London is blessed with a large selection of excellent museums and galleries. The majority of these are free. The Imperial War Museum in Lambeth is a good example of this. It is one of five Imperial War Museum locations in the UK, three of which are in London. Set up in the 1920s to commemorate the effort and sacrifice of Britain in First World War, it is now dedicated to the understanding of modern war, and confines itself to those conflicts in which Britain or the Commonwealth had some involvement.
The building is impressive, surrounded by the green lawns of Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park, it is about a five minute walk from Lambeth North tube station. It has ionic columns at its entrance and an impressive dome. It also has its own interesting history, in the 19th Century it was the notorious Bethlem Royal Hospital, the psychiatric facility that allowed visitors to watch the inmates as public entertainment. It is this building that became the origin of the word bedlam.
The museum is arranged over five floors. The top floor is the Lord Ashcroft gallery which has a large collection of medals awarded for bravery and the stories of many people who have been presented with them. It is an interesting investigation into the definition of courage and what inspires heroic acts.
The fourth floor is dedicated to the holocaust and the rise of Nazism in the mid twentieth century. This contains a surprisingly in depth analysis of the political climate that led to the spreading of the ideology and a comprehensive presentation of its results. There is a scale model of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, which really gives perspective to the magnitude of the crimes. This floor needs to be approached with care, the display is moving and distressing.
The Third floor has an exhibit called Curiosities of War, which is a collection of unusual war related items. This is quirky and comparatively light. The second floor is split between conflicts after WWII and a display about espionage. The recent conflicts exhibition is thought provoking, it brings current events sharply into focus. The spy section seems lightweight, I guess it is tough to say much about state secrets without giving those secrets away. This floor also holds a real size model of an atomic bomb, it is shocking how small it is.
The two lowest floors hold the largest items, tanks, ambulances, rockets, large guns and planes….the remains of a vehicle that was once a car bomb. The descriptions of the items and the uses to which they were put is almost more interesting than viewing the items themselves.
The Hall of Remembrance, is a gallery that was proposed to be built containing artwork commissioned as a memorial to the war dead of WWI. The project ran out of money in the 1920s and was never completed. The Imperial War Museum holds all the artwork that was due to be shown in this gallery and has put it on their website in the form of a virtual gallery. This is a beautiful testimonial and well worth a visit, I have put a link here .
War is not entertainment and this will not be your jolliest day out in London. However, The Imperial War Museum is something that you really should visit when you come to the UK. It is wonderful that this city has such high quality resources and amazing that it offers them for free. The building has step free access and there is parking for Blue Badge holders, but it needs to be booked. Recommended.
Swansea International Festival runs from the 22nd September to the 7th October this year. It has many interesting events, among them a stand up performance by Rob Bryden and a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Iolanthe”.
The centrepiece of the Festival is a Welsh Commission for 14-18NOW called “Now The Hero” 14-18NOW have collaborated with various artists to make some very compelling pieces over the past few years, related to the centenary of the First World War. A particularly thought provoking event earlier this year was “Fly by Night” where thousands of pigeons with LED lights were released over the Thames at sunset.
“Now The Hero” is their final piece and it looks like another winner. It is an immersive musical/theatrical parade, starting in Swansea Bay and finishing with a choir recital in Brangwyn Hall in the city. It tells the story of three Welsh warriors from different time periods. There is an ancient Celtic soldier, a First World War conscript and a contemporary service man. There is also a voice for peace, with Eddie Ladd voicing quotes from protestors at Greenham Common’s women’s camp.
The music is a choral requiem written by Owen Morgan Roberts and Owen Sheers. It is based on a traditional old Welsh poem “Y Gododdin” and will be performed by Cambridge choir, Polyphony. Brangwyn Hall where the event finishes contains “The British Empire Panels” a work originally commissioned to be hung in the House of Lords but rejected by them as too colourful. It was notoriously described at the time by Lord Crawford as “all tits and bananas”, however almost a hundred years later it is regarded as a powerful commemoration of Welsh participation in the First World War.
