London: from Trafalgar Square to Covent Garden

Hi there! Let me be your guide today. Come with me on a pleasant walk from Trafalgar Square to Covent Garden in the wonderful city of London.

The starting point is Charing Cross underground station, not to be confused with the Charing Cross railway station.

Once above ground, we cross the street towards Trafalgar Square. We can walk around and admire its monuments. Nelson’s Column, the most important one, was finished in 1843. It commemorates Admiral Horatio Nelson, the naval hero who defeated the Napoleonic navy at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and died after sustaining wounds during that battle.

Trafalgar Square. The National Gallery in the background. The current sculpture on the Fourth Plinth to the left. You can't miss the blue rooster!
Trafalgar Square. The National Gallery in the background. The current sculpture on the Fourth Plinth to the left. You can’t miss the blue rooster!

Trafalgar Square presents an oddity: the Fourth Plinth. This plinth was originally designed for a statue of King William IV but it was never carried out due to shortage of funds. It stood empty until 1999, when it was decided that modern sculptures would be put in place and rotate every year or so.

If we have the time and energy, we could visit the National Gallery and admire famous works of art of all times. If not, we carry on down The Strand, which starts at the roundabout outside Charing Cross station.

The Strand follows a route used since Roman times. Yep, they were in the British Isles too, which they called Britannia. The aristocracy moved to The Strand area at around the 12th century and built palaces and mansions, most of which were demolished along the centuries.

The Strand
The Strand

On the right hand side, we can see Charing Cross railway station next to the Charing Cross Hotel. In the courtyard outside, an apparently medieval monument attracts our attention. It is Eleanor’s Cross. This is a Victorian loose interpretation of the 1294 original, built by King Edward I in memory of his wife, Queen Eleanor of Castile. The Parliament had it destroyed in 1647 during the Civil War. It is very sad to think that there was a civil war in every country on this planet. Eleanor’s Cross is also used to measure distances within the City of London.

Charing Cross and Eleanor's Cross
Charing Cross and Eleanor’s Cross

The Strand is a busy thoroughfare, with many shops, pubs, restaurants, hotels and offices. I like to take in the atmosphere, watch people come and go and guess who’s a visitor and who’s a local, as well as admire the stately buildings.

One of these grand buildings is the Savoy Hotel, built in 1889. It was built where the Savoy Palace used to be. This palace, owned by John of Gaunt, a medieval smooth political operator known as the King Maker, was destroyed during the Peasants Revolt of 1381. The Savoy Hotel was the first hotel in London to have electric light and elevators as well as private bathrooms.

Now we turn left and walk up Southampton Street as far as Covent Garden. It’s a couple of blocks, if that.

Covent Garden
Covent Garden

There has been a market here since the 17th century. In the late 1960s, traffic was so intense that the authorities decided to relocate the market to Southwest London. After years of neglect, Covent Garden reopened as a shopping center in 1980. In the main hall, we can find anything from jewellery and clothes to antiques and crafts. There are also bars and restaurants.

The first time I visited Covent Garden was a few years ago during the month of August, when half of Europe goes on holiday. It seemed that they all came to London! It was rather uncomfortable to walk and enjoy the market. If you can, avoid August but bear in mind there’s always a crowd.

Delicious pastries at Laduree
Delicious pastries at Laduree

I like to get a box of macaroons from Laduree, a French pastry shop outside the market, overlooking the Piazza. Street performers attract crowds at the piazza. Let’s go see who is performing today. Keep an eye on your belongings, though.

We can finish out walk here, savouring those delightful macarons. Alternatively, we can visit the London Transport Museum or St. Paul’s church, built by Inigo Jones in 1633.

coventgarden5
Covent Garden

 

You may have heard the name Covent Garden in reference to ballet and opera. The Royal Opera House is located here and it’s commonly referred to as Covent Garden too. My mother-in-law is a ballet enthusiast and she used to drag my father-in-law to watch her favourite dancers here.

Me, I’m going home. I hope you enjoyed this walk. See you around!

Self-guided walk of Old Portsmouth

I have been to Portsmouth before, on a previous visit to my in-laws. They live half-way between London and the south coast, so it’s easy for me to jump on the train and head south to Portsmouth for a day out. I’ve been to the Historic Dockyards but this time round, I visited the old town and saw a different aspect of this interesting city by the sea.

The main attraction of the city of Portsmouth is the Historic Dockyards, where visitors can see such iconic ships as Nelson’s HMS Victory or the remains of the Mary Rose, Henry VIII’s ship. However, there is more to Portsmouth than the Dockyards and the Spinnaker Tower.

I’m going to share what I saw and learned on my walk from the Portsmouth & Southsea railway station (1) to the seafront.

