Sunday, 14 September 2008

Normal Service Resumed

Thankfully, it hasn’t taken too long but I’m reasonably happy with the changes I’ve made to London Ding Dong over the last week or so. Some of the changes like the new colour scheme are purely for the sake of it and, frankly, because I get bored with the same old thing indefinitely! If you are having any trouble viewing any part of the blog as a result of the new template or colours, please please do let me know.

As for adverts, affiliate programs and so forth, I’ve kept it simple:
The London Pass is a product that I’ve often written about and thoroughly recommend it to visitors to London. Please do click on the banner and have a look around the London Pass site – there are loads of sightseeing ideas and, if you go ahead and purchase, there are loads of extras thrown in including theatre and restaurant offers, plus discounts on shopping, cycling and walking excursions and open top bus tours. It really is a genuine time and money saver and takes much of the hard work out of your London holiday, leaving you more time to enjoy what you came to see!
Evan Evans Tours are another company well worth knowing about if you are coming to England. They don’t just offer London sightseeing tours (including the famous Big Bus Company open top bus tours!) but will also take you outside the Capital for a day of English history and heritage. The Roman city of Bath and ancient Stonehenge are just two of their popular stop-offs and Blue-badge Guides tell you all you need to know. If you are curious to know more then click on the banner and you’ll find much more on the Evan Evans website.
At a time when budget airlines are dropping like flies then it’s probably a good idea to play safe and choose an established company who are not likely to leave you in the lurch! Monarch Airlines are competitively priced but still provide those “little” touches that budget airlines ignore such as well trained cabin crew and a decent hot meal on every flight! I am not adverse to cheap flights when I’m popping over to Spain for a short break but if you want to start and finish your holiday in style without breaking the bank then check out the Monarch site. They also offer holidays and hotels so if you’re planning a London holiday then don’t forget to see what Monarch and Cosmos Holidays have to offer by clicking on the banner.

You may also have noticed the shortening of the official blog title. Although I’ve always referred to it as London Ding Dong, the official title was significantly longer and a bit of a mouthful! But, of course, many of my readers come to me from Google and other search engines and I’m not sure London Ding Dong explains what the blog is about so we are now called <>.

I’ve limited the very very long list of labels to a more succinct inventory of categories which hopefully will help new readers find their way around the blog more easily. It also means that if you want to read a review of a London restaurant, find out more about particular London attractions or read what I have to say about London transport then you can find posts in specific categories more quickly.

I think those are just about all the non-technical changes to report. As I mentioned before, I may change the advertising banners periodically but will only publicize products or companies that I can personally recommend and would be happy to write about in the normal course of my blog writing.
I hope you like the new-look blog and that you’ll continue reading and sharing your thoughts and comments.

Friday, 12 September 2008

London Transport

Much is written about public transport in London, both good and bad. I, myself, have written about my preference for buses rather than the tube system which is nothing to do with the quality of service. My preference is largely due to my long-term phobia of being underground. I am not knowingly scared of going underground and I do not have any specific fears of travelling on the tube but I do, nevertheless, have these mini-panic attacks so I simply prefer to use the bus whenever possible.

In my opinion, as a person who uses the London transport services on occasion rather than on a regular basis, Transport for London is doing a grand job. I really don’t have anything significant to complain about as a London visitor. Sure, the tubes can be crowded at rush hour but stand back from the crowd and wait for the next one! Let’s face it, if you’re on holiday or day-tripping then there’s really no need to put yourself through the “trauma” of travelling at rush hour. If you are staying in central London then try walking instead – you will see a lot more of London that way and you can always hop on a bus if your feet start to ache!

As part of the latest changes to London Ding Dong I’ve added a handy little tool on the bottom left of the page. I generally use the Transport for London journey planner to check routes and also to get an idea of how long my journey will take once I’ve arrived in London by train. You can request route plans to and from stations (mainline train and underground), specific postcodes, addresses and even places of interest which is particularly handy when you’re sightseeing. The results give you various route options and include all forms of public transport as well as any walking required. Maps are also provided if you need them. This is a really handy tool if you are visiting London and certainly takes the effort out of journey planning!

