Sunday, 31 August 2008

My First Blogging Century

Today is my 100th London Ding Dong post so I reckon this milestone warrants a little self-congratulation and a précis of the last few months!

100 posts ago I morphed into Sparkly Songbird (left) and decided to rediscover London after living abroad for several years. Have I achieved my well intended goal yet? The answer is no and the reason is that London is simply too vast, too diverse and too progressive to ever really discover fully. In reality, it it is hard to do little more than scratch the surface. The flip side is that one can never get bored of London as it evolves continuously despite its magnificent history and traditions.

On a personal level I have re-familiarised myself with the city and discovered some wonderful new places along the way; I have visited places I’ve grown up knowing about but never got around to seeing; I’ve seen some places with adult eyes that brought back long forgotten childhood memories and re-lived a few moments from my childhood or student days.

In the years that I’ve been away my reaction to the hustle and bustle of London has probably worsened – I still can’t relax totally in the busy metropolis after living by the beach for so long! I have rediscovered my phobia of going underground and therefore rediscovered the joy of using red buses and watching the hustle and bustle from a safe distance! In fact, I positively love travelling by bus in London these days - it is by far my favourite mode of transport!

I’ve learnt that London can be extortionately expensive but, if you’re prepared to do a little research then there are some fabulous bargains to be had. I’ve found that while some people in London are constantly in a rush and have no time to stop for anything or anyone, there are others who will go out of their way to be helpful and give you their time and/or knowledge. I’ve noticed that most tourists –of any nationality- do not like or do not know how to queue!

I’m now aware that if I dress for cold or wet weather then the sun will shine and if I dress for warm weather it will rain or be cold! I’ve concluded that London has its own weather regardless of forecast or season!

I’ve discovered that old habits die hard (looking out for the Queen at Buckingham Palace); places disappear (Capital Radio Café in Leicester Square); and that major artworks can appear over night and legally be painted over again the next day (Banksy).

I think, most importantly, I no longer feel like a stranger in London. I wouldn’t say I am an authority on London but in the last few months I’ve learnt enough to recommend, forewarn and advise anyone who is listening or reading! There are big differences between those who live in London, those who just work in London and those who visit London for pleasure. I come mainly into the latter category and now know London in the way that most inquisitive tourists would/should. I don’t know the best pubs to drink in or which night bus takes you to Shepherds Bush but I do know some great tourist attractions and can make suggestions for holiday itineraries in London!

Of course, I have saved a lot of time in research and ticket office queues by mostly using the London Pass for sightseeing. I highly recommend this little sightseeing card, particularly if you are visiting London from overseas. The ability to plan your trip ahead of arrival – both physically and financially – should not be underestimated! I think most holidaymakers want a small taste of everything that a city has to offer and the London Pass definitely makes sightseeing accessible in that way.

So, with the first 100 posts under my belt, a little bit of London knowledge established and with the English “summer” nearly over, it’s time for London Ding Dong to receive an Autumn makeover. I’m not exactly sure what this will entail yet but I have a few thoughts so watch this space. In the meantime… thank you for reading, thanks for your comments and thanks for the encouragement!

Saturday, 30 August 2008

USA to London Cheap Flights Plus FREE London Pass

Today’s post will be of particular interest to my American readers! If you have been planning a holiday to London before the end of the year and haven’t booked your flights yet then I have great news for you!

British Airways have an incredible offer on until September 4th for flights from most major American airports to London from US$226 each way. The offer is valid for flights taken between September 4th and December 17th 2008 and the price is based on a round trip and must be booked seven days in advance.

As an extra bonus BA are giving away a 2 day London Pass with every London flight purchased before September 4th! At today’s prices these passes are worth an additional £49 each (approximately US$91).

So if you need a break from the American Presidential race, fancy a holiday in Europe and are keen to do some sightseeing in London then get yourself to the British Airways site and book your flight and FREE London Pass before Thursday September 4th!

