Of views and greens in London

I think there are two ways of really getting a feel for a city: walking its streets and public parks and viewing it from above. But being my parents’ daughter I am not one to spend a lot of money on these things if I can get them for free instead (so sorry, no pictures of a helicopter ride). Fortunately, walking is free but then only half the fun in the rain on a cold January day.

So instead I headed inside for some luscious greens at one of London’s best kept secrets – the Conservatory at the Barbican. This hidden tropical gem actually the second biggest Conservatory in the city and features over 2,000 species of tropical plants and trees and even some exotic fish. The conservatory was built as an “add on” to disguise the theatre’s fly tower (where sets are stored) and manages to incorporate the structure in clever ways. There are bridges and balconies to explore and some of the plants you might even recognise from your own home, though they are enormous in here. Who would have thought there is such a fine green oasis hiding amidst this brutalist concrete structures. Entry is free but the conservatory is only open on certain dates so check their website in advance.

 

One of my other favourite indoor green spaces is the Sky Garden at the top of 20 Fenchurch Street (locally also known as the “Walkie-Talkie“). And best of all, it combines a garden with spectacular views (depending on the weather obviously). The Sky Garden features three storeys of exquisite public gardens including an open air terrace. 155 meters up, the Sky Garden begins at level 35 and gives you a 360-degree view of London. Entry is free but spaces are limited and you have to book in advance!

Last but not least on my list of best views has to be one of its latest additions – the new Switch House at the Tate Modern. The top floor features an open viewing terrace and though it might “only” be 10 levels up, it certainly gives you good 360-degree views of the London skyline. Access is free but you might have to queue for the lift during busy times.

And I even managed to fit in a short walk along the banks of the River Thames.

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Wide awake in the ‘City that Never Sleeps’

After fulfilling a life long dream last year and visiting New York City for the first time, I was back this summer – and how much more relaxed I was this time. As I had seen most of the major sights already, I didn’t have the permanent feeling of not being able to linger somewhere and constantly thinking “Got to go, there’s so much more to see”. I still managed to make my feet hurt by the end of each day; I do prefer exploring places on foot, if possible, which means I could end up walking from the upper end of midtown to downtown, on to Brooklyn and back again, crisscrossing the island of Manhattan. This time I also got to explore parts of the other boroughs and even spent a day at the beach, enjoying a refreshing swim in the Atlantic during the heat wave.

Back home while looking through hundreds of photographs I was wondering what exactly to show you. So I’ve decided to go for the places where there weren’t that many tourists around. It doesn’t mean these are less interesting or less beautiful places but sometimes just that extra bit further away. I will try not to bore you with too many details, you can always look things up.

The Cathedral of St John the Divine (nicknamed St John the Unfinished) is located at the north western end of Central Park in the Morningside Heights neighbourhood. Building began in 1892 and, as the nickname suggests, it remains unfinished to this day. But my main reason for visiting: it’s MASSIVE!! There is a dispute whether St John or Liverpool Cathedral is the world’s largest Anglican cathedral and church but it definitely is the fourth largest Christian church in the world. Entry is free, however they ask for a donation. Please give some, so they might be able to finish it one day. DON’T MISS: the Keith Haring tryptich, his last work before he died!

The northern part of Central Park is far less crowded and much hillier than its southern part but doesn’t lack attractions. You can come across several foundations of old forts, Harlem Meer is a nice spot and the Conservatory Garden is one of the hidden wonders of Central Park. It’s the only formal garden in Central Park and is divided into three separate gardens: the French Garden, the Italian Garden and the English Garden.

The Flushing Meadows Corona Park in Queens is probably best known for its unisphere and the water towers which have featured in many films and movies. Created for the 1939/1940 New York World’s Fair and also hosting the 1964/1965 New York World’s Fair it is the largest park in Queens. The nearby zoo and science museum make a nice addition for a day out and in summer they offer open air screenings of movies. DON’T MISS: the mosaics when you enter the park from the subway station. Where else can you step on a Salvador Dali?!

