Some little bits of what I fancy

London has a lot of museums and galleries and many are free but sometimes it pays to spend time getting to know a particular museum well.

One of my favourite museums in London is the V&A. It bills itself as the world’s leading museum of art and design but what I love is the way that the V&A uses these themes to bring stories to life. Exploring the diverse history of different parts of the world or dissecting the nature of our society and the environment we live in through the lens of human creativity and expression is a wonderful way to spend a few hours.

I’m at the museum every couple of months for the V&A book group and always go early, thinking I’ll pop into an exhibition, explore a specific gallery or take one of the free guided tours to make an afternoon of it. And in ambling around, I’m usually delighted by something unexpected: the view from the top of a newly-discovered staircase or a fascinating item tucked away in an unbidden nook or cranny.

In a place where there’s so much to see, I’ve come to realise that it pays to wander with only the semblance of a plan, to linger and read about the things that simply take your fancy. It also pays to look around – that’s up, sideways, around corners and behind you.

Here’s why.

Dale Chihuly’s Rotunda Chandelier – the Grand Entrance

If you look up as you enter through the main museum entrance from Cromwell Road, it’s hard to miss Dale Chihuly‘s spectacular 27ft (8.2m) sculptured-glass chandelier suspended airily above the information desk.

V+A Blown glass chandelier

The Rotunda Chandelier in the museum’s main reception, viewed from an upper gallery at the top of a staircase I’d never climbed before.

V+A C-up Rotunda chandlier and clock

The view looking up from the information desk on the ground floor. I’m feeling very grateful for the excellent zoom on my camera phone – look at all of that exquisite detail and the individuality of the glass elements.

The chandelier comprises 1,300 blue and green hand-blown and mould-blown pieces – these were made in Chihuly’s Seattle studio and then took five days to assemble – in situ – over the chandelier’s steel frame.

Every time I visit and look up at it, I want to take another photo. It’s definitely one worth lingering over.

Es Devlin’s The Singing Tree

Last December I planned for my visit to include a wander around the Opera: Passion, Politics and Power exhibition near the new Blavatnik entrance on Exhibition Road. However, the tunnel entrance from nearby South Kensington tube station had been closed so I’d been forced to make the 10-minute walk to the museum above ground.

Glad to escape the damp grey day outside, I breathed a sigh of relief as I dashed through the Cromwell Road entrance and tore off my woolly scarf and hat…only to be pulled up short by an hypnotic display of sound and light.

V+A Singing Xmas Tree

As part of the V&A’s annual Christmas programme, set designer Es Devlin combined modern innovations like crowd-sourcing and machine-learning to conceive this Singing Tree. Installed inside the Grand Entrance between 27th November 2017 and 6th January 2018, museum visitors were invited to contribute a festive word or two that became part of this mesmerising audio-visual carol.

The video doesn’t reproduce the carolling voices very well but believe me, being greeted by this after braving a cold and blustery December day was a complete joy.

Rachel Kneebone’s 399 Days – Medieval and Renaissance Galleries (room 50a)

I had arrived a little early for one of the free gallery tours that leave from beneath the Rotunda and rather than stand around waiting (remember peeps, I will never be British enough to wait when I don’t have to), I decided to amuse myself by meandering around the neighbouring gallery.

Rachel Kneebone‘s pillar of legs and arms caught my eye almost immediately.

V+A Sculpture gallery Kneebone's 399

399 Days is a five metre tall column of writhing porcelain figures and it looks pretty interesting from a distance. However it was in getting up close that it became fascinating and I lost the entirety of my 15-minute early-ness poring over the intricacies of this extraordinary piece.

Julian Melchiorri’s Exhale – the Members’ Cloakroom

This surprising gem hangs above the members’ cloakroom desk (which is up the staircase behind you as you come in from the museum’s tunnel entrance). It’s a pretty enough piece but it wasn’t until I read the wall plaque that I really got excited about this one. Peeps, this is a breathing chandelier.