There’s no need to thank me for the tip off! ;-)
N.B. If you've already booked your flights to London and want to order the London Pass online then visit their site this weekend as they have a sale on until September 1st.
Adult Prices are as follows:
1 Day £36.00 - approx. US$67 (normal price £38)
2 Day £46.00 - approx. US$85 (normal price £49)
3 Day £57.00 - approx. US$105 (normal price £60)
6 Day £79.00 - approx. US$152 (normal price £82)

Friday, 29 August 2008

London Loos 5

The featured loo this month is, not entirely surprisingly, located at the Rainforest Café in Shaftesbury Avenue. Unfortunately I haven’t got a photograph of this particular loo to show you but let me assure you that the ladies loos are clean, modern and functional.

Nothing majorly special to report about these toilets but the “trek” to reach them was a fun experience. Under the beady eye of life size gorillas and realistic elephants I wandered through the restaurant, passed the magnificent tropical fish tank, up a couple of stairs and made my way to the ladies.

On entering, I was immediately hit by a beautiful smell of coconut which turned out to be emanating from the soap dispensers! It is this attention to detail that really impressed me at the Rainforest Café. After all, if you were trying to maintain a jungle-like theme throughout the restaurant, what better way than to provide coconut “flavoured” soap! Brilliant!

For this attention to detail and for not providing me with anything to complain or moan about, I am awarding the toilet at the Rainforest Café 8/10 which puts it in second place for London Ding Dong’s Loo of 2008!

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

West End Theatre Reviews, London

It seems that everybody I know is planning to go or has recently been to the theatre in London. I admit I am rather jealous as, since my wonderful trip to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre to see “King Lear” in April, I’ve been unable to see another play or show. I love the bright lights and the excitement of the West End but, unfortunately, my recurring back problem prevents me from sitting for any length of time so the theatre and the cinema are, sadly, complete no-no’s at the moment!

However, the West End has been full to bursting with fantastic shows this summer and it would seem wrong not to mention some on this blog. I have asked friends and family to write me a few lines about the shows they have been to see recently so I can, at least, give you some sort of reviews to help you consider your options. Over the coming weeks I will share their thoughts and opinions about some of the hottest shows in town. Next week I am having some major treatment on my back so, with any luck I will soon be able to share my own thoughts on West End shows too!

Just this last weekend Nephew no.3 (N#3) had his 11th birthday treat from my Mum – his first trip to a London theatre. We had long discussions about which show to take him to and which he would enjoy best. Like many kids his age he is a massive “High School Musical” fan and, with the stage version having a limited run in the West End, this seemed like the obvious choice. However, nephew no.3 is a very literal and intense young man and I think he would have been disappointed not to see the original Disney film/TV actors to appear on stage. He also knows the films off by heart, word for word and almost certainly would not have accepted any script deviations! So that was one off the list! Our next thought was Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s “Joseph” starring Lee Mead (right), the winner of BBC’s “Any Dream Will Do”. This, I think, would have been the perfect show for N#3 who followed the TV competition with gusto. But, my Mum has seen the show several times over the years (with Jason Donovan and Philip Schofield among others in the title role) and really did not want to see it again. For similar reasons “Grease” also would have been a suitably familiar show for N#3 to see but, I have seen it twice before and the stage version will never, ever live up to the classic film starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton John!

So, which show cost £60 for the best seats in the stalls and gave my nephew his first, thrilling West End theatre experience? You’ll have to wait for the big reveal later this week!

But I must just mention that if you are looking for bargain theatre tickets in London then you have a couple of choices. You can take a risk, on the day, and visit the cut price theatre ticket kiosk in Leicester Square. This is great if you don’t mind which show you see but not much use if you have your heart set on seeing one of the more popular shows. If you want a guaranteed ticket for your show of choice then visit the London Pass website where they have special offers on loads of West End theatre plays and musicals. This ensures you have your theatre trip booked before you arrive in London, don’t need to queue for tickets and you get a discount! Another little hidden gem from the people at London Pass – is there no end to their offers?!

Monday, 25 August 2008

London 2012 Olympics

So the Beijing Olympics are over and London has officially taken over in preparation for 2012. There has been much criticism of London’s part in the official handover at the Birds Nest stadium yesterday but I’m not sure we should dwell on an eight minute “performance”. After the rigid structure of the various Beijing ceremonies, the apparent informality of the London effort did seem a little lack lustre but, if nothing else, it will have left an impression for viewers around the world!