I think, when you are visiting a strange city, whether it’s in your own country or abroad, navigating the public transport system is one of the most challenging things. So do your research before you leave home and when you arrive in London you should find getting around London a little less daunting!

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

Changes To London Ding Dong

As I mentioned a little while ago, I've been planning some changes to London Ding Dong and you may have noticed some of those changes already.

There are mixed views among the blogging community regarding advertising and, particularly, paid product placement. After six months of blogging, several people pointed out that I was spending a lot of time researching and writing my blog and was not getting anything in return. This is not entirely accurate as I really enjoy my "research" (which, for the most part, I would do regardless of writing a blog) and I also love writing and knowing that my modest number of readers return on a regular basis. However, knowing that I may be able to make a few pennies from my blog is very tempting so I have had a think, done my research and made some decisions.

I don't want to go down the route of writing posts on demand for unknown companies; neither do I want to endorse products that I know little or nothing about. There are plenty of opportunities to do both of these through the wonders of the web but I have opted not to go down that overtly commercial avenue.

I hope what I have decided to do will not "offend" the blogging community and, most importantly, will not alienate my readers. I have placed some banner adverts on here which are all companies or products that I am familiar with, have used and am happy to recommend to my readers. If you don't wish to know more about them then don't click on the banner. If you want to know more then click away and, if you go on to purchase, I will make a few pennies from your sale.

From time to time I may change the banners I display but I promise that they will always be relevant to my blog in some way, they will always be products or services that I have tried and tested and they will all be reputable companies!

Beyond this, I'm making a few aesthetic changes which will take a little time and I hope you will be patient while I concentrate my efforts on getting things right. I'm not the speediest blogger on the net but hopefully the changes won't take too long. In the meantime, if you have any comments or views about the addition of advertising banners please let me know!

Sunday, 7 September 2008

China Town Restaurant Review

Last month I mentioned that I had been for lunch in China Town but had not been able to find a definitive review to guide me to one particular restaurant. I am a great lover of Chinese Dim Sum which is usually served at lunch time and it was this speciality that I was seeking in London.

Not long ago I went to a Dim Sum restaurant chain called Ping Pong, just off Oxford Street, which was good value but not the best dim sum I’ve eaten. I did, however, have my first taste of an exquisite “flowering tea” (pictured left) which tastes good but looks even better (plus they give you free refills of hot water to keep the flower looking pretty!). But on this occasion I wanted my Irish friend to experience the “real” thing (as opposed to mass-produced) in China Town.

We wondered through China Town, looking in windows and checking menus and prices until we found a restaurant that appealed. Now, my criteria may sound a little non-PC, but I was looking for a restaurant with a lot of Chinese or Oriental customers on the assumption that if they were eating there it must be pretty authentic and good value. On Gerrard Street, in the heart of China Town, we discovered the Golden Pagoda Restaurant. It wasn’t much to look at but the menu seemed varied and the place was almost full so we decided to go for it!

We were given a fantastic table by the window which was set for 5 people! The waiter quickly cleared the extra place settings and offered us knives and forks which we rejected politely! The menu was extensive, several pages long, but didn’t include any Dim Sum despite advertising it outside. In the centre of the table I noticed a traditional Dim Sum tick list all written in Chinese so I asked the waiter if they had one in English.

I used to enjoy going to Chinese restaurants in China Town that did traditional trolley service dim sum (the waiter wheels a trolley full of dim sum around the restaurant and you chose what you fancied as he passed your table). Sadly it seems that this tradition is very rare these days so we were stuck with a menu which didn’t mean an awful lot to us! But that is part of the fun of dim sum – ordering blindly and discovering what you’ve got as you bite into the little dumplings!

