Sunday, December 13, 2009

The Christmas Pantomime -- Aladdin

The pantomime is a Christmas tradition in the UK, and this year the New Wimbledon Theatre has been publicising their production of Aladdin almost everywhere, including the ticket gates at Putney station. Eager as ever to get the authentic British experience here, we got tickets and went along.

This year there are four celebrities playing the role of the Genie: Ruby Wax, Pamela Anderson, Paul O'Grady and some woman off Eastenders. We were booked to see Pam, but due to "family commitments" we got Ruby instead.

In the end, it didn't matter much. The Genie was only on for a fraction of the show, and Ruby played it as a sarcastic, withering character who was either too cool or too busy to care about the surroundings. Thus, the show was mostly carried by the main cast: Wishy-Washy and Widow Twanky, Abanazar, and to a lesser extent Aladdin and Jasmine. There were plenty of jokes, lots of booing and hissing, and a rather out of place segment of Peking's Got Talent (we all got to sing about a worm at the bottom of the garden).

One highlight was Brian Blessed, who is famous for shouting lines. He had a microphone, but when he yelled "I can't hear you" for the third time, I'm sure they had the microphone off and his voice still filled the theatre. His appearances were formulaic -- turn up, encourage a few boos and hisses, spell out the plot (loudly) and then disappear to lightning. When you're the bad guy in the pantomime though, that's what you're there for.

Overall, the panto was quite good fun, and certainly a good way to spend an otherwise cold and dreary Sunday afternoon.


This contrasted rather nicely with Inherit the Wind, a play inspired by the Scopes trial of the 1920s. This was a much more serious play, although it had plenty of light moments. Kevin Spacey played the defence lawyer, and did a good job of an old-ish man who for some reason reminded me of Mark Twain. The eventual outcome was just as obvious as Aladdin, but the play kept our attention the whole way through. I spent a lot of the time feeling incredulous at how a town could be so closed-minded against science; but then again, the whole play was apparently a statement against the McCarthy communist-hating era that was around when the play was written.

Aladdin and Brian Blessed was certainly a contrast to Inherit the Wind and Kevin Spacey. Still, we had icecream in the interval at both.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Windsor Castle

Last weekend the weather was terrible, so we decided to head down to Windsor Castle. Windsor Castle is a convenient 45 minute train ride from Putney, and when we got there the weather was very atmospheric -- it was pouring down.

While we waited for the rain to stop, we had roast dinner for lunch at a pub looking up at the castle's Round Tower. It looked ominously at us through the gloom. By the time we had finished and made our way up, the rain had mostly stopped. We had the castle mostly to ourselves on account of the weather, and got to waltz past all the markers indicating that the line would take 45 minutes from this point.

The first stop was the Dolls' House. This was a gift for Queen Mary, and is essentially a miniature mansion. There are dozens of small rooms, each individually furnished, and apparently both the electricity and the plumbing work. The house was meant to be as state-of-the-art as possible in the 1920s, and one of the proud features was the vacuum cleaner tucked away in a small room.

Next, there was a temporary exhibition on King Henry VII. This wasn't nearly as exciting as the Tower of London's: there were no shiny suits of armour that you could watch grow larger and larger over the years. Instead, there were a number of portraits of people from the time, like Anne Boleyn, and interesting artifacts like a diary with her handwriting.

Once we got through this, we toured the State and Semi-State Rooms. These were all naturally very impressive, as their main job is to impress visiting dignitaries. There were millions of decorative items from Britain's former days of Empire, with swords criss-crossing up the walls, and polished helmets and guns in display cases; there were splendid bedrooms with lovely artwork, and there were over the top entertaining rooms which had been rebuilt after the fire of 1992.

The highlight of the interior was St George's Hall, which is where State dinners are held. The room is covered with miniature shields of the Knights of the Garter -- including our own Edmund Hillary -- and features blanked out shields for naughty knights that were struck off. One interesting fact: when they set the table for dinner, they use a ruler to ensure everything lines up. Otherwise it just looks a mess, apparently.

Unfortunately, you can't take any photos of the inside. But, we do have some photos of the dark and damp day outside. If you are observant, you may see Brendan and Chris in some.

Windsor Castle

Very Green Grass

All photos are available here.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Shakespeare's Globe 2

As a follow-up to our original visit to the Globe Theatre, we went to an actual production there last week. We saw As You Like It which I knew nothing about except that it was a comedy. At first it was tricky trying to follow the Olde Englishe language used, but once I stopped trying to understand all the words it was easy to follow because of the great acting, and I started picking up a few more words. It was very funny, and had singing, dancing, dirty jokes, fighting, and a happy ending - what more could you want?

We had the authentic experience of standing which wasn't too bad, although if you do this and you aren't very tall you'll need to be up the front. I had trouble seeing parts of the stage due to a person with an afro standing in front of me. Also, if you have trouble standing still for long periods of time, you should probably go for a seat, as the interval seemed to take a while to arrive.

There aren't any photos for this post, sorry -- we weren't allowed to take any, even when the stage was empty. You'll just have to make do with our previous ones.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Roma

Our trip to Rome began in what we would soon discover was typical Italian style: late. After a later than expected arrival into Rome, we made our way from Termini to our (four star!) hotel. It overlooked the Colosseum, and if you stuck your head out of our window and craned your neck, there it was. We spent our first evening walking around it (the Colosseum) and the Arch of Constantine before dining at Luzzi, which was a delicious trattoria near our hotel. The pizza and pasta were excellent, and the service was entertaining.

