Russell Nash, Tour Guide Extraordinaire

I believe wholeheartedly that the best way to see a city is on foot.  Preferably, the best way to see a city is on foot on a sunny day when the temps are in the mid-seventies and there is a slight breeze. That was not to be, however.

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We met our guide,Russell, amid freezing temps and snow flurries for an entertaining and informative jaunt through Mayfair on his Mayfair: High Born and Low Life walk.  Before the tour, I considered myself somewhat familiar with the area, yet around every turn Russell shared a fact, anecdote, architectural point of interest or scandalous tale I’d never heard or seen before. I was downright impressed by his depth of knowledge about the area. We saw the homes of royal mistresses and famous musicians, heard tales of private clubs and public scandal. We were even treated to a bit of a Royal lineage song.

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Russell is a knowledgeable,engaging and entertaining guide and we thoroughly enjoyed our day with him. We decided that we would go anywhere with Russell and plan on booking his Men Who Made Menswear tour in March along with any other tour on his schedule. We found booking and tour information online at http://www.guiderussell.co.uk/ which seems to have the most up-to-date tour information.

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A Winter’s Day in Kew Gardens

Winter came to London yesterday and covered every surface with a blanket of freshly fallen snow.   The snow was beautiful in the city, but I talked The Mister into taking the train to Kew Gardens to see it dressed  in winter’s best. There was something magical about tromping through the snow, admiring the snow-laden branches and icy lakes on your way to warm up in the steamy, palm-filled tropical and temperate houses.  Lovely.  I hope you enjoy the photos.

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As I walked through the Tropical House, I remembered a book I used to read to my children...Miss Rumphius.  Do you remember it?

A Dickensian Christmas in London

When you imagine a Dickensian Christmas, what comes to mind? Austere surroundings? Dark, winding, lantern-lit London alleyways?  Tiny Tim and Ebenezer Scrooge?

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The Charles Dickens Museum opened its doors this week after the completion of a £3 million restoration and just in time for patrons to experience a true “Dickensian Christmas.”  The 5-story house, located at 48 Doughty Street, was Charles Dickens’ home when he wrote Oliver TwistBarnaby Rudge and Nicholas Nickleby. The restoration is exquisite, the rooms carefully curated and the house filled with items related to young Mr. Dickens and his family.

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Letters to and from Mr. Dickens and framed first editions hang in the Entry Hall
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Personal artwork and family heirlooms are displayed in the dining room.

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His favorite chair, a reading podium and items collected in his travels are displayed in the Sitting Room.
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Much of what Charles Dickens wrote about was gleaned from his life, observations and experiences.  This innocuous Wash House copper bowl usually held the washing, except for once a year when it was scrubbed and filled with Christmas pudding as it was in A Christmas Carol.

“Martha didn’t like to see him disappointed, if it were only in joke; so she came out prematurely from behind the closet door, and ran into his arms, while the two young Cratchits hustled Tiny Tim, and bore him off into the wash-house, that he might hear the pudding singing in the copper”   A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

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Dickens_dreamHis writing desk, quill and inkstand used to create Fagan, Bill Sykes, Wackford Squeers and Ralph Nickleby sit in a library filled with signed editions and a stunning painting titled Dickens Dream.

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His personal effects; razor, moustache scissors and other toiletry items are encased in glass in his upstairs bedroom.  I took dozens of pictures today, but only included a few rooms here.  It’s tempting to post them all, but I think it a more personal and meaningful experience if you go and visit. As the Ghost of Christmas Present said …”Come in, and know me better,man!”

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When you’ve finished the tour, make time to visit the tiny tea shop in the back of the house.  You can have a cup of tea and make a list of Dickens’ novels you need to read and re-read.  I had a cup of tea and toasted Mrs. Johnson, my 9th grade English teacher, who taught me to love them all.

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The Museum is hosting a number of special Christmas events.

Dickensian Christmas Walks  10:30 to 12:30 and 5:15 to 7:15 (The night walk…very atmospheric after a museum visit, but both are excellent). £7  There is a special walk and museum visit package scheduled for Boxing Day (26 December).

A Christmas Carol with Michael Slater  Highly recommended dramatic reading in perfect surroundings.  Tuesday, 18 December 6:30 to 8:30  Tickets £12. Not suitable for children under 10. Tickets can be booked here.

A Very Dickensian Christmas  December 24, 25 and 26th  Minced pies, mulled wine, festive readings and classic film screenings.  Highly advised to book ahead.  11am to 6pm (last entry at 5).  Admission £18 adults, £8 children

Christmas In London…Twinkle, Twinkle, Christmas Lights

One of our favorite family traditions involves a trip to  New York City around the holidays.  We admire the big tree in Rockefeller Center, watch the skaters beneath the tree and walk by all the spectacular, animated window displays.  We’ll have Christmas in London this year and enjoy all a London Christmas offers, beginning with Christmas lights.   Nothing sets the  mood for the holidays like walking past millions of twinkling lights.  The Mister and I began our tour of lights on Regent Street (above) which boasts a Twelve Days of Christmas theme.  The first display has a partridge in a pear tree, the second….well, you know how it goes.  Beautiful.

Our next stop was Carnaby Street for a Rock n’ Roll and Rolling Stones Christmas….

and past the Christmas trees encircling Liberty department store.

We braved the Oxford Street crowds, which, around Christmas, can make you lose your will to live.  Oxford Street was decorated from end to end with a…variety of themes.   The stars were spectacular and my personal favorite.

Nothing says Christmas like two reindeer fighting over a jar of Marmite…

or an elf  flying with a grilled cheese sandwich?

Debenhams and John Lewis department stores were literally wrapped in beautiful lights.  Selfridges had a more subdued theme with lit garland and beautiful window displays.

We wandered north to Marylebone High Street, which was quite festive with lit ornaments and pretty store windows.

South Moulton Street lined the length of their pedestrian walkway with towering arches of  blue, twinkling lights.

The jewelry and boutique stores in Mayfair took a classic approach to decorating.  Fitting for the neighborhood, yes?   I plan on walking through Covent Garden and St. James sometime soon.  I suggest you  go find your special someone (children are especially keen) and walk through the streets of London.  Check here for a wonderous light display near you…

Question:   I haven’t seen one doorway wreath or string of Christmas lights in a window! I’m not looking for anything over-the-top, but no lights? No candles? Do people not decorate their houses?

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!