Portsmouth & Southsea station opened on 14 June 1847
Portsmouth & Southsea station opened on 14 June 1847

As I left the station, I turned left and walked under the railway bridge towards the Guildhall. The imposing building is now used as an entertainment and conference venue. Across the plaza from the Guildhall is the City Council, a concrete eyesore in my opinion.

The interior and roof of the Guildhall were destroyed in the 1941 air raid. The walls and tower suffered great damage. It was rebuilt and reopened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1959.
The interior and roof of the Guildhall were destroyed in the 1941 air raid. The walls and tower suffered great damage. It was rebuilt and reopened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1959.

Farther on, the conspicuous Isambard Kingdom Brunel pub marks the start of the Guildhall Walk. Along the street, shops, more pubs, people going about their business, a vampire or two. Wait! What? It was Halloween and some people wore costumes all day. The New Theatre Royal, a pretty Victorian construction, is located at the opposite end of Guildhall Walk.

The start of Guildhall Walk. The Isambard Kingdom Brunel in on the right hand corner.
The start of Guildhall Walk. The Isambard Kingdom Brunel in on the right hand corner.

I didn’t have a map with me but, as it turned out, I didn’t need it. There are very helpful and easy to follow maps of the area in important intersections. I walked down Cambridge Road/A3. There are many University of Portsmouth buildings here. The atmosphere in the street was a lively one with students milling around. I continued past the University Library to the next roundabout and turned left onto Museum Road.

University Library

The building of the City of Portsmouth Museum (2) is a Victorian beauty, especially the back. Here, I learned that Arthur Conan Doyle worked as a doctor in Portsmouth for many years and this is where he started his writing career. However, the Scottish author wasn’t the only famous writer with a local connection: Charles Dickens was born in Portsmouth. There’s a Charles Dickens’ Trail on Old Portsmouth. I picked up a leaflet and tried to follow it.

The back facade of the museum
The back facade of the museum

I walked back to the roundabout and down High Street in Old Portsmouth. The street is lined with low buildings, many Victorian but many look more recent. I later learned that Portsmouth was attacked with incendiary bombs in 1941 during World War II. Many buildings were destroyed, 930 civilians died and about 3,000 were wounded in the blitz. So were many of the buildings on the Dickens’ trail.

High Street - Old Portsmouth
High Street – Old Portsmouth

I stopped at the John Pounds Memorial Unitarian Church. Charles Dickens is said to have befriended and admired John Pounds. Pounds (1766-1839, voted Portsmouth Man of the Millennium), was a crippled cobbled who taught destitute children to read and write and also fed and clothed them. He is acknowledged to have set in motion the movement towards universal free education in England.

Replica of John Pounds workshop
Replica of John Pounds workshop

Pounds’ legacy continued in the Ragged Schools movement in the United Kingdom and the US. The chapel where he worshipped was destroyed in the 1941 blitz and was rebuilt in 1956. A very kind member of the congregation showed me the replica of Pound’s workshop, told me the whole story and asked me to spread the word.

I stopped at a Co-op to buy something to eat. I took mi picnic across the street to the cathedral green and sat in the golden light of autumn to enjoy my sandwich.

The cathedral
The cathedral

Portsmouth Cathedral has a long history. The building developed from a medieval chapel built in 1185, which is now the quire. A very knowledgeable and enthusiastic volunteer took around and explained everything there is to know about the cathedral.

The medieval nave
The medieval nave

I went on to the end of the streets and the seawalls. Portsmouth was a walled garrison town until the 1870s under constant threat of invasion. The Square Tower, right at the end of High Street, is among the oldest fortifications and it dates to 1494. The sun was setting and its golden light bathed the stone walls. A fisherman was packing up at the end of the pier, a couple of lovers whispering sweet nothings on each other’s ears. Time to turn round and go back home.

portsmouth14

I continued on Battery Row, where people were taking a quiet dusk stroll, enjoying the salty air. I had a look at the Royal Garrison Church (3), built in 1212. The nave lost the roof in the air raid of 1941.

Royal Garrison Church
Royal Garrison Church

Back to High Street, then on to Guildhall Walk and the station.

Battery Row
Battery Row
(1) Those interested in visiting the Dockyards should take the train to Portsmouth Harbour station.
These lines connect Portsmouth with other English cities: the First Great Western from Cardiff Central, the South West Trains from London Waterloo and Southampton Central and the Southern from London Victoria, Littlehampton and Brighton.
(2) Opening Times: April – September: 10.00am – 5.30pm. October – March: 10.00am – 5.00pm. Open Tuesday-Sunday and Bank Holiday Mondays. Closed on Mondays (except Bank Holidays). Admission is free of charge.
(3) Open from April to September from 11am to 4pm.

