Friday, 28 March 2008

London Weekend Ideas

If you are spending the weekend in London or haven’t made any plans yet, here are a few ideas to tempt you into our diverse capital city!

Tomorrow (Saturday) is the annual Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race. The 154th encounter will see Oxford attempt to regain the crown from Cambridge.boat race

Starting from Putney Bridge at 5.15pm, you can enjoy this most English of sporting events for free from one of the many viewing points along the race course. Either side of the river will provide you with a great view but Putney Bridge and Putney Embankment are recommended for starting excitement; Hammersmith and Barnes will afford good mid-way vistas and Dukes Meadows and Chiswick Bridge are the places to be if you want to see an undoubtedly thrilling finish!

So that you know who you are cheering on to the finishing line, Oxford wear dark blue and Cambridge wear light blue. Depending on the weather, expect up to 250,000 spectators along the river so get there early if you want a good spot!
Come on you blues! (I have to appear impartial!)

On Sunday there is a fantastic opportunity to hear the guitar trio Appassionata play live. Launching their new CD “Beyond Horizons”, Amanda Cook, Hayley Savage and Rebecca Baulch are performing music by Bridge, Dodgson, Dowland and Ireland and other English music for three guitars.

If you haven’t heard Appassionata perform yet then this is the perfect opportunity to witness three of the UK’s finest classical guitarists for the measly sum of £10! The concert kicks of at 7pm at St George’s Bloomsbury, Bloomsbury Way, WC1 and the nearest tube stations are Tottenham Court Road and Holborn. Tickets are available at the door but be sure to get there in good time to guarantee your seat.

For all you Dr Who fans out there, get yourselves along to Earls Court for the newly opened Doctor Who Exhibition! This is the largest ever Dr Who display in the Dr WhoUK and visitors can get up close and personal with monsters, creatures, K9, Daleks and Cybermen! With a huge display of costumes and props from all the latest episodes including the Christmas Special, this is not to be missed! The exhibition continues until September and new items from the fourth series will be added to the exhibition following transmission on BBC1. Adult tickets are £9 and Kids 4-16 only £7.

The Doctor Who Exhibition takes place in the Museum Hall, Earls Court.

My Wonderful Photo!

You know how I tend to be quite self-deprecating about my wonky photos? Well my faith in people’s love of all things leaning (think how they flock around the Leaning Tower of Pisa!) has been restored thanks to a request from another website to use one of my photos!!! Can you believe it? I can’t but I quickly agreed before they realised they’d got the wrong “photographer” !!!

You can see my photo and the related story here:

Thursday, 27 March 2008

Views From The Cruise

The boat trip along the River Thames is a great way of seeing a lot of historical London without walking miles or using public transport. The London tube system is an easy way to travel around London but you do miss a lot of famous sights whilst travelling underground. With the City Cruises Red Rover ticket (all thrown in for free with the London Pass) I was able to see these famous places and have a better idea of where they are in relation to each other (maps do tend to confuse me!).city hall

As you board the boat at the Tower Pier, you are surrounded by a mixture of old and new with the Tower of London to one side, Tower Bridge behind and, on the other side of the river, a group of very modern, glass fronted buildings which include City Hall, home of the Greater London Authority (tate modernon left of picture above).

Further down the river on the left is the Tate Modern gallery. Once a power station, this is not the most beautiful of buildings along the River Thames but it houses some of the best international modern art in Britain. Unfortunately, the tourists sharing this boat trip with me probably assumed it was a disused building of no interest and kept their eyes fixed firmly ahead! (See picture left).St Pauls

At various points along the river, you can see the Dome of St Paul’s Cathedral peeking through the skyline. I got the impression that this imposing building was meant to be seen throughout the City and hope that London doesn’t lose this wonderful sight by building too many more unnecessary skyscrapers. In the right foreground of this picture is the City of London Boys School.

The OXO ToOxo Towerwer is on your left and, since the 1990s, this iconic building has been home to boutique shops, cafes, restaurants and galleries. The famous red lights which come on as daylight fades are, in fact, windows which were incorporated into the design by the OXO brand owners to avoid the ban on sky advertising in the 1920s.

