Sunday, April 02, 2006

More of London...

Well London has lots to do; our main dilemma every Friday evening and Saturday morning is deciding exactly what to do.

As we haven’t been actually going away on the weekends, we have been sleeping in on Saturdays and then spending the afternoons out and about. Everything is open so much later (the shops are open till 8pm most nights, later on Thursdays and the only day that is different is Sunday where most of the shops do not open until 12 noon and close up around 5 or 6pm), so that it makes it really easy to spend the day sight seeing and then you have time to food (and window) shop later then too.

There is actually a Sunday trading act that says big shops can only be open for 6 hours on Sunday, whilst the smaller shops can be open for longer – though not sure how they define the small and large stores.

While most of the weekend of the 11th was a write off due to my having a very bad cold (with fever and body aches) we did, however, make a fair effort on the Sunday and went into town to Leicester Square to watch the St Patrick’s day parade (yes a week early). The parade was quite a mixed bag, lots of bands, Irish dancing, cute dressed up children with dogs, etc, but then there were groups of people just walking along; some not even dressed up at all. One guy (who was actually dressed up more than others) had on an Irish football jersey, had a beer in one hand and another beer in his pocket. There were a few more interesting, floats/displays (?!?!), I suppose you’d call them and I took photos of those.

On the weekend of the 18th we decided to take the bus for a change of scenery. Whilst the tube is great, you miss out on seeing the sights and also just bits of London that you normally would not get to see. However, the buses are sooo slow and inefficient despite their apparent abundance, which is mainly due to lots of traffic (they are generally supposed to come around every 7-10 minutes but it’s just best to double that time sometimes). It would be helpful if the give way to buses rule that we have at home applied here, as what should have been a 30 minute trip ended up taking over an hour.

The Science Museum was pretty good; it is down at South Kensington, which is known as a museum district, there are lots of museums and galleries though all over London. In fact you can walk from the South Kensington underground station via a large underground tunnel to access all the museums in the area.

The Science museum itself is huge - 4 buildings varying from 3 to 5 levels, and has a family interactive feel. One building has a full open galley from the 5th to the ground floor, with a huge working steam engine display on the ground floor and a working suspension bridge crossing on the 2nd floor. The 2nd building has the IMAX cinemas, whilst the third had everything from exhibitions about appliances in the home, mathematics, Escher models, weather, farming, energy (big hands on thing for kiddies there), shipping (we skipped that) to air displays (including a floor full dedicated to flight full of planes, right from the Wright brothers early planes to a cut out of a real Boeing 747). The 4th building was the newest with a very modern space age feel and special interactive features to teach children about genetics. It also had a re-built formula one car – one of the very ones that Mika Hakkinen once crashed.

We spent about 2 and a half hours wandering around and checking out various exhibitions. There were a couple of exhibitions that we wanted to see that we either missed or were closed on the Saturday – one on Iceland (which was very interesting and complete with actors pretending to be Icelandic to entertain children!) and another covering pretty much all the inventions of the modern world since the industrial revolution. So we went back on the Sunday to see them!! We have now added Iceland to our must see places its a fascinating place for sure – Icelandic ponies, idyllic coastlines, hot springs and more.

Across the road from the Science museum is the V&A (the Victoria and Albert Museum) and we went there on that Sunday too. It again is again a huge museum (11km of gallery to be exact) covering many things though some quite boring, such as the history of wrought iron (ugh) to more interesting things, for me, like fashion throughout history. We went through the fashion section, the cast courts (which contain exact replicas of famous ancient sculptures) and a photography section, but already museum’ed out from our time in the Science museum we left it there for the day. Its free of course, most museums are, so we can always go back!

On that Saturday we finally found a decent local pub called The Railway, but it’s a good thing that came out of catching the bus - and we headed there for dinner and a drink. Quite good atmosphere and i reckon we might head there more often - lots of Aussies there too.

One night earlier in the week (week of the 20th) when there were several tubes down and delayed due to various things like signaling errors, repairs etc, I said to Mark, “our line (Jubilee – which is Silver on the maps) is always good, never needs to be closed and there are never any delays”. I then mentioned that I had now had probably jinxed us. Well sure enough come Friday they had announced that the Jubilee line was down (along with the Metropolitan – which is also another line just a 10 minute walk for us) for standard maintenance work for the entire weekend. Bugger. So we actually had no choice but to catch the bus that weekend.

It wasn’t too bad as for that weekend (25-26th March) we had planned to go to the Camden Markets which is actually not that far by bus. Well I thought the Portobello Markets were good, well the Camden markets I reckon were almost better. It had less antiques, but so much more in atmosphere, clothes and jewellery. It seems like a great place to go for a quick cheap lunch as it has a huge take-away food section with lots of variety including curries, Thai and Chinese. There was lots of Goth stores, which were quite strange, and the people who were dressed in Goth at the markets were completely over the top – anyone who you have ever seen who called themselves Goth are completely tame compared to these guys I assure you!

