The makers of Whitley Neil Gins are The City of London Distillery, and on many evenings they host distillery tours and gin tasting evenings. These are held with groups of 10 people or less. When we arrived we were given a welcome drink, ours was dry gin and prosecco, while we awaited the arrival of the other attendees. Once they arrived we were taken to an alcove to the side of the main bar where tables were set up with four gin flights, botanicals and an information sheet.
To start we had a brief rundown of the history of gin and the difference between different types of gin. Then we tasted the first two and chatted about their taste. They will bring tonic or any other mixer you have with your gin. After a few minutes discussion we were brought to the still room where we got to meet the stills. Yes, they all have names and they are spoken about as though they are people. The tour was interesting and lively, because Stephen, who was our guide, was obviously interested in his subject with regard to both history and taste.
We heard how the gin is made and how it is flavoured, then we went back to taste the last two gins. Perhaps I was lucky with the crowd on this occasion, but by the time we were tasting the final gin, our conversation had moved on to more general discussions – about holidays, museums and London life. The atmosphere was relaxed and convivial. There was an amount of background noise, enough that you would notice it, but certainly not at a level that would disturb your evening. The tour and tasting event lasted a little over on hour, and a few of us stayed for an extra half an hour while we finished our tasting flights.
A real bonus was the discovery of the Whitley Neil/London Distillery Bar in Bride Street. There are not many bars that are not rammed on a summer evening in central London. The bar itself is lovely, and it is relatively quiet given its position just off Fleet Street, about a three minute walk from St Paul’s Cathedral. It is underground and down a small alleyway, so not many people will know it is there – however despite this, it is very easy to get to, less than a 5-minute walk from either London Blackfriars or City Thameslink stations. There are also many bus routes that go up Fleet Street. I will remember it for when I am next meeting a gin drinker in the City.
A company called “Life You Deserve” – A website which hosts curated activities for the over 55s in London, has asked me to create content for their website. They suggest an activity, they pay for my ticket and travel and in return I have to review the event and say how suitable I believe it would be for their client base. I send them some photos and video clips and they will edit it all into a short video that they put onto their website.
This all sounded interesting so I have agreed to do it. It fits in well with the idea behind the London Lark and with a little luck it will inspire me to reignite the blog which I had left lying dormant over the past couple of years.
This is the first one I did. It was The Van Gogh Immersive Experience.
It takes place in a huge old building in Commercial Street, just across from Spitalfields Market. They try to immerse you in his life from the moment you enter – offering you perfumed tea to drink while you read about his life and works. They have many recreations of his works throughout the exhibition, some converted into moving images. It is very interactive too you are encouraged to try his techniques and then post them on the walls just before you leave. There is an ingenious room where you get to sit under his starry night and amongst his flowers, I really enjoyed it and found it very relaxing.
The Virtual Reality section of the exhibition costs an extra £5, but do not miss it, for me it was the absolute highlight. You walk through his life and paintings at Arles. Virtual Reality has come on so far since I last tried it a few years ago – it really did feel like I was walking through his paintings.
Of course they do not have any of his actual paintings at this exhibition, they are all recreations, so it is perhaps not one for the purists among us, but it was hugely enjoyable. I loved it, I stayed about an hour and a half and when I left I felt that I had learnt so much about Van Gogh his life and his painting and whenever I go into a traditional gallery, I will certainly make sure that I see the Van Gogh if they have one in their collection.
My intention is to continue blogging about London things and occasionally add these Life You Deserve videos when they are kind enough to make a video for me. I am looking forward to being back in the world of blogging! Also, I’m surprised at how much practical stuff I’ve forgotten about tags, categories and how the blog looks – so if you spot something that need improving, I will be grateful for the feedback. Cheers!
Kensington Palace has been a place of residence of the British Royal family since 1689. It was bought as a completed building by William and Mary when they ascended to the throne. Those parts not being lived in are open to the public. Currently they contain four exhibitions, one ticket allows entry to all four. Entrance to the Palace gardens, including the attractive sunken gardens is free and these are certainly worth the time it takes to walk round them on days when the weather is clement. The first two exhibitions are about Queen Victoria and Princess Diana’s dresses. They are both interesting in different ways, I have a blog post about them here: Kensington Palace, London W8. Part 1. Victoria Revealed & Diana, her fashion story.
The next two exhibitions are The Queens’ State Apartments, which has the rooms decorated as they were in the 1690s, during the reign of William and Mary, and The King’s State Apartments, which has the rooms restored in the way they were in the early 1700s, during the reign of Georges I and II.
