Saturday, 30 August 2014

Natural History Museum, London

There's nothing wrong with the exhibits in the Natural History Museum, but the show stealer is the building itself. Designed by a young architect, Alfred Waterhouse, in 1865 and opened in 1881, a visit here can be all about looking at the decorations rather than what's being displayed. All the amazing attention to detail – those individually painted ceiling tiles depicting plants, the terracotta columns and animals running up them, was overseen by Richard Owen, the museum's first superintendent and also the person who pushed to give natural history its own museum (it had previously been given cramp quarters in the British Museum up near Russell Square).

Tip: if you visit on a summer Saturday it will be crowded and there will be a long line to get in. However, if you pre-book timed tickets to whatever temporary special exhibition is being staged, you can simply walk up, show your tickets and be allowed straight in – even if the time of your visit to the ticketed exhibition isn't for hours. We unknowingly did this – that is, bought tickets to see the Ice Age exhibit for 3pm – rocked up hours earlier and were instructed to walk past the long snaking line of folks patiently waiting over 45 minutes to get in. Definitely worth the tenner (that is £10) each to save all that time, plus we got to see that Mammoths: Ice Age Giants exhibit, which was interesting if not fascinating. Yes, it's aimed at kids, but don't let that stop you: there's some cool time-lapse-style film that takes you back about 20,000 years, which is fun; plus a couple of benches which we found thankfully empty so we could sit and chat awhile. If you've been squeezing your way through the hordes in the main museum since you entered, this is almost worth £10 on its own. And, presumably because it wasn't free, this exhibit was blessedly unrammed. If this one interests you, hurry: it ends on the 7th of September 2014. (ice age giants exhibit)

As well as those woolly mammoths, we stopped in on our old favourites, including the blue whale, who is astonishingly crammed in with not just every other kind of sea creature you can think of, hanging from the ceiling, but counts elephants and hippos as his bedfellows. This hall is wonderfully anarchic and reminiscent of the sort of stuffed-owl museums you sometimes come across in small-town America. I expect it won't be long before they separate all these species, but for now, it's charming.

We gave the dinosaurs a miss – as they're the star attraction for most folks, there was an additional long, snaking line to shuffle past them. Instead, we went up as high as you can go in the great hall to take a look at the redwood tree trunk slice. These are di rigour for capital city natural history museums, but worth the space they take up for the way they chronical human history with the little stickers, pointing out the ring when, for instance, Sir Walter Raleigh brought the potato from South America and showed it to the first Queen Elizabeth.

It was about now that we started to suffer museum fatigue, so took just a cursory swing through the minerals hall, where once again it wasn't the diamonds or 4,000 ton meteorite that demanded attention, but the beautiful wood filing drawers. With all our wonderful technology, there is still nothing like useful, skilled craftsmanship for human-made beauty.

Entry: free. Open: 10am to 5.50pm, 7 days a week.  Natural History Museum, London

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

London Japanese food, fire, BBQ and rainbows

Sushi Hiroba ( ) calls itself a Korean/Japanese fusion restaurant, but we didn't notice anything particularly Korean. My son and I ordered a lot, even though it was lunchtime – maybe because it was lunchtime – and everything was very good, from the tofu bags stuffed with rice to the California roll. It's what I would call mid-range price-wise (we really did order a ton of dishes and it came to £20 per head), but if you're near Holborn and in the mood for sushi, this is your place.

The temperature here in london has gone from mid-70s to upper 60s. Just enough so you take a jacket with you when you head out for the day. Mostly though, the sky is still blue, but with a definite autumnal tinge to the air... Which put a friend of mine and I in the mood for a burn. This means sitting in her backyard and burning sticks and various pieces of wood found in skips in a metal brazier. Bottle (or two!) of white wine is requisite and we managed to talk the night away, catching up as we hadn't had a chance to do for some time. I ended up walking home at 2am and the only other living thing I came upon was a lonely cat. Was nice to learn that, in fact, this city does sleep. So often nowadays, if feels like, whenever you go out, there are always folk driving around, whatever time it is. For once though, all was quiet.

I was lucky enough to get invited to two BBQs over the weekend. This meant that a) I got to sit in nice gardens and b) I got to eat nice food that I didn't have to make. Perfect combinations!

In between the sunshine though, we have also been having heavy showers. As an aside, yesterday I read a weather forecast that went like this: 'Sunshine and heavy showers later in the day.' Um, so what was going to happen earlier in the day? Anyway, pedantry done with... The mix has meant plenty of rainbows. Two double ones sighted in one week and last night an extraordinarily strong – that is, bright – one, so that is what I leave you with. Let me know if you find those pots of gold!