The Staten Island Ferry offers some spectacular views of Manhattan’s skyline, and it’s completely free! It’s not really a secret anymore and tourists are flocking to the ferry  but it’s not as crowded as on the boats to the Statue of Liberty. Make sure you have enough time for a wander around Staten Island and taking in some of the sights. DON’T MISS: the Battery Maritime Building next door to the ferry terminal. It is being redeveloped now but you can still imagine the old splendour. The Governor’s Island Ferry departs from here.

South Street Seaport and Pier 15 East River Esplanade are a good option if you want to chill out. Pier 15 offers a bi-level recreational space on the water with sun lounges and a nice view over Brooklyn. Next to it you can see the The Peking, a steel hulled 4-masted barque. South Street Seaport is a designated historic district and features some of the oldest architecture in downtown Manhattan. It offers some nice boutique shops and bars. DON’T MISS: the Brooklyn Bridge mural and Fishbridge Park Garden (corner Water St & Dover St), probably the smallest garden open to the public I have ever been to. (Oh, and there is a water taxi IKEA Express Shuttle departing from Wall Street Pier 11 in case you’re in need of some Swedish furniture.)

When you walk amidst all those skyscrapers in Manhattan you easily forget that this is actually an island. Whereas the stretch from  North Cove Yacht Harbour to South Cove Park is less touristy it’s still worthwhile to continue through Battery Park. It’s beautifully planted and offers some interesting monuments too. DON’T MISS: The Sphere that once stood in the middle of Austin J. Tobin Plaza, the area between the World Trade Center. 

If you fancy a day at the beach I’d recommend Rockaway Beach in Queens but the most famous beach resort is still Coney Island. Very colourful, a bit commercial and tacky but the beach is nice and the Atlantic Ocean wonderfully refreshing. DON’T MISS: Eat a hot dog at Nathan’s, the most famous hot dog in the world. It’s celebrating its 100th anniversary this year and the first Coney Island store is still there, though I preferred to eat mine on the promenade.

Obviously architecture and the ‘weird and the wonderful’ are a big part of New York City as well, so here is just a small selection of some other things I came across.

 

There is plenty more to see and do. I can’t recommend the American Museum of Natural History enough; make sure to catch a movie at one of the movies in the park events, (the one in Brooklyn Bridge Park has the Manhattan skyline as a backdrop!), but be sure to protect yourself from those mosquitos; try some food from the original The Halal Guys, there’s usually a queue in front of the carts but worth the wait; The Intrepid Sea Air & Space Museum is great, based on an old aircraft carrier you can see lots of planes, a Concorde and even the space shuttle Enterprise; catch a sunset at Brooklyn Bridge Park and roam the streets of Manhattan at night with all those colourful lights; and get on top of one of the skyscrapers (I like Top of the Rock) for some stunning views (DON’T MISS: look up the elevator shaft when going up and down at Top of the Rock).

The lesser known castles of Wales

Having almost too many castles in one country can pose a bit of a dilemma: which ones do you promote for tourists to visit? What are the criteria? Was it once a real castle or just the architectural vision of a rich family in later centuries?

Considering it was once a proper castle, I suppose you could say there are three main criteria for fame:

  1. Does it look good – obviously if it is almost complete with rooms and gardens etc  (like Chirk Castle or Powys Castle) it is a definite must. And if the walls still stand in the shape of a castle that allow visitors to go around it, climb towers and explore the castle grounds, that’s good too. The visitor needs to be impressed by the craftmanship of the time.
  2. Location, location, location – if the location is right then some walls, gates and towers are more than enough. Spectacular views, strategic position and easy to reach by car ensures it to be an attraction for young and old. Put it on the top of a hill with spectacular views across the Dee valley (Castle Dinas Bran – though you have to climb a hill) or on top of a former cliff (Harlech Castle) and a mention in various leaflets is guaranteed.
  3. Historic importance – if the castle played an important part in the history of Wales or British monarchs, a lack in substance and prime location can be forgiven. But it needs to have some big names or events attached to it. A mention in a Shakespeare play doesn’t hurt either.