A flying visit to Cambridge

We arrived in Cambridge in the early afternoon, later than we would have liked. In November, days are short so we’d have only a few hours of daylight to see the sights. We hadn’t planned the visit very carefully.

King's College in the background
King’s College in the background

We parked on Queen’s Road, a narrow, tree-lined street behind some of the colleges.

“We seem to be where the colleges are. Let’s go have a look.”

“Wait. I’m hungry. I thought we’d have lunch first and then go sightseeing.”

“I’m not hungry. Besides, I don’t know this place.”

“I don’t either but we can ask for directions!”- My stomach punctuated this statement with a loud roar.

In the end, we decided to carpe diem and visit King’s and Clare Colleges since we were parked just outside. We crossed some fields called The Backs towards the River Cam and crossed the Clare Bridge. A few visitors were admiring the autumnal colours and watching the punters glide past. Traffic on the river was pretty heavy. At the other side of the stone bridge, the eye wandered to the Scholar’s Gardens, quintessentially English.

A lull in the punter traffic on the River Cam
A lull in the punter traffic on the River Cam

Clare College was founded in 1326 by Lady Elizabeth de Clare, a granddaughter of King Edward I (or Edward Longshanks, the “baddie” from the film Braveheart. Hollywood does make for good references if not historical accuracy). Clare is the second oldest college in Cambridge.

The University of Cambridge, which celebrated its 800 anniversary in 2009, is a confederation of schools, faculties, departments and 31 colleges. Students live and attend lessons in each college. Professors teach to small groups in sessions called supervisions.

View of King's College chapel
View of King’s College chapel

Next to Clare is King’s College, which was founded in 1441 by a king, Henry VI, as its names clearly states. I felt the excitement of walking across the courts, past the porter’s lodge and trying to catch a glimpse (the porter caught me red-handed and just smiled,) of breathing in the long history of one of the most prestigious universities in the world. I think I even felt more intelligent just being there!

King’s College Chapel is an amazing example of late Gothic (or decorated) style. Its fan vaulted ceiling is exquisite, as are the medieval stained-glass windows. Somebody was practicing, or maybe tuning, the organ, which added to the atmosphere. Unfortunately for me, there were quite a lot of people for such a narrow chapel, so the experience was somewhat marred.

King's Parade outside King's College
King’s Parade outside King’s College

King’s College is a “green” institution in that they make every effort to improve environmental sustainability. Students can grow their own vegetables in allotments, for example. In the Back Lawn, Rare Breeds are kept to keep the grass short and thus provide growing conditions for wildflowers and herbs. Besides, their poo, ahem, manure, is a cozy environment for insects, part of the food chain also.

By then, we were hungry and thirsty, so we walked to King’s Parade, the main drag. Tea houses, tourist tat shops, churches and colleges compete for your attention. In the street, bikes compete with cars for right of way and parking space. Pedestrians need to be careful when crossing the street; you never know where a cyclist at top speed can come from.

The Cambridge University Press bookshop
The Cambridge University Press bookshop, the longest continuously operating bookshop in England, where books were first sold in the 1580s, according to that round blue sign above the door.

We browsed the stalls at Market Square: organic fruit and veg, crafts, imports, clothes and the delicious smell of freshly made crepes. Street performers entertained visitors.

The sun was setting and the time on the parking meter was running out. King’s College was closed so we couldn’t walk across to our car. We took a detour round the side along Trinity Street. We walked past the Cambridge University Press bookshop. I would have loved to spend a happy hour between the books but there was no time. The CUP logo reminded me of all the English as a foreign language classes I either took or taught back home.

Cows grazing in The Backs
Cows grazing in The Backs

Ely, a lovely medieval town in Cambridgeshire

As we were getting closer, a few stragglers were scurrying towards the cathedral in the light fall rain. We made it just in time for the 10.30 sung Eucharist at Ely Cathedral. We didn’t plan on it but went with the flow and thought it would be something different to experience.

The magnificence of the nave, with its forest of Gothic columns that rise to the painted ceiling, took our breath away. A lady volunteer handed us a service book. It was Sunday, November 2, All Saints’ Day, according to the church liturgy.

Ely Cathedral, Ely, cambridgeshire
The amazing nave and painted ceiling.

The service was a sung Eucharist. The voices of the cathedral choir and the organ music reverberated in the nave and rose up the columns towards the ceiling and beyond. It brought home to me the notion of elevating a prayer. I understood what medieval architects were trying to achieve with their tall buildings and spires ascending to the heavens. I understood it with my head and not with my heart. I can only imagine how much more effective it must have been in an age when people were more vulnerable.