There’s more to come but don't forget you can see all my London sightseeing photos on flickr

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Thames Bridges

The City Cruises trip from the Tower to Westminster Piers only takes about half an hour but there’s plenty to see in those 30 minutes.

As I was still in counting mode from the Tower of London stairs, I started to count theLondon Bridge number of bridges we went under but that really does seem too sad to report! (Actually, I lost count after 5!) As you’ve already seen, the boat trip starts with a fabulous view of Tower Bridge and I’m glad to report that London Bridge is not falling down! (left) A lot of people are disappointed to know that London Bridge is a modern construction as they wrongly assume that the more ornate Tower Bridge is the one sung about in the nursery rhyme.Millennium Bridge

The most modern bridge on the Thames is the Millennium Bridge (right) which was nicknamed the “Wobbly Bridge” when it was closed two days after opening because it wobbled uncontrollably! It was modified to prevent the shakes but last year it was closed again during high winds for fear of pedestrians being blown off the footbridge! I don’t think I’ll be rushing to walk over that particular bGolden Jubilee Bridgesridge!

The Golden Jubilee Bridges (left) are a slightly strange conglomeration of an old railway bridge (the Hungerford Bridge), flanked by two footbridges that were completed in 2002 and named after the Queen’s milestone.

There’s not a lot more I can write about bridges so I will move onto the more famous buildings on the banks of the River Thames next.

Sunday, 23 March 2008

City Cruises

city cruise city hallAfter the Tower of London, I headed down to Tower Pier (30 second walk) where I presented my London Pass and was given an all day City Cruises ticket! This is a great London Pass bonus as you can use the City Cruise boats like a bus- getting on and off where you want throughout the day. On a warm day it would be lovely to sit on the deck and have a little picnic while going up and down the River Thames. (I'm such a romantic!) But as it was cold and threatening totower bridge rain I decided I’d just go down to Westminster and come straight back. While I waited for the next boat (above in front of City Hall) I took a few photos of Tower Bridge slowly sinking to the right (only kidding, it’s my wonky photography again!) and also HMS Belfast which is directly opposite the landing jetty.

hms belfastThe City Cruise boats are surprisingly comfortable and warm inside which is very welcome on a cold day. There is a small bar where you can buy all sorts of drinks and snacks and huge panoramic windows to look through. However, being an intrepid explorer I decided to go upstairs to the open air deck so that I could take better (ha ha) photos!

I wasn’t sure what I was looking at some of the time and didn’t want to miss anything so my photos are a little random! Any buildings I can’t name will be put on my Flickr page so that hopefully someone will enlighten me!

Saturday, 22 March 2008

Save Some Room For Lunch

How many of you have spent the last week nibbling, licking and sinking your teeth into those egg-shaped treasures of pleasure? Easter is a good excuse for gorging yourself on choccy treats but you didn’t need to wait - calorific cream eggs have been on sale since Christmas!

In Christian history, the egg represents the rebirth of man or the resurrection of Christ but, despite extensive research, I cannot find any genuine justification for the chocolate content! So, as I am on a diet this year and will not be partaking, I will stand in judgement upon you all and say “Bad boys and girls!” Enjoy!

If you are not full up from a week of gluttony then here are some last minute ideas for lunch tomorrow in London.

Covent Garden Grill

If you are doing a little sightseeing then work your way to Covent Garden and this modern but unpretentious restaurant. The diverse international menu offers good value. If you are using the London Pass and order two main meals then you will receive a free bottle of house wine per couple.

Porters English Restaurant

If you fancy something a little more wholesome and the old fashioned homemade English food that none of us indulge in these days then this is the place to go! Incredible value for money and a warm inviting atmosphere make Porters the perfect venue for Easter lunch. With the London Pass you’ll get a bottle of house wine per couple if you order at least two courses from the main menu.