If you look at all the castles that fit into at least one of these categories you’ve got a lot covered, especially along the north Wales coast line. But there are the odd ones out – barely there ruins in a not very scenic, easy to reach location where nothing truly important ever happened. These are usually ruins popular with locals who like to go there for a Sunday family stroll. One thing I noticed, while visiting these places, is that they seem to be mostly typical Welsh castles whereas their famous counterparts are usually built by the English to keep the Welsh in check. This might be a result of the Welsh being defeated in many battles over the centuries and the Welsh castles being neglected, abandoned or even torn down afterwards.

But I think it’s time to take a closer look at some of these.

Located in Wrepre Park in a corner of the woods is Ewloe Castle of which you can find a more detailed post here. The castle, which was one of the last fortifications to be built by the sovereign Princes of Wales, was abandoned at the beginning of the invasion of Wales by Edward I in 1277 and given little military value, allowed to fall into ruin.

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Ewloe Castle is tucked away in the corner of the woods

Tucked away on the top of a hill in Caergwrle is Caergwrle Castle which I have visited several times before. Built by Dafydd ap Gruffydd, it was the final castle to be built by Welsh rulers before the loss of independence. But when Dafydd’s forces rebelled against Edward I, the king sent forces to take the castle andDafydd retreated and sabotaged the structure. It was rebuilt and Edward gave it to his wife but abandoned after a fire broke out. Never being reubilt again it was then just passed down the royal line until nothing much was left.

Caergwrle Castle

Caergwrle Castle is set on top of a hill with stunning views but unfortunately not in a tourist attracting area

And then there is Holt Castle. This is probably the one castle that left myself the least impressed so far. It looks more like someone forgot a couple of stairs, windows and buttresses on top of a rock. Shows you how spoiled I am already when it comes to castles.

Holt Castle was a medieval castle built on the Welsh-English border on the banks of the river Dee in the town of Holt. The castle, which was constructed between 1277 and 1311, was shaped like a pentagon and had towers at each corner. It was built from local sandstone on top of a 12 metres high promontory but today only the base remains.

This is just the beginning really, there are many more “forgotten” castles, not only in north Wales but even along the Welsh-English border. After all somebody had to keep the Welsh in check….

But that’s something for another time.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Curve

I like both of these images for very different reason.

In the first one you might wonder where the curve will lead you to and it just shouts “British” to me with the red double-decker bus and the, for me, typical London architecture.

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Selfridges in Birmingham on the other hand presents a steep contrast to the very straight and pointed spire of the church with its smooth curves and rounded surface.

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A canal and a castle

I smiled that day.

Now you might think “So what?” or “Sad if she has to write about it.” but it wasn’t just any smile (trust me, I do smile a lot). It’s the kind of smile I get every now and again whilst driving through some especially beautiful scenery, just being happy I’m there. Or, as in this instance, I smile because there are finally more green leaves on the trees than bare twigs and spring is taking over. I just love life in these situations.

It was St George’s Day and I was making my way to the Shropshire Union Canal in Waverton, having planned a walk to Beeston Castle and back, when I realised it was spring and everything covered in a light green of fresh foliage.

It was the perfect day for a walk: the sun was shining (though there was a chilly breeze), birds chirping away, bumble bees buzzing around, butterflies enjoying a warm sun bath, the canal floating along slowly and, well, quite a distinct smell of cow manure in the air.

This part of the canal is not quite as popular as the other direction towards Chester, so I had the path mostly to myself. I could see Beeston Castle, my destination for the day, and Peckforton Castle in the distance and had some nice views across the Cheshire Plain.

Beeston Castle is quite a fascinating place. It is perched on a rocky sandstone crag 350 feet (107 m) above the Cheshire Plain and offers stunning views across 8 counties. The site of the castle may have been inhabited or used as a communal gathering place as early as the Neolithic period and there have been found remains of a Bronze Age community and of an Iron Age hill fort.