V+A Exhale chandelier

Designer and V&A Engineer-in-Residence Julian Melchiorri combined advances in biotechnology, engineering and architecture to come up with this life-affirming bionic chandelier. The ‘leaves’ of the chandelier contain microalgae: when they are fed with water they remove carbon dioxide from and release oxygen into the surroundings.

(Remember learning about photosynthesis in those high school biology lessons? This is pretty much it peeps.)

Its location is a bit tucked away but don’t be put off. It’s easy to get close to and you’ll be able to spot it as you come up the aforementioned stairs or down the staircase from the upper floor of the European Galleries.

Even as I sit here typing this, I still feel absolutely thrilled by how clever this is – it also makes me wonder how it could be applied more widely in our increasingly polluted world.

Paul Cummins’ Sixteen Poppies – opposite the Members’ Cloakroom

In 2014, the Tower of London marked 100 years since Britain entered WWI with a temporary installation – called Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red – where 888, 246 of Cummins’ hand-made ceramic poppies were planted in the tower moat to represent each of the British military lives lost. Five million people visited the installation between July and November 2014 after which the poppies were sold and the proceeds donated to six service charities.

V+A Red Poppies

The sixteen poppies on display just opposite the Members’ Cloakroom were purchased by the V&A as a tribute to the sixteen members of its staff who died in the War – their names are also inscribed on a memorial tablet at the Main Entrance on Cromwell Road.

Main Cafe, designed by James Gamble, William Morris and Edward Poynter

And finally, when all is said and done, there’s nothing better than having coffee and cake in the glorious historic rooms of the museum’s main cafe.

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The Gamble Room

The museum’s founding Director, Henry Cole had learnt a thing or two about public refreshment while running the Great Exhibition in 1851 and believed that a museum restaurant would be a way to encourage people to enjoy culture. Well ahead of other museums (that did not invest in catering until the 20th century), Cole invested in the world’s first museum restaurant at the V&A, opening the Gamble Room in 1868 followed by the opening of the Poynter and Morris rooms on either side.

These three rooms form the hub of the V&A’s main cafe and any of them are an especially pleasant place to rest your weary legs after wandering around the galleries. If you are lucky, someone might be playing the piano in the Gamble Room. In any case, I’m  a big fan of the restorative benefits provided by their Black Velvet cake…

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Black velvet – that means chocolate Guinness cake with Prosecco frosting peeps.

Oh yes, that’s definitely something I fancy and it’s not for sharing!

In the meantime, if you fancy a cultural boost to your creative spirit, I’s recommend a visit to the V&A. And if you are a fan already, please leave a comment and let me know what little bits of the V&A you fancy…and where I can find them!

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.

Continue reading

2017: A space odyssey

There has been so much going on over the last few months that I’ve struggled to know where to start. Normally I find the inspiration for posts everywhere but it feels as if watching in silence (frequently the stunned kind) and listening (versus spouting off) has been the order of the day. Democracy has certainly shown us the power that the disenfranchised and unheard hold in their hands and the last six months has revealed the world to be a much more uncertain place than a whole lot of us thought it was.

Uncertainty prevails closer to home too. Back in June I posted about the changes at work and this week it will be my turn to say my goodbyes. After almost six years, the people and projects that have shaped a large proportion of my life will disappear and while there will be some friendships that endure, I will be left with quite a large space in my life.

(Actually what’s immediately next is a packed two weeks of pre-Christmas catch-ups before a sojourn in Thailand and a family Christmas Down Under…but I digress.)

The saying goes that nature abhors a vacuum and human nature is no exception. We are driven to achieve instead of discover, stillness must be filled with doing and silence is shattered with noise and words rather than peace and understanding.

Space – finding it and holding on to it – is a tricky thing to manage.