This event will transform Swansea over the course of five days on 25th to 29th September and it looks as though it will be a spectacular highlight of the Swansea International Festival.
Other performances at the Festival are The BBC National Orchestra with Karl Jenkins and The Welsh National Opera doing “Rhondda Rips it Up” with Lesley Garrett and Madeline Shaw. So if you are looking for some art and culture at the end of September, Swansea is the place to be!
The City Lit is an adult education college situated in the heart of London’s West End. It has a huge number and variety of classes. Twice a year, usually in April and September, they have open days, where prospective students can visit the college, to see what it is like and to discover whether City Lit has anything to offer them.
During these open days they also host over 100 different Taster classes, so one can see what the course is like. Some of these are free, the rest cost either £5 or £10. Examples of taster lessons are: History, Discover Spanish, Adult Ballet, Stand Up Comedy, WordPress, An Introduction to Art and Architecture in Persia, Piano for Absolute Beginners, Screen Printing….. They even have a number of magical mystery courses where the student is not told what they will study until after they arrive in the classroom.
Over the course of past two sets of Open Days, I have attended four of the Taster classes and have enjoyed them immensely. This was really my introduction to the phenomenon of education as entertainment. The four classes that I took were: Introduction to Arabic, WordPress, a brief overview, Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey and Curious – blue which is one of the mystery lessons.
The Arabic gave a basic overview of how the language works, we did not really get any insight into the alphabet or written Arabic, and by the end of the lesson we were all able to introduce ourselves, say where we were from and make the general opening conversation pleasantries. This is certainly enough for one to be able to know whether taking the full term class is something that would be of interest.
WordPress was much more practical and the classroom had many very up-to-date PCs. By the end of the lesson everyone in the class has set up their own WordPress account, made a webpage with text, pictures, video and sound. The computer courses are often single unit workshops to work on a specific programme or platform. The taster would be enough to inform you whether the medium would be constructive in your business or life.
Homer was a much more relaxed affair. An informative discourse, telling the story of his epic poems, the time in which they were written and a chat about why they have remained of interest for such a long period of time. City Lit has a large selection of humanities and social science classes and this would be a good test of whether this kind of course might be what would be of interest.
The Curious Blue course, the mystery course, was the busiest of all the classes that I tried. It surprised me that for so many people that it was not important what class they attended, it was more about the enjoyment of taking part. It turned out that the course was an introduction to Latin. The class was fun and very informative, we learned almost as much about English and language structure in general as we did about Latin.
There is a great deal of camaraderie in learning and I interacted with many people over the series of lectures – all of them in a positive way. Everybody I spoke to was having an enjoyable time and many were learning about themselves as well as their chosen subjects. One person I chatted to had taken the “Piano for Absolute Beginners” taster course and was amazed at his ability to play the chorus of “Ode to Joy” by the time the class was over. A lady I spoke to in the Latin class had signed up for the “Stand Up Comedy” course because she had taken the taster course and enjoyed it so much.
City Lit’s open days were, for me, a truly eye opening adventure. I enjoyed them thoroughly. I had forgotten that learning was such a positive experience, the building was buzzing with excited chatter. I recommend them heartily and I know that I will be looking out for the dates of their open days and taster classes in the coming years!
The Wallace Collection is a must see museum/gallery if you come to London. The items on show were bequeathed to the nation in the late 19th Century and have been on display here since 1900.
The number and quality of the Old Masters from the 15th to the 19th century is amazing. It has some of the finest examples of 18th century French furniture in existence. There is also a rich assemblage of porcelain, sculpture and royal amour in the collection. One of the more unusual pieces is a particularly ornate cannon.
Many of the pieces were bought during the sales of art following the French revolution, which is why the collection is so strong in 18th Century French art. Such good examples of the Louis XV cabinets and marquetry cannot be seen anywhere else in the world.