These are arranged in reverse chronological order, entry is through the sumptuous King’s Grand Staircase. Decorated in the time of George II, this is broad and spacious, we are overlooked by painted figures as we ascend. The staircase is certainly grand, immediately we can tell that we are in an era when conspicuous wealth was expected of the monarchy. The mural was painted by William Kent in 1724 and contains depictions of many actual members of the royal court at the time. Kent even included himself in the painting, he is the man wearing a brown turban and holding an artist’s palette, and the lady looking over his shoulder was reportedly his mistress.
The rooms in the King’s State Apartments have many wonderful Georgian features. The fireplaces and ceilings are spectacular. One ceiling is decorated with shields representing the members of the Order of the Garter, with its insignia making the centrepiece. The King’s Gallery has a mantelpiece with a map of the British Isles and Western Europe. This is linked to a weather vane on the roof, so that King George could see how the wind was affecting his fleet. It is still working today. The drawing room has some interesting examples of gaming tables from the era and the best perspective of the gardens, down to the lake.
The Queen’s State Apartments are 17th Century and this exhibition is more intimate, showing their bedrooms, their dining room and gives a little more of an insight into how they went about their, still opulent, daily lives. The furniture and delft is remarkable and the tapestries and bed coverings are extravagant. It is interesting to see the shortness of the four poster bed, it was thought at that time to be beneficial to health to sleep in a sitting position.
The exhibitions also contain lovely examples of the fashions at the time, there are some wonderful farthingale supported embroidered skirts, which look spectacular but must have been completely impractical to wear.
Between all four of the shows here, it would be difficult to do it justice in less than a couple of hours, there is almost too much to see in one visit. Perhaps it would be worth viewing the Palace on one day and the Gardens, Park and Orangery, which are free to enter, on another. This way you could spread the visit over a couple of days and only have to pay the, not inconsiderable, entry fee once. Kensington Palace and Gardens is one of the most historic visitor attractions in London, the exhibitions are well stocked and informative, although it is not cheap to visit, it should be among the sights that you consider when in London. It is free to enter with an Art Pass, if you have one of these you should not miss it, Kensington Palace is a highlight of their offer.
London has a number of small and quirky museums. This one dedicated to life and works of George Frederic Handel and Jimi Hendrix is certainly an unexpected combination. Handel lived at 25 Brook Street for 36 years in the 18th Century and Hendrix lived at number 23 for short time in the 1960s.
Bach’s house is decorated in the slightly austere Georgian style that was fashionable when he lived there. It does contain some beautiful musical instruments, including a wonderful harpsichord and a chamber organ. The bedroom has a four poster bed and there are some good paintings and a bust of Handel too. There are recitals held in the music room at least once a week and the staff are knowledgeable and helpful.
The Hendrix flat is laid out somewhat differently. The bedroom/living room is decorated as it would have been when Hendrix and his girlfriend lived here, this is borne out by the many photos of the room published during this time. The rest of the apartment is done in a more traditional museum style, with guitars and jackets in glass cases and commemorative posters on the walls. The bedroom is interesting, the fact that it is so classically psychedelic Carnaby Street 1960s in style probably reflects the huge effect that he had on the fashion of the time.
Unlike many museums in London, this one is not free unless you have a National Art Pass. It is small but it does contain a number of curious items. It is striking to compare what the height of fashion was in the centre of London two hundred years apart – and there is something apt in the fact that it doesn’t open until 11am on any day. Half an hour or forty minutes will adequately see you round this exhibition, but if you are a fan of either rock or baroque, I think there will be something here to please you.
London is blessed with a large selection of excellent museums and galleries. The majority of these are free. The Imperial War Museum in Lambeth is a good example of this. It is one of five Imperial War Museum locations in the UK, three of which are in London. Set up in the 1920s to commemorate the effort and sacrifice of Britain in First World War, it is now dedicated to the understanding of modern war, and confines itself to those conflicts in which Britain or the Commonwealth had some involvement.
The building is impressive, surrounded by the green lawns of Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park, it is about a five minute walk from Lambeth North tube station. It has ionic columns at its entrance and an impressive dome. It also has its own interesting history, in the 19th Century it was the notorious Bethlem Royal Hospital, the psychiatric facility that allowed visitors to watch the inmates as public entertainment. It is this building that became the origin of the word bedlam.
The museum is arranged over five floors. The top floor is the Lord Ashcroft gallery which has a large collection of medals awarded for bravery and the stories of many people who have been presented with them. It is an interesting investigation into the definition of courage and what inspires heroic acts.