The next day we went down to Via Appia Antica, one of the original Roman roads. We hired bikes and bounced over the giant paving stones as we marvelled at the well-preserved artifacts alongside the roads. Mostly they were tombs, and on our way back we spent some time down the San Sebastian Catacombs. This was the official Christian burial site for many hundreds of years; only when barbarians desecrated it looking for valuables did they abandon it. It was rediscovered in the 1500s. They weren't as mazelike as you might have thought, but tour groups managed to appear out of nowhere as we wandered down the crypts.

The next day dawned sunny, and we took the short walk down to the Palatine Hill. This is the spiritual home of Rome, supposedly where Romulus and Remus were suckled by the she-wolf. There were ruins of emperors' houses, aqueducts, and a museum containing plenty of statues and other artefacts from the ruins. We spent a dusty morning exploring around there before heading over to the Colosseum. We had a podcast for this which helped to explain what it would have been like in its heyday. In a word: bloodthirsty. Gladiators would kill each other, wild animals, prisoners, dogs would go at porcupines, and Christians were tarred and used as torches to light the spectacle. Still, the games were immensely popular and the aristocrats who funded them were showered with gratitude from the plebs. They probably needed it too -- the awning which sheltered the spectators didn't really cover the well-off, who had ringside seats, so they would have roasted in the sun.

The Colosseum also had an interesting exhibition on the Flavian dynasty that created it -- the well-loved Vespasian, his equally loved son Titus, and Domitian who was so hated that when he finally passed away (after being stabbed by a servant in the belly), the Senate ordered all statues of him be destroyed and inscriptions removed. This must have taken a while, as Domitian was quite the statue builder, commissioning colossal status of his father and brother (as well as himself), and pretty much creating the Flavian cult which deified Emperors.

The next day we were up early to get to the Vatican. We took the Metro over there, which was even more busy than the Underground. We had a squishy ride there before filling in time while we waited for the security guard with the bad haircut to let us go in (Guard: It's too early, come back at 10.10. Leah: But you told us 10am before! Guard: I have a bad haircut, come back in ten minutes).

Once inside though, it was worth the wait. We had a great tour through the museums, where we saw fantastic statues and ceilings and frescoes. There was simply too much to see there -- you could probably spent a week in there alone, rather than the 2 hours we had. The end of the visit was the Sistine Chapel ceiling, which is as grand as everybody says. Especially when you consider how Michaelangelo painted it: standing up, one hand on the small of his back, with paint dripping in his eyes. You weren't meant to take photos, but I (will) present you one of God separating the light from the dark, and creating the Sun and the Moon.

The final stop in the Vatican City was St Peter's Basilica, but we and our camera battery were all so tired we did it the next day. We climbed the cupola first, and got breathtaking views of both the Basilica and Rome. Every painting in the Basilica is actually a mosaic, and the inside of the cupola is covered in them. You can barely see it from the ground, and we had such a fantastic view. The view of Rome was equally good; as we wandered around the dome we saw all the landmarks we were becoming used to as well as a peek into the gardens.

The Basilica itself was just as good from the inside. We were amazed at its grandeur, its mosaics, its statues, and its dead popes. There were markings on the ground to show you were other cathedrals would finish inside, and it's only if you think about them that you realise just how enormous the place really is. Michaelangelo played all sorts of tricks when decorating it, like making the upper statues bigger than the lower statues so it didn't look so high. The altar was also made massive to fill the space up to the ceiling to again make it less intimidating. The thing I remember most about it was the lettering around the roof, which had every quote from Jesus to Peter from the Bible. The lettering was seven feet high.

That morning we had poked around the Forum. Unfortunately it's no longer free, so we paid for our combined Colosseum and Palatine Hill (and Forum) ticket again, and went inside. The Forum was the heart of Roman society, and excavations have revealed all sorts of impressive columns and triumphal arches. It's hard to imagine the place in gleaming white marble now, and it must have been amazing in its heyday. We saw where Julius Caesar's body was burned, the Temple of the Vestal Virgins, an enormous law building (we struggled to get the three smaller arches into one picture), and one of the supposedly many gatto which call the Forum home. We took plenty of pictures, but the area is huge. We also saw the entry to the Cloaca Maxima, which Latin and perhaps Classics students will know is the giant sewer system. The Vestal Virgins' house is next to the temple, and is where they lived from before puberty until they left 30 years later. We also saw the amusingly named Column of Phocas.

Our next day was dedicated to Pompeii. We got up rather early so as not to be late; by now you know the punch line, the train was an hour late. We hurtled down the countryside at 150km/h to Naples, and then rather more sedately to Pompeii itself on the Circumvesuviana (20 stops). Once you got through the boring bits (the audio guide is not recommended unless you like monotonous voices), the city was awesome. While most of the houses were just ruins, there were plenty of surviving frescoes and mosaics that hadn't been shipped off to the museum in Naples. Pompeii had turned on a scorcher, and it was a relief when we happened upon a house which still had a roof. The water fountains were welcome as well, especially as they had cool designs around the tap.

After spending most of the day there, we hustled back to the Archeological Museum in Naples. This museum has all of the good stuff that was found in Pompeii and the similarly destroyed town of Herculaneum, such as mosaics, vases and frescoes. The museum also has a fine collection of statues, and a room dedicated to ancient porn. Apparently the Romans enjoyed drinking out of suggestive vessels surrounded by suggestive artwork.

The trip back to Rome was just as frustrating as the trip out, though we did get to share a cabin with three Italians who were debating vociferously about something (and regularly opening and closing the window when it got too hot or too loud for them to hear each other).

