Garden Glory amidst a bit of pushing and shoving at the Royal Academy


Perhaps the combination of great artworks centred upon the subject of gardens and gardening gets people so excited they can’t help pushing and shoving other people around, in an effort to get the best viewing point and make sure they don’t miss anything on offer.

Yesterday Clive and I wound our way through Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse at London’s Royal Academy. This is an exhibit I would attend over and over and over again, if time and ticket availability allowed.

Amidst a number of well-known works by Monet, Pissarro, Bonnard, Renoir, John Singer Sargeant, Paul Klee and many others are great garden paintings on loan from private collections. What must it be like, to own a small (or large) masterpiece, I wonder? We can only dream, and buy a print or a few postcards instead.

I could have stared for hours at a small Monet from a private collection in Switzerland. However this was impossible due to the hordes passing through. The exhibition is extremely popular and getting rave reviews; perhaps too many tickets per timeslot were sold; and it became tiring and uncomfortable constantly to be dodging other people and trying to squeeze into a place to view a painting. Those who had audio guides grouped in giant masses in front of designated paintings, leaving little room for the rest of us.

I told Clive I thought the guards have the best job, as they can arrive early or stay late and wander through the rooms all by themselves.

Even in these less-than-ideal circumstances, I recommend this exhibition wholeheartedly to anyone who loves Impressionist-to-modern era art and paintings of gardens in particular.

The last room of the exhibition is dedicated to a triptych of Monet’s water lilies. The curving canvases aren’t as large as the ones at the Orangerie but to me are equally impressive in their beauty. Apparently this is the first time the three have been reunited in decades; they are on loan from museums in Cleveland, Ohio and St. Louis and Kansas City, Missouri.

If you’re thinking of London before April 20, be sure to book tickets for this one. No matter a few pushes and shoves, the combination of great artwork and great garden beauty makes it worthwhile.


Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s post will be from Felixstowe.

Letter from York: Churches, Cobblestones and Chums

York Minster

York Minster

Clive and I had talked for ages about visiting York, founded on the River Ouse in 71AD. Earlier this year, good friends relocated here and urged us to come see them. Finally we booked a few days in this city that seems to offer something for everyone.

For a first taste of York’s history, we walked through Mickelgate Bar, one of the ancient city entry gates, then climbed many steps up to the city walls, constructed c107. I can’t quite get my head around those dates – in the U.S. and Australia, 200 or 300 years ago is really old. In this city, one gets a real sense of the layers of history and the many different eras and events that can happen on the same physical bit(s) of the planet we call home.

On a hop-on, hop-off bus tour, we learned this: ‘A street’s a gate, a gate’s a bar, and a bar’s a pub.’

Bootham Bar, a ‘gate’ into York’s old city, with steps up to the ancient wall

Bootham Bar, a ‘gate’ into York’s old city, with steps up to the ancient wall

Entry to old city via Bootham Bar – foundations c. AD 300

Entry to old city via Bootham Bar – foundations c. AD 300

Just minutes outside the city walls are beautiful English villages, scenery and of course pubs. With our friends we explored their village and surrounding area, including a trip to their allotment.

Back in the city, we spent time in York Minster, the magnificent Gothic cathedral, did a lot of walking around cobblestone streets and markets, visited the York Castle Museum and returned again today to another part of the wall, with different views of the city and the Minster. The vast majority of the wall is still intact.

Clive on the York city wall between Bootham Bar & Monk Bar

Clive on the York city wall between Bootham Bar & Monk Bar

The York Art Gallery was also on my list but has been undergoing a major renovation and won’t reopen until August 1st. After meeting our friends again for a tour, pub lunch complete with Yorkshire pudding – of course – and a stroll for more ice cream (well, it’s been hot lately), we said our good-byes for this time.

Train travel is so easy around the UK and Europe that once again we’ve vowed, ‘we really should do this more often.’ We know we’ve just touched the surface of what York has to offer, and recommend it to anyone interested in history, art and culture, and lovely English ambiance.

The Shambles, a cobbled alleyway in central York

The Shambles, a cobbled alleyway in central York

We leave York tomorrow morning. On a different subject, one much in the news this week, our hearts have been saddened following last Friday’s shooting of 38 people in Tunisia, including 30 Britons, two from Felixstowe. We don’t know the family, but the couple was there to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. The woman was shot five times and footage of her being carried on a beach ‘sun bed’ used as a stretcher was broadcast around the world. She survived, but her husband did not. His body along with others was repatriated to the UK today.

Tomorrow, the nation will observe a minute’s silence at midday. We’ll be on the train then, and will join the rest of the country in remembrance of those killed and wishing in time a measure of peace to their families and loved ones.

West window of York Minster, a place of worship and peace

West window of York Minster, a place of worship and peace

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from Felixstowe.