This photograph was taken yesterday as I stood on the second floor of the atrium in the Design Museum‘s new home, the old Commonwealth Institute building in Kensington. It’s a great example of the paradox of ‘holding the space’ – the challenges in maintaining the listed hyperbolic parabaloid roof versus the striking effect of the sweeping curves of the atrium ceiling. Is the former really worth the latter?

My journey into this new space is not unexpected and for some time, I’ve had a general idea of what’s next and how I aim to build some different life choices into the next 8-10 years. Over the last year, I have been working on several things that may become pieces of this future but the really specific parts are not yet fully formed. It’s hugely exciting…and uncomfortable.

Space – and uncertainty – is scary.

When people ask me about what’s next, I feel the urge to explain it all, to define it and lay out the way forward. I jumped out of a plane about 15 years ago and it’s that same feeling – perched at the open door, looking out over the landscape sprawled below and questioning whether I was brave or stupid to be doing this. Then leaping out into the void, trusting that the agreed plan I’d learnt in my pre-jump training (as well as the parachute instructor strapped onto my back) would result in my landing on my feet again.

And I felt it when I arrived at Heathrow Airport almost 13 years ago, with nothing before me except the chance to build a new life. In both cases there was much ungainly sprawling and innumerable dents to my ego. But what an education I’ve had.

I’ve learnt that I am resilient and resourceful – over and over again. (They do say that life keeps giving you the lesson you need until you’ve learned what it’s meant to teach you.)

I’ve created opportunities to be generous and inspire others, something that really speaks to my heart.

And I’ve developed a knack for making the space to explore, to reflect, to trust that what I want is okay and to find the quiet moments (mainly during my regular swim sessions) when the voices in my head get opinionated and shout-y.

So as I say my goodbyes next week, I will be embarking on the next phase of my odyssey taking all of these good things with me. Who knows what lessons will be next but when they land and I get a little ‘stuck’, I will take myself back to a lesson from childhood and the immortal words of Christopher Robin to his beloved friend, Winnie-the-Pooh:

You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. 

(Please feel free to remind me of this post when things get ‘sticky’…)

Cruising London: Photo tour

Last Saturday I spent a leisurely three hours on the Museum of London‘s Frost Fairs cruise along the River Thames.

Frost Fairs are a rare occurrence in the pages of London’s history. They were held when a combination of winter-y elements meant that the River Thames froze over and created a lot of excitement for Londoners. Our Museum of London host told us that the earliest Frost Fair was likely to have occurred in 1114-1115 between Westminster and London Bridges when all sorts of activities  – shopping, drinking and eating, and games like skittles and ice-skating – were at the disposal of those who dared to venture out onto the river’s icy surface.

But it was a double-edged sword as while many entrepreneurs and well-to-do celebrated this rarity, a third of Londoners depended on the river for their livelihood and so were left destitute when they could no longer ply their many trades.

The last Frost Fair occurred in 1814-1815: Once the old London Bridge was demolished and the new bridge – constructed by John Rennie and opening in 1831 – was in place, a more free-flowing river was created, giving little opportunity for ice to “dam up”.

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Cruising under Rennie’s London Bridge

So last weekend I made my way along the embankment to Westminster Pier, boarded the Pride of London and took my place on the upper deck. It was one of those grey London days – not as pretty as a crisp blue-sky day but it did lend something quite atmospheric to the usual view. Here’s a little photo tour of my time on board.

Big Ben vs Boudicca

Boudicca vs Big Ben – looking up from Westminster Pier gives you this great perspective.

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Blackfriars Bridge – trains stopping at Blackfriars Station actually stop on the bridge.

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No Thames cruise photo tour would be complete without a shot of Tower Bridge

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I loved this row of old bankside houses – the two building to the left of the row stand like sentries at the entrance to one of the many channels that branch off the river.

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The cruise took us all way downstream to the Isle of Dogs and the Greenwich Peninsula, the latter being home to the Millenium Dome (or as it’s now known, the O2 Arena). It does look like some sort of alien ship has landed.