A condition of the bequest was that none of the pieces ever left the collection, even to go out on loan. So if you ever wish to see, say, “The Laughing Cavalier” or Canaletto’s “View of the Grand Canal” you have to come here.
It is astounding to discover that it is free to visit this collection, although they do ask for a donation. It is also surprisingly quiet, compared to the other, bigger museums and galleries in London. This is presumably because it is not in the main exhibition area of town, although you could argue that, situated between Oxford Street, Baker Street and close to Selfridges, it is even more central than those in South Kensington.
Notable among the Old Masters in the collection are 5 Rembrandt, 4 J. W. Turner, 8 Canaletto, 2 Titian, 12 Reynold, 5 Cuyp, 2 Gainsborough….. the list goes on, it is an amazingly rich and full list. There is even a wonderful portrait of Queen Victoria from 1837, when she was newly ascended to the throne.
The Wallace Collection should not be missed when visiting London. Bring your friends when you visit, and you will surprise them with both the quantity and the quality of the art here. Given how quiet it tends to be, even in the summer, I am going to count this as a hidden gem, and I recommend it heartily.
Literally a few steps away from the hustle of Borough Market is the calm oasis of Southwark Cathedral. It is a wonderful mixture of old and new. It contains a wooden effigy of a knight from the 13th Century, reputedly the oldest in Britain and its Northern cloister was opened in 2001 by Nelson Mandela.
There are monuments and memorials from many time periods in between. There is a stained glass window and bas-relief dedicated to Shakespeare, his brother Edmund is buried here. The Cathedral is on the South Bank of the Thames where many of the theatres used to be in Shakespeare’s time.
There are tombs of quite different types, from the multi-coloured wooden one of the poet, Thomas Gower, a contemporary of Chaucer, to the more austere and eerie one of Thomas Cure, a 16th Century parliamentarian.
There are memorials to those who lost their lives in both the first and second world wars, victims of the Marchioness sinking in 1986 and Isabella Gilmore, the first deaconess of Southwark. There are also monuments to both Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu.
While you are here don’t forget to look at the fixtures and fittings in the building. The black marble font and outrageously ornate wooden cover, at the nave of the church is one highlight, the eagle lectern, near the altar is another.
Added to all this is the architectural splendour of the Cathedral. There are details here from a whole range of different engineering periods. The vaulted ceilings in the main church are beautiful, but the marble bricked ceilings in the naves are equally so.
Walk through the church into the garden and you can sit in verdant peace, with the noise of the market in the background. There are a couple of unusual sculptures here, but the flowers are beautiful. An often overlooked gem in the heart of tourist London, just the place to dip in to, if you feel the need to step out of the boisterous city for a quiet break.
Streatham Common is an attractive green space in South London. The grass on the Northern and Western section is maintained and dotted with trees. It looks very pretty sloping upwards towards the rookery from the A23. On summer weekends it is quite busy with people, flying kites, having picnics or just chilling out. This area of the park often has events running when the weather is warm. An interesting one booked for September is “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” performed by the world first cycling theatre company!
The eastern side is left in a more natural state. It has been designated a local nature reserve and it has many oak trees and some beautiful old cedars. Where the western part meets the east there is beautiful formal garden called The Rookery. A mineral spring was discovered here in the 1650s and was visited by royalty to take the waters. Streatham was a very fashionable out of town location in the 19th century and the Rookery Gardens are kept as they would have been in those days. There is a rockery with a pond, lovely herbaceous borders, and it has an ornamental stream running through it.
The Rookery Café is outside the wall of The Rookery just on the border between the maintained and more natural parts of the common. It is a well run café, serving hot and cold food. There are seats outside with big views to the west and south.
The Common is surprisingly large – over two kilometres along the perimeter from its northwestern corner to the northeastern one. As you head farther east, the park becomes part of the borough of Croydon and is known as Norwood Grove, although historically, it has always been part of the Great Streatham Common. There is a nice 19th century house here, inside the park, Norwood Grove House, although it is known locally as the White House. This also has nicely laid out gardens and pretty, if urban, views out over Croydon.
