Madame Tussauds, Marylebone Road, London

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I had forgotten how much fun Madame Tussauds could be. You have to let yourself go, embrace the kitsch, accept the corny, give in to your inner child and play! You are going to realise that enjoyment is a conscious choice as soon as you sit down in the black cab fairground ride that takes you through a potted history of London. If you disapprove of touristy romanticised attractions you should avoid coming here; where even the rats are sanitised. But, if you are new to London, looking forward to what you are going to see over the coming week, then I can see its allure.

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I like how hands on everything is, you can take a selfie with Kim Kardashian, put your head on George Clooney’s shoulder or even look up Marilyn Monroe’s billowing skirt, if that is what takes your fancy. It’s good to go in a group, it’s always fun to discuss how short Tom Cruise is,  how tired the Queen looks, or to try to get your Mum to pinch John Wayne’s bum.

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The crew that work here are friendly and helpful, happy for you to get up close and personal with the figures and to take a photo, if you ask. They are chatty and will share an anecdote, one guy told me that they sometimes have to remove left knickers from Brad Pitt’s mannequin.

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Madame Tussauds is not cheap to visit, but it is possible to get deals, either with your train ticket or as a combination with other London visitor attractions. It is definitely worth looking for these online, you would be very unlucky not to find a coupon somewhere. It is also prone to get very busy, queueing to get in and get around is always a mood dampener, so if you are here in the height of the season try to go early in the day or late in the afternoon. They sometimes have evening openings, look out for these as they are often quieter.

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There are waxworks from every walk of life here; film and pop stars, historical and political people, sports and science specialists. So if you want to kiss Kylie, hug Hawkins, shimmy with Shrek or berate Boris; this is the opportunity, all you have to do is lose your inhibitions…..and make sure you take a photo!

Apsley House, Hyde Park Corner, London

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Apsley House is the smart, columned building on the north side of Hyde Park Corner. It has been the home of the Wellington family since the 18th Century, and it is open to the public Wednesday to Sunday during the summer months. It is a stunning Grade 1 listed building, and many of the interiors are kept in the style of decoration that they would have had at the time they were built. It is unlikely that there is a better maintained aristocratic home in Central London.

The decoration is interesting, there is some of Roberts Adam’s 18th century classical interior design remaining. It was renovated in the early 19th Century when Wellington was living in Downing Street as Prime Minister. The Waterloo Gallery was added at this time to commemorate his victory over Napoleon, and to this day, there is a banquet held annually on 18th June to celebrate this.

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There is also an amazing art collection, made up of gifts from grateful war allies, or items acquired as the spoils of war during the defeat of Napoleon. There are paintings by Titian, Van Dyke, Rubens, Goya and Velazquez and many others. You can even see the original painting that contained the image of Wellington, that was used on our old five pound note.

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The are many other items of historical interest. It holds the oldest grand piano in England. There are two beautiful porcelain dinner services on display; The Waterloo Meissen Banquet service, painted with scenes of his greatest victories, and the Josephine Egyptian dessert service given by Napoleon to his wife as a divorce gift.  Another highlight is the wonderful 3.5metre nude statue of “Napoleon as Mars the God of Peace” by Canova.

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The property is run by English Heritage, so it is free to enter if you are a member, but chargeable otherwise. The entry fee includes a touchscreen audio tour, this is very informative and there are seats in some of the rooms, where you can sit and listen to descriptions of the paintings and decoration. The no photographs rule is disappointing. The pictures here are from the tiled passageways under Hyde Park Corner.  The building is nice and cool on a warm summer day. It is also surprisingly quiet given its position, right in the centre of London.

If you are looking for a break from the more crowded tourist attractions in central London, Apsley House is well worth a visit.

Fear and Love: Reactions to a Complex World, Design Museum, London

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Fear and Love: Reactions to a Complex World is the opening exhibit to the new Design Museum in High Street Kensington. It is actually 11 different installations exploring issues that define our world in the 21st Century. As you would imagine, with so many totally unconnected exhibits, some work better than others and some are more interesting than others.

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I like the curious robot that comes and stares at you when you look at it. It feels quite aggressive and two separate parents who thought their child would love it, had to deal with them running away in tears after it came right up to their face.

The installation about Grindr and how it changed lives in the 21st Century is worthy, but it is also a bit dry and dull, which is not something I would have expected to report on an exhibit on that subject.

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The Mongolian Yurt is nice, one can sit inside and watch a video about how the city of Ulaan Baator is growing very quickly.  There is an installation about Death Masks. These death masks are pretty and quite creepy.  They are made in plastic with a 3D printer. There are 5 different fictional people with 3 masks each, depicting different states, I don’t know why they have done it, but they are interesting to look at.

The video about dolphins and go seems plain weird, half of it is pictures of sea and boats from a dolphins point of view, and half is of a computer playing the game go. I may have got that wrong, I found it hard to understand, possibly because the point of it just went right over my head.  The exhibit of videos playing in a corrugated shack about the Bolivian ghettos are thought provoking.

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I like the 2 very different ones about recycling clothing. One was about recycling clothing in rural China and the other about a machine that sorts discarded clothes by colour.

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My favourite is the living room furnished with an item from every country in the EU, the view from the “window” is quite chilling.

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The price of entry to Fear and Love is £14, quite high considering the mixed standard of installations, but there is a free permanent exhibition on the third floor, which is excellent and certainly worth a visit.  So, although there are things here that will make you stare and think Why?, there is also a wide variety of subjects on display and everyone is likely to have at least something that will delight them.