Team GB performed beyond all expectations at this years Olympics and I, for one, feel incredibly proud of these athletes. Welcome home celebratory parties are expected throughout the country over the coming days as the athletes return to their home towns. However the biggest party took place yesterday in conjunction with the handover ceremony in Beijing. As London Mayor, Boris Johnson (who has been criticised for being “scruffy”) was handed the Olympic flag in Beijing, more than 35,000 people packed The Mall near Buckingham Palace and watched on huge screens. They were also entertained by the likes of Will Young, Scouting For Girls, Sophie Ellis-Bextor, McFly, Katherine Jenkins and a fly past by the Red Arrows.

Anyone who was judging the potential of London 2012 should ignore the official handover in Beijing and take note of the patriotism, excitement and exhilaration on display in London yesterday. The British came out in force to congratulate our athletes, celebrate their achievements and show their support for London 2012.

I’m sure when the time comes for our own opening ceremony, the organising committee will come up with something a little better than a Red London Bus and the winner of a TV singing competition! In the meantime, let’s remember the success of Team GB in 2008 and encourage young athletes across the country to win even more medals in 2012!

Only 1432 days to go!

Friday, 22 August 2008

Rainforest Cafe, London, Restaurant Review

I first discovered the Rainforest Café in Shaftesbury Avenue in 1999 and it has been a favourite destination for the younger members of my family ever since. The world is awash with themed restaurants but, from my experience, none are quite as child friendly as this one and still provide an enjoyable gastronomic experience for adults.

Just a two minute walk from Piccadilly Circus, the Rainforest Café is easily reached and accessed via their retail shop. This is, of course, a sneaky bit of marketing as the kids will no doubt want to buy everything they see before they’ve eaten and then want to buy more gifts as they leave – blindfolding your little ones is an option!

The rainforest/safari theme is all consuming here from the wonderful décor to the staff uniforms. On my most recent visit, earlier this month, we were asked if it was anyone’s birthday. I had not booked in advance so was not expecting any special treatment for my nephew but we were given priority seating and every member of staff wished my nephew happy birthday (which he actually found embarrassing!). He was provided with a kids menu to colour in and a set of crayons. Whilst 12 year olds don’t generally need this level of entertainment, they’re always a good idea for younger kids and, actually, my nephew did sit quietly and colour the picture!!!

The menu itself is a wide ranging mix of international cuisine with wacky names and descriptions. The kids menu is a refreshing change from the usual fish fingers and chicken nuggets with organic, nut-free, gluten-free and even egg-free options! My nephew chose the “Mini Mojos” (oven roasted BBQ ribs with fries) which, going on the speed at which they were eaten, tasted pretty good! I had Sea Bass Samba which was melt in the mouth delicious!
Prices are reasonable with a kid’s main meal, drink and dessert costing £10.90 which also includes a fabulous goodie bag (wallet, mask, pencils, stickers and more). Adult main courses average at about £13.50. When it came to desserts, I ordered a fancy ice cream from the kids menu, allowing my nephew to order a mega-fancy ice cream from the adult menu! The Sparkling Volcano (pictured right) arrived with a large sparkler, candles and yet another “happy birthday” to embarrass my nephew and was big enough to feed a family of four with a surprise in every spoonful! Scrumptious!

Accompanying our meal was a harmony of rainforest noises… the life-like elephants (left) trumpet their tune, the chimpanzees chatter to each other and thunder and lightening crashes over head. Giant butterflies flutter and (real) tropical fish swim around their massive tank. This is one London restaurant where children are not expected to sit politely at the table – wandering around and exploring the surroundings is one of the delights of the Rainforest Café!

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Royal Windsor, England

One place I’ve never visited is the Royal town of Windsor in Berkshire where one of the Queen’s homes – Windsor Castle – is now a major tourist attraction.
Windsor Castle is not just a Royal show-palace though. This is very much a working palace, used frequently by HM The Queen and the rest of the Royal Family. In actual fact it is the oldest and largest occupied castle in the whole world, having been used for over 900 years by British sovereigns.