There was also an art gallery in the middle and it just had a new exhibition for a photojournalist who had taken photos of the 6 day war in Israel back in the 60’s. It was quite good and some of the photos were quite graphic (including shots of families in bombed out houses, troops, political leaders, destroyed military installations etc) and the candid nature of many of them made them even more interesting.

Later that same afternoon we headed towards Waterloo, to the Tate Modern art gallery for a look around. It’s open till 10pm on Saturday nights so we had plenty of time to just wander around – which we needed as it was quite packed. In typical London fashion the weather took a turn whilst we were on the tube and by the time we got down there it was raining, so it was a bit of time for some drip drying whilst we wandered around there too (despite having an umbrella – you don’t go anywhere without one - your legs still get quite wet).

There were lots of interesting pieces, especially in the surrealist rooms with many works by Francis Bacon and Salvador Dali amongst many others. They also had some paintings by Picasso and Monet’s “Waterlillies” was there too – it is huge.

That was quite a long day and on our way home we took a wander along Southbank past the Millennium and Blackfriars bridges. It’s quite pretty that way and they have blue fairy lights in all the trees. The London eye is down that way too, and it’s massive up close – oh and you don’t take a ride on it you take a flight and it takes about 30 minutes to go all the way around! We haven’t done that as we are waiting for a clear day and you have to pre book so it’s cheaper, thus it’s going to be a while before we get to go on it.

The next day Mark and I wanted a bit of a rest from sight seeing and we decided to go to the movies. So again we took the bus into central London as the movie we wanted to see was not on at our local movie theatre (we later realised that we had other train options – more on this later).

The bus ride in itself was actually quite eventful. We’d left the house, just missing one bus, and per normal had to wait an eternity for the next one. Whilst we were waiting for the next bus the traffic suddenly backed up, which seemed strange for a Sunday, but then when we were on the bus we quickly learned what happened. Further up the road someone had clean driven through an intersection, just missing traffic light pole and straight into a construction site. Then when we were traveling along we had a smelly drunk man who talked to himself on his way off the bus (I was sure he was going to fall down the stairs – which wouldn’t have been hard even when perfectly sober with the way the bus drivers drive); then there were the loud mouthed obnoxious teenagers up the back of the bus, and finally the small child who insisted on singing Old MacDonald had a farm the whole way there.

Traffic is not too bad in the city on the weekends, mainly because of the congestion zone circling the city as it makes for easier traffic. Down on Oxford Street on the weekend you only see buses, taxis plus the occasional BMW or Mercedes (of course the rich who can afford to pay the 5 pound a day tax). We remember last time we had to drive through London, it was a Saturday and we had to get to Marble Arch (just near Oxford Street). It was a nightmare bumper to bumper the whole way and it took ages.

The movie we saw was Romance and Cigarettes with James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon and Kate Winslet. It’s a bit different, sort of sad and funny, with a bit of a musical theme thrown it, but very entertaining. I reckon at home it would be on at Palace Nova – but here it is just on anywhere. There are so many cinemas here it is not funny, though I am looking forward to going to a cinema that shows old black and white movies – I’d love to see From Here to Eternity at the cinema.

We didn’t do much else as it was a bit rainy on the way home, though there was a bit of drama while waiting for the bus. One man who looked perfectly normal was walking past, then all of a sudden he started swearing his head off at a guy waiting at the bus just up from where we were. It seems he thought the man waiting had uttered a derogatory comment in his direction. I am not sure if he did or not, but the bloke went off his nut at him for sure.

During the last week of March we went to the movies on the Wednesday night, as the phone company we go through, Orange, have a special deal where its 2 for the price of one on Wednesdays (they call it Orange Wednesdays). The great thing is its all day, any movie and any cinema. So we could do that every week if we wanted. We went to see The Inside Man with Jodie Foster, Denzel Washington and Clive Owen – it is really good sort of an action thriller suspense movie. Definitely worth seeing when it comes out there.

On Friday (31st March) I went on a London Walk - I did the DaVinci code walk, just out of interest. It was quite good and not all focused on the book, but more on what the book was meant to be interpreting, i.e. the actual facts not the fiction. This was good as I am a big sceptic so was pleased to learn that Dan Brown got a lot of things wrong. It was quite long and went from Temple tube, to the Temple Church, to Kings College (which has a gorgeous old chapel), followed by Westminster (which used to be a Palace the oldest bit dating back to 1097) then Westminster cathedral (where lots of important people are buried – including Sir Isaac Newton), we then walk to St James Park and the parade grounds and finally through to Trafalgar Square. Whew.