Letter from Felixstowe: Scotland, Either Way

Scotland, either way

Scotland, either way

Last week in the Scottish Highlands, we saw ‘YES’ banners everywhere. This week, back in Suffolk on a river cruise, we met a couple from Edinburgh, currently living in England. They said they were incensed they don’t have a vote in this week’s independence referendum and believe they were excluded because Scots living elsewhere in the UK would likely vote ‘NO.’

I think it’s fair to say most of our friends would prefer – overwhelmingly – to have Scotland remain in the UK.

As for me, American by birth and Australian by citizenship, I was raised to applaud and revere the USA’s fight for independence, with the Revolutionary War also named the War of Independence. It was of course a totally different situation and the countries are an ocean apart, but I think many people can appreciate a nation’s impulse and pride and yearning to be, and be seen as, independent.

In Australia, I witnessed the republic referendum in November 1999. During those years, which included the run-up to the Sydney 2000 Olympics, I was impressed over and over again by the country’s energy, capability, intelligence, optimism, beauty, and success on countless levels. Yet for various reasons, the referendum was defeated. A key voice in the ‘No’ campaign belonged to monarchists, and many of our Aussie friends valued the country’s connection to the monarchy and wanted it to continue.

In all the discussion around the Scotland referendum, I haven’t heard much about the monarchy (though we haven’t listened to all the debates).

The entire UK seems to have been electrified by today’s referendum. It’s a momentous time for everyone and either way, change will reverberate throughout the UK in months and years to come.

And either way, we’ll always love Scotland.

Highlands footpath, Scotland

Highlands footpath, Scotland

Letter from Scotland: Five Highlights of the Highlands

Moody evening on Loch Ness, taken from Dores

Moody evening on Loch Ness, taken from Dores

Visiting the Highlands in the run-up to Scotland’s independence referendum, which occurs on 18 September, is quite an experience.

From the moment we arrived and noticed ‘YES’ banners posted on street poles lining Inverness’s main thoroughfare to a visit to Culloden Moor, the site of a historic battle in which Bonnie Prince Charlie and his army were defeated in bloody battle by English government forces, we’ve been struck by how vital and important the issue of Scottish independence is to the Highlands.

Even as this momentous question will be decided in next week’s vote, visiting the battlefield – and then Clava Cairns, a 4,000+ year-old burial site – has made me equally aware of how small we really are in the infinite sweep of history and time.

Small or not, I’m here this week, with Clive and his daughter Kylie, in a beautiful part of a beautiful country. I’ve enjoyed taking the back seat (most of the time) and our days have been active and full.

With still one day to go, my top five Highland highlights are:

1 The scenery. Sunny, cloudy or in-between, it’s fantastic. No doubt the Highlands are also gorgeous in winter, though we’re not sure we’d be brave enough to visit then.

2 Walking. Our walk along the footpath at the top of Aonoch Mor in the Nevis Range is probably my single favourite activity of this trip. (The gondola ride up and down is also terrific.) In Inverness itself, we enjoyed an evening walk along the River Ness riverside pathways and islands.

A Highland walk - Clive on the footpath, Aonoch Mor, Scotland

A Highland walk – Clive on the footpath, Aonoch Mor, Scotland

3 Boat ride down the Caledonian Canal into Loch Ness & a visit to what’s left of Urquhart Castle. I’m usually not a castle person, and despite the rampant ‘Nessie’ industry (similar to local souvenir-selling the world over), the views and setting are worth the trip.

4 Inverness Museum & Art Gallery. I can’t recommend this small, quality museum highly enough. The ground floor contains superb exhibits of Highlands natural history, geology, civilisations and languages. The first floor contains equally impressive exhibits on Highland history from the Jacobites to the 20th century.

5 Dores. This is a tiny town on the eastern shore of Loch Ness, with a historic inn where the waiter introduced us to Irn-Bru and Black Isle Blonde and the beach out back offers views down the length of the loch.

6 Bonus find: Nairn Bookshop. A fantastic independent bookshop in the charming harbour town of Nairn, on the Moray Firth 15 miles east of Inverness.

A Highland walk - view of Loch Linnhe & Fort William on left, from Aonach Mor, Scotland

A Highland walk – view of Loch Linnhe & Fort William on left, from Aonach Mor, Scotland

Cheers and thanks for reading. Next week’s letter will be from Felixstowe.

Musical Flag-Waving and a Diamond Jubilee Exhibit in London

Waving the Union Jack at Royal Albert Hall

During our previous London interlude, while taking an escalator in the Underground, we noticed an advertising poster for the Royal Philharmonic ‘Classical Spectacular’  at Royal Albert Hall. The program included British sing-along, flag-waving favourites ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ and ‘Rule Britannia’ as well as other classical gems. The performance date happened to be just two days before our next trip to Paris, and we also wanted to see a photography exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum,  ‘Queen Elizabeth II by Cecil Beaton, a Diamond Jubliee Celebration’.