After a rare sleep in, we headed off for a walking tour featuring one of Rome's great men, Bernini. He was a prolific sculptor and there are lots of his fountains around Rome, and he also designed the Piazza in front of St Peter's Basilica. The tour featured his fountains and sculptures in churches, and also an elephant (which was originally meant to be a joke, but ended up in the centre of a piazza with an obelisk on top). Along the way we had a good look at the Spanish steps and the Piazza Navona, which were both very pretty. We finished our evening with what was meant to be Rome's best pizza (verdict: pretty good) and what used to be Rome's best gelato (verdict: also pretty good).

On our penultimate day we did some more walking, this time around Travestere and the Janiculum Hill. This area is meant to have a very different feel to the rest of Rome, and it was certainly quieter and a bit more relaxed. We enjoyed two delicious cornetti (mine had custard in it and Leah's had chocolate). They are like croissants but but not as flakey. We climbed the hill to see where St Peter was supposedly crucified, and saw the tiny Tempietto, a temple within a church. We went further on and walked through the park on top of the hill, where you could see all of Rome in front of you. There's a lighthouse up there (not sure why), as well as a giant monument of Garibaldi on a horse, as well as busts of all the generals who fought in the war against the French invaders.

From there we walked to the Piazza del Popolo and on into the Pincio and Borghese gardens, where we hired a bike and had an hour of biking around. The bike was electric but we never knew when the motor would kick in, so it was quite an entertaining hour. They also had segways for hire but we couldn't find out where you got them from :(

After that we walked back to the Triton Fountain to find a church which contained rooms decorated with the bones of monks. It had been recommended to us by someone the previous night, and it was certainly interesting. There were five rooms and a corridor covered in bones that had been arranged into patterns and pictures. There were also some complete skeletons, three of which looked like they were from children. You're not allowed to take photos of it but you can have a look on their website.

On our final day in Rome we visited the Capitoline museums which are full of sculptures and paintings, as well as other finds, from the Forum and around Rome. Some of the highlights were the giant pieces from the sculpture of Constantine, including his head and feet, as well as a giant statue of Marcus Aurelius on a horse, the statue of the she-wolf with Romulus and Remus, a statue of Venus, the statue of the Dying Galatian, and many others. (Tip: it looks like the museum website has the audioguides available for download, so you don't have to hire one.)

Then we climbed the Vittoriano monument for a final look over Rome, before getting a late lunch and heading off to the airport. But the fun didn't stop then, we had to make our way through a massive security clearance mob (took over half an hour) before running to our gate just in time to hear them say "this is the last and final boarding call for flight AZ206, would passengers Reeckard, Meeller, ... please make their way to gate 31 for immediate boarding". Then when we were on the plane they announced there would be a delay due to a "technical problem" (just what you want to hear). Anyway, after that we were glad to get home, although we could have spent months in Rome trying to see everything.

Photos to follow soon!

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Mainz

At the end of August we took advantage of the Bank Holiday weekend to visit Stuart's brother, Geoffrey, in Germany. He lives in a university town called Mainz, which is about half an hour out of Frankfurt. We were fortunate to have warm sunny weather the whole time, and someone who spoke German to do everything for us :)

Geoffrey had organised bikes for us for the weekend which was excellent, as it made it very easy to get around town, as well as go for longer rides along the Rhein. Mainz seems to be built for cyclists, as there are very wide footpaths with bike lanes on them, and special traffic signals for bikes. Also, cars have to give way to bikes, which was a nice change to dodging cars like we used to do in Auckland.

Highlights of our various cycle trips include:
  • visiting Floersheim and learning how to pronounce it
  • trying to bike up a very steep bridge (and failing)
  • eating a K√§sebrezel (cheese pretzel) - delicious
  • not having to wear a helmet
  • not ever feeling in danger from cars, and in fact hardly ever having to be on the road with them
Disappointments include:
  • not having a bike with a basket on the front
  • discovering that after 6 months of not cycling your bottom gets very sore very quickly :(
We visited an authentic German bar and Stuart had an authentic German beer while Leah tried an authentic German wine/fizzy water mixture. We met the two Johnnies and other people from Geoffrey's university. The German ones spoke English with an American accent.

On the Sunday we went for a boat cruise in the sunshine along the Rhein, and saw lots of castles. There were so many that I can't remember the names of any of them, but you can see what they look like. We also saw a town by the name of Assmannshausen, as well as the statue of Germania, and the Loreley rock. We ended up in St Goar where we looked around the castle there (Burg Rheinfels) before catching the train back to Mainz.

We flew back on Monday night, and had a very uneventful flight. On our flight on the way to Germany we flew over an awesome lightning storm, and we could see the lightning in the tops of the clouds.

Stay tuned for our next post on Rome... (it also features lightning)

See our photos

Friday, August 7, 2009

Lakes District

Last week I went on holiday with my dad to the Lakes District. I'd heard that it was very pretty countryside, and I'd seen it mentioned in some books (e.g. Pride and Prejudice) so I was looking forward to it. Unfortunately the weather wasn't great (it was either raining or about to do so), so while that meant we didn't have the best views along the way, and we couldn't go for walks without getting soaked, it did mean that there were awesome waterfalls coming down the hills. In fact, it reminded me a bit of Milford Sound -- there were even misty clouds coming down the valleys.

The first night we stayed in Windermere, and we ended up in a nice big YHA which was up on a hill with views of the lake. We could even see the views sometimes in between all the clouds. It turned out to be the YHA that my parents had stayed at 30 years ago when they came to England. The building was from the 30s and was the first building in England to be built of concrete.