The fourth floor is dedicated to the holocaust and the rise of Nazism in the mid twentieth century. This contains a surprisingly in depth analysis of the political climate that led to the spreading of the ideology and a comprehensive presentation of its results. There is a scale model of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, which really gives perspective to the magnitude of the crimes. This floor needs to be approached with care, the display is moving and distressing.
The Third floor has an exhibit called Curiosities of War, which is a collection of unusual war related items. This is quirky and comparatively light. The second floor is split between conflicts after WWII and a display about espionage. The recent conflicts exhibition is thought provoking, it brings current events sharply into focus. The spy section seems lightweight, I guess it is tough to say much about state secrets without giving those secrets away. This floor also holds a real size model of an atomic bomb, it is shocking how small it is.
The two lowest floors hold the largest items, tanks, ambulances, rockets, large guns and planes….the remains of a vehicle that was once a car bomb. The descriptions of the items and the uses to which they were put is almost more interesting than viewing the items themselves.
The Hall of Remembrance, is a gallery that was proposed to be built containing artwork commissioned as a memorial to the war dead of WWI. The project ran out of money in the 1920s and was never completed. The Imperial War Museum holds all the artwork that was due to be shown in this gallery and has put it on their website in the form of a virtual gallery. This is a beautiful testimonial and well worth a visit, I have put a link here .
War is not entertainment and this will not be your jolliest day out in London. However, The Imperial War Museum is something that you really should visit when you come to the UK. It is wonderful that this city has such high quality resources and amazing that it offers them for free. The building has step free access and there is parking for Blue Badge holders, but it needs to be booked. Recommended.
Kensington Palace has been a place of residence of the British Royal family since 1689. It was bought as a completed building by William and Mary when they ascended to the throne and it has been expended and improved since, by both Christopher Wren and by Nicholas Hawksmoor. Part of the palace is still used as living accommodation by the Dukes and Duchesses of Cambridge and Sussex.
Those parts not being lived in are open to the public. Currently they contain four exhibitions, one ticket allows entry to all four. Entrance to the Palace gardens, including the attractive sunken gardens is free and these are certainly worth the time it takes to walk round them on days when the weather is clement.
Victoria Revealed is an exhibition about the life of Queen Victoria. She was born in Kensington Palace and lived here until she became monarch in 1837. It consists of eight rooms detailing her life in, mainly chronological, order. It does contain some interesting personal items such as the dolls with which she played as a child. The portrait of her at the time of her coronation, shows why she was considered a beauty in her youth.
It has the uniform that her husband Albert wore on their wedding day. This has embroidered messages, such as “dearly loved” and “Oh my Angel Albert”, on the cuffs collar and pockets. It also has a garter, tied visibly, just below the left knee. It also has the gilt bassinet which held many of her nine children, as babies.
The rooms are relatively sparsely decorated, but have some nice busts and a few interesting paintings, including a couple of the Great Exhibition and the Crystal Palace, in which it took place. The Great Exhibition was opened in in 1851 by Queen Victoria herself. In the gardens of the palace, stands “The Queen Victoria Statue” designed, in marble, by her own daughter Louise, who was a celebrated artist of the time.
The presentation contains a moving memorial to Albert. Victoria was strongly affected by his death, she wore mourning clothes and withdrew from public life for many years after. Victoria Revealed is a fascinating show, the items on display are sympathetically exhibited and give a nice insight into her personal life.
Also on the first floor is “Diana, her fashion story”. This is a collection of Princess Diana’s most famous suits and dresses. There are about 20 of her outfits on show here, along with notes about the designers and details of the occasions on which she wore them. They are interesting in that they mark the fashions of the time as well as well as being beautifully designed. It is surprising how many of them are recognizable, it seems that time has proven that Diana really was a fashion icon of the 1980s and 90s.
LIFT 2018 is a festival of international performance, running at various venues around London from late May until early July. There is a wide choice of shows available and a huge variety of styles on show. There is a children’s show by renowned theatrical company Punchdrunk, where adults will not be granted admittance unless accompanied by a child. There is a South Korean Opera about the Trojan wars in Greece and there is even a piece of performance art that involves 1500 pigeons, with LED lit leg-rings, flying above the Thames.
Phobiarama is billed as an immersive theatre experience. This is certainly true, and I don’t wish to give too much away, as being unaware of what is about to happen adds to the thrill of the show. I would best describe it as a 21st century ghost ride with real actors, strobe lights and political overtones. Dries Verhoeven is a visual artist who has updated a 20th Century fairground ride into a paranoid, threatening 21st Century journey through political and popular culture. This show travels the world but each one is site specific, and this one has elements that apply particularly to London. I can say that it gives a feeling of drifting through a waking nightmare and I was reminded of film warnings that say “This show contains some scenes of mild horror”.