We chose a standard Chinese mixed starter (in case we mucked up with the rest of our order!) which was delicious then four dishes which sounded vaguely familiar and a random one to make sure we tried something totally new. Unfortunately I didn’t make a note of the names so I can’t tell you properly what we ate but I can tell you that it tasted gooooood!!! We had a couple of steamed dumpling dishes which were melt-in-the-mouth delicious – one was definitely prawn (pictured right). The unknown dim sum was, in fact, Cheung Fun which I now know is steamed rice noodle rolls. We were pleased we tried this new dish as it was excellent.
The only disappointment was one of our “safe” choices – mushroom dumpling. I was expecting something similar to the steamed prawn dumpling but with mushrooms inside. Unfortunately it was reconstituted Chinese mushroom which was very tough accompanied by tofu which I hate! One wrong-un out of five isn’t bad though!

For our mixed appetisers, 5 dim sum dishes, a large bottle of mineral water and a large pot of jasmine tea our bill came to £24.
Incredible value, great food, friendly and efficient service and two very satisfied customers - one of whom will definitely return to the Golden Pagoda restaurant before long!

Friday, 5 September 2008

Kensington Palace Exhibition Review

Most famous as the home of Diana, Princess of Wales, Kensington Palace is situated in one of the most picturesque areas of London. A short walk from Kensington High Street and located in Hyde Park, my first surprise discovery was just how old the Palace is. I honestly had no idea that Kensington Palace dates back to the 17th Century and was adapted for Royal use by Sir Christopher Wren.

The famously sombre Queen Victoria was born here and lived at the Palace until she succeeded the throne when she moved to Buckingham Palace. Other members of the Royal Family, too many to mention, have lived in separate apartments on and off for nearly four hundred years and continue to do so today. It was, perhaps, only on the death of Princess Diana that Kensington Palace really reached the public psyche. Today, it remains a place of homage and mourning for people from across the globe.

The current exhibition running until June next year is entitled “The Last Debutantes” and celebrates 50 years since the last debutantes were presented at court. Crusaders (with not a lot better to do!) have tried to recreate this tradition for the younger generations since 1958 but no young ladies have been presented to the Queen for the last 50 years.

The exhibition itself is fascinating; the number of genuine momentos from that last debutante season is incredible. Among the glamorous gowns, gloves and jewellery were accessories in amazing condition including handbags, shoes. The most surprising exhibits were corsets and suspender belts – it’s amazing what people keep as mementoes of their youth!

More obvious keepsakes such as invitations to season events including Garden Parties at Buckingham Palace were curiously exciting to see! I guess I was totally sucked in by the glamour of the 1950’s and, if I’m honest, wish that life were still like this! This was an era when “coming out” meant something totally different to today’s meaning!

Most people visit Kensington Palace for its association with Princess Diana. Two apartments were used by Diana and Charles after their marriage and Diana remained with her sons, Princes William and Harry, after their divorce until her death in 1997. I was not expecting to see Diana’s apartments but there were a few mumbles of disappointment from other visitors when they realised they would not be seeing precisely where she lived! However, there were several of her dresses on display and this, for me, was the highlight.

The temporary exhibition entitled “Diana, Fashion and Style” is on until the end of the year. Of the 12 Diana dresses exhibited, probably the most famous was the dark blue dress she wore at the White House in 1985 when she was unforgettably spun around the dance floor by John Travolta! This same dress was sold at the auction of Diana’s dresses at Christie’s in New York in 1997 (before her death) and fetched a record breaking US$225,000! I’m not sure what happened to the rest of Diana’s clothes after her death but these 12 gowns are on loan to Kensington Palace which seems kind of weird!

I thoroughly enjoyed visiting Kensington Palace and the two temporary exhibitions were particularly good. I admit that, once again, I was drawn towards temptation after the tour and made my way to the Orangery. The Orangery restaurant is, quite simply, the epitome of British style and luxury! It was the perfect place to take English afternoon tea and the perfect end to a Royal visit!