The next day we got the car ferry across the lake and went to visit Beatrix Potter's house. It's pretty cool because it's exactly how it was when she lived there (she gave it to the National Trust on her death), with the same furnishings, and they have her books lying around so you can see the illustrations and match the furniture and views to what's in the house. We then drove to Lake Coniston which is where Donald Campbell set the water speed record in the 60s. It's also where John Ruskin (a philosopher) is buried, so we saw his grave. We drove around the narrow windy roads, slowing down whenever we came across another car coming towards us. It's a bit scary as there are stone walls on either side of the roads, so you don't have much room to manoeuver, especially when a campervan or truck is speeding towards you.

We stopped for lunch in Keswick, and had a delicious toasted panini with beef and lots of blue cheese. Then we visited the tourist information centre to work out where to go, and decided to try out the Honister Pass. As we came up to the start of the pass we could see that the road was pretty steep (I think it said 25% gradient), so we were thankful that we were in a grunty little car. The YHA is at the top of the pass, and the only other thing there is a slate mine. It's still in use, and offers tours of the old part of the mine, so the next day we did a tour and got to wear awesome miners' hats with the lights on them. We learnt about how the layers of rock are like a cheese sandwich, with the slate as the cheese and volcanic rock as the bread. So they tunnel in sideways so that they don't have to go through the bread and can get straight to the good bit. Inside the mine you can see the huge slab of bread and it's a bit scary, especially when he mentions an earthquake they had (thankfully it was 30 years ago, and nothing much happened in the mine). The mine's owner has plans to turn one of the big caverns in the mine into a theatre, so that will be interesting to see in a few years.

The weather was a bit brighter that day, so as we headed out of the pass and down to Buttermere we stopped to have a walk. It's quite amazing, as you're driving along you don't see too many cars, and then you come to a wee village with a pub and a church and a couple of houses, and you head to the carpark and there are masses of cars there! I don't know where they all come from. We walked through a farm to the lake and it was quite full. In fact, it had overflowed into the field next to it, and there were some people wearing gumboots wading through it. Unfortunately the path to the waterfall was also underwater so we didn't get to see it up close.

After that we headed out of the Lakes District and up to Carlisle. On the way we stopped at Maryport to look at the Roman museum and see where a Roman fort used to be. They had found heaps of altars in the area so the museum was full of them. Then we went to Carlisle and found a YHA to stay in. It was a bit of an effort as the GPS took us 30km in the wrong direction before taking us to the YHA. Carlisle didn't seem like a particularly exciting town, although it did have a castle in the middle of it, and it also had a cracker factory and another old factory with a gigantic chimney.

The next day we went to see part of Hadrian's Wall which was pretty cool. There's still some parts of it in pretty good condition considering how old it is. You don't really realise how old it is, until we went to see where they had built a bridge in the wall for a river, and now the river is several hundred metres away. Then we drove through some small country lanes into the Pennines, and drove up to the highest point (I think it was 1900 feet). There was an awesome view from the top out over the countryside. After that it was a fairly uneventful trip down the M6 to Kidderminster where we stayed with friends of my Grandma. They have lived in the same house for 40 years which seems amazing.

On Friday we took the scenic route to Oxford, which involved driving through parts of the Cotswolds. Once in Oxford we found a B&B to stay at, and then did a walking tour of the city. We saw a couple of the 38 colleges that make up Oxford University, including the ones that JRR Tolkein and Lewis Carroll went to. We also saw a few of the places that Harry Potter was either filmed at or had sets inspired by, including the Dining Hall which was based on the one at Christ Church College. Lewis Carroll went to this college, and the tour guide told us that he wrote Alice in Wonderland while he was there, and that various elements of the book were inspired by things at the college. For example, after dinner, one of the teachers didn't like company after he'd eaten, so he had a trapdoor by his chair that he would disappear down after dinner. And there was a garden in amongst the buildings that you could enter via a small door -- this inspired the part where Alice grew really big and couldn't fit through the door.

That night we picked up Stuart from the train station and stayed at a lovely B&B. On Saturday we headed out of Oxford towards Chisbury which was where my parents worked for 6 months on a little farm. It took us a while to find it because we thought it was actually Little Bedwyn which was nearby, and we were looking for a postbox in a wall which is harder to find than you might think. Eventually we were successful, and so we meandered through some little villages including Bourton-on-the-Water (aka "Venice of the Cotswolds"), before stopping in Burford for a late lunch. That night we stayed on a farm B&B near Broadway, where we heard that there was a vintage car rally nearby that weekend, which explained all the old Riley cars we'd seen on the roads.

So on Sunday we headed off to try and find the car rally. We got to the spot but discovered a huge line waiting to get in, and that it cost £25 per person, so we gave it a miss. Instead we headed back up to Birmingham so that Stuart and I could get the train back to London. On the way we stopped at Ledbury, a nice little town with a half-timbered house on stilts. Under this house was the old market place which would have been convenient if it rained. Then we drove to Warwick and walked around the castle and looked in the old Cathedral. Warwick had some impressive examples of the houses that had the first level larger than the ground level, and the second level larger than the first level etc. This is because they used to pay tax based on the ground area the houses took up, so they sneakily made the ground level smaller than the others.

Finally we made it to Birmingham in time for Stuart and I to take advantage of the luxuries of travelling 1st class. These include free cookies and beverages, and wifi and crisps on the train. Awesome.

Photos are up now!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Bath

Two weekends ago found us in the lovely city of Bath. At various points in its history, Bath has been home to King Bladud, the ninth English king, Jane Austen, Leah's favourite author, and a whole lot of Romans bathing in a whole lot of water. It is conveniently only 90 minutes from London (if you get the train; it's three hours if you get the bus), and is legendary for its healing powers.