The lantern
The lantern

During the service, the sun came out briefly and shone through the stained glass windows. Its fleeting magic filled the interior with colour. A religious person might think it was a miracle. I took it as a gift from nature.

There were christenings immediately after the High Church service, so the apse and the crypt were closed to the public. We still were able to see the aisles and the Norman transept from the 11th century (the transverse part across the nave that forms the shape of a Latin cross so typical of medieval churches.) It took such a long time to build a cathedral in the Middle Ages that some parts date from different times and are built in different styles even. Ely is no exception.

Altar and choir
Altar and choir

We stopped to light a candle at the St. George chapel in memory of my husband’s father and grandfathers, who all served in the military. Remembrance Sunday and Armistice Day were a few days away, so the chapel was flooded in candlelight and poppy wreaths.

In memory of family members
In memory of family members

Across the street, on the cathedral green, a flock of ducks was eating lunch under a tree. There is a cannon from the Crimea war on the green as well. A plaque remembers some local protestant martyrs who were burned on that same green during Mary Tudor’s reign. It is hard to picture such violent scenes in this tranquil place.

View from the top of the green
View from the top of the green

At the other end of the cathedral green is the Tourist Information Office, which doubles as Oliver Cromwell’s Museum. This house is his only residence, apart from Hampton Court Palace, still extant. I’m not too keen on Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of England in the 17th century, because I do not like people who impose their beliefs with violence. And I did not like his museum either. There is not much to see and the admission costs 4 pounds. There are life size figures representing Cromwell and his family in different rooms. One of them is sitting at his desk in his study. It looked up when I came in. I nearly jumped out of my skin, I did not expect that!

Oliver!
Oliver!

We ended our visit to Ely with a delicious cream tea at The Almonry, a 13th century building along the High Street that belonged to the cathedral at one time. Nowadays, it houses offices, a restaurant and flats. The patio looks onto the cathedral gardens. The back of the cathedral is even more imposing than the front.

My cream tea
My cream tea

 

The back of Ely cathedral
The back of Ely cathedral
A lovely 16th century Tudor cottage
A lovely 16th century Tudor cottage

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If you want to know more about Ely Cathedral, click here.
How to get there:
By train from London King’s Cross, Norwich, Cambridge, Midlands and Stansted airport. The station is a ten minute walk from the cathedral.
By car, 20 minutes from Cambridge and 2 hours from London.

Seas of Red Poppies at the Tower of London

November 11th marks the centenary of the First World War. There are many ways in which those who fought are honoured by their countries. In London, for example, there is a commemoration that is both spectacular and poignant: the Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red art installation at the Tower of London.

Poppy installation10

This installation consists of gradually filling the Tower’s moat with handmade ceramic poppies, a certain number per day until November 11th, when the last of the 888,246 poppies will be installed. Each poppy represents a dead British soldier. The poppy became the symbol of dead soldiers in the UK and Canada thanks to the poem In Flanders Fields by Lt. Col. John McCrae.

People were able to buy a poppy for £25, thought they are sold out. The proceeds will go to six service charities in the UK: Cobseo, Combat Stress, Coming Home, Help for Heroes, The Royal British Legion and SSAFA. The installation will be progressively dismantled after Armistice Day and the poppies will be shipped to their new homes all around the world. A friend of mine from Dallas bought one, for example.

Poppy installation11

Every day at sunset, the Last Post is played and names from the Roll of Honour are read during a ceremony. These are Commonwealth soldiers who fought and died in World War I.

Since sunny days are a rare commodity in the English autumn, I decided to go to London to see this once-in-a-lifetime event. The trouble was that thousands of people had the same idea. It was sunny, it was lunchtime and it was half-term, an explosive combination of factors. The Tower Hill underground station was closed, they only let passengers out. A human tide waxed and waned along the moat walk. I didn’t realize I could have walked down the street until I was in the thick of it.

Poppy installation12

I eventually reached the ticket office. The lines were very long. Once inside the Tower, the queues were still very long: for the toilets, the café, and each attraction (an hour and a half’s wait to see the Crown Jewels!) I really am a glutton for punishment. As it turned out, the best place to see the poppies was along the moat walk. I didn’t need to fork out 20 pounds to get into the Tower of London.

Poppy installation8

To me, the poppies were a poignantly beautiful art installation. The afternoon sun cast its golden rays on the stone walls of the Tower and the blood red of the poppies really stood out. The effect was mesmerizing. But it all got a new meaning when I overheard a young dad explain to this son what this all meant. He added “your great great-grandfather died in this war.” That brought home to me that many of these people had a relative who fought in the war and were here to pay their respects. Their connection was deeply personal.

Poppy installation13

If you’d like to share a family story about World War I, please share it in the comments below. I’d love to read it!