Streatham Common is a well used park, surrounded on all sides by houses. There are joggers, dog walkers, parents with buggies, yet it is big enough to avoid feeling crowded. It is on the Capital Ring, which is a 120 kilometre walk around London, broken up into 15 smaller sections. This is a surprisingly green and traffic light walk for such a large metropolis. The park itself is a varied and interesting area with lots of different types of scenery, I would say that it is certainly worth a visit if you are in South London on a sunny day.
I had forgotten how much fun Madame Tussauds could be. You have to let yourself go, embrace the kitsch, accept the corny, give in to your inner child and play! You are going to realise that enjoyment is a conscious choice as soon as you sit down in the black cab fairground ride that takes you through a potted history of London. If you disapprove of touristy romanticised attractions you should avoid coming here; where even the rats are sanitised. But, if you are new to London, looking forward to what you are going to see over the coming week, then I can see its allure.
I like how hands on everything is, you can take a selfie with Kim Kardashian, put your head on George Clooney’s shoulder or even look up Marilyn Monroe’s billowing skirt, if that is what takes your fancy. It’s good to go in a group, it’s always fun to discuss how short Tom Cruise is, how tired the Queen looks, or to try to get your Mum to pinch John Wayne’s bum.
The crew that work here are friendly and helpful, happy for you to get up close and personal with the figures and to take a photo, if you ask. They are chatty and will share an anecdote, one guy told me that they sometimes have to remove left knickers from Brad Pitt’s mannequin.
Madame Tussauds is not cheap to visit, but it is possible to get deals, either with your train ticket or as a combination with other London visitor attractions. It is definitely worth looking for these online, you would be very unlucky not to find a coupon somewhere. It is also prone to get very busy, queueing to get in and get around is always a mood dampener, so if you are here in the height of the season try to go early in the day or late in the afternoon. They sometimes have evening openings, look out for these as they are often quieter.
There are waxworks from every walk of life here; film and pop stars, historical and political people, sports and science specialists. So if you want to kiss Kylie, hug Hawkins, shimmy with Shrek or berate Boris; this is the opportunity, all you have to do is lose your inhibitions…..and make sure you take a photo!
Hyde Park Corner has a lot going on, for what is, ultimately, the central reservation of the busiest traffic roundabout in London.
There is Wellington Arch in the centre, which used to house the second smallest police station in Britain until 1992, it is now a museum and open to the public. It is called the Wellington Arch because the top of it used to be crowned by a 40 ton Statue of the Duke of Wellington – the largest statue of a man on a horse that has ever been made. It was moved to Aldershot in 1912 and the arch now has a statue of a winged charioteer driving four horses on it top. This is the largest bronze statue in Europe.
The grassed over island also has the Australian war memorial in the South Western corner and the New Zealand war memorial on the North Eastern corner. These are 21st century memorials built in 2003 and 2006 respectively and commemorating antipodean deaths in the two world wars. They are both moving pieces of public art.
It also contains the Machine Gun Corps Memorial and the Royal Artillery Memorial, two more pieces commemorating casualties of the World Wars. These are both interesting in their own ways. I’m not sure why the Machine Gun Corps is commemorated by a statue of a young man with one hand on his hip and the other on a large sword, but it is beautiful, nonetheless. The Royal Artillery Memorial has more of a Great War atmosphere, it resembles soldiers guarding a tomb, with a cannon on its top.
There is also a statue of Lord Byron and a large bronze of The 1st Duke of Wellington sitting on a horse. The equestrian duke statue is a smaller copy of the one that used to be atop the Wellington Arch. The best way to reach the central reservation avoiding the traffic is by one of many underground passageways. These are bright and well kept and have tiled depictions of the history of the area. I can’t believe that I am recommending visiting the underground pathways to a traffic island, but these are quite interesting in themselves and definitely deserve a view if you have an interest in the history of the area.