Kensington Palace tour and the temporary exhibitions are open 10am-6pm until the end of October. From November the Palace closes at 5pm.
Adult Entry: £12.30

London Pass holders can visit Kensington Palace and the temporary exhibitions free of charge and receive a 20% discount at the Orangery Restaurant.

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Princess Diana and Kensington Palace

When I meet people from outside the UK, the conversation frequently turns to the same subject once they discover that I am British and once lived in the Royal Borough of Kensington. Princess Diana. Or, more specifically, the untimely deaths of Diana and Dodi: what do I think of the conspiracy theories; did I ever meet her; would she have married Dodi? etc etc etc
My answers are generally that I don’t think much of the conspiracy theories; I never met her but did see her at very close range just weeks before she died and no, I don’t think she would have married Dodi.

Eleven years after her death, there are people still fascinated by everything Diana and who hope that by visiting the places in which she lived they will feel that little bit closer to the most famous Princess in history. Diana hysteria has calmed in recent years but I doubt casual interest will ever cease in my lifetime. Most Brits have their own Diana story, however distant their connection to her was and I include myself in this.

During the summer of 1997 I was living in Kensington and walked passed the Palace every day on my way to and from work at the Royal Albert Hall. One morning I walked along Kensington High Street in auto-pilot mode, head down while retracing my daily footsteps. I was woken from my reverie by the screeching of brakes. I looked up to see black car just inches away and a concerned face staring at me. I acknowledged the driver who was clearly shocked by the close call and stepped back to allow her to move forward. It was only then that I realised the driver was, in fact, Princess Diana! She was flushed but beautiful with the most luminescent skin I had ever seen. That was the nearest I got to a face to face meeting with Princess Diana!

At the end of August, Diana was killed in Paris. Everyday between her death and her state funeral, I continued to walk by Kensington Palace and watched the piles of flowers, messages and photographs growing daily. The wrought iron fence surrounding Hyde Park was covered with flowers, posters and pictures; the trees were surrounded with tiny candles and night lights flickering 24 hours a day and personal messages of grief and love were left wherever people could find a space. I shared the grief of so many others but I didn’t want to be drawn into this most un-British frenzy of anguish. But there was a feeling of hopelessness which I couldn’t shake off. I really didn’t want to join the long queues at St James’s Palace waiting to pay their respects but I didn’t want to do nothing.

I had never used the internet before but had heard that Buckingham Palace had opened a Book of Condolence online so I thought that may be a way for me to express my personal sense of loss whilst extending my sympathy to Diana’s family – especially her young sons, Princes William and Harry. I did this the day before the funeral and also printed off a copy of “Goodbye England’s Rose” – the re-written lyrics of the song Elton John would sing the following day at Westminster Abbey. On the way home I felt no better. I passed people streaming into Hyde Park clutching their flowers and heading towards the Palace gates. I watched as people came out, crying and shaking, comforting each other and I could no longer remain disconnected from this mass outpouring of grief.

Early the next morning I went to the nearest flower stall and bought a single Bird of Paradise flower and headed back towards Kensington Palace to add my contribution to the millions of others. The flowers were piled up to waist height and it was impossible to pick out any specific messages as there were so many. I walked slowly back to the main road and took my place among mourners of every nationality who stood silent along the official funeral route. As Diana’s coffin appeared, a slow applause began and one or two wails of grief could be heard. But the overwhelming memory I have is of the great stillness that morning. As Diana’s coffin passed by, the sun appeared from behind its cloud and, somehow, reduced the strange feeling of personal loss.

I’d never experienced anything like it and, hopefully, never will again.