Thai Square Restaurant, Trafalgar Square

You’ve finished feeding the pigeons in Trafalgar Square and are feeling a little peckish for something not traditionally “Easter”. The flagship restaurant in the Thai Square Group offers authentic Thai cuisine in Thai-inspired surroundings. If you have a London Pass then you will receive a fantastic 20% off all food and drink from the a la carte menu!

As for me, I’ll be at home with a lettuce leaf or two but I wish you all a very Happy Easter!

Easter Sunday Church Services

Easter Sunday in London offers plenty of opportunity to worship and reflect at either end of the day. Here are service details for some of London’s most famous Churches.

St. Paul’s Cathedral - St.Paul’s Tube

5:45am, Dawn Eucharist

9am, Eucharist with Hymns

10.15am, Choral Mattins

11.30am, Sung Eucharist

15.15pm, Festal Evensong

6pm, Eucharist with Hymns

Abbey – St.James’s Park Tube

3pm Evensong

6.30pm Evening Service

Southwark CathedralLondon Bridge Tube

11am Choral Eucharist, procession and the distribution of Easter eggs

3pm Choral Evensong

6.30pm Compline and Eucharistic Devotions

Westminster CathedralVictoria Tube/Rail

9am Family Mass

10am Morning Prayer

10.30am Solemn Mass

3.30pm Solemn Vespers and Benediction.

Holy Trinity Brompton – South Kensington Tube

9.30am Family Service

11.30am Family Service

5pm Informal Communion Service

7pm Informal Communion Service

Friday, 21 March 2008

Easter Ideas ~ Part 2

Seeing as the weather doesn’t look too promising for this Easter weekend, here are a few indoor events for your Easter contemplation!

Handel House Museum – Easter Sunday, 12 noon – 5.30pm

Visit the house where Handel once lived, listen to some beautiful live baroque music and take part in the Easter Egg trail, with chocolate egg prizes for all participants! Good music and yummy chocolate- a great combination!

(Entry FREE for children 16 and under, £5 for adults or FREE for London Pass holders)

The Foundling Museum – Saturday 22nd, 10am – 6pm

Inject some sweet fun when you visit this historic museum tomorrow with a fun trail, collecting clues and winning chocolate prizes!

(Admission £5, Children FREE. London Pass holders get FREE entry into the museum, the Easter Trail and can buy the Foundling guide book for only £3)

The Hard Rock Café – Easter Sunday, 10am

Hip Hop Easter Breakfast for all the family. Enjoy a breakfast buffet with the Bunny, play Easter games, paint eggs and receive a special treat from the Bunny.

(Cost: £7.95 per child, £10.95 per adult. London Pass Holders will be given priority seating in the restaurant, receive an extra FREE gift if you spend over £25 in the store and get to visit the Vault where the most prized memorabilia is kept!)

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Easter Ideas ~ Part 1

If you haven’t yet planned your Easter weekend, here are a few ideas that I’ve read or heard about to keep you busy! I’ve tried to include several attractions that you can visit using the London Pass so that you get extra value for money!

Easter Egg Hunts

Kew Gardens - Easter Sunday, 23 March. From 10am to 2pm.
Participation FREE (normal entry fees to Kew Gardens apply but this is one of the London Pass attractions if you want a real bargain!)
Kids collect tokens from chicks and receive a chocolate egg from the Easter Bunny!

WWT London Wetland Centre
Another place on the London Pass list so add it to your Easter itinerary.

Easter Saturday and Sunday. 9.30am-5pm:
Egg Challenge with “Sir Rabbit” hopping around the visitor centre during the day. Answer his questions correctly to claim your chocolate egg.
Good Friday and Easter Monday. 2.30pm-3pm:
Meet in the Courtyard for the Egg Challenge – eggy games for chocolatey prizes!

The Imperial War MuseumThroughout Easter Weekend. 10am-6pm.
FREE entry for the perfect wet weather Easter event!
Easter Eggsploration is educational fun for slightly older kids (very young children may need adult help but who needs an excuse when there’s war planes and tanks involved?!) At the end of the trail kids receive a chocolate gift. Take the opportunity to visit one of London’s most impressive and child-friendly museums.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Tower of London ~ The Last Post?