The first historical location we visited was the Jane Austen Centre, home to the Jane Austen museum and the Regency Tearooms. The Centre is a few doors down from one of Jane Austen's many homes in Bath. Jane and her family moved to Bath from the country, but unfortunately she didn't like it very much and her writing suffered - she didn't write any books during her 5 or so years there. While they were in Bath her father died, and with that their pension disappeared so they gradually slipped down the social ladder, eventually ending up in Trim St which was not a very desirous neighbourhood. Once Jane left Bath her writing picked up again, but she died in 1817 aged only 41.

Aside from her life story, the Centre also told you about society at that time, and let you practice fan language (see photos). They also serve traditional high tea, and cream teas, up in the Regency Tearooms, so we felt we should try and be proper English people by having scones and tea. They were delicious :)

We also visited the Roman Baths, and did so in the evening as they have late nights in summer (closing at 10pm). There's an audio guide which gives you heaps of detail about everything you see, and the history of the site. They have found parts of the Roman Temple to Minerva that was there, and have reconstructed the entire pediment from just a few remaining pieces. They have recovered all sorts of things from the spring and surrounding areas, like notes to the goddess that were thrown in, cursing people who had stolen things. These survived because they were written on metal and folded up. They also found beautiful engraved gems from signit rings which had either been thrown in as a sacrifice or lost from the bearer's ring as the water dissolved the cement.

The baths are a couple of metres below street level, and the foundations, floors, pieces of the walls and roofs are still intact. Apparently the roof would have stood 20m above the baths, which is as high as the surrounding buildings. Today the bath is open to the air and is a lovely green colour due to the sunlight encouraging algae to grow, but back then it would have been more appealing. You could see the under-floor heating system that they built, as well as the drain that takes the overflow from the spring out to the river -- it's big enough to walk down.

After visiting the baths you get to try some of the spring water (renowned for their healing powers), so of course we did, and you can see the effect it had on us.

The Bath Abbey was founded in the 7th century, and most recently rebuilt in the 1600s, and was the last church to be built before the Reformation. It's quite big and has some lovely stained glass, as well as lots of tombstones in the floor and walls. We did a tour of the Bell Tower which was very interesting, and told us all about how the bells are rung. They have 10 bells, the largest of which weighs 1.5 tonnes and once fell off its framework causing a bit of damage and meaning that it had to be recast. There are several different ways that the bells can be rung: manually by ten people (the traditional way), manually by one people (just a matter of pulling strings on the wall), automatically by a fancy box on the wall, automatically by a music box type arrangement, and automatically by an engine (this one does the quarter hours and hours).

We got shown the back of the clock which was something you don't see every day, but it had what looked like a very simple mechanism. We also got to stand on the top of the vaulted ceiling, and looked down through a hole all the way down to the Abbey floor. Then we went up to the top of the tower and took lots of photographs.

The council runs free walking tours of Bath twice a day, so we took advantage of that and went for a two hour informative walk of the city. Highlights included:
  • Pulteney Bridge, one of not many bridges that have shops on it. In fact, when you walk across it you can't even tell you're on a bridge -- it just looks like a normal road.
  • The Guildhall. From the outside it has seven windows across it, but on the inside there are only six: the middle one is a fake to make it look nice, and in fact has a fireplace behind it, with a chimney disguised as a decoration on the roof.
  • The various styles of architecture. Most of the houses are Georgian, which is very regular and geometric. There is also some Elizabethan architecture, which uses irregular stones, has small panes of glass in the windows, and has steep roofs to throw off the rain and snow. The Circus is a fine example of the city's architecture, and has houses in three levels with columns (Doric, Ionic, Corinthian) going up and getting slimmer to make the building seem light. It also has acorns on top of it which is pretty awesome*. The Royal Cresent is a huge crescent of buildings looking like a big palace, and is very impressive. Also, almost all of the buildings are made of Bath stone, which looks like Oamaru stone, so they're all the same colour and style and therefore a bit repetitive if you're not a fan of architecture.
While we were in Bath we visited some distant relatives in the nearby town of Bradford-on-Avon, which is a charming wee place with narrow winding streets, a Saxon church, and a big old barn. While we were there we enjoyed playing with a tiny puppy, and watching one of their daughters learn to ride a bike. We also had our first 99 icecream, which is vanilla icecream in a cone with a flake. It doesn't cost 99p though, so we're confused about the name.

All in all, we enjoyed our trip to Bath. Although it lacks some of the quaintness that other historical cities have, it is still a friendly city, and certainly easy to explore. And if you're curious about the water -- it tastes vaguely eggy, like you'd expect the water to taste after you boiled an egg in it. It's served warm, too.

* The legend goes that Mr Bladud, then a pig boy, was walking his pigs when they found some mud and wouldn't get out. The only way he could entice them out was by laying down a trail of acorns for them to eat. As they came out of the mud he noticed they were all miraculously cured of their ills, so he had a dip and noticed the same. He then went on to reclaim his rightful position, become king, and learn to fly. We're not making that up.

Take a look at our photos (if you want to).

Tower of London

What trip to London would be complete without a vist to the Tower of London? Even though we plan to be here for a few years we thought it prudent to get our trip in as soon as possible, and when we found that we could go two-for-one with our train tickets we decided to go one sunny weekend.

The Tower looks very historic in amongst its surroundings. Tower Bridge is obviously nearby, but it only dates back to Victorian times. In contrast, the Tower has been around since the 11th century.

The main tourist entrance is rather traditional. It is the gate that prisoners left on the way to their beheading on Tower Hill, and also the same gate they had their bleeding corpse dragged through on their way to their headless, communal grave.

