London Diary: A Few Days of Walking, Shopping and Time with Clive’s Son

Statue of William Shakespeare in Leicester Square, London

Clive’s son, Jason, had a business trip to London and arranged to spend the first couple of days with his father and me in Felixstowe.

With Jason’s blessing, we decided to tag along to London. Our goal was to maximise the available time with Jason, meeting him for one or two evenings if he was free, and maybe taking in a West End show. Otherwise our days would be clear and we always have a list of galleries, shops and sites we’d like to see in London. Using accumulated hotel points, we booked four nights, Tuesday evening through Saturday morning, the longest we can recall staying there.

Tuesday: Evening on Piccadilly

After a wonderful time in and around Felixstowe, the three of us took the train to London on Tuesday afternoon. We arrived to a beautiful evening and, after checking in to our respective hotels, reconnected for dinner.

The streets of London were buzzing as always at peak hour, with pedestrians rushing to and from the Underground, taxis speeding by and flags promoting the West End flying overhead.

Evening on Piccadilly

Wednesday: Books, Shopping and Miles of Walking

While Jason worked all day, Clive and I enjoyed a slow start in a crowded café. A stroll to Clive’s favourite men’s shop, Charles Tyrwhitt on Jermyn street, followed; Clive wanted to buy a few replacement collar stays but the lovely young saleswoman gave him six at no charge.

Then came my favourite part of the day: a visit to Waterstones on Piccadilly, one of London’s best (and biggest) bookshops. I especially love their lower-ground floor travel and travel narrative section, with guidebooks, classic fiction, nonfiction and memoirs shelved together by location (similar to the also-wonderful Daunt books on Marylebone High Street). I could spend hours in this section alone, though we also had a look in a few other equally-enticing areas on different floors.

Jason texted Clive while we were having lunch in the Waterstones café, letting us know his work colleagues were taking him out to dinner that night.

In the afternoon, we headed out for my shopping chore, selecting new jeans at Long Tall Sally, a wonderful shop on Chiltern Street. A customer here once complimented Clive for accompanying me on my clothing search. This week, I worried it would take a while to try on endless jeans (oh, the uncommon delight for a tall woman, when they are ALL long enough!), so Clive was happy to camp out in a nearby café. I could always text him if needed.

Eventually I chose two pairs of jeans; the staff are so helpful and make the process as easy as possible. It’s always quite an experience, to have virtually all the staff and other customers my height or taller. Figuratively I’ve looked up to many women in my life; physically not many.

Purchases complete, I met Clive at the café and we walked more miles, until we were both desperate to find a bench. Thankfully, London has many lovely parks and squares and soon we plonked ourselves down in Berkeley Square.

Benches in Berkeley Square

Since Jason wasn’t available for dinner and our feet and bodies were worn out from all our walking, we treated ourselves to … a trip to M&S Food, a selection of salads, breads and cheeses and a tasty hotel room picnic.

Thursday: Fortnum & Mason, More Books and ‘An American in Paris’

Before going out this morning, we booked tickets for tonight’s performance of ‘An American in Paris’ at the Dominion Theatre, a new venue for us. Clive originally suggested this musical, after reading rave reviews about it several months ago, and of course I eagerly agreed.

Again we walked for miles, beginning at Fortnum & Mason, my favourite London department store. I love its ground-floor coffee, tea and chocolate displays; its stationery section with turquoise leather desk accessories; the store’s atmosphere, which I find classy but much less over-the-top than Harrods; the tearooms (where we split an order of scones, jam and cream); the location on Piccadilly across from the Royal Academy and the turquoise carry bags which say, ‘By appointment to her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’.

A few little surprises for my son’s upcoming birthday, from Fortnum & Mason

Two steps from Fortnum & Mason (and not far from Waterstones) is Hatchards, London’s oldest bookshop, which oozes character and atmosphere and *always* warrants a visit. How heavenly it was, to have time for a lovely browse on several of its well-stocked floors. Apologies for the lack of bookshop photos – too busy with the books!

En route to pick up our tickets and suss out the exact theatre location (knowing it’s in the midst of the huge construction works around Tottenham Court Road, for the new Crossrail train and underground line), we paused for some people-watching in Leicester Square. A statue of William Shakespeare, shown at the top of this post, stands in the centre of the square.

More captivating than the street performers and jolly tourists were three little girls in pink princess dresses, though unfortunately they were feeding the pigeons – urrgh!

The mother attempted a selfie photo with the girls but the youngest pushed them all away, insisting with indignant shouts that she could figure out the selfie stick by herself. I tried to be discreet in snapping a photo of the little miss.

Girl with selfie stick at Leicester Square

On our trek up Charing Cross Road to the theatre (I can’t write that street name without saying Helene Hanff’s 84, Charing Cross Road is one of my favourite books of all time), we OF COURSE had to stop for a browse at Foyles, yet another large, excellent bookshop. We found seats in the Level 5 café, downed cool drinks and Clive kindly minded my bag so I could come and go unencumbered on my expeditions throughout the store.

Finally we made our way to the theatre, picked up our tickets, made a quick turnaround at the hotel to drop off our bags and headed out again to meet Jason for an early, pre-show dinner.

Picking up our tickets at the Dominion Theatre

After catching up on Jason’s day over dinner, we walked back through Leicester Square and I snapped this father-son photo on our way to the show.

Clive and Jason at Leicester Square

As for ‘An American in Paris’, it’s a terrific musical with beautiful, clever Paris set designs and amazing ballet and dance numbers. My favourites were when the two leads, the young lovers, danced with each other. We felt a few of the dance numbers could have been shorter, but still thoroughly enjoyed and recommend this show.

Friday: Farewell at Paddington Station

After our two long days walking, shopping and theatre-going (no galleries this trip, unusual for us but the bookshops were calling), Clive and I had a slow start on Friday.

We spent the morning strolling around, ending up in Green Park where we found a bench and sat and read for quite a while.

Clive with the mapbook, planning our next move, Green Park

Jason texted that afternoon, saying he was finished with work and could meet us an hour earlier than planned. We met late afternoon at a café in Paddington Station, for this trip’s last get-together.

Saying good-bye is never easy and the older we get, the more emotional Clive and I become about it. It was difficult for this dad to say farewell to his boy. We’re already looking forward to the next visit.

Farewell at Paddington Station

Get-togethers with loved ones always pass too quickly. My strongest memory of the past week is simply the sight of Clive so happy to be with his son; a close second is the sound of their voices chatting away. Sometimes ordinary one-on-one conversations, especially with adult children, are the most extraordinary gifts. Thank you, Jason, for making the effort and taking the time to include us in your business trip to England. And thank you too, Jennifer, for holding down the fort while he was away.

I think we met our goal of spending as much time as we could with Jason and, during the days, enjoyed the rare luxury of a slower pace and time to browse, walk and enjoy London’s green spaces.

After a good-bye wave as Jason’s train left Paddington station, we opted for another hotel room picnic and a quiet night in the room. I know Clive was reflecting on their time together as we packed our backpacks and he tracked the first leg of Jason’s flight.

As at last night UK time, Jason is safely home in Australia and we are back in Felixstowe, looking forward to our next family visit, a trip to New Jersey to see my mother and son. Until then we are beside the sea, and our dear little tree, in England.

Home to our tree by the sea, Felixstowe

Cheers and thanks for reading. Whether near or far, wishing safe and happy travels to all.

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

AA RA 2

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.

AA RA 1

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.