Alongside the Castle is St Georges Chapel which is also open to the public. In recent years this has become something of a venue for Royal weddings – a fashion that was started by Prince Edward, the Earl of Wessex and Sophie Rhys-Jones in 1999 and was followed by Princess Anne’s son, Peter Phillips and his Canadian bride, Autumn Kelly earlier this year. However, most famous was the blessing by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2005 of the marriage between Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker-Bowles. Earlier that day they had a civil ceremony at Windsor Registry Office which also witnessed the civil ceremony of Sir Elton John and David Furnish that same year.

Recent persistent rumours have hinted that if Prince William marries his long-term girlfriend, Kate Middleton (both pictured right), the ceremony may also take place at St Georges Chapel, Windsor. However, as second in line to the Throne and a future Monarch, it is more likely his marriage ceremony will take place in one of the larger Cathedrals in London such as St Paul’s Cathedral (the venue of his father’s first marriage to Will’s mother Princess Diana) or Westminster Abbey.

Another famous sight in Windsor is Eton College, the school attended by so many famous luminaries. Prince William and his brother Prince Harry both attended Eton and it is probably for that reason so many tourists are interested in taking a guided tour around the illustrious grounds!

Windsor is only about half an hour from central London on mainline trains and is probably worth spending a day visiting the Castle and its famous Royal Art Collection as well as St Georges Chapel and Eton College. It’s certainly seems the perfect place for Royal followers and those interested in British Royal history.

Windsor Castle Adult Entry: £14.20
Eton College Tour Adult Entry: £5.00
Holders of the London Pass can visit all the above attractions free of charge and those with transport included can travel free to Windsor on overhead trains using their London Pass travel card.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Where Not To Go In London

This weekend a friend gave me a set of four pamphlets about London which she had saved for me from a British newspaper. My regular readers will know that I generally try to write positive posts on this blog and I am not really one to name and shame. Therefore, I won’t name the newspaper or the leaflets but I feel compelled to write something about them.

These leaflets are very much aimed at tourists and visitors to London with tips on sightseeing, places to visit, restaurants, landmarks and lesser known places of interest. Now, on the whole this set of London guides are quite helpful and insightful and would probably be of interest to Londoners as well as holiday makers. However, I am totally flumoxed by the 4th guide in the series which is dedicated to lesser known places and things in London.

It is great to discover hidden gems in a city and places that others don’t know about - but anyone who subscribes to this particular broadsheet will now know these secrets so I guess they won’t be secret any longer! What bothered me most though was the inclusion of places that no longer exist. This was not an accident. The researchers didn’t muck up. They purposely compiled a section entitled “Gone Forever”. What on earth is the purpose of sending people to places that are not there? Most were not even of significant historical value! There is also a section on derelict buildings which, again, is pretty pointless when they are all boarded up and out of action!

I admit I was actually annoyed by what, to my mind, was a waste of glossy paper. As if to add insult to injury there was finally a page about Private Members Clubs which I would probably not be eligible to join, am unable to afford and I definitely won’t need their phone numbers which were so helpfully provided! My blood is still boiling as I write!

My reaction may seem extreme but there is so much to see and do in London without blurring the attraction of the city with these worthless ideas. Why confuse potential visitors with information about buildings that are long gone or that you cannot visit because they are unsafe or you are not a member of the exclusive club? It puts a negative spin on London when the city has so much to offer – we want to know about what we can see, not what we can’t!

So after several months of rediscovering London for myself, I would advise you to ignore stupid leaflets that send you on a wild goose chase and follow some of the links on this site for a successful trip to London!

Here endeth the lesson!

Sunday, 17 August 2008

Olympic Fever

I have not been a massive Olympics fan in the past but, with the prospect of the Games coming to London in 2012, the Beijing Games have proved to be rather alluring this week. I actually stayed up late last night to watch the marathon and see how Team GB’s competitors fared. There was plenty of drama to keep me awake - not least from our very own world record holder, Paula Radcliff and medal hopeful Liz Yelling who took a nasty fall, broke a rib and still completed the course! Sadly no medals for Team GB at the marathon but, when I woke this morning it was a different story on the medal board.