As we walked through the gate, we arrived just in time for the guided tour. The tour is given by one of the yeoman guards, who are all ex-military men. To become a guard you must have an impeccable record -- at least ten years continuous service without a blemish. Or, as our guard put it, "ten years of undetected crime". The guards tell you all kinds of stories, and it's easy to forget they were once sergeants. That is, until they give the foreigner who is interpreting for her friend a bollocksing for talking when he is, and then send them to the back of the group.

Apart from the scariness, the guards are full of colourful stories. They have the history of the place down, and can recite any number of gory stories about all the landmarks around the place. I don't remember any particular story standing out -- they all seem to blend into one, which goes a little like this:

Famous person, possibly of noble origin, incurs the anger of the King and is taken to the Tower. They are then kept prisoner there for some long period of time, living in comfort as befits their status, before they are then either taken to Tower Hill and beheaded, or released.

One example everybody knows about is Anne Boleyn, but it turns out she wasn't actually beheaded like everybody else. She instead chose to be beheaded with a long sword in the grounds of the Tower itself. This method of beheading was so effective that apparently she didn't realise she was dead, and her mouth kept moving even while her head was held up to the crowd. There is now a glass pillow where she and other former favourites of the King met their end.

Not everybody was as lucky as Anne to die swiftly. There was one unfortunate fellow who decided not to tip the axeman (the money axemen received from their charges was the only payment they got for doing the job. Essentially, you were paying them to do a good quick job). Instead of the axe landing cleanly in his neck, it instead missed and embedded itself in his shoulderblade (to which the man is reported to have turned his head and said, "if you do that again I may not be able to keep still"). I suspect this story may have been embellished somewhat, as it kept going in almost comic fashion: the axe apparently hit every other area around the neck until, one suspects almost by luck, it hit him in the neck. And didn't go through. Eventually the axeman is said to have pulled out a knife and sawn the head off with that.

There was also the tale of the two princes, who stood in the way of Richard III taking the throne. Although they were to have been trained in how to be a king, they instead went missing and were eventually found in skeleton form underneath some stairs. We saw said stairs and visited the room in which they were kept, and although there is no direct evidence that Richard was behind it, it all seems rather suspicious and he seems to be the natural villan. They didn't mention this when we visited York; indeed, they were all rather fond of Richard. This may sound strange unless you know that York is his home town.

It's not all blood and gore at the Tower; there are also the crown jewels. We queued up like good British citizens and eventually found ourselves in front of some very shiny jewels. Some of them were quite impressive, such as the Sovereign's Orb but we particularly liked Queen Victoria's second crown, which she wore with her widow's veil after Albert died. It was very small -- maybe the size of two fists -- and Leah thought it was cute.

There is also currently an exhibition of Henry VIII's suits of armour. We didn't get time to do anything more than the highlights of this, and I can report that while Henry was quite slender in his early days, by the time he died he was a porker. He probably never wore the last suit of armour built for him, which is just as well because it must have weighed a ton. The most amusing thing was the elongated codpiece, which was supposed to make him look powerful but would have really just made it difficult to go through doors sideways.

The exhibition was taking place in the White Tower, the original Tower of London. It could apparently have been seen for miles around, whereas nowadays it's not even visible from the outside unless you know where you're looking. We weren't allowed to take pictures of the inside, which was rather annoying, but if you imagine a cold draughty building with large open rooms and enormous fireplaces, you'll probably have the right picture. The fireplaces had interesting chimneys; the smoke would take a wandering path through the walls before exiting at some vent on the side, which dispersed the smoke and prevented attackers from knowing if there was anybody home.

However, the best thing about the White Tower was the royal throne room -- by which I mean the royal dunny. It had a door which must have been a luxury, as the other ones didn't. They must have been cold and breezy, and apparently they discharged directly into the moat. Archeologists have said it was the worst cesspit they'd seen (don't ask me how they know).

And finally, the thing everybody knows about the Tower is the ravens. Yes, we saw ravens, and to be honest they were a bit of a disappointment. They hopped around the grounds, and sometimes stood so still I thought they were fake ones. But as the legend goes, if there aren't seven ravens in the grounds at all time, the White Tower will crumble to dust, the King will die, and a great tragedy will befall England. So all in all, I'm glad they decide to stick around.

And if you were feeling sad for the people that were buried anonymously in that collective grave, you will be gladdened to know that Queen Victoria did too, and had them exhumed and reburied in individual graves inside the Tower's chapel.

Take a look at our photos.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Wimbledon and The Lion King

This week we did two stereotypical London activities: Wimbledon, and a Musical in the West End.

I went to Wimbledon on Tuesday evening, the second day of the Wimbledon Tennis Tournament. When I arrived at Southfields tube station, it was all done out as a tennis court, with green stuff on the platform and white lines painted, and the seats turned into little pavilions with umbrellas over them.

The Queue was about 10 minutes walk from the station, and as I walked into the field that was turned into a carpark for the event, I could see it stretching around the corner. It looked like we'd never make it in! We got to the end of the Queue and got handed our Queue ticket with our number on it, and a souvernir sticker 'I queued for Wimbledon 2009'. The Queue is very organised, you get your ticket so that you can't line jump, and you can't hold places for friends because you only get one entry ticket per Queue ticket.

It seemed to take forever to get around the first corner, but the rest of it went pretty quickly. Once you get inside the gates they have information up about all the past champions, and a timeline of the tournament, but the Queue was moving so fast I didn't get to read it all :(

After clearing security and buying our tickets, we purchased our strawberries and cream and went to watch Ana Ivanovic's game. It was packed with people, and we stood and watched some of it. Then we realised that the game on the court behind us was going to start, so we decided to watch that as it was a men's game and they'd be hitting the ball a lot harder. It was between Taylor Dent (US) and a Spanish guy (who ended up winning). Dent wasn't playing too well, and kept double faulting, and he was getting very frustrated. He even swore at the referee, saying that one of the linespeople was 'F***ing blind' after she called one of his shots out.