Just one last post about the Tower of London. If you do visit this historic attraction using the London Pass, it is worth checking out the Wagamama noodle restaurant close to the ticket office. If you show your London Pass you will get two main meals for the price of one which is an offer you’d find hard to beat anywhere in London. Unfortunately, being a lone tourist that day, this special offer was no good for me but I took a photo of the restaurant anyway to tempt those of you who have sightseeing company! I’ve had a look at their website and it shows the fabulous views of the Tower and the Bridge from the restaurant as well as menu listings and dietary requirement suggestions. Just looking has made my mouth water! Even though I haven’t tried it out for myself I really think that Wagamama deserve a Ding Dong for the London Pass deal- it’s an excellent offer for eating out in London.

And now for a warning… If you read my post about the Tower of London Ravens then you’ll know that if they all leave the confines of the Tower it will crumble and the Kingdom will fall. If you are considering visiting the big birds and their famous home this coming Easter weekend I would highly recommend doing so or else you may miss your chance. I don’t want to panic anyone or be accused of scaremongering but the Tower of London may be about to fall down and the Kingdom may be lost forever. Don’t just take my word for it… I have photographic evidence!runaway raven

As I made my way down the jetty towards the City Cruises boat for the River Thames trip, I saw this horrifying sight – a runaway Raven on the shore of the River Thames! Could this be the first escapee? Will there be more? Is this really the beginning of the end?!runaway raven 2

If you do visit the Tower of London this weekend, please count the Ravens and if you don’t see as many as I did (six) then please start those (metaphorical) alarm bells ringing or at least let me know the bad news! Let’s hope Sparkly Songbird isn’t really a prophet of doom and that this blog won’t need to be renamed “London Clangers”!

Sunday, 16 March 2008

Airing Clean Washing

My Tower of London experience over, here are my conclusions and suggestions to make your visit even more enjoyable. I also tie up a few loose ends!

When I returned home that night, I thought I would do a little more research on the beardless Beefeater, “Susan”, who was so unaccommodating. It transpires that the singular female Beefeater is, in fact, called Moira Cameron and looks nothing like “Susan” who I am now assuming was a just a Tower of London guide! This will teach me to take proper notice of uniforms in future – I don’t want to get Policemen and Traffic Wardens confused just because they wear similar(ish) uniforms! I am quite relieved that “Susan” wasn’t the elusive female Yeoman Warder but disappointed that I didn’t get to see her, take a photo or ask a few questions.

After that little bit of post-daytrip research (yes I know I’m supposed to research before going somewhere!) I uploaded my photos onto the computer. As I worked my way through- deleting the total duds and patching up the others- I came across a couple of photos I’d taken over a high wall between the Salt and Broad Arrow Towers. The first one looks like a bit of a wasted pic but the second one unveils the other side of the Tower of London – the private side. Take a look at that laundry drying in the wind – its pink! To be more precise it’s pink playboy bunny sheets, pink tops and what appears to be an itsy bitsy pink skirt! Could I have found the “Yeowoman” Warder’s rooftop washing line? I may not have met the lady herself, but they say you can tell a lot about a person from their laundry… I wonder where she got that bed linen from?!

If you are interested in seeing all of my Tower of London photos (including ones not uploaded onto this blog) you can find them at:

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not the world’s best photographer but every picture tells a story!

In retrospect I wish I’d bought the audio guide which is discounted with a London Pass, then I may have had more enthusiasm for the smaller, less famous towers. Having abandoned the Beefeater tour after making my unfunny joke, this would have made my visit more structured and informative.

Of the 22 towers I visited 8 and climbed 957 stairs in total… yes, 957!

I suggest wearing comfortable shoes or trainers when visiting the Tower of London as climbing small, sometimes spiral or uneven staircases would be pretty dangerous work in high heels! The cobbled pathways may also be a bit troublesome if you’re not steady on your feet.