The castle itself was built in the 1220s by Ranulf de Blondeville, 6th Earl of Chester on his return from the Crusades. The castle saw good and bad times and came back into service during the English Civil War in 1643. It was partly demolished in 1646, in accordance with Cromwell’s destruction order, to prevent its further use as a stronghold. During the 18th century the site was used as a quarry.

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View towards Wales

It is rumoured that a treasure belonging to Richard II lies undiscovered in the castle grounds, but no traces could be found so far. The castle is now in ruins and managed by English Heritage.

If you are interested in another ‘canal and castle walk’, you can walk a ‘Welsh version’ near Llangollen. Castle Dinas Bran offers some stunning views too.

 

The City Churches of London

Ask any tourist to name churches in London and the most likely answer you get is St Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey and maybe Westminster Cathedral. And if you’re very lucky “that church by Trafalgar Square and the National Portrait Gallery” – St Martin-in-the-Fields.

But if you are like me and enjoy to walk around the City of London, you will notice a church at almost every corner. This is still from the time when the city was heavily populated; today only about 8,000 people actually live here compared to the over 300,000 who commute to and work here. What better way to explore the history of the City of London; enjoy a bit of peace and tranquility; visit buildings that survived the Great Fire and those who didn’t and were rebuilt afterwards; and see churches where Sir Christopher Wren experimented with domes for his masterpiece St Paul’s Cathedral (yes, even he had to practice).

I have only scratched the surface so far, not all churches are open every day or to the public at all, but you can find a complete list with more information via the Friends of the City Churches. If you take a look at the image captions you get more information on some treasures and history of the individual churches.

I started my walk outside the City of London, at St Martin-in-the-Fields and then moved eastwards, mainly along the Strand, Fleet Street etc until I reached the Tower of London. I didn’t have a list or anything, just whenever I saw a spire I went there, but unfortunately was limited in time.

St Martin-in-the-Fields is right at Trafalgar Square and not exactly a City Church but it was where my idea was born so I can’t leave it, and some of the following churches, out. The church gets photographed a lot but I was surprised how few people actually go inside (at least when I was there). It is famous for its work with homeless people and the crypt houses a nice café.

Next was St Mary-le-Strand. You can’t really miss it as it sits on a traffic island almost opposite Somerset House. Construction of the current church began in 1714 under the architect James Gibbs. It is now the official church of the Women’s Royal Naval Service and was unfortunately closed, but the Baroque exterior makes it different from other churches.

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St Mary-le-Strand

St Clement Danes, the Central Church of the Royal Air Force, is a little gem and holds some architectural treasures. The church gets its name from some Danish settlers who had married English women, settled here and took over a small church dedicated to St Clement. Since then it has been rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren with James Gibb adding the tower. Inside, you can find a pulpit designed by Grinling Gibbons (stored for safe keeping in St Paul’s Cathedral during the Blitz), a restored Stuart Coat of Arms mentioning Wren and many other treasures.

I always wanted to have a look round Temple, probably because the name is a bit intriguing. Unfortunately Temple Church was not open to the public.

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Temple Church

On Fleet Street you can find St Dunstan-in-the-West, which I missed at first because I wandered around the small alleys near Temple. When I finally came across the Guild Church I was too late to stop but I found a nice picture of the interior on wikimedia commons. The church is of medieval origin but the current structure was built in the 1830s. It is dedicated to a former Bishop of London and Archbishop of Canterbury.

A bit further east, perched between other buildings, you can find St Bride’s Church. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1672 it suffered a lot from fire during the London Blitz in 1940. Due to its location on Fleet Street it has a strong connection with newspapers and journalists. It is the second tallest of Wren’s churches, only St Paul’s has a higher pinnacle.

The next couple of churches I just passed with two not being open and another housing a café on the inside – St Benet, St Nicholas Cole & St James Garlickhythe.

St Mary Aldermary is one of the rare examples of a Wren church built in the Gothic style. From medieval origin it was rebuilt in the 16th century before being badly damaged in the Great Fire of 1666. It has a very beautiful fan vaulted ceiling and today is home to a café and has some market and food stalls outside on weekdays.