You are disorientated from entering the space in pitch blackness and the anxiety gradually racks up throughout the 45 minute performance, as shadows in the background slowly become more real, with television newsreels reminding you of events that have happened in London over the past years. I guess that some people do not like to feel frightened, however lightly, so this show will not be for everyone, but I enjoyed the feelings of mild paranoia that I was given and I found it interesting to think about why some of the scenes made me feel uncomfortable.
The opportunity to experience running away backwards from an evil clown, while Nigel Farage rants on about the iniquity of our immigration system, is one that does not occur regularly – and although this was a memorable part of the show, it was by no means the most disquieting, so if you think that this is something you might enjoy, you need to take the chance now, while it is here.
I would suggest that you should not go if you find strobe lighting a risk or if you suffer from coulrophobia. I have to say that I thought that this was a really interesting experience. I hope that Dries Verhoeven brings other events to London and if he does, I fully intend to visit them.
On the lower northern wall of the square are busts of three First Admirals of the fleet; Cunningham, Jellicoe and Beatty. Admiral Andrew Cunningham was distinguished veteran of WWII and his bust was added after the other two in 1967. Jellicoe and Beatty are Admirals of WWI and their busts were placed in 1948, facing Nelson, “Hero of the fleet”. I hope it is true that they both admired Nelson as much as they are supposed to, because upon their deaths, in late 1935 and early 1936, they were both entombed in St Paul’s Cathedral, also facing his tomb.
Also on the lower northern wall of square is an often overlooked historical treasure “The Trafalgar Square Standards”. They are low down along the steps and in the wall behind the seats. These were the official British Imperial measurements of length until we adopted the metric units of measurement in 1995. These were set into stone, by the Standards Department of The Board of Trade, in 1876 and if you suspected that any measuring implements were incorrect you could bring them here to settle the argument. There are three sets of these official standards, the others are in the Royal Observatory in Greenwich and in the Great Hall of the Guildhall in the city. The official measures included are; the inch, foot, yard, link, chain, perch and pole.
There are four plinths built to contain statues in the square. The two on the south side of the square contain statues of Victorian Major Generals, Napier and Havelock. They both served with distinction in the campaigns in India. The third plinth is occupied by an equestrian statue of George IV. It was commissioned by the King himself and depicts him riding bareback, without stirrups and in ancient Roman dress. He intended it to be placed on the top of the Marble Arch, but it was put here in 1843.
The fourth plinth was intended to hold a statue of William IV. It was empty for over 150 years until 1999 when it was decided to put a succession of works of art on the plinth, each occupying it for a limited amount of time. These art pieces have generated a great deal of debate over that past twenty years and, in that respect, the concept has certainly been a success. All of them have been controversial, most of them have been innovative and some of them have been attractive. Among the more memorable are; Anthony Gormley’s “One & Other” where over the course of 100 days, 2400 different people each spent one hour on top of the plinth, Marc Quinn’s “Alison Lapper Pregnant” and Yinka Shonibare’s “Nelson’s ship in a Bottle”. The current incarnation, Michael Rakowitz’s “The invisible enemy should not exist” is a recreation of a sculpture of a Lamassu (a winged bull and protective deity) that stood at the entrance to Nineveh from 700 B.C. It was destroyed in 2015 and this piece is made completely from empty Iraqi date syrup cans. I find it beautiful.
On the South Eastern corner of the Square is a round edifice with a light on top. This is claimed, by some, to be the smallest police station in the world. Put in temporarily in WWI but made permanent during the general strike of 1926, it is a raised room from which a policeman could stand and watch the square in order to phone Scotland Yard, if a demonstration in the square showed signs of becoming dangerous. When the light was changed from gas to electric, the light used to flash when the phone rang, in case the assigned policeman was patrolling the square.
I have a couple of pieces other random trivia about Trafalgar Square. The north side of the square is substantially higher than the south. This slope is not natural, the south end was lowered in order to made the National Gallery building more imposing. The earth was used to level St James’ Park. Adolf Hitler planned to remove Nelson’s column and statue from Trafalgar Square when Germany conquered Britain. His intention was to place them in Berlin as a victory trophy.
While you visit Trafalgar Square, you should visit St Martin-in-the-fields on the NE corner and the National Gallery. I plan to do separate pieces about these. I will put links here when I have completed them. Also, on the South side, between Whitehall and The Mall, there is an unobtrusive hotel called The Trafalgar. This is a smart hotel and if you go to the back you can catch a lift up to a rooftop bar. The cocktails are central London prices, but they are good and the roof terrace has lovely views over the square.