I arrived at the Tower around midday and noticed a lot of school groups just leaving so I guess the mornings are busier. Also, if you have the option, then avoid weekends as the tourist hot spots are always busy then. At least if you have the London Pass you can skip the entrance queues and remember that you don’t use the regular entrance. Walk around past Traitors Gate to the Middle Drawbridge Entrance and they swipe your London Pass and let you straight in.

The Tower of London is really a fabulous place to visit and, potentially, you could spend a whole day exploring. But as I’ve said I’m not mad keen on history and, while I appreciate the value of this amazing tourist attraction, I wouldn’t want to spend a whole day there. The beauty of the London Pass is that you don’t feel obliged to spend hours there because you won’t be wasting money on the ticket! Just see what you want to see and go on to the next place.

I saw plenty more that day using my London Pass and will share my experiences and dodgy photos with you just as quickly as I can write and upload!

Saturday, 15 March 2008

Sparkly Songbird Surrounded By Sparkly Stones

So finally I made it to the most popular part of the Tower of London – the Jewel House. Home of the Crown Jewels, obviously you can’t take photos inside so I can only show you the outside of this building which is part of the Waterloo Barracks.

Security is tight here and you immediately feel you are entering a place of great importance. Geared up for the big crowds of summer and weekends, there are snake style passageways through the first few rooms with large video screens and dramatic music to keep the people entertained. Although it was relatively quiet on the day I visited, we all stood and watched the video clips of Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation (in glorious colour) and other important events like the State Opening of Parliament. They also showed beautiful close up photographs of the various jewels, orbs, sovereigns ring, crowns, sceptres and the First Star of Africa- the largest diamond in the world.

This was drama, British-style, and I found it fascinating that all the tourists watched in silence and anticipation despite there being no queues requiring them to wait patiently!

You enter the chambers where the Crown Jewels are kept through thick vault doors which is all part of the security setup. The first thing to hit me was the vivid colour of the various jewels – so bright they almost looked fake! The Coronation Robe is on display and, having just seen our young Queen appearing to walk so effortlessly in it at the coronation, I wondered how she didn’t pass out with the weight!

Then you reach the travelator (similar to those at airports) which takes you passed the most important jewels, crowns and Royal regalia. When I saw the crown Jewels as a child there was no travelator and visitors were kept several feet away from the display cases by ropes and asked to move along quickly. This present system is much better. The lighting is dim in the room which makes the spotlights pick up the colour of the gems beautifully. Even the children seemed to pick up atmosphere and there was an air of solemn, hushed excitement in the room.

I tried to make notes as I moved along the travelator and ended up missing half of the crowns! When I got to the end I asked the Warder if I could go around for another look and he very kindly allowed me to skip back round to the beginning of the conveyor belt. I doubt if this would have happened on a busier day so I was pretty lucky. Second time round I was able to appreciate the beauty and majesty of these Royal artefacts and particularly marvel at Queen Victoria’s tiny diamond crown even though the travelator does move rather quickly – blink and you’ll miss something!

Towards the end there is a massive collection of gold and silver items from Royal christening fonts to banqueting plates. All very impressive and quite overwhelming. Then you go through more massive vault doors and head towards the significantly less sparkly outside world, But, just before you leave feeling all warm and content from witnessing such amazing pieces of historical beauty, the bubble is burst well and truly. Right by the exit is one last display case containing the most dreadful Millennium Crown competition winning design by a child. Whilst I am all for encouraging children to use their imaginations and having their dreams made a reality this, to my mind, should not still be on display among genuine Royal artefacts. It was the result of a Blue Peter TV competition but, eight years on, I think it’s time for it to be put in the BBC vaults! For me, it spoilt the magic of the Crown Jewels and that was a big shame.

Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Diamonds Sparkle & "Susan" Disappoints

Having worked my way up, through and down another four towers, I finally reached a tower that captured my imagination – The Martin Tower. Once known as the Jewel Tower, it housed the Crown Jewels from the mid 17th to 19th Centuries and is now the location for a fantastic exhibition called “The Evolution of The English Crown”.