Now, I am aware that there is another week left of these Games and that things will probably change dramatically in that time but let me gloat today…

* * * * * * Team GB is 3rd on the medal board * * * * * *

How totally incredible is that?! China is currently the leader followed by the USA but here we are this tiny island, with an Olympic team half the size of these super-size countries and holding our own like never before. I am so excited by our athletes and can only hope that this is a sign of things to come at the London Olympics 2012.

One of the most amazing things to happen today was the first ever Olympic medal for a British male gymnast. 19 year old Louis Smith won bronze with a fabulousroutine on the pommel horse. There have been a load of British medal winners this weekend including another special performance from Rebecca Adlington giving her a second Gold – another first for British female swimmers!

So I am now gaining some real enthusiasm for the London 2012 Olympic Games. Some of these British athletes have yet to reach their prime and their home-country Olympics, by rights, should be a real platform for their more mature talents. Some events in 2012 will take place not far from where I live and I am now quite eager to catch some live action when I have the opportunity. I daresay my enthusiasm will wane a little between now and then but I am absolutely relishing the prospect today!

Friday, 15 August 2008

Eating Out In London

I checked my bank balance today and was shocked to see just how hard-up I am at the moment! This may well have something to do with several lovely meals out in London recently. Until the financial situation changes, I guess I won’t be going anywhere for a while so I may as well sit here and share my gastronomic experiences with you!

There is just about every conceivable type of restaurant available in London from your popular fast food burger joints and sandwich bars to Michelin-starred celebrity haunts. Now, I can’t say that I frequent either extreme but I do enjoy good food in comfortable surroundings with a fair level of service.

If you are visiting London in the near future then it is well worth checking out the London Pass site for their special offers. As well as free entry to popular attractions, museums and famous landmarks you get discounts and offers at London restaurants and bars which is a great benefit when you are busy sightseeing and sticking to a budget. There are a wide variety of offers from 2 for 1 at the Wagamama noodle bar chain to a free dessert at the famous Hard Rock Café. There are discounts on the wonderful Bateaux Restaurant Cruises and superb deals at the Tower of London, Kensington Palace and Hampton Court Palace. Most restaurants also offer priority seating to London Pass holders which, at this time of year, is a real bonus - especially if you have hungry kids in tow!

Eating out can be pretty expensive in London so it is a good idea to take advantage of special offers and discounts so you have a little money left over for gifts and souvenirs or whatever takes your fancy! So now I’ve told you how to save money on eating out, I will soon tell you where to spend your savings at other restaurants I have visited recently! Hmmmm I’m hungry now!

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Chelsea Football Tour Part 2

So there we were, a 12 year old Spurs fan posing as a Chelsea fan complete with team shirt and a thirty-something West Ham fan boldly admitting her allegiance to a rival team. Stamford Bridge, home of Chelsea FC - one of the richest football clubs in the world – genuinely welcomes football fans of all persuasions. Our guide even went as far as thanking me (an unofficial West Ham rep for the day!!) for providing Chelsea with so many good players over the years… Joe Cole and Frank Lampard are just two of the current Chelsea squad who came from West Ham.

Elvis, our guide, made a point of finding out where everyone was from in the world and who we all supported. His football knowledge extended way beyond the realms of Chelsea FC though his passion for the club was unmistakeable. Having had the introductory tours from the stands where we could admire the grandeur of the stadium, we moved onto the press room (pictured above right with Elvis at the desk). Elvis kept the jokes running whilst continuing to give us stories and snippets of information about the club and the various areas we visited.

One thing that really impressed me was the number of photo opportunities given to visitors. In fact, there were no photo restrictions at all which was brilliant. Consequently, I do have photos of every conceivable view in the stadium which was maybe a little extreme! The visitor changing room (above left) was basic to say the least and reminiscent of a school changing room. Apparently it used to be much smaller and they purposely only provided 10 pegs and lockers for an 11-man team! There are just two treatment tables compared to 5 in the home changing room and the white board (used for pre and mid-match team talks) is stuck in the corner behind the door! Not surprisingly, Chelsea does nothing to assist their rivals with the exception of Molton Brown products in the showers so that their opponents smell nice!