The game was halted due to bad light, so unfortunately we didn't get to see the end. It was exciting while it lasted though :)

On Wednesday night we went to see the Lion King at the Lyceum Theatre. We'd only heard rave reviews, so we were expecting something awesome, and the start of it was really awesome. I don't want to say what happened in case any of you are planning to see it though! But the costumes were really great, and they did all the songs from the movie plus a few new ones.

****Spoilers below the photo****



For those of you who aren't planning to see it, or who don't mind spoilers, I thought I'd try and describe some of the costumes and puppets. At the start of the musical, they had an elephant puppet (not sure how to describe it) which consisted of one person acting as a leg, and them all holding up the body and controlling the head; so there were four people shuffling forward making an elephant puppet look like it was walking. There were giraffes, which were people on stilts, with sticks like crutches for the front legs. There were zebras, which were people standing upright, using their legs as the back legs, and wearing a costume that made up the body, front legs, and head. And the best one was this cart, which as it rolled across the stage had all these gazelles that bounded across the stage (it was connected to the axles somehow, and looked really cool).

The lionesses had these lovely hat type things that were the lions' faces, while the males had different types of hats where the face was either up above their head, or it fell forward on a spring thing. It was really effective on Scar when he threatened Mufasa and the scary face came towards him.

Oh, and Pumbaa was really cool because he was basically just a giant head being worn by this guy who was the back legs and controlled the head and nose. The nose could move and it sniffed the bugs and things :)

Timon and Zazu were puppets that were completely controlled by the an actor each. For some reason Timon's actor was completely green... not sure why because this didn't really blend into anything.

It was very entertaining, so if you like musicals (and/or the Lion King) I recommend you see it if you get the chance!

Friday, June 5, 2009

Shakespeare's Globe

Recently the Globe had an open day to celebrate Shakespeare's birthday, and because it was free and we were penniless, we went along for a look.

The Globe is part museum, part theatre. It begins with a general history of the area, putting the original theatre in context with its surroundings and the cultural climate.

The Globe wasn't the first theatre Shakespeare was involved in, but after the first one was destroyed they set about building a dedicated one. He became a shareholder in it, along with four others. The rest is, as they say, history, and the Globe was built.

Inside the entrancey part they had some play sword-fighting with was kind of exciting. The two guys circled each other for a bit, occasionally darting in and trying to stab each other, until at the end one of them managed to 'stab' the other one and then finished him off by cutting his throat.

Inside the theatre itself there were a bunch of brave people standing on the stage delivering lines from Shakespeare. One guy was very impressive, and even managed to do a flip in front of everyone. After that they did some audience participation, and taught us how to fight like in the plays. We learnt how to punch, poke out eyes and pull hair. Very fun.

After the training we got to walk across the stage. The ceiling is rather nicely painted, and it is surprising just how small the theatre looks from up there; the current Globe fits about half the number of people it did originally.

We plan to go to actually see a play sometime soon. If you're willing to stand at the front (supposedly the best place to be), tickets are only £5.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Yorkshire

For the second May Bank Holiday weekend Stuart and I made plans to visit family friends who lived in Yorkshire. We headed up by train on Friday night, and unfortunately the trains were so busy that we had to stand for the first section of the journey, which was an hour! There were lots of other people in our situation (who hadn’t made seat reservations), but thankfully heaps of people got off so we could sit for the last half hour. We learnt our lesson and will make sure to get reservations in future.

We arrived in Doncaster and were met by Madge who then drove us along the M18/A62 to Hull and then on to their house in the thriving metropolis of Roos. Roos has a lovely old church which comes complete with overgrown graveyard and crypt. It also has an old Norman cross which is in very good condition considering it’s over 800 years old.

On Saturday we were driven to York, and on the way we stopped off for fish and chips. There was a statue of Giant Bradley who at 7’9” was the tallest Briton, and used to work on a local farm. Then we headed onto York where we would have 24 hours to spend, so when we got there we started off in the Information Centre to decide what to see. Our first destination was the National Rail Museum which has heaps of trains of all shapes and sizes, including a miniature railway which we had a ride on. It also had a selection of awesome old posters for various holiday destinations, including one which compared Cornwall to Italy. Unfortunately that one wasn’t for sale, but we did get a nice one telling us that you could take your dog on the train.

After that we walked along the old city wall that surrounds the old part of town, and saw Clifford’s Tower, which is where lots of exciting things happened (you can read the Wikipedia link). That night we had Chinese for tea in an awesome old building with low beam ceilings, which has got to be one of the most un-Chinese places I’ve ever eaten Chinese food in. Then we walked around town and saw all the hens and stags getting drunk on their big night out, and turned up by the river just in time to go on a river cruise through York along to Bishopthorpe Palace where the Archbishop of York lives (he was at home but they pulled the curtains as we arrived).

The next day we did a walking tour of York which told us the history of St Mary’s Abbey. The abbey was pulled down by the townspeople during King Henry VIII’s reign, and now only a few of the window arches remain, along with hundreds of the old stones littering the ground. We also saw an old Roman wall, which is what part of the city walls were built on, as well as hearing a ghost story about the Treasurer’s House. Apparently a boy was working in the basement of the house when he saw a column of Roman soldiers come marching through the basement. He described their outfits completely accurately to a historian until it came to describing their footwear, at which point he said that he could only see them from the knees up. They then dug up part of the floor in the basement, and about 6 inches below the surface discovered an old Roman road that the house was built on.