The display cases were surrounded by adults and children all oooh-ing and aaah-ing at whatever it was they were looking at… I couldn’t see a thing but was keen to join in with this wordless mantra of delight! While waiting for the group to move on, I went back to the entrance to see if there were any signs prohibiting photography. As I walked through the doorway, camera in hand, I was stopped by a figure in black and red who said “You can’t take photos in there”. “Oh ok, that’s what I was just coming to find out” I said before I’d registered that this was a woman I was talking to! This must be the elusive female Yeoman Warder! Hooray!

I politely asked her name to which she replied “Susan” without a smile. I lifted up my camera and was about to ask if I could take a photo of her when she curtly reminded me that photographs weren’t allowed. Then she turned her back on me and responded to a radio message about German tourists eating pizza in the White Tower. My mission was over and I felt utterly deflated at the lack of conversation with “Susan” and disappointed that I didn’t have a photo. Maybe she was having a bad day or perhaps she just needs to eat more beef?! I went outside and took a picture of the view instead (right: can anyone tell me what that strange, slightly phallic, gherkin shaped building is all about?!)

The exhibition in the Martin Tower was great. The crowns and diamonds on display were stunning. At one point there was only a piece of glass (presumably reinforced) separating me from 12,314 genuine diamonds! These represent the diamonds from George IVs Coronation Crown that he couldn’t afford so they were removed and he never wore the (plain) crown again! Some diamonds were out on loan and, for some reason, others were replaced by replicas but on the whole it was an intimate and impressive exhibition which was a good warm up for the Crown Jewels.

For those of you not on a Sparkly Songbird budget and looking for a special venue to make an impression, you may be interested to know that you can hire the Martin Tower for a unique and opulent dinner party. You, and up to eleven guests, can dine in this historic location surrounded by millions of pounds worth of diamonds… now that’s what I call a Ding Dong dinner!

Monday, 10 March 2008

Pecking Ravens, Proud Grandkid & (more) Pesky Stairs

What would you know – another meat eating, male Beefeater! Well, I’m not certain he was a meat eater but he was definitely a man. He asked if he could help me so I took the opportunity to ask about another matter on my mind.

My late grandfather was stationed at the Tower of London during World War I and, sadly, I know very little more than that. The Beefeater I spoke to told me as much as he could without knowing his rank or regiment. He told me there was a high chance my Grandad would have lived in the Waterloo Barracks (seen behind the soldiers in yesterday’s photo) but if I can find out more detail they’d be able to tell me precisely which garrison he was in.

The only other piece of information I had was that he was honourably discharged due to meningitis so my very friendly Beefeater walked me round to the Old Hospital Block (pictured left) where my Grandad would have spent his last days at the Tower of London before returning home.

I felt quite touched to know that my Grandad was stationed here nearly 100 years ago and very proud that he did his part for King and Country.

Rather than start climbing stairs again I walked round to see where the Ravens spend their days. These massive proud birds are a famous feature of the Tower of London. During the recent bird flu scares, they were kept inside to protect them but the risk must be over as I saw three in the Raven “area”, one in a large aviary and had earlier seen two demolishing Tower Green! So I counted six but I’m not sure how many currently reside at the Tower. Legend says that there must be a minimum of six Ravens and if they all disappear/die/go on holiday/escape then the Tower will crumble and the Kingdom will fall. As a precaution, their wings are trimmed to stop them flying away and they are looked after by the Yeoman Raven Master (what a title!) who feeds them a diet of raw meat, raw eggs and an occasional dead rabbit! There are several signs warning that the Ravens may bite, but they seemed more interested in pecking at the medieval ruins than the tourists!

Having decided to leave the Crown Jewels until last, I knew I should make my way up and down the various other towers I hadn’t visited. I admit I didn’t manage all of them and those that I did see consisted largely of many stairs going up, one room, a small exhibit or piece of information and more stairs back down again. From my distinct lack of notes I realise that there isn’t anything very interesting to tell you about these less famous towers. I know that sounds awful but my interest in history is limited and I need quite a lot of visual stimulation to keep my attention! I think, had I not been alone, I may have been more fascinated by the minutiae. But with only one London Pass there can be only one opinion so at least I am being honest and not influenced by someone else’s thoughts.