Trafalgar Square is a tourist attraction that is packed with both dramatic architecture and history. It has a claim to be the centre of London, in both a physical and psychological sense. Other places have claims also; Bank, Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly Circus even Hyde Park Corner, but there are a couple of good arguments in favour of Trafalgar Square.
It has been the scene of major British public gatherings and demonstrations from soon after its opening right until the present day. It was the backdrop to the Poll Tax demonstrations in the 1990s, CND rallies in the 1960s and ’70s, Chartist gatherings of the nascent Labour movement in the late 1800s and more recently campaigns against Climate Change and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Over the Christmas period it holds London’s most famous Christmas tree, a gift from Norway every year since 1947, as a thank you for Britain’s support during WWII. It was also the traditional gathering place for London’s New Year celebrations until the crowds became too big and deemed too dangerous to have at a single venue.
Trafalgar Square was designed in 1826 by architect John Nash, it did not really begin to take shape until the late 1830s when the National Gallery was built in 1838. It is named after the battle of Trafalgar, a famous 1805 victory over Napoleon.
The centrepiece of the square is Nelson’s Column; a monument to the leader in that battle. This was erected in 1843 just before the square became a public area. It is a 43metre high, granite column with a 7metre statue of Horatio Nelson on top. The column itself is a Corinthian column, having an ornamental top. This ornament is made from British cannons. There are also bas-reliefs on each side of the column at the bottom, depicting earlier famous British war victories and these are made from the melted down remains of weapons captured from the French and Spanish armies. Famously, the stonemasons who built the column are reputed to have had dinner served on its top, before the statue was placed.
The Lions at each corner of the column were designed by Edwin Landseer and were installed in 1867. They are made of bronze and each one weighs over 6000kg. The fountains at either side of the column, were added later. The current fountains were designed by Edwin Lutyens and added just before the start of WWII. Trafalgar Square as a whole is Grade I listed, which is the highest level of architectural protection in the U.K. awarded only to buildings of exceptional interest.
The oldest statue is to the South of the square. It depicts Charles I on a horse. This was made in 1633 and sent to be melted down after the abolition of the monarchy in 1653. The brazier to whom it was given, made his fortune selling trinkets made from the melted down statue, but he had kept it intact to return to the crown on their reinstatement. This is also what Trafalgar Square its claim to be the physical centre of London, as it is to the base of this statue that official distances to London are historically measured.
You may have heard that all the distances to London are measured from Charing Cross. This is true. The Charing Cross was one of 12 crosses placed by Edward I in memory of his wife Eleanor. It was originally in the spot currently occupied by the equestrian statue of Charles I. It was destroyed by order of Parliament after the civil war. A replacement cross was built and placed in front of Charing Cross station during the reign of Victoria. There is an original Eleanor cross still standing, from 1294, in Waltham Cross.
The Wallace Collection is a must see museum/gallery if you come to London. The items on show were bequeathed to the nation in the late 19th Century and have been on display here since 1900.
The number and quality of the Old Masters from the 15th to the 19th century is amazing. It has some of the finest examples of 18th century French furniture in existence. There is also a rich assemblage of porcelain, sculpture and royal amour in the collection. One of the more unusual pieces is a particularly ornate cannon.
Many of the pieces were bought during the sales of art following the French revolution, which is why the collection is so strong in 18th Century French art. Such good examples of the Louis XV cabinets and marquetry cannot be seen anywhere else in the world.
A condition of the bequest was that none of the pieces ever left the collection, even to go out on loan. So if you ever wish to see, say, “The Laughing Cavalier” or Canaletto’s “View of the Grand Canal” you have to come here.
It is astounding to discover that it is free to visit this collection, although they do ask for a donation. It is also surprisingly quiet, compared to the other, bigger museums and galleries in London. This is presumably because it is not in the main exhibition area of town, although you could argue that, situated between Oxford Street, Baker Street and close to Selfridges, it is even more central than those in South Kensington.
Notable among the Old Masters in the collection are 5 Rembrandt, 4 J. W. Turner, 8 Canaletto, 2 Titian, 12 Reynold, 5 Cuyp, 2 Gainsborough….. the list goes on, it is an amazingly rich and full list. There is even a wonderful portrait of Queen Victoria from 1837, when she was newly ascended to the throne.
The Wallace Collection should not be missed when visiting London. Bring your friends when you visit, and you will surprise them with both the quantity and the quality of the art here. Given how quiet it tends to be, even in the summer, I am going to count this as a hidden gem, and I recommend it heartily.