I mentioned in the beginning that even Sir Christopher Wren had to practice and experiment with domes before he was able to design and build St Paul’s Cathedral. St Stephen Walbrook is one of these experiments and what a glorious success it is. You can definitely see where this was going. And for all art lovers, the altar is by Henry Moore.

St Mary Abchurch is another medieval church that was destroyed in the Great Fire and is also one of the dome experiments by Sir Christopher Wren. However, this one features a big oil painting inside the dome that was done by a parishoner, William Snow in 1708. It depicts the worship of heaven with the Divine Name in Hebrew in the centre. The real treasures however, are the limewood carvings by Grinling Gibbons, the largest and only authenticated work of his besides St Paul’s Cathedral. The receipts are still among the parish records.

St Magnus the Martyr is a different story altogether. The churchyard was once part of the roadway approach to the Old London Bridge and people coming into London used to enter the city here. Because of its prominent location and beauty, although it is a bit tricky to get a really good view today, it has been mentioned in literature by the likes of Charles Dickens or T.S. Eliot. The church is named after Magnus the Martyr, Earl of Orkney and was one of the first buildings to be destroyed by the Great Fire of 1666 as it was only 300 yards away from the bakehouse in Pudding Lane where the fire started. Rebuilding work was carried out for several years under the direction of, yes you guessed correctly, Sir Christopher Wren.

The story of St Margaret Pattens has seen some ups and downs. First recorded in 1067 and probably built from wood it was rebuilt in stone but fell into disrepair and had to be demolished in 1530. The church was rebuilt but then destroyed by the Great Fire in 1666 only to be rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren. Fortunately it escaped major damage during the Blitz. The unusual addition ‘Pattens’ to the name St Margaret comes from ‘Pattens’ being made and sold close to the church. These were a type of ‘undershoe’ that were strapped to the shoes and therefore raised the wearer from the muddy roads, preventing his shoes from getting dirty. A notice in the church still “requests women to leave their Pattens before entering”.

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Old meets new – St Margaret Pattens in front of some modern office blocks. Unfortunately I had to hurry.

My final stop was All Hallows by the Tower, the oldest church in the City of London and, as the name implies, right next to the Tower of London. There is much to discover here: a Saxon arch from the original church founded in 675AD, a remarkable stretch of Roman floor beneath the arch and some other splendid artefacts that can be seen in the undercroft. After surviving the Great Fire in 1666 (although it too was only a few hundred yards away from the starting point) it was heavily bombed during World War II and only the tower and walls survived. A new foundation stone was laid by the Queen Mother in 1948. And even though much of it was destroyed you get the feeling that this place has seen a lot during its history when you are inside.

 

There are many more fine churches to discover and maybe next time I’m lucky and even get some sunshine.

Stairway to heaven – London City Hall

During my last visit to London I got the chance to take a look inside London City Hall. Apart from splendid views across Tower Bridge and the financial district, it also has one of London’s most famous staircases.

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Nicknamed the “The Glass Gonad” or “The Onion”, City Hall is to the left with The Shard standing proud in the distance.

City Hall was designed by Norman Foster and opened in 2002 and its unusual, bulbous shape certainly stands out among the other buildings.

The open viewing deck at the top of the ten-storey building is only open during “Open House London” and you will have to queue and undergo a security check (think airport) to get in. But it is so worth it…

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A new perspective of Tower Bridge and Canary Wharf in the background. We were spoiled with sunshine and clear views.

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HMS Belfast on the Thames and some of London’s famous skyscrapers (left to right): ‘The Walkie-Talkie’ (20 Fenchurch Street), ‘The Cheesegrater Building’ (Leadenhall Building) and ‘The Gherkin’ (30 St Mary Axe) to name just a few.

 

Inside, I wasn’t the only one being mesmerised by the staircase and getting the camera out. It turned out to be a bit of a challenge to get a clear view of the features and odd shape of the staircase.