We were in for a real treat when we arrived at the home changing room as the genuine kit had been laid out in preparation for the public training spectacle the following day. Usually, visitors will see player’s shirts in the dressing room and be able to have their photo taken next to it but, whilst we couldn’t stand right next to the kit for security reasons, we could see their shirts, shorts, tracksuits, boots, trainers and shin guards- everything they would need for a training session or game. My nephew and I were so excited by this that we took photos of every single player’s kit! We were amused to see that most of the players don't bother to undo the shoe laces of their trainers before taking them off! The facilities for the home players were much more luxurious with spacious showers, ice baths, drink machines and a physio area.

Elvis had chosen a home and visitor captain to lead us through the famous tunnel (left) to the ground and my nephew continued his web of deceit by leading the Chelsea “team” onto the pitch! By this stage he wasn’t even embarrassed by his deception and I wondered if he was about to swear his allegiance to Chelsea! To be honest, the tour does have this kind of effect on people and I wouldn’t have been entirely surprised if Spurs had been forgotten!

We had heard a rumour that Jose Mourinho (ex-Chelsea manager) had had a heated seat installed for himself at Stamford Bridge but could not see any sign of a special chair in the manager and players area. When I asked, we were told that it was Chelsea’s owner, Roman Abramovich, who had had some extras installed in his personal box on the opposite side of the pitch, including heated seats and even carpeted stairs! We were also told though that “Mr” Abramovich is an incredibly generous man and paid for all of his staff (including the tour guides) to travel to Russia last season for the Champions League final. Very generous indeed!

The attention to detail at Chelsea is quite unexpected. Around and behind the manager and players seats are the “family seats” intended for younger fans (pictured right, my nephew sitting in the manager's unheated seat). At a cost of only £15 per seat compared to the average £50 seats, there is the added advantage for kids to get close to players in the squad who may be out injured or suspended and seeing the team arrive and leave through the tunnel. If the kids get bored during half-time then there are a number of X-Boxes provided at the back for further entertainment! They think of everything!

All in all, the Chelsea FC Stadium Tour is a wonderful experience. Regardless of who you support or even if you don’t follow football, it is a real eye-opener to visit such a high profile premiership football stadium and find out what goes on behind the scenes as well as on the pitch. I would thoroughly recommend this tour for families, sport-lovers and anyone who fancies doing something a little bit different in London. The London Pass includes this tour in its attraction list and, as well as free entry, you also receive 10% discount on merchandise in the megastore.

The Chelsea FC Stadium Tour is a well-deserved recipient of a Ding Dong Award for the excellent tour guides, access to most areas, numerous photo opportunities and general entertainment value!

Chelsea FC Stadium Tour is available every day except match days on the hour from 11am to 3pm.
Tip: Phone beforehand to check availability
Adult Entry: £15
Child Entry: £9

London Pass holders are offered free entry to the tour and museum and 10% discount on merchandise at the onsite megastore.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Chelsea FC Stadium Tour

It has been a while since I awarded a Ding Dong for something or somewhere in London, but the second that I glimpsed the impressive Chelsea Football Club stadium, I had a feeling that this would be one of my London top tips.

Stamford Bridge is surprisingly easy to reach- taking only about 20 minutes from Oxford Street and then a 2 minute walk from Fulham Broadway tube station. We arrived about half an hour before the tour began to ensure our place and were directed along to the museum to await our tour guide and get our first view of the stadium in all its glory.

Tours take place every day (except home match days) on the hour from 11am to 3pm and you can book in advance on the Chelsea website or take your chance and turn up around half an hour before the tour starts. It’s probably a good idea to check availability beforehand in case there is a last minute tour cancellation.

While waiting to be called by our tour guide, my nephew and I made ourselves comfortable in what was once known as the family box but is now referred to as the WAGs box (Wives and Girlfriends). It is not particularly luxurious but it does afford a fabulous view of the ground (right). It is many many years since I visited a football stadium and I was astounded at the size of the pitch. My nephew reliably informed me that football pitches vary in size so it’s possible I hadn’t seen one as big as this before.