My feet were sore at the end of it plus I had already walked from St Johns Wood to Camden for my National Insurance interview. Is like a Medicare number, but they make you provide loads of information and go for an interview in a horrid government office (full of very slow lazy government workers - I tell you they dawdled around the office and looked really bored and one officer even asked the officer who was in the middle of interviewing me when she could break for lunch as it was 12noon, so they could go together!!!)

The weekend of the 1st April was the famous boat race - Cambridge vs. Oxford. So on Sunday we headed down to Hammersmith/Chiswick to watch the race. The weather was very unpredictable, it poured when we got to Hammersmith tube about noon, so we waited for about 10 minutes and on our walk to the Thames it was all sunny and bright.

We decided to have lunch in a pub called the Dove - at where the middle point of the race on the Thames would be - it rained again there. We then decided we really wanted to ensure we saw the end of the race so we walked along the Thames to towards Barnes and through Chiswick. It was nice for most of our walk. It’s a nice area there, though the river is quite shallow and mucky looking (it rained again just before we got to the Barnes Bridge).

We picked a spot just before the end of the race past a pub called the White Hart, where we could see them coming up around from under the Barnes Bridge, coming past and then all the way to the finishing line (our spot was good as we were at the bottom of a U shape bend in the river). We had gotten there early (around 3pm - the race was at 4.30pm) and we parked ourselves on a park bench of a very small green and tried to read the papers in the windy but sunny weather.

We were hoping the rain would stay away - so I could take photos of the race. The heavens opened again for about a good 10 minutes and we sat huddle together on the bench trying not to get drowned, even under an umbrella. Fortunately after that the rain cleared for good from 3.30pm and thus for both races (there is a reserves race in which Cambridge won) it remained clear and sunny. Oxford unfortunately won the main race. We were going for Cambridge as there was an Australian from Tasmania on the boat - it’s a big deal to race in these races and they train for months to be a possible selection, so he must be a bloody good oarsman.

There were so many people though and apparently 250,000 people watch the race on the river each year. Though there are plenty of spots to watch it from and you don't have to get there hours early – we still over estimate how many people will be at things. Though in some spots the earlier the better is a good idea - one pub called The Ship was packed with what seemed like thousands of people at only 2pm!

Our own spot was fairly deserted when we got there with plenty of good positions left, but by race time there were hundreds of people packed along the banks and along the park railings (the park was higher up than the river bank).

On our way back home we decided to walk back to Putney Bridge for the tube, as the buses were packed, we walked through Barnes past Putney & Wimbledon Common (which is lovely and green with a big wetland area) and all the way to Putney Bridge where the start of the race was. It was still completely packed with revelers still continuing on in all the pubs and rowing clubs that lined the river with lots of light and dark blue balloons decorating the entire area. It ended up taking a good while to get home, I reckon 2 hours in total, but it was a good day out and we now know how to do it better for next year.

On the Saturday we really didn’t do too much, but we did go shopping around for sleeping bags for our ANZAC day trip. Mark and I have booked a 5 day tour for ANZAC day in Turkey, so it will be a few sightseeing days and then we sleep out on ANZAC cove at Gallipoli on the 24th April ready for the dawn services on the 25th. Everybody who has done this says its great and well worth it, so we cannot wait.

It turned out our only options near us are not just the tube or the bus. Where we live we also have the National Rail line and the Thames link train services, both being above ground lines. The National Rail is more for longer journeys across the UK – but ours goes to Bedford and heads down to Brighton too. These cost a lot more and certainly not worth it for short trips across London. The Thames link crosses London and the good thing about that one, despite it not having trains constantly coming past, is that it’s covered by our weekly travel passes in the zones we use. So when it’s busy or when Mark leaves the house late in the mornings he catches this to work as its direct and only 3 stops to work.

Some other exciting London news is that by mid-2007 you won’t be allowed to smoke anywhere indoors and that will include pubs and clubs. Hurrah – I cannot wait. This is already been the case in Ireland for the last couple of years and just the other week it came into force in Scotland. They are really strict with quite large fines for not complying with the new laws for both the pubs and patrons.

The chocolate here is quite different, it melts really quickly but Cadbury chocolate tastes so much better than at home. Cadbury chocolate here is made in Bournville, Birmingham and is lacking an additive that prevents melting which is actually in Australian chocolate.

Mark has been working now at City and Guilds (like TAFE), no more sleeping in for him, for about 4 weeks. I think he likes it, but gets a little bored. It is certainly quite different from at home, as the people work 9 to 5 (with a full hour for lunch) and not a minute more.

As you can see we are keeping busy, during the week its same old same old with what we would do at home and on the weekend we play tourist and explore London as much as we can.