An Afternoon on the Bentota River, Bentota, Sri Lanka

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Seneka, our driver, said “I have a cousin who has a boat, for US$10 he will take you out on the river. For another US$10 his brother will show you everything and act as a guide. His English is very good. There is lots to see.” So, we agreed to go.

 

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Our boat arriving to pick us up

 

We had hardly left the shore when we saw a water monitor, at least two metres long, sunning herself in the garden of a riverside house. I was impressed. Our guide was less so “Water monitors, there are many, look in the trees” I looked up, indeed in the branches almost directly above our heads, there they were – just as big. I was less impressed and more nervous now. “Don’t worry” he said “They have no interest in people. Oh look! A chameleon.”

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And there it was, showing off, changing colour as we watched, becoming less green and more stick coloured as it moved away from the leaves. Dotted along the banks of the river were jetties, some with boats some without. One had a man sitting on it, with a baby crocodile beside him. “Is that a crocodile?” Michael asked. “Oh yes, it’s his pet”. We pulled up. “Would you like to hold him? It’s quite safe” The baby crocodile was thrust into Michael’s hands before he could refuse. I was secretly very pleased my hands were full with the camera at that point.

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“Will they keep him as a pet?” I asked. “Oh no, he will go away before he gets big, we will see very big ones soon” The river is wide but we stayed close to the edge because crocodiles like to be submerged in the shallow water and the shade, away from the afternoon sun. Michael had the camera again and was on the water side of the boat watching out for the crocodiles. I was on the side near the bank. I noticed the boat driver gesticulating at me. “Duck your head down low, now!” Michael said, in an ominously calm, yet urgent, tone of voice. I complied immediately. I looked back as I did so and I was confronted with a Green Vine Snake less than a foot away from my face.

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I paled, but I did not scream or jump out of the boat. I’m proud of that. Michael leant in  to take a photo. Our guide announced “It’s a Green Vine Snake; very pretty, but it is poisonous.” Michael leant away again. “It’s not interested in us, it mostly eats frogs and lizards.”  I obviously appeared horrified. “Oh look, Bee Catcher Birds” he said pointing upward.

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There were a pair in the tree above our head. They do actually eat bees, they pull out the sting and then eat the rest whole. These larger Blue Tailed Bee Catchers also eat wasps. The wasps in Sri Lanka can be very large and dangerous. His distraction worked. The snake was forgotten.

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The next strange thing was the shop, on stilts, in the middle of the river. Nothing near it, and no customers, but it was definitely a shop. It appeared to sell coconuts, fruit, soft drinks and boxed groceries. It seemed rude to question why it was there, so I didn’t ask. Soon after this we began to see the crocodiles. We saw four or five, but they were hard to photograph, partly because we didn’t want to go too near and partly because they stayed mostly submerged in the cool water – out of the warm sun.

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On the way back we saw Giant Fruit Bats. They really do look like the batman motif when they fly and they are surprisingly big.

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We took a shortcut through the mangrove forest on the way back, which was pretty but eerie. It made us very happy that we had remembered to use our mosquito repellent before we set off.

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We saw egrets, ducks and herons. We also saw a mongoose that was too quick for us to photograph. In total we spent about two hours on the water, we had a fantastic time. It was a great introduction to Sri Lanka, after all this was still our first day there.

Photos courtesy of Michael Jolly.

 

 

 

 

London City Airport, Silvertown, London

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If you are going for a short getaway, this is the place to fly from. It is 20 minutes on public transport from London Bridge to the check-in desks, and it is even less from the city. Once you arrive, unless you are unlucky, it will be no more than 10 minutes from station to airside. This airport really shortens your travel time, important if you are only having a few days away.

When you check in, try to get a window seat because the views of London from take off are spectacular.  The runway is straight in the direction of the city and the planes fly relatively low over town. This provides passengers with a better prospect of the London skyline than the London Eye, The Shard and the Skygarden combined.  If you are lucky enough to have an evening flight arriving into the airport, on your return, you will have an added bonus of the approach into London’s glittering city lights and the glistening river Thames. The takeoff and landing views are worthy of being a London attraction all by themselves.

All in all, London City Airport provides a truly premium experience and should be considered, if you are visiting London and planning a short side trip away.

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Cementerio de la Recoleta, Buenos Aires, Argentina

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La Recoleta Cemetery is one of most amazing things to see, in one of the largest and most beautiful cities on the world.  This cemetery occupies 14 acres of the most desirable real estate in a very fashionable area of downtown Buenos Aires. This cemetery is packed with streets of mausoleums honouring the great, the good and the dead of this fine city.

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There are over 6000 monuments here, in the shape of chapels, pyramids, Greek temples. There are hundreds of statues, pillars, columns all commemorating in death, the achievements during the life of its inhabitants.

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These shrines vary hugely in design, in shape and in beauty but the combined effect of seeing them all together is contemplative; mementos of a life now past.

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Buenos Aires is a busy vibrant city and Cementerio de la Recoleta is a lovely step away from that bustle into a more introspective place, a welcome contrast and a place to gather your thoughts and fortify you, before continuing your adventures in the city.

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The stained glass windows in the tombs, vaults and burial chambers are particularly striking and I loved the way it was possible to collect their reflection in the windows, looking in.

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Pictures courtesy of Michael Jolly.

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Reflected in glory

Yesterday we visited the Recoleta Cemetery where for 200 years the great and the good of Buenos Aires have competed to build the most ornate mausoleums in stone and marble.

I loved the way that with a little care it’s possible to capture a brief vignette of the architecture and stained glass reflected in the glass of doorways used by relatives to visit their ancestors.

These are my favourite photos of the day.

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