An hour to spare

On Friday afternoon I was in Euston with a couple of hours to spare before meeting a friend for dinner near Kings Cross. Thinking that lingering in a cafe over a single coffee for so long might be pushing my luck, I hit on a fabulous idea – popping in to the British Museum.

I first visited the British Museum in 2000 and back then, barely covered the Egyptian Galleries. Since then, I have been to see specific events or temporary exhibitions but have never taken a look at the other permanent galleries. So brimming with inspiration and purpose, I trotted down Woburn Place, through the dappled shade of Russell Square and in twenty minutes, strode through the shaded museum entrance, dropped some coins in the donation box and collected a map.

With just over an hour to spare before I needed to leave, I decided to follow the ‘if-you-only-have-an-hour’ highlights route suggested on the map. I figured this would do two things.

The first was to get me in front of famous stuff I knew about – like the Rosetta Stone and the Parthenon Sculptures (I’d only known these as the Elgin Marbles before Friday’s visit) – and some famous stuff I didn’t know about. The second bonus was that it would take me through a range of different galleries so I could take a squiz and decide whether I was inspired enough to pay another, more focused visit.

I got around to just nine of the twelve objects on the map mainly because I kept stopping to look at other amazing things along the way. So the highlights trail* also did a third thing – it almost made me late! Here’s what happened.

As I’d entered from Montague Place, I was in position to tackle the trail backwards which meant making my way to the ground floor. My first stop was at the end of Room 24 to admire this awesome Easter Island statue, Hoa Hakananai’a* (below right). I then headed out into the Great Court and took a right turn into Room 4 for the Rosetta Stone* (below left) which proved quite difficult to a) get close to and b) take a decent photo of. Continuing on into Room 18, I found myself surrounded by the Parthenon Sculptures* (below middle) – it’s a huge room and this is definitely one worth coming back to with plenty of loitering time.

Brit.Mus. Rosetta Stone+Parthenon+EasterIs.

As I headed back out of the long, marble-lined gallery, I took another right turn to explore a whole load of these amazing carved Assyrian reliefs* in Room 10.

Brit.Mus. Assyria

With four highlights done, I was feeling pretty pleased with what I’d seen so far.

Next I headed across the Great Court and through the shop at the museum’s main entrance from Great Russell Street. My next target was Room 2a, home to the Waddeson Bequest. This collection is comprised of 300 objects donated to the museum by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild in 1898. I was here to see the medieval Holy Thorn Reliquary* but this was where I started to go a little off-piste, distracted by other treasures like the Palmer Cup (below left) from 1200-1250 BC and a gilt brass hunting calendar from the 1600s (below right). Unfortunately neither photo does justice to the wonderful detail in these two pieces.

Brit.Mus. Palmer Cup + Gold Hunting Calendar

Finally I reached the cabinet holding the Reliquary and I realised why this piece was heralded as a highlight on the map. I gazed open-mouthed for several minutes, awestruck by the extravagant jewels and pearls lavished all over this small gold piece.

Brit.Mus. Holy Thorn Reliquary

I trotted back out to the entrance vestibule and headed upstairs to Room 40. I’d never heard of the Lewis Chessmen*, despite them being billed as ‘the most famous chess set in the world’, and I have to say I was delighted to make their acquaintance upon my arrival.

Brit.Mus. The Lewis Chessmen

I passed into the next room (41) en route to my next highlights stop only to find myself surrounded by all sorts of treasures from Sutton Hoo. I couldn’t resist lingering over the re-constructed drinking horn (below left) and the slightly Muppet-like figurehead from the prow of a Viking ship (below right).

Brit.Mus. Saxon Horn + Ships Prow

I continued on, walking the length of the east wing and paused briefly at the end to admire some Iranian metalwork* before turning left to reach Room 56 and the very old Royal Game of Ur* (2600-2300 BC).

Brit.Mus. Royal Game of Ur

I was walking through the gallery on my way to the next highlight when I was struck by the Homer Simpson-esque countenance on this statue of King Idrimi of Alakah (1560-1500 BC). Then I drew closer to discover the intricate cuneiform etched all over it.