Not only is the junction itself full of interest but, there are many places very close by. There is Apsley House, the home of the Dukes of Wellington, and Hyde Park itself to the north. The wall across the road on the southern edge is Buckingham Palace garden. Green Park is on the east, and the Old St Georges hospital, now the Lanesborough Hotel, reputedly the most expensive in London, is to the west. Plus, of course underneath all this is Hyde Park Corner tube station.
In short, if you are to visit any traffic island in central London, then this should be the one!
Apsley House is the smart, columned building on the north side of Hyde Park Corner. It has been the home of the Wellington family since the 18th Century, and it is open to the public Wednesday to Sunday during the summer months. It is a stunning Grade 1 listed building, and many of the interiors are kept in the style of decoration that they would have had at the time they were built. It is unlikely that there is a better maintained aristocratic home in Central London.
The decoration is interesting, there is some of Roberts Adam’s 18th century classical interior design remaining. It was renovated in the early 19th Century when Wellington was living in Downing Street as Prime Minister. The Waterloo Gallery was added at this time to commemorate his victory over Napoleon, and to this day, there is a banquet held annually on 18th June to celebrate this.
There is also an amazing art collection, made up of gifts from grateful war allies, or items acquired as the spoils of war during the defeat of Napoleon. There are paintings by Titian, Van Dyke, Rubens, Goya and Velazquez and many others. You can even see the original painting that contained the image of Wellington, that was used on our old five pound note.
The are many other items of historical interest. It holds the oldest grand piano in England. There are two beautiful porcelain dinner services on display; The Waterloo Meissen Banquet service, painted with scenes of his greatest victories, and the Josephine Egyptian dessert service given by Napoleon to his wife as a divorce gift. Another highlight is the wonderful 3.5metre nude statue of “Napoleon as Mars the God of Peace” by Canova.
The property is run by English Heritage, so it is free to enter if you are a member, but chargeable otherwise. The entry fee includes a touchscreen audio tour, this is very informative and there are seats in some of the rooms, where you can sit and listen to descriptions of the paintings and decoration. The no photographs rule is disappointing. The pictures here are from the tiled passageways under Hyde Park Corner. The building is nice and cool on a warm summer day. It is also surprisingly quiet given its position, right in the centre of London.
If you are looking for a break from the more crowded tourist attractions in central London, Apsley House is well worth a visit.
St James’s Park is the most tourist friendly park in London. It is relatively small, 1Km at its longest edge. It is a pretty, tranquil, well maintained green area joining many of the most viewed attractions in London.
It has Buckingham Palace as the western side, the north border is the Mall, containing St James’s Palace and Clarence House, with Trafalgar Square on the North East corner. Horse Guards Parade is on the Eastern edge, where you can see the Changing of the Guard and the Trooping of the Colour. The South East corner has Westminster Square with the Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, and Westminster Cathedral.
The park itself is beautiful too, with plenty of shade from sycamore trees lining Birdcage Walk, which used to be where James the first kept his exotic bird collection. The park still has pelicans which are descended from the ones given by Russia to Charles the second in 1664. You can watch them being fed every day at 2.30pm. There is plenty of other wildlife and you will need to protect your picnic from both squirrels and pigeons, who have become used to being fed by visitors to the park.
There is a beautiful ornamental lake, with two small islands. The lake can be crossed by a bridge. The Blue Bridge is its official name, but it is sometimes called by the more romantic name Bridge of Spies, the views from this bride are small but spectacular. Buckingham Palace is framed by trees looking west. Looking east, The London Eye is flanked by the turrets of the Old Admiralty building and could be mistaken for a scene from a Disney movie.
The gardens are always well maintained and the flower beds are full of flowers in season whatever time of year you visit, though they are at their most colourful in spring and summer. Pall Mall the wide road on the northern edge of the park gets its name from, Paille Maille, an early form of croquet, as it was originally laid as a lawn on which to play.
If you want to combine a day of iconic London attractions with a day in the park, St James’s Park is the one to choose!