We loved the Philharmonic program, with my favourites being — in addition to the above-mentioned pieces — a rousing ‘Stars and Stripes Forever’, which brought tears to my eyes, and the tenor Jesus Leon singing Nessun Dorma (twice, thanks to an enthusiastic request for an encore).

Victoria & Albert Museum garden, London

The V&A photography exhibit, a collection of intimate family portraits, provides a wonderful glimpse into the Queen as a young woman and mother. It’s an excellent complement to the exhibit we saw last month at Windsor Castle, ‘The Queen: 60 Photographs for 60 Years’. We also enjoyed viewing the V&A collection of painting and sketches by Suffolk artist John Constable.

Afterwards, coffee (of course!), in the sunlit museum garden.

Coffee in V&A Museum garden, London

As so often happens when we make the effort to take advantage of these kinds of activities, we’re reminded of how much this great city has to offer and how much more we hope to do here in the future.

Cheers for now and more soon from Paris.

London Interlude

Clive at Windsor Castle

London, always a great city, has a special buzz this year with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and 2012 Olympics. We spent a couple days here en route to the U.S.

Walking for miles tops our list of favourite activities. No shopping this time, as we’re travelling light, but we gazed into many shop windows, enjoyed a browse at Waterstone’s, and admired the city’s great architecture. Sadly, unsightly tents and porta-loos still mar the area around St. Paul’s Cathedral.


Tents around St. Paul's

Australia House, a grand building in London.

Australia House

We happened to be in London on Valentine’s Day. On an evening walk near our hotel, an intimate brasserie drew us in with its set-price menu, each copy tied in satin ribbon; complimentary flutes of Prosecco;  and a red rose and glowing candle on each table.

Usually we dine at home on Valentine’s Day, so lingering over a candlelight dinner in London was an extra-special treat.

Valentine's dinner in London

A classic black comedy, ‘The Ladykillers’ — tickets purchased at a discount booth in Leicester Square — entertained and amused us at the Gielgud Theatre in London’s West End. 

A Day at the Castle

St. George's Chapel, WIndsor Castle

For the better part of a crisp, sunny day we explored the grounds and interior public areas of Windsor Castle, my first visit to the castle that’s been a home of the sovereign for over 900 years.

Many family groups were at the castle as it was half-term school holidays, and everyone seemed to be having a good time. Boys and girls alike, including two groups of French schoolchildren, ooh-ed and aah-ed over Queen Mary’s dollhouse. My favourites were St. George’s Chapel and the wonderful exhibit ‘The Queen 60 Photographs for 60 Years’  in the Drawings Gallery.

In one of several gift shops on the castle grounds, we bought a Jubilee gift book for my mother, who loves the Queen and always reminds Clive of our family’s English ancestors.

Windsor Castle is trialling a simple café within the castle walls. After admiring the many grand rooms of the state apartments, we were ready to relax with the all-important coffee.

Coffee at Windsor Castle

We left Windsor Castle and London eager to return, as always — maybe next month, on our way to Paris. In the meantime, we’ve been having a great visit with my mother in the U.S. and will soon return to England.

Me at Windsor station

Cheers for now and more soon.

Our Very Own Bradshaw’s British Railway Handbook

Bradshaw's Railway Handbook

Felixstowe Suffolk UK

In today’s post, we received our copy of Bradshaw’s Descriptive Railway Hand-Book of Great Britain and Ireland, a facsimile of the Victorian guide by George Bradshaw, originally published in 1863.

Clive and I recently discovered and immediately became addicted to Series 3 of the BBC television travel series ‘Great British Railway Journeys’, presented by Michael Portillo, a former British Cabinet minister and the only man I’ve ever thought looks great in a pink jacket (not that I’ve seen that many men in pink jackets).

By a pleasant coincidence, in the first week of this series, Portillo travelled to our new home town of  Felixstowe as part of his journey in Suffolk.

'agriculture on the most improved principles' = Bradshaw on Suffolk

We’ve enjoyed the program no matter where Michael Portillo goes. The mix of scenery, history, and comparison to modern times is enthralling. We can’t wait to watch DVDs of Series 1 and 2.

In the meantime, Series 3 continues and we can peruse our lovely new guide. According to a recent article in the Oxford Times, the reprint jumped to number 6 on the amazon UK bestseller list as a result of the television series.

I have an uneasy relationship with my Kindle, but that’s a subject for a separate post. Today I’ll just say that for all the reading I do electronically, I still adore physical books.

Paging through Bradshaw's Railway Handbook

Cheers for now and more soon.