s theme, 1.5 hour tour through London and decided to dress the part.  We spent the morning picking through vintage treasures on Portobello Road, spraying our hair into sticky beehives and gluing on fake eyelashes.  (The Mister would like me to mention that he did not participate in any of the above).

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Rob and Jay drove up to our pre-arranged meeting spot promptly at 2:30 with two minis…one red with a sunroof and one in British racing green (yay!).  After  creating a neighborhood spectacle by staging a quick photo shoot in front of the French restaurant (applauded by the kitchen staff), we were off.

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We zipped through the city, in and out of traffic and past  iconic London landmarks. People honked and waved and photographed us at every stop light and street corner. Rob and Jay were great hosts and guides and tolerated our constant car switching and picture-taking.  All in all, it was a great afternoon. We can’t wait to show our visiting friends the sights of London from the back seat of a vintage mini (I call front seat).

SmallCar/BigCity offers customized tours and corporate events in addition to their personal London tours. Call them!

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Ceremony of the Keys/ Tower of London

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 “Halt!  Who goes there?!” You, if you are fortunate enough to obtain tickets to a ceremony that takes place every night at the Tower of London. Ticketed patrons are allowed to witness the “securing/locking up” of the Tower by the Chief Yeoman Warder and the Tower Guards in a ceremony that dates back over 700 years. The Tower opens the gates to ticket patrons at 9:30pm (latecomers NOT admitted). The tourists are long gone.  The spotlights slowly click on and bathe the Tower in an eerie light. The group (appx 40 people) is escorted through the ancient gate and greeted by a Yeoman Warder, who explains the tradition and pageantry of the Ceremony as you wait by Traitor’s Gate.  He also reminds you not to take pictures OR use a cell phone.  They mean it.

At exactly 21:52, the Chief Yeoman Warder leaves the Byward Tower carrying a candle-lit lantern and the Queen’s Keys.  He walks to Traitor’s gate to meet a company of waiting soldiers who protect him throughout as he locks the gates of the Tower.  The Warder locks the outer gate and retraces his steps to lock the Middle and Byward Towers. As the Warder approaches Traitor’s Gate, a sentry calls out “HALT!  Who comes there?”  He answers “The keys!” and the call and response continues in the same way it has for over seven centuries.  The Warder and the soldiers walk to the Bloody Tower to meet the waiting regiment of guards. The ceremony concludes with the Chief Yeoman Warder raising his hat in the air and calling “God preserve Queen Elizabeth!” The clock chimes and the bugler plays as the keys are returned to the Queen’s House. Visitors are escorted to the gates.

The Ceremony of the Keys is a magical way to experience the Tower AND witness an extraordinary part of London history. Highly recommend.

Tickets are free, but you must apply IN WRITING to:  Ceremony of the Keys Office Tower of London LONDON, EC3N 4AB Great Britain Tel: +44 (0)20 3166 6278

You must list, as part of your request, the names of all attendees, two dates you are able to attend (they recommend you make your request 2 to 3 months in advance) and a self-addressed envelope with full British postage or something called a “coupon-response international.”  I contacted the USPS to request a “coupon” and was told such a thing hadn’t existed in years.  In the end, I went to the Royal Mail website and printed off a self-addressed envelope at home.  Much easier.

For detailed booking information, check here.

UPDATED information for Residents of the US :  Please check the  link for information specific to US Residents.

Things to know/Interesting facts:

The Ceremony of the Keys continued on a daily basis throughout the plague, the Great Fire and the Blitz.

On December 29th, 1940 a bomb fell during the ceremony and literally knocked the Warders off their feet and caused the ceremony to end 3 minutes late.  They wrote a letter of apology to the King.

A Quiet Afternoon in London/ The Electric Cinema and Diner

The Mister and I finished off a long week of festive get-togethers with an epic Crossfit party Friday night and a pub take-over for the Army-Navy 2012 game on Saturday night. Enough was enough. We both needed a quiet afternoon in a dark room with a comfortable chair and some carb loaded snacks.  The Electric Cinema was just the ticket (ha).
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Situated in Notting Hill, bang in the middle of Portobello Road, the Electric Cinema raises the bar for movie-viewing comfort.  Look closely at the picture above and note the large sofas, complete with cashmere blankets and overstuffed pillows. Ahhhh….

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The theater also provides oversized leather chairs and leather footrests for those individuals unable to procure a sofa or a date with whom to share the sofa (reservations needed, book ahead. Dates not provided. Sofa-based funny business strictly monitored by the audience and management).   The bar has a decent selection of drinks, snacks and coffee (which was good).   Watching a good film whilst cradled in the comfort of the Electric Cinema has truly spoiled me for any other.

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Adjacent to the Electric Cinema is the Electric Diner, which provided the perfect way to finish off an afternoon of pure laziness.  The place was packed and had a waiting list.  The hostess kindly took our name and cell-number and told us to go shop  Portobello Road while we waited for a table.  We did manage to do a little Christmas shopping before our phone rang and we hustled back to a table at the bar.

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The atmosphere was true diner.  The chefs were hustling, the waiters were yelling orders, the service efficient and friendly.  I went for the sure thing…double-cheeseburger and fries with a side of tomatoes (no, I don’t know why either).  The Mister was disoriented after his long week of celebrations and ordered breakfast.  The burgers were good, the pickles excellent and the fries crispy.  The Mister’s eggs and ham steak were phenomenal. He commented “that even the toast is perfect.” What more could you ask?

All in all, it was a perfect afternoon.  A great cinema experience, a good diner and a little Christmas shopping along Portobello Road.

Things to know:

If you have your heart set on having a sofa, book early.  Really early.  There are sofas in back as well, but people who walk in front of you on occasion. If that’s going to bother you, stick with the front sofas.

The theater also sells donuts and coffee in the lobby.  I can’t vouch for the donuts (I have very high donut standards), but the coffee was hideous.  Wait until you go into the theater and order coffee from the bar.  Much better…for a pound more.  You decide.

The diner does not take reservations, but they will take your cell number and call you when your table is ready.  Get your name on the list and go shop Portobello Road while you wait.

Shopping along Portobello Road on a Sunday in winter is a far more enjoyable experience than shopping on Portobello Road on a Saturday in the summer.  Take note.

Lord Mayor’s Show London 2012

I’m supposed to be writing a post about my weekend in the Alps, but London keeps distracting me.  This weekend, the City of London  hosted The Lord Mayor’s Show, a procession of pageantry, history and tradition surrounding the swearing-in of the 685th Mayor of London.

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In 1215, King John created a Charter with a provision requiring the newly elected Mayor of London to present himself at Court and swear loyalty to the Crown.   This tradition continued though war, fire and plague and 800 years of London’s tumultuous history. The newly elected Mayor still floats upriver to Westminster to join a procession that includes Her Majesty’s Forces, The Honorable Companies of various tradesmen/women, local school groups, charities, policemen, local Londoners, a 350 year old state coach carrying the Mayor and accompanied by pikemen and (this year) a contingent of students from University of St. Andrews, 600th Anniversary celebration.

It was a great way to start the weekend.  Hope you enjoy the photos!

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.