Brit.Mus. King Idrimi of Alakah

I found a lot to admire in this section of the museum and made a mental note to return for a more leisurely nose around. I definitely want to find out the stories that lie behind these glazed bricks from the Throne Room of the palace of Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II (605 – 562 BC), this tiny gold chariot (below right) and many of the other things I spied as I whizzed past.

Brit.Mus. Lion tiles + golden chariot

Back on the highlights trail again, I headed around to Room 70 in the west wing to check out the Portland Vase* (below), the Roman inspiration for the iconic Wedgwood design.

Brit.Mus. The Portland Vase

After a short walk around the display cabinet, I about-faced and headed back towards the north stairs. I was intent on getting up to the Japanese Galleries to pick up the trail again but could not help but pause at the sight of the stairwell full of Roman mosaic floor tiles (below).

Brit.Mus. Roman mosaics

I headed up to the Mitsubishi Corporation Galleries on Level 5 to eyeball this Samurai armour* from medieval Japan (below right) but got waylaid – I know, again – by this strange-looking clock (below left). Seeing these two exhibits side-by-side in the montage below makes me think of Star Wars.

Brit.Mus. Japanese Gallery

Glancing at my watch, I realised that I needed to get going to ensure that I didn’t leave my friend waiting. So I kept my head down and my eyes averted as I walked down the stairs again – but to no avail.

Brit.Mus. Large standing buddha

This is the Amitābha Buddha and she stands almost six metres tall in the lower portions of the north stairwell. She was spectacular. I had to stop.

And then I was coming down the final flight of stairs when my gaze fell upon these glorious glazed roof tiles which would have adorned the ridges of a temple complex in northern China during the Ming dynasty period (1400-1600).

Brit.Mus. Ming Dynasty Roof Tiles

And with that, I finally made it out the door and, with a bit of legging it, got back to Kings Cross just in time. Prosecco is a fine motivator indeed.


So that was my hour of highlights at the British Museum. It has definitely inspired me to return for a meander around Assyria, Mesopotamia, Japan and the Parthenon when next I have an hour to spare.

After all, I already have the map.

A brush with art

I had an hour to kill between meetings near Pall Mall today and as I braced myself against the cold (it was -1 Celsius for most of today) and crossed Trafalgar Square, the imposing pillared facade of the National Gallery and the promise of its warm – and free – galleries looked pretty inviting.

In the thirteen years that I’ve lived in London, I have never been to the National Gallery (I know, the shame!) so once inside, I followed the signs up to the paintings galleries and began to wander. I had such a lovely time that I wanted to share a few of my favourites with you.

Let me pause here and say that I am in awe of the skill and talent required to paint. But I know diddly-squat about art and on the rare occasions that I go (like to last year’s Painting the Modern Garden at the Royal Academy), I tend to stroll around and stop whenever something takes my fancy.

And I was only just inside the door when I was taken by fancy number one.

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Travel Broadens The Mind…Let’s Play!

I’ve been travelling of late so it’s time for another dip into BA’s business:life magazine for a few fascinating facts to top up your dinner party conversation. And in the spirit of all work and no play making for a rather dull life (as the saying goes), I thought we’d delve into the subject of play and what makes a Brit get ‘social’.

First it has to be said that the divide between work and play is ever-blurred with 1 in 3 Britons meeting most of their friends through work. I concur heartily with this generalisation, my own personal experience being that much of this friend-making occurs after work. And with one year in the life of the average Briton spent drinking in the pub, I’d suggest that if you are feeling ‘lonesome tonight’, the best advice would appear to be polish up your drinking boots.

Speaking of drinking boots, did you know that £2.5bn is spent annually by British women on uncomfortable shoes? Me neither. (Although now that Seattle-A has departed these shores, that figure may come down a bit.)

Drinking boots come in many different shapes and sizes…

Another £1bn a year is donated lost by British gamblers in slot machines – perhaps these are the same people – the 44% of Britons – who don’t consider pensions to be a source of retirement funding. Hmmm sounds to me like there’ll be no more Choo Shoes for Granny…. 