As our group were gathered together our guide, Elvis, introduced himself and led us out to the stands. I should point out that I am a West Ham supporter and my nephew is a Tottenham Hotspur supporter. However, whereas I was happy to hold my head up high and admit to being a Hammers fan, my self-conscious nephew actually borrowed a Chelsea shirt for the day for fear of standing out in the crowd! When Elvis asked if there were any other premiership team fans in the group, my nephew was horrified when I waved my hand thinking I might give away his secret – I was oblivious to his fear while enjoying a little friendly banter with Elvis!

We had chosen a fantastic day for the tour. With under a week to go before the start of the new season and just 24 hours before the clubs big fan and press day, it was all hands on deck in preparation. The grounds men were painting fresh lines on the pitch, other staff were cleaning and polishing each individual seat in the stadium (above right) and, most importantly, the kit man had been getting things ready in the changing rooms. The tour included all areas of the stadium and, as this is receiving a Sparkly Songbird Ding Dong, I shall save the details for next time!

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Meeting Places In Central London

This week, a friend of mine was over from Ireland and staying in London for a couple of days. She was staying in a hotel in Central London and we planned to meet for lunch and a little sale shopping. The night before she had been to see Dirty Dancing in the West End (the main purpose of her trip) and, that morning, she was going to visit Westminster Abbey before meeting me.

Now, it all seems so very simple to meet an old friend in London for the day but when one friend is totally unfamiliar with the city and the others newfound area of knowledge is sightseeing attractions along the River Thames (!), it can be a little complicated! I didn’t have anywhere specific in mind for lunch but thought that dim sum in Chinatown would be rather fun so did an internet search for reviews and recommendations.

In years gone by, I often frequented restaurants in Chinatown but much has changed in recent years and I couldn’t remember names and places. All the restaurant reviews were mixed so I decided it would be better to chose where to eat once we had met up. It only remained for me to suggest a rendezvous point that my friend would be able to find easily. Leicester Square was the most obvious choice so I suggested meeting outside the Odeon Cinema – home to many a movie premier.

On the train to London, it began to rain so I sent my friend a text to say if it was raining there we should meet inside the Capital Radio Café next door to the Odeon. To my horror, when I arrived I saw that, whilst Capital Radio is still there, the café downstairs is now a Yates wine bar (and has been for several years apparently!). My friend found the wrong cinema in Leicester Square and then, standing below the massive sign indicating “CAPITAL RADIO”, had asked a passer-by where capital radio was! Anyway, eventually we found each other and the confusion was soon forgotten!

So, if you need a good place to meet in central London, I can recommend Yates Wine bar on Leicester Square. I’m not a fan of meeting outside tube stations as they can be crowded and many stations have more than one exit. I’m not terribly familiar with specific London bars or cafes these days but obviously that option makes most sense if you are more informed than me! If you are meeting someone for a day of shopping than an excellent place to meet is at Oxford Circus in the large entrance to the flagship Top Shop store or round the corner at the Apple store on Regent Street.
There is an old tale that says wherever you are from in the world, if you spend all day hanging around Piccadilly Circus, you are guaranteed to see somebody you know. It has actually happened to me twice, even though I was just passing through. However, I don’t suggest arranging to meet someone in Piccadilly Circus – it’s far too hectic there! Theatre foyers are also handy places to meet during the day (but too busy in the evening) as are art galleries and museums.

Wherever you decide to meet, make sure it’s easy to find and not too secluded. Cafés and bars have the bonus of cloakroom facilities and being able to sit with a drink if you arrive early or one of you is running late. I’ve always enjoyed people-watching in hotel lounges and, again, they provide a little comfort while you wait. The Hampshire Hotel in Leicester Square and the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park Hotel in Knightsbridge are two of my favourites for the stylish surroundings. Why wait in the heat or rain when you can enjoy a little luxury?!

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Midsummer Christmas Madness

What is red and white striped, has a white beard and can be found in Knightsbridge on the 5th August? Father Christmas!
Confused? It’s hardly surprising with 4 ½ months til Christmas but, yes, Father Christmas made his 2008 debut at Harrods today! Dressed in a Victorian-style bathing suit and posing in front of an eight tonne sand sculpture of his sleigh and reindeer, Father Christmas officially opened Christmas World at Harrods! The World’s most famous and glamorous department store has waved goodbye to summer and is looking ahead to the festive season with not a hint of embarrassment or shame! Personally, I find it all rather disturbing!