Still to come... some lovely sparkly diamonds and my encounter with a beardless figure wearing black and red!

Sunday, 9 March 2008

Banana Bread, Bloody Tower, Bridge & Beards

I had a quick look around the White Tower Shop and was impressed by the range of souvenirs from candy and toys to top price mementos and gifts. All the shops at the Tower of London sell pretty much the same merchandise and there is also a selection available to buy online.

Once back out in the open, I wandered around looking at the impressive buildings surrounding me until I remembered my quest to meet the lone woman Beefeater. I headed towards a friendly looking Beefeater who was watching some less friendly looking ravens pecking great pieces of turf from Tower Green.

This particular Beefeater had a beard so I was pretty certain that this was not the female of the species! I felt it would be rude to simply ask where I could find “her”, the nameless, beardless female Yeoman Warder, so I said hello meekly and moved on to the Bloody Tower!

I am ashamed to say that I didn’t know Sir Walter Ralegh was imprisoned here three times throughout his life (he also had a beard!) and that his surname was spelt without an “i” despite being taught otherwise at school!

Coming out of the Bloody Tower I lent over a high(ish) wall and took a snap of Tower Bridge. If anybody has noticed that all my photos appear to be a little askew then my considered response is that, being so old, the whole area is wonky and it has nothing to do with my inability to hold a camera straight!

There were quite a few smaller towers that I found disappointing due to the lack of displays and information. Climbing zillions of stairs to glimpse a few scratched words in Latin or a hand print in the wall became disheartening and so I decided to check out the café!

With a quick flash of my London Pass I received a 20% discount in the New Armouries Café which was large, light and clean. Full priced hot drinks cost from £1.40 (this is cheap for London) and they serve hot food from £6.95. I only had a coffee and some banana bread (naughty but nice!) but both were excellent.

As I left the café there was a bit of a commotion outside as a group of soldiers marched past, led by a Yeoman Warder (with beard). I did my best to run ahead and get a photo but that banana bread was weighing rather heavy! I succeeded just before they marched into the Jewel House to change guard.

Having put my camera away, I spotted a beardless Yeoman Warder standing by the Chapel Royal so I made my way towards what I hoped was the elusive female (possibly vegetarian) Beefeater…

Friday, 7 March 2008

Scaffolding, Stairs & Suits of Armour

Most visitors head straight to see the Crown Jewels but I was happy to wait a while longer before seeing them again. I made my solitary way to the White Tower - the oldest of all the towers - which is currently being cleaned and conserved externally. It was originally white washed to intimidate foreign invaders and terrify Londoners but this pollution-stained grubby brownish building remains impressive and iconic. Unfortunately, the temporary scaffolding rather ruins the photo opportunity… so I didn’t bother!

The White Tower houses the Armouries. I happily admit that I speeded around the displays and, where possible, skipped whole sections! I am emphatically unenthusiastic about swords, guns and suits of armour. But don’t let me put you off as anyone who has a slight interest in matters of munitions (mostly little boys and big boys I would imagine!) will love this tower more than any other! My attention was tickled slightly by the “Hands on History” section where you can touch and try out some weapons. Alas, my fleeting enthusiasm vanished when a pushy mother pushed me out of the way so that little Johnny could have a go – I considered pistols at twenty paces but didn’t want to ruin the atmosphere!

One display worth mentioning is the Guinness World Record holder for the Tallest Suit of Armour. Standing at 6ft 8 inches and dating back to around 1540, this “giant” suit of armour is displayed next to a “dwarf” (their word, not mine!) suit of armour which is a miniature 3ft 1.5 inches. Surprisingly, there are no prizes for the small one which just goes to show that size really does matter!