But there’s still plenty of fun to be had on the cheap  All you need to do is listen to the voice within58 mintues a week being the average time Britons have a catchy song stuck in their heads – probably from listening to the tune some ear-plugged and oblivious dude is availing everyone else of in the train carriage/bus/general vicinity. Or you could hang out down at the farm. Yes, 77% of farmers play music to their livestock – although I would not suggest getting jiggy with…well anything…while you’re down there.

And finally let me astound you with a little bit of amazing arithmetic. There are 28.5 million cars on British roads and 10 million fixed penalty notices were issued to British motorists in the last 12 months. That’s…um…*screws up face*…erm…*counts on fingers*…er…*resorts to calculator*…a little less than 1 in 3 vehicles that earned themselves a little special attention for speeding, having a broken headlight, not wearing a seatbelt (that’d be the occupants of said vehicle) or parking in the vicinity of a really confusing sign.

And if you find yourself a little short of paying, you can ask your retired parents or grandparents to release a little equity from their bricks and mortar – 31% will do it to help their nearest and dearest.

I wonder what the percentage is Down Under?

Mum? Dad?

Travel Broadens The Mind – Back Catalogue
…It’s A Virtual Life
…The Euro Zone
…All About The Readies
…Flights Of Fancy
…Or So They Say

From The Cheap Seats…

It would appear that my first 43 years on the planet have been so bereft of cultural pursuits that, as I am wont to do after a birthday, last weekend found me looking around for a new thing(s) to experience. Two years ago it was baking, last year it was polo (the pony kind).  And this year it’s opera.

Opera has been one of the few ‘Arts’ that I have not readily subscribed too. I love classical music but the combination of singing I don’t understand and high prices has been a particular deterrent. That’s where a bit of community clever-ness came in from my lovely local The Phoenix Cinema.

Being an independent arthouse cinema, The Phoenix doesn’t need to subscribe to the wants and desires of a head office and experiments with its schedule to inspire the local community. In partnership with Glyndebourne 2012’s Opera Season, it’s running two live screenings of the performances there this weekend. Tomorrow is a double bill of two 1 Act operas from Ravel. The other – Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro – was screened last night and that’s where I was.

As cinema lights dimmed, the camera lit on the empty stage with its ‘Moorish Palace’ backdrop, the familiar strains of the overture began and soon the space was filled with hustle and bustle, music and colour…and a vintage red and cream Austin Healey.

Glyndebourne’s re-telling of this famous tale is set in the Seville of the swinging 60s. If you don’t know the story, it follows the trials and tribulations of Figaro and his lady love Susanna as they plan their wedding. There’s lots of hi-jinx and trickery, cross and double-cross in the tale (a bit like a Shakespearean comedy such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Twelfth Night) and with the aid of English subtitles, the familiarity of the music (I love Mozart’s music and it wasn’t until I sat through this that I realised how much of his musical bounty I had actually heard before) and the captivating performances, it made the whole experience a really enjoyable one – although as an opera neophyte, I could not tell you one aria from the other.

So in short, I loved it. And I paid £13.00 and was home 20 minutes after I’d left the auditorium.

I am sure that experiencing opera live, and especially in the gorgeous surrounds at Glyndebourne, is fantastic. But for someone who wasn’t sure it would all be worth it, getting a taste from the cheap seats was a perfect way to dip my proverbial toe into the water.

The other thing to say is this: I really admire Glyndebourne (and some of the other companies that will feature over the coming months) in their vision of bringing opera to the masses. While I’m a known champion of the written word (and quite frankly anything that promotes it), having access to art in all of its myriad expressions is such a wonderful opportunity and one of the things I love about living in London and more specifically, the ecclectic and fabulous Finchley.

The Marriage of Figaro actually follows on from the story in another Mozart opera, The Barber of Seville – the protagonists have grown older by the time we see them in 60s Seville and rather than lead, form backdrops (and a few barriers) to Susanna and Figaro’s impending nuptials – so you can guess what I’ll be keeping an eye out for in order to dip my other toe.

And as ever, I’m hopeful that my search will all turn out in the end – just like the marriage of Figaro and Susanna – with a joyful celebration and me drifting off into the warm and hazy night, humming a little Mozart to myself on the way home.