However, Father Christmas is not hanging around just yet – according to official reports, he interrupted his summer holiday in Blackpool today to launch the Christmas display – but will return to Harrods on Saturday 1st November where he will be resident in his Grotto until Christmas Eve. The exceedingly popular Christmas Grotto Experience is free of charge but must be booked in advance. Tickets are available on-line from the 21st August and are subject to availability. This year Harrods are celebrating a century of Father Christmas at the store (1908-2008) with an extra special Christmas Parade entitled “Once Upon A Time Parade” on November 1st. I am, of course, giving you super-advance warning here but it seems that planning Christmas can never come early enough at Harrods!!! The event starts at 8am outside the store and arrives in Basil Street at around 8.30am with characters from Cinderella, Mrs Christmas and the main man who will then take up residence in his grotto on the 4th floor.

Enough about Christmas now!!!

Harrods is the ultimate shopping experience and also a must-see for tourists and London visitors alike. I guess it is as much a sightseeing attraction as it is a luxury department store. So if you are combining some shopping with your sightseeing then don’t forget to take advantage of the special offers you receive with the London Pass. If you spend £25 or more in Harrods lower ground floor then you will receive an exclusive free gift when you present your London Pass. If you fancy a bite to eat in the opulent surroundings of the Harrods 4th floor Georgian Restaurant then you will be offered a free glass of wine or fresh juice with your lunch if you have a London Pass.

With other London Pass attractions nearby including Kensington Palace and the Royal Albert Hall, it is a great place to visit and indulge in some luxury retail therapy! But, with 141 days left to buy your Christmas goodies there isn't an immediate rush to get to Christmas World - there are more than 300 other departments to explore at Harrods first!

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Hiding From The London Weather

If you have been in London over the last week or so you will probably be fed up with the weather! It has either been too hot to do anything or too wet to go anywhere! I have given you a few ideas for outdoor events when the weather is fine, but what about when the clouds appear and the rain comes down? Well, London has plenty of options for wet weather activities so don’t be put off by the lack of sunshine.

London’s major museums are world famous but there are a few hidden gems dotted around the capital that you may find equally as fascinating. The centrally located Cartoon Museum in Little Russell Street opened just two years ago and is home to an incredible collection of British cartoons, comic art and caricatures from the 18th century to modern day. At the moment there is a special exhibition celebrating 70 years of the Beano and Dandy comics. Throughout August the Cartoon Museum are holding comic master classes and workshops which are free to children. Adults visiting the museum can also join in for free and, with the London Pass, that means free entrance and free fun for all!
Tues-Sat 10.30am-5.30pm Sun 12pm-5pm
Always closed Monday
Adults: £4.00 or free with London Pass

Down the river in Greenwich there are a couple of places worth visiting even though the famous Cutty Sark is still being repaired and renovated. Take a City Cruises* boat from either Westminster or Tower Piers and visit the famous National Maritime Museum (above left). The world’s largest maritime museum is home to over 2 million seafaring objects and also a fabulous ship simulator. Nearby are the Royal Observatory and the Greenwich Meridian Line where you can stand with one foot in each hemisphere!
Open 7 days a week 10am-5pm.
London Pass holders receive a free souvenir guide.

While you are in Greenwich, you can also visit the unique Fan Museum which is housed in a Grade II listed early 18th Century building. Not only can you view more than 4000 intricate hand fans, discover their purpose and function throughout history but you can also take a walk around the Japanese Garden of tranquillity afterwards.
Tues-Sat 11am – 5pm, Sunday 12pm-5pm. Open Bank Holiday Mondays.
London Pass holders receive a free souvenir visitor’s guide.

Greenwich is a good place to spend the day while the weather is so changeable. With a mix of indoor and outdoor attractions and places of interest, this historically Royal area is well worth a visit. The birthplace of Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth I, Greenwich has been a World Heritage Site since 1997.
* City Cruises run regular boat services between Westminster Pier and Tower Pier to Greenwich. London Pass holders are entitled to a free River Red Rover ticket (worth £10.50), enabling unlimited travel throughout the day. Hop on and off where and when you like along the River Thames route.