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This is the Royal Naval College in Greenwich – you can see the Royal Observatory in the background (which by the way is a great place to visit.)

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And this is the famous Cutty Sark, just a hop step and jump away from the Naval College

Along the route back, the daylight had started to fade and I spent most of the time just watching the bank glide by, the wake from the various river craft creating foamy ripples along the shore. Before long, we were cruising past the modern shapes of London’s City Hall and The Shard…

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London’s City Hall is the curved building on the left and look how the tiny white-lit Christmas tree mirrors The Shard that overshadows it.

…and London’s lights glowed in the dusk as we continued to cruise back towards Westminster.

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Southwark Bridge

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The London Eye

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Passing under Westminster Bridge gave me this atmospheric view of the Houses of Parliament’s Victoria Tower

Soon it was a quick under and back again with Westminster Bridge, a gentle drift towards Westminster Pier and with my head full of what I’d seen and heard, I disembarked and headed home.

I am a big fan of the events put on by the Museum of London and this was such a great way to spend a few grey and blustery hours on a Saturday afternoon. So I hope you enjoyed this little photo tour a fraction as much as I enjoyed for real.

The window

Let me start this by saying I had an awesome Saturday last weekend. It was filled with some of the things I love best – literature, history, discovery and most of all, London.

I had spent a fascinating hour at the old Roman House and Bath on Lower Thames Street right opposite the Billingsgate Fish Market. The City of London is an area I’ve explored over the last few years through walking tours (In Shardlake’s Shoes) but it’s not on my way to any frequent haunt so adventures tend to be a result of turning left instead of right, peering around unbidden corners and just venturing into open doors.

With some time to kill before heading to the Kings Place Festival, rather than head directly back to Monument Station, I let myself meander aimlessly along cobbled lanes admiring the architectural mix of old next to new.

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I had ambled up St-Mary-At-Hill toward Eastcheap when I saw this off to my right.

The window (small)

Intrigued, I headed towards it, the street silent and shaded against the warm afternoon sun. As I drew closer, I looked up and spied a steeple chalked against the blue of the sky.

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The sunlit window beckoned and as the cobbles turned left into Idol Lane, it became part of something much bigger. The tower in front of me rising up to unite the disparate parts of steeple and window into one glorious whole.

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St-Dunstan-in-the-East – all sweeping curves and delicate green. A little piece of history tucked just a few steps back from the dust and traffic on Lower Thames Street. I smiled and I could feel the warm anticipation of discovery growing inside me. The black iron gate was open so I edged through, curious and quiet, as though not to disturb the peace of the garden.

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I wandered along the leafy paths drinking in the beauty of this patch of nature and history entwined. Each turn revealed a stunning view, each door a different aspect to behold.

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The delicate shapes of the old walls reached up amidst the modern cut of the City, softening its edges and somehow showcasing the modern skyline. There’s a mix of old and new that I love about London – the way that each seems to compliment, even enhance, the other. I don’t think anywhere does it better.

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My breath caught over and over again as I gazed around me. I was moved, wanting to absorb each moment and imprint it into my mind. At the same time, I wanted to share the fullness of it. I found myself retracing steps, phone in hand hoping somehow to capture a fragment of what I was feeling in order to pass it on.

I typed my first draft of this post an hour later, sitting on the floor of Kings Place waiting for the event I’ve booked in for to start. It was a download I couldn’t stem, a rambling deluge of words and feelings for such a short space of time that had become so large and urgent in my memory.

Now I reshape it, ordering it, adding the photos which speak to my heart the most. There’s joy in revisiting the photos I took. They return me to places I stood – the central garden where the wiry black boughs framed by gothic arches were misted with emerald leaves, the far reaches of the path where I could see the red piped curves reaching from the bricked corner of the building next door – and the things that I felt – the warm sun on my face, the cool sweat on my back that made my t-shirt cling to the place that my backpack had been.