Destination…Museum of London

So yesterday I told you all about the journey, leaving you with the adage that the getting there is often just as fabulous as the destination.

This is the post about the Destination.

I arrived at the Museum of London, eagerly anticipating a couple of free hours of strolling through time. The Museum is laid out in chronological order and is quite interactive with fewer than usual items of the ‘do not touch’ variety. Prior to entering the permanent exhibition there’s also a display called London and the Olympics which celebrates the Games already held in London (1908 and 1948) as well as the 2012 preparations.

The journey starts with an exploration of the region from 450,000 BC before London was…well London. The locations of significant archaeological finds are also showcased – places like the site of the current Heathrow Airport – as well the work along the shores of the Thames where FROG volunteers from Thames Discovery continue to catalogue new finds to assist in preserving London’s rich history.

From 50 to 410 AD, the Romans built, defended and rebuilt Londonium – there are some great displays of homes, shops, food and the opportunity to peek at the defensive City wall from another perspective.

Traditional Roman dining room
Roman Wall from the Roman Gallery of the museum

We then move to Medieval London and the galleries which showcase the period from 410 through to 1558 AD covering Viking raids and the emergence of Anglo-Saxon power right up to the early Tudor years. This gallery also shows much of the religious development of London and features a model of the original St Paul’s Cathedral.

The original St Paul’s Cathedral

The next gallery take us on the path of London’s devastation through civil war, the plague and fire. I was fascinated by the survival of London at the end of this period in spite of the loss of between one third and one half of the population to the Black Death, followed by the loss of some 13,000 homes (but only 9 lives) in the Great Fire of 1666 the following year. It took London 50 years to rebuild including Christopher Wren’s reconstruction of St Paul’s Cathedral as we know it today.

I followed the arrows downstairs to the next set of exhibitions entitled Modern London: Expanding City.

A main feature of this gallery is the recreated Pleasure Gardens which allow you to wander, sit and watch the cinematic story of the time unfold on the screens around you. The hats on display were…interesting. It must have taken incredible posture to manage these with any grace and dignity.

Pleasure Garden fashion – can you see the ship hat on the left of the picture?
Pleasure Garden – a (t)horny affair!

Just down the ramp from the Pleasure Gardens there was an arcade walk to celebrate the Victorian era.

The Victorian Walk celebrates the era of expansion 
Trinkets for sale – The Victorian Walk

Next we move into the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Modern London: People’s City. The class divide is brought to life by an interactive version of Charles Booth’s map of poverty in London which sits opposite a vintage motor display, a recreation of the entrance to the Savoy Hotel and panelling from the Selfridges lift which was installed in 1928.

Vintage ‘white walls’ representing People’s City
Japanese panelling in the Savoy Hotel recreation

The Selfridges Lift
But did you know that Harrods installed the first escalator in 1898?
Smelling salts were on hand to revive passengers from the ride.

The final step in time is Modern London: World City which takes us from pre WWII London, through the fab 50s and swinging 60s right up to today.  This was a busy gallery so I was frustrated in my attempts to take pictures and despite cases filled with fashion, music and even a real life Vesper, I managed this one only.

My one and only tribute to Modern London: World City

There’s a room off to the side of this exhibition called the City Gallery which contains the Lord Mayor of London’s official coach which leaves the gallery each November (since 1757) for the Lord Mayor’s Show.

The Lord Mayor’s Coach, first commissioned in 1757
Amazingly preserved after more than 250 years

So after two and a half hours I emerged into the dark evening thinking ‘well that was that’ – only to find a special installation in the windows outside.

The London Cityscape by Simon Crostin was commissioned by the Museum of London to commemorate the 2012 bicentennary celebrations of Charles Dickens in conjunction with the Museum’s exhibition, Dickens and London, running until June 10, 2012.

I wandered slowly back to Moorgate along the raised walkways around St Alphages, still snapping away (as my previous post will attest to). And as I finally sat, homeward-bound, on the top deck of the bus, I marvelled at the fascinating snippets I’d learnt about London’s chequered past and felt a quiet contentment at my big day out and the historic city that I’ve chosen as my home.