It’s no secret that the Tower of London, with its many stairs and uneven floor surfaces, is generally not wheelchair friendly. But with so much to look at and discover without going inside, mobility problems shouldn’t impede your enjoyment at this World Heritage Site. In fact, there is free wheelchair hire available (but careful on the cobblestones!). The Jewel House is completely accessible for all visitors as are the New Armouries Café and various toilet facilities.

I should reveal now that, because of my shameful indifference to weaponry, I started counting stairs whilst in the White Tower! I will reveal the results of my massive stair count at a later date – I bet you can’t wait for those statistics!

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Vegetarian Beefeaters

“It’ll be worth the wait…” that is how I finished my last post and it was one of the first things I heard a woman say to a child as I arrived at the Tower of London. Yes, the place I said I wouldn’t go to was, in fact, my first sightseeing stop in London. It’s 25 years since my last visit and, I thought it would be interesting to see it through adult eyes. Obviously the buildings themselves haven’t changed but the surrounding area has become superbly razzle-dazzle with wide walkways, bright lighting, shops, bars and signposts to other local places of interest.

With the London Pass in my hand I didn’t need to go to the ticket office but, out of curiosity, I went to see what I was missing! There are machines as well as a traditional ticket office and, being mid-week and midday the queues were not as long as they would be at weekends or on school holidays but still long enough to make me thankful I had fast-track entry!

London Pass holders enter the Tower of London through the Middle Drawbridge Entrance; your pass is entered into a device which, to me, looks just like a chip & pin credit card machine. You then have your bag searched by security- two very handsome guys who laughed at my suggestion of a quick all over body search (I can’t imagine why!).

I’m not going to write historic facts about the Tower of London- if you don’t already know the basics then you’ll find out plenty when you get there. But there are a few things I’d like to share.

I started off on a free Beefeater tour but I soon upset our guide by asking if any of the Beefeaters were vegetarians! I thought this was quite funny but he was not amused… apparently they don’t like being called by their nickname (their official title is Yeoman Warder) and he has probably heard that joke a million times before. First tip when visiting the Tower of London: Do not upset the Yeoman Warders – they look like sweet old men but remember that beneath the snazzy costume/uniform and dramatic story-telling, these men have served a minimum of 22 years in the armed forces and most have fought for Queen and Country. Don’t mess with these guys!!! He never answered my question so I assume the subject of vegetarianism among the Beefeaters is taboo!

As it was a cold day, most of the Yeoman Warders were wearing black cloaks over their “undress” (black and red outfit worn on normal days rather than their famous red and gold ceremonial uniforms), which made them difficult to distinguish from the regular tour guides who also wear black with a splash of red. A few months ago the first female Beefeater/Yeoman Warder was appointed and I was on a mission to find and photograph her. The lack of distinguishing clues made my mission harder than expected but if I found her then maybe she would be more forthcoming about her eating habits!

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Prologue ~ The London Pass

I used the London Pass for the first time today! Woohoo!

I’ve had a brilliant day and am on a bit of a high tonight. That little smart-card is one clever piece of technology (I guess that’s why it’s called “smart”!). Without any question, the London Pass saved me time and money today and for those two factors alone I’m giving it a Double Ding Dong!

Last night I was looking through the London Pass guidebook and suddenly realised just how much there is to see and do in the capital. Consequently, I changed my mind about going to the smaller and less well-known attractions first. With the London Pass map in front of me it made more sense to start on one side of the city and work my way across, visiting a mixture of famous sights and hidden gems.

I think this will make my rediscovery of London simpler and you’ll be able to track my progress and get ideas for your own trips to London.

I took loads of photographs (I’m warning you now that I’m not the World’s best photographer!) and I wrote lots of little notes to myself throughout the day so I won’t forget anything (at one point I was so busy making notes that I missed a crucial “thing”… more about that tomorrow!)

Without giving too many clues tonight, I will just tell you that Sparkly Songbird was in her element at one of London’s top tourist attractions. For more clues read my profile (top right corner of this page) and visit to see if you can guess where the first sparkly stop off was!

Sorry to keep you in suspense but all will be revealed tomorrow… It’ll be worth the wait!