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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

London’s Little Venice

When I think of canals, I think of Venice or Amsterdam. But I recently discovered that these aren’t the only cities crisscrossed by canals. Good old London has them too!

View of the canal towards Edgware Road
View of the canal towards Edgware Road

London’s (and Britain’s) canal system was a child of the Industrial Revolution and its demand for cheap transport for goods and commodities. It may sound odd to modern ears but the boats were horse-drawn and the horses walked along the tow paths. One horse could carry thirty tonnes at a time. Nowadays, water buses transport passengers to and from Camden Town.

The horse-drawn boats are long gone but the canals still remain and became part of a lifestyle. The area known as Little Venice consists of a pool of water where the Grand Union and Regent’s canals meet. It is sought after as it provides a posh postcode on the (relatively) cheap, as this is where houseboats can be moored. It is a lovely, quiet area surrounded by mainly elegant Georgian houses along tree-lined streets.

Tow path chock-a-block with plants
Tow path chock-a-block with plants

Regent’s Canal lies just north of Central London. It is 8.6 miles (13.8 km) long and was built in the early 1800’s as an alternative way to transport goods to Paddington Station. Some sections of the tow path are open to the public and some are for residents only. I walked along Regent’s Canal for a while on a sunny spring day. It was a very pleasant stroll and it provided a glimpse into houseboat life.

Home sweet home
Home sweet home

There isn’t much space so every nook and cranny is filled with stuff. The small kitchens -or should I call them galleys? –  were very functional and luminous. Many boats had a table and one or two chairs on deck to take advantage of the fine weather, as well as potted plants and even gardening implements. As far as I know, some moorings (hopefully all) offer full facilities: showers, washers and dryers and the like, as well as connection to water, electricity and phone services. There were well-tended patches of garden along the tow path brimming with spring blooms.

Sit down for a cuppa
Sit down for a cuppa

It seems to me that living on a houseboat fulfills both the desire to own a house and the freedom to take it with you, as some British narrow boats are capable of navigating the European canal systems.

I’m not sure I could live on one permanently. Could you?

To visit Little Venice, take the Bakerloo Line to Warwick Avenue station and then walk down Bloomfield Road.

Trip to England: highlights

Here are some of the highlights of our recent trip to England. Although it was family-centred, we managed to visit some interesting places.

Temple Church

I’ve always wanted to see the Temple Church. My first attempt was a few years ago when I had a few hours to kill in London before my flight back home, I can’t remember whether it was to Dallas or to Buenos Aires. Anyway, I walked and walked trying to find this historic church ensconced in the middle of the Inns of Court.  I eventually found it but, to my chagrin, it was closed for repairs.

Cut to July 2011. My friends Romina and Anibal were in London on holiday. Together we visited Westminster Cathedral and had nothing planned for later. However, I had a secret agenda. Mwahahaha! I played on my friend’s interest in history and very innocently suggested we could have a look at this church built by the Knights Templars. Nothing special, only medieval, you know. We asked a guy for directions and he said “Oh, the Da Vinci Code church?” That was a bit embarrassing. I wanted to explain that I ‘m not a Dan Brown fan I knew about this church way before he made it famous but somehow I don’t think this passer-by would have cared.

We were like kids in a candy store!

Fish and chips with mushy peas and tartar sauce

Those who know me know that I don’t care for fish. I managed to avoid Britain’s national dish for years until last week. We met up with some friends in Brighton whom we hadn’t seen in years. It was a glorious summer day, the seagulls were dancing in the sky, the musicians were playing in the square, wine and conversation were flowing easily. One thing led to another and I found myself ordering fish and chips with mushy peas. The haddock was so fresh that I’d like to think it was caught that morning off the coast of Brighton.

HMS Victory

HMS Victory was launched in 1765 and was Lord Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. It is a museum now, placed in a dry dock in Portsmouth. I walked about the decks trying to imagine the noises of battle, the roar of the cannon and the shouts of the gunners manning it, the heartrending screams of the wounded, the smell of fear. It wasn’t a very successful evocation, the trappings of modern life and other tourists got in the way.

Guildford Castle

Guildford Castle dates back to Saxon times and was rebuilt by William the Conqueror in the Norman style. Nowadays, only the keep and sections of the wall remain. But my favourite place were the gardens: the design of the flowerbeds, the variety and quantity of flowers, the sweet smells. It was absolutely gorgeous. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t ideal but it could have been worse.

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