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And I smile again. It feels like the same smile as when I first set eyes on that black iron gate. And I feel grateful – for the moment, for the discovery and for the opportunity to live in this magnificent city I am lucky to call home.

To my mind, that’s not bad for a Saturday.

Not bad at all.

Under foot

The Museum of London is my favourite museum. When I first arrived in London, I spent a too-short couple of hours sheltering there from the January cold before a meeting-over-a-drink on London Wall and over the years I have visited several times, not just for new events but also to revisit the permanent exhibition. It’s the patchwork of all of London’s faces through history that I find so endlessly fascinating.

Anyway, the Museum is trialling a series of Archaeology Archive events over the next few months, opening up sites for the public to visit and to learn more about what went on here well before we were a twinkle in anybody’s eye. So at 2.45 yesterday afternoon, I entered the nondescript door at 101 Lower Thames Street and followed our Museum of London guides, Joe and Nicola, down the short flight of stairs to the Roman House and Bath.

The house and bath is thought to be from the period leading up to 400AD – the story of the site came to life under Nicola’s passionate telling: the building and its abandonment – probably around the late 4th/early 5th century when Rome withdrew its support from Londinium – the unusual layout of the bath house and why it might have been built that way, and how archaeological evidence – or absence thereof – plays its part in refining the story. There still remains some debate as to whether this was a mansio – a ‘stopping point’ – or a family home but that in no way diminished the impact of what we saw.

The tour began with a look at the east wing, what was thought to be the furnace room and the remains of the hypercaust heating system beneath the floor.

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The east wing – you can see hypercaust tiles to the right. The furnace room is on the other side of the walkway and links through a series of channels under the floor to circulate warm air throughout.

We then spent some time looking at the bath. Comprised of a frigidarium cum change room in the centre, the tepidarium (warm room), caldarium (hot room) and plunge pool, Nicola’s narration took us back over 1600 years, introducing us to the family who may have lived here.

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You can see the layout of the bath here. The frigidarium was the flat area in front, to the right you can see the site of the caldarium (hot room) with its hypercaust tiles and the furnace that you can see just on the outside of the wall). The family would have walked through a small connecting room to the tepidarium (warm room) on the other side (left side of picture).

They may have trodden the tessellated floor of the frigidarium to change, walked through to the tepidarium to acclimatise to the heat, then visited the caldarium  for a short time before returning to the tepidarium to relax, chat and receive the cleansing ministrations of various experts (scraping the skin with a strigel was a common method of removing the dust and grime of London).

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Remains of the tessellated floor of the frigidarium

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The tepidarium – you can see the remaining floor level tiles sitting above the the hypercaust pillars

And let’s not forget an invigorating dip into the plunge pool before leaving the bath.

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The plunge pool was located at our backs as we looked over the frigidarium. It’s not huge – just enough for a dip in and out.

Just under an hour later, our small group headed back up the stairs and, after signing the visitors book, emerged onto the sunlit street. I still find it quite hard to believe that all of that fabulous history lies beneath an unassuming office block opposite the imposing Billingsgate Fish Market on a roadwork-strewn City street.

The Roman House and Bath is a Scheduled Monument which means that it is registered as one of Historic England’s 5627 important archaeological sites. It also means that it is a legal requirement of the owners/occupiers of the property to protect the site. The Museum of London plays a big part in this with teams of historians, archaeologists and conservators overseeing preservation efforts.

This trial – the opening of their Archaeological Archives – is an effort to raise public consciousness about London’s history and encourage visitation albeit, with a small fee, in the hope that there will be support and funding for a permanent programme.

If you are fascinated by history and/or London and have an hour one weekend to visit the Roman House and Bath – or any of the other openings in this year’s trial – please do it. Being able to stand beneath the street, to see this and listen to the expertise and passion of people like Nicola and Joe from the Museum of London is an absolute privilege.