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Greenwich, London

Went to Greenwich at the weekend. I haven't been there much over the years – there being such a big North/South divide in London – and to the park here maybe only three times, so it's still a novelty to stand surrounded by greenery and ancient trees, and look across such a 21st-century city. London is expanding like mad right now, mostly toward the east.

I imagine one day, if we could come back in a couple hundred years or so, we'd find it stretching all the way to Southend, overlooking the North Sea toward France. Ye who scoff, imagine what the folks who lived here in 1814 would think if they came back and saw it now!

From here you get a good view of the buildings they call the Walkie-Talkie, the Cheesegrater and the Gherkin (that's a pickle, for those of you from North America). That is not the dome of St Paul's Cathedral, but the roof of the Royal Naval College.

As ever, what I like about exploring London is finding the bits that are little time capsules, so it's pretty cool to be where time begins – that is, the Greenwich meridian: zero hour – and there are plenty of remnants of earlier times still hanging in there. The trees for one. Though this is a heavily visited park and very managed (reminding me a bit of NYC's Central Park), there were some amazing enormous old trees. I believe this park is one of those that's all that's left of some royal's hunting ground, though maybe not... I haven't done the research, but one thing that is here and worth a visit is the Royal Observatory. It has a planetarium, exhibits and such like, but all fairly small scale, as it's very old (unlike, for instance, NY's planetarium and surrounding building, which is vast in comparison).

It all sits up on the top of the hill, looking pleasingly oldie worldie. And, as you come down into Greenwich itself (we'd parked up by Blackheath - another beautiful area, if a little overwhelmed by traffic), you can ooh and ahhh over the little houses built mostly in Victorian times, but with a smattering of even older, like the Plume of Feathers pub, which was built – so its sign told us – in 1691.

We continued on to the Trafalgar, a well-known pub right on the river with fantastic views and a fair amount of outdoor seating, from where you can gaze across at the Dome, which is a leftover from the millennium celebrations (can you believe that's already 14 years ago!) and watch the river buses zoom along.

A recommended outing, so long as you go aware that lots of other people think so too.

The UK has had the most amazing summer weather-wise. The best, I keep telling people, since I arrived here back in the year dot. Even the weatherpeople back me up on this one, and it has got to the point where sunshine and blue skies feel normal. Believe me, this is not how it usually is here – but long may it last.

So this morning I woke to one of those painfully beautiful days: the light so golden and somehow almost poignant with... Hmmm... Maybe the first hint of autumn coming? The tiniest chill in the air, the first time thoughts of September and the darker days of winter have entered my mind for weeks...

As ever, I wish I had a camera or skill that could capture the nuances of light, but here are my best efforts, taken from one of my favourite views: my bedroom window. London, you're looking good just now.

Thursday, 7 August 2014

Canela Cafe, Covent Garden, London

Canela Cafe's Earlham Street entrance
Canela Cafe, visited in June 2014 and reviewed for The National Federation of Women's Institutes. Read it here!:

The half-and-half salad: Feta cheese, green salad with sunflower seeds and red onion in a balsamic glaze and Roasted aubergine with pomegranate, dressed with yoghurt sauce

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

August in London

And so back to 'real' life: London, work, the commute, a long to-do list... Is not terrible, but a phrase I heard from an old friend while I was in Washington State keeps resonating: Follow your heart, not your head. 
I know there are those who think  'the pursuit of happiness' are dirty words, but they weren't written into the US constitution for nothing. I don't think so anyway. If not happiness, then what? So I'll share a few of the things that are making me happy here in my adopted home right now:

 1. London in August. It feels as though everyone's gone on vacation and - at last! - there's a seat on the train, room to walk down the sidewalks without being jostled and restaurants aren't so crowded. In a nutshell, a little more breathing space.
2. We're having the best summer weather-wise since I arrived here over 30 years ago. Don't just take my word for it: even the weather folk are saying so. That means sunshine, blue skies, warmth. In short, it actually feels like summer! 

3. My walk over the park to the train station in the morning. The view over the city is terrific and you only have to turn your head a little bit and it doesn't even look as if you're in a city!
 4. Getting together with friends. We had a laughter-fuelled evening Saturday night, with plenty of food and enough drink. A second meet-up with the same friends at an outdoor music event (the blues, every Sunday afternoon throughout August, 1.30-5.30pm in Broomfield Park, N13), talking and listening in the sunshine, was most enjoyable.
One thing I'm not loving: my computer dying. After being dropped on its head twice, so to speak, once each by the two men in my life (no names, but I think you know who you are!), combined with being six years old at least (it was pre-loved when it came to me), it is no longer playing ball and won't always wake up. Add it to the need-to-buy list... Right behind getting the car serviced...