So, when I approached those same gates last week my emotions were mixed. I was keen to see the Palace that Diana had called home and where other members of the Royal Family have lived but the memories were surprisingly fresh.
Adult Entry to Kensington Palace: £12.30
Holders of the London Pass can enter free and also receive a 20% discount at the Orangery Restaurant

Monday, 1 September 2008

Billy Elliot 2nd Hand Theatre Review

So the chosen birthday treat for nephew number three (N#3) was to go and see Billy Elliot in the West End of London. After much discussion with my mum, it was me that came up with the idea of Billy Elliot and she loved it! Mum had seen the film and thought N#3 (being quite musical and a secret dancer-in-front-of-the-mirror-when-nobody’s-looking type!) would be blown away by a boy of his age achieving so much. To be honest, I haven’t seen the film so I didn’t really know if it’d be his cup of tea or not!

Anyway, l booked it for Mum several months ago, in time to show N#3 the tickets on his actual birthday in June. Their seats were the best money could buy (unfortunately couldn’t find any suitable specials for a matinee performance on the right date so two seats costs a cool £120), ten rows from the front of the stage, right in the centre if the auditorium. When N#3 was told what his birthday present was, he was excited at the thought of seeing his first ever West End musical. (Actually, I think this was his first visit to the theatre full stop).

A few weeks ago I mentioned to one of my friends about Billy Elliot and she said she’d taken her 11 year old daughter there earlier in the year. When I asked what it was like she said it was great and her kids really enjoyed it. Then I told her how I’d planned to get N#3 the DVD so he’d know the story before he saw the show but my sister wouldn’t let him have it once she knew it was rated 15 (how short her memory is and what a spoil sport she has become!!!). My friend then dropped a bit of a bombshell: “Your sister knows there’s loads of swearing and violence in the show doesn’t she?” Aaaaaaarrrrrrgggggghhhhhh!!!!

I may have mentioned that N#3 is somewhat straight-laced and intense for an 11 year old. He has an incredible sense of right and wrong (he thinks I’m very rude!) and is very age aware. The thought of him sitting in the Victoria Palace Theatre with my mum while men punched the living day lights out of each other and used swear words to enhance the atmosphere was almost unbearable!
On the other hand, I do feel he has been somewhat sheltered from the realities of life and witnessing these things as a performance might not be such a bad thing!
I couldn’t help thinking that the child-friendly “Hairspray” might have been a better choice under the circumstances though!
When I reported back to my mum about the swearing and the violence she was unfazed – when you’ve spent £120 on tickets it’s probably best to look on the bright side of everything!

So last weekend, the clan from Dorset arrived with one very excited 11 year old. I did ask him if he would write a review of the show for me but he refused. I told him I’d put it on the internet if he wrote it for me but he stubbornly refused. I said I’d put a photo of him with the review and credit him for his words and he gave me a lecture about the necessity to withhold children’s identities on the internet and told me I should know better! Oh dear! It would have been good to give you a review of Billy Elliot from a child’s perspective but this particular child was not playing ball!

On the way up to London my mum briefly explained to N#3 about the Miners strike of the 1980’s and also what a union was and why people belonged to them. These explanations were at the suggestion of my friend who said it was the only thing which her kids didn’t really get and needed to have it explained afterwards.

According to my mum it was “A very good show”… I’m not sure that’s quite enough to encourage you to buy tickets so I had to do a little cross-questioning!
Me: Was it very violent?
Mum: It was quite violent but not unnecessary and not gratuitous.
Me: Was there a lot of swearing and did it bother N#3?
Mum: Yes, but after a quick look in my direction after the first swear word, he didn’t seem too bothered. It was in keeping with the grittiness of the story and era.
Me: What were the cast like?
Mum: Fantastic! So talented and energetic.
Me: How does it compare to the film?
Mum: It’s the same story but totally different because of all the songs. You can’t really compare them.
Me: Would you go to see it again or recommend it to others?
Mum: Yes definitely!

According to N#3 (who was not prepared to write any sort of review or be interviewed!) Billy Elliot was “really good”. He was particularly happy to have got several cast autographs at the stage door after the show.
My sister has since reported back that when she asked him about it a few days later N#3 said

“It made me want to dance all the way down the road”.

I don’t think you can get a much better recommendation than that!