It would be a shame if the doors were closed again and the conservators were left to appreciate London’s past alone.


For more information about this special programme, visit;

9 minutes of glory

When I first visited London in 2000, I was smitten by all of the things that a tourist to this great city is usually smitten by – the iconic images seen in movies, read about in books and learnt about in high school. That it’s all real is amazing. That it’s all so old is inspiring.

I loved both history and literature at school and so was especially keen to visit Westminster Bridge, having been inspired by William Wordsworth’s Composed upon Westminster Bridge, 3rd September 1802:

...The City now doth, like a garment, wear / The beauty of the morning.

When I stood on the bridge just over 14 years ago, snapping eagerly away at the gilded clock tower of Big Ben, its face smiling benignly over the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey, little did I imagine that I would ever walk beneath those historic spires on a daily basis.

For the last 18 months, I have been based in an office less than 500 metres away from these icons of London. Each morning, I emerge from Westminster tube station beneath that resplendent clock tower and walk the 0.4 of a mile to the office (about 9 minutes) with Westminster Palace at my elbow to the left and Westminster Abbey just across the road to my right. And then I get to do it all again – in reverse – on my way home.

I am regularly filled with this feeling of delighted disbelief – when the little voice whispers softly in my head, ‘This is my life. I really did this.’ I can’t help but smile. It seems impossible to be immune to this sense of wonder and I remain astounded that it has not yet paled. Samuel Johnson wrote, ‘The man who is tired of London is tired of life’ – I know what he means.

In those moments of wonder, I find myself pausing for a little longer in an attempt to capture the moment. My Facebook friends know only too well how much I love to snap and share and in doing a little phone gallery spring cleaning the other day, I was so struck by the range of photos I had taken in the last few weeks that I wanted to share them with you too.

So welcome to my commute…

Arriving at the top of the stairs at Westminster tube station, I pop into a nearby coffee shop and emerge with cup – and often camera phone – in hand to this…

underground sign

A short walk takes me to the corner of Bridge Street and Parliament Square giving me this view of the Houses of Parliament (Westminster Palace) as I cross the road…

Westminster Palace from Whitehall

…this view of Whitehall – which leads past Downing Street and up to Trafalgar Square – over my right shoulder…

Looking down Whitehall

…and the clock tower to my left. This particular shot was taken in the afternoon but sometimes I get my timings right and my commute is accompanied by the deep chimes of Big Ben heralding the hour.

Big Ben

I walk right past the Palace – this was taken from the end of the palace building looking back towards the tube station (now hidden behind the walls of Westminster Hall).

Return journey

Looking upwards provides another spectacular view, this time of Victoria Tower which houses the Norman Porch and the Sovereign’s Entrance – this is the only route that the Queen is allowed to use to enter the building (which she most famously does each year at the State Opening of Parliament.)

Norman Porch

Taken from the same place but on a different day and in another direction, this is Westminster Abbey, home to the Coronation Chair (Westminster Abbey has been the church for every coronation since 1066), Poet’s Corner and the Grave of the Unknown Warrior. The two square towers are the ‘back’ of the main entrance.


Just last week I captured the afternoon light streaming through the stained glass of the Abbey’s windows…

Abbey Windows

…and this 700 year old building doesn’t look too shabby at night either.

Abbey night

And then the glowing clock face marks my return to Westminster station again. This picture was taken by pausing during my normally rapid clip along the concourse that runs back towards Westminster Bridge and the stairs down to the tube.

Big Ben framed

So that is my commute peeps. Well 9 minutes of it anyway and in a total of 40 minutes – that’s an awesome and glorious 22.5%. Every. Single. Day.

(Except Saturdays and Sundays and Bank Holidays and vacation days and…oh well you get the picture.)

Let’s face it, if I’ve got to commute anywhere, I’m rather glad that it is this one.