Freedom Of Speech…

There’s been a bit of a bookish theme emerging in my posts of late – from the advent of Audrey to yesterday’s Literary Gold and a little bit of something in between – and I’ve been inspired again by some leisurely breakfast reading over some excellent pancakes and coffee this morning.
Apparently Michael S. Hart died earlier in the month. ‘Michael S Hart?’ you say. ‘Never heard of him.’  Nor had I. But this is the man behind the quest to provide free books for everyone on the Internet.
Michael S. Hart was an American author who began Project Gutenberg, an ‘organisation’ (for want of a better word) that provides free e-books to the general public. Trying to understand what more he might do with the computer provided to him by the University of Illinois computer centre, he wondered what value might be brought about through using it as part of a potential information network and on Independence Day 1971, he typed in the American Declaration of Independence and posted the text for others to download. 
And all this well before what we’ve come to know and love as the World Wide Web.
By 1987, he had posted 313 books this way including the Bible, Homer, Mark Twain and Shakespeare. Then through the University’s PC User Group and with help of programmer Mark Zinzow, he was able to create a way for others to be involved as well. As at today’s count, 36,000 e-books have been digitised and digitally proofed by a veritable army of volunteers. And are completely free.
Aside from his commitment to providing e-books to as many people as possible, Michael’s mission was to “Help Break Down the Bars of Ignorance and Illiteracy”.  
He may have lived a rather impoverished life but to my mind, Mr Hart left us an amazing legacy.
ps…BTW, I’m in Prague peeps. Posting this from a rather lovely hotel room. You may be wildly envious if you like. Look out for my travelling titbits soon.

I Want One Of Those…

I have a confession to make.

I want a Kindle.

I know.  I feel like a traitor.  Like I am betraying those well-thumbed pages, spurning those beloved dustjackets, and treating years of toting books with me hoping for the chance to curl up in a corner and bury myself in the story with disdain.

But A-down-the-hill has one and she was telling me how great it is to be able to download authors and titles at a whim, and at greatly reduced prices, and to be able to store hundreds of cracking reads for revisiting at some future date.  And let’s face it – it’s a lovely handbag size and would certainly support my 50 Book Challenge efforts during my commute.  And then I could get a lovely cover for it – something to express my personality perhaps, and to keep it protected from all the other crap bit and pieces in my handbag.

But what will the Oxfam bookshop do without my cycle of donation-purchase-donation? 

And what will I put on my bookshelf?

Hmmm, before I abandon a joyful habit of a lifetime, I really need to give this some thought…

London…On The Cheap(side)…

I had lunch with some great friends of mine today who moved to the UK permanently two and half years ago. We were chatting about how long it takes to feel ‘settled’ and they reminded me that, in their early expat days, I had said to them that it took me somewhere between 18 months to two years before I’d started to feel like I had actually ‘built’ a life for myself versus the feeling of being a long staying tourist.

Did I really say that?  I can’t really remember…

But what I do remember is my initial shock at how expensive things were and a big part of feeling ‘settled’ for me was finding ways to do things cheaply – most expats in the UK can reel off a whole variety of discount ‘opportunities’ – and I soon learned that if you look hard enough, there are lots of ways to do this.

For example, today’s lunch included a 50% discount off the food bill and was booked through toptable…and my travel to our fab foodie feast was courtesy of Oystercard (which almost halves the bus fare).  I have also booked a 70min massage for a few weeks time through Groupon at a whopping 66% off and I have had countless 2-for-1 meals with friends using vouchers from newspapers like the Metro, email newsletters (Giraffe, gbk and Pizza Express are particular faves) and voucher websites like vouchercloud and

So the key to London ‘on the cheap’ is this – Sign up for as many things as you can.  You may fill your inbox to overflowing but when it comes to getting the deals, it really is a numbers game.

And you can also rest assured in the knowledge that you’ll never go hungry – if all else fails, supermarket-brand baked beans are only 19p a can!


ps…for you Londoners that might be interested in some terrific Turkish fare, get yourself down to Cirrik in Richmond…via toptable of course!