After we left the tour, we went into the old Minster, which is one of the most impressive and massive buildings I have seen, and looked at the stained glass windows and climbed the tower. There were around 270 stairs, and they got narrower and narrower as you went up. From the top you get an amazing view of York and the surrounding countryside, but you only get about 10-15 minutes up there before it’s time to go down again. The stairs are so narrow that you go up in groups so that you don’t have to pass anyone on the way.

That afternoon Madge and Alister picked us up and we drove back to Roos. It was another lovely sunny day so they decided to have a barbecue to make the most of the weather. Stuart sampled some of the local beer, and enjoyed it so much that the next day we went to see where it was brewed and had a tour around the microbrewery. The owner is a relative of Alister’s, and the brewery was set up as part of the diversification scheme for farmers. We then went on to Withernsea to see what a somewhat abandoned seaside resort looks like. The answer is: a bit sad. The trains stopped going there in the 60s, and then the hotels and B&Bs shut down, so now there are lots of arcades but not many people to use them.

Our final event for the long weekend was going to see the local stately house. It’s privately owned, which means it’s not in pristine condition like some of the National Trust houses, which is quite nice because you can believe that people lived there. Some of the floors are quite slopey, and the rest of them are a bit creaky, but you get to see a chair that Queen Victoria sat in, and there are also plenty of beautiful paintings and sculptures, and huge rooms to imagine yourself living in.

So that was our visit to Yorkshire. There is definitely a lot more to see in the area, and it is a really nice place that we want to visit again.

Photos coming soon to a Flickr account near you!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Trip to Cymru

You may have already seen the photos from our trip to Wales, so here's the story behind them.

We went to Wales for the first Bank Holiday weekend in May, to meet and stay with a couple who are good friends of my parents. Leah (who I am sort of named after) is actually some distant relation of my grandfather, so that's how my parents got to know them in the first place. Anyway, my whole life I'd known of this 'Leah in Wales', and now that we're living in the UK I got to meet her!

We left from Paddington Station in the morning, and after 4½ hours on train we arrived in Fishguard. Fishguard in Welsh is Abergwaun (pronounced Abergwine). It was raining, but it soon cleared up, and we walked into town to see the Fishguard Tapestry, which depicts the Last Invasion of Britain in 1797 and was made for the bicentenary of the event. Leah seems to know almost everything about Fishguard's history, and indeed Pembrokeshire, so we learnt a lot about the area while we were staying there.

The next day was lovely and sunny and Leah and Rodney took us for a drive to St David's, the smallest city in the UK. The main attraction there was St David's Cathedral, and the Bishop's Palace, which date from the 12th and 14th centuries respectively. The cathedral was amazing, with high wooden ceilings, and sloping floors due to the foundations sinking into the soft ground. The stone walls had cables running between them to stop them from falling outwards. The Bishop's Palace was a ruin but still had enough walls standing to show how impressive it must have been.

After leaving St David's we went to have a look at the St Justinian lifeguard station which is accessed by a steep stairway, and looks out onto Ramsey Island. There were great views and some impressive rocks there.

We then went to Pembroke to see the castle there, which dates from the 11th century. It was great fun climbing up and down the spiral staircases and exploring all the narrow hallways. It was just like being in a giant multi-storey maze! The castle is famous for being the birthplace of the Tudors, since Henry VII was born there.

On Sunday Stuart and I walked 5 miles along the Coastal Pathway which had great views along the coast back to Fishguard. It was slightly muddy in parts, and unfortunately I slipped over and had a close encounter with some stinging nettle. However, I survived and bravely continued back to Fishguard for a delicious Sunday roast dinner.

That afternoon we went for a drive to Pentre Ifan, a neolithic dolmen. It was pretty impressive seeing the massive stone balancing on the pointy ends of three other ones. There were also some pretty good views of the country-side from there. We continued our drive back through the Gwaun Valley to Fishguard.

The next day it was raining, so we just went for a short walk into the town before heading back for lunch and to the train station. And so ended our first holiday in the UK. We really liked Wales and hope to return soon.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Meerkats, meerkats everywhere...

One of the great things about London is that there are meerkats everywhere. For example, one day I was walking along the street and I looked up at a lamppost and saw a group of meerkats looking at me! They were actually part of a neighbourhood watch sign, but it was still awesome.

Also, there is this great marketing campaign for a car insurance website which uses talking meerkats. They have ads on the TV and radio, and billboards with meerkats on them, and very very catchy jingle.

I haven't worked out why Londoners love meerkats so much, but this fascination seems to have been around for a few years at least. There was a popular UK documentary called Meerkat Manor made a few years ago, which has since aired around the world.

Maybe it's just because they're so damned cute.

Photo thanks to le Korrigan on flickr.

British TV

This is an example of the most excellent TV we get over here. Enjoy.

Monday, April 27, 2009

London Photos Going Up

We got organised enough to upload some of our London Photos to Flickr. There will be more coming later, but for now you can enjoy some pictures of London in the springtime.


On Malls

Today I took a trip to the Westfield mall in Shepherd's Bush. I needed to visit Kathmandu, and I thought it would be appropriate to visit a New Zealand store where many New Zealanders live.

I took the bus there, and having never been to the area before I thought I'd just wait until I saw it before I got off. I was expecting to get off at the White City tube station, but instead I got off much earlier than that when the mall stop was announced. I was puzzled, until I saw why.

The Westfield here is enormous. Not just "wow, that's pretty big", but enormous. It is 150,000m² in size, which doesn't sound that big until you read that Sylvia Park, New Zealand's second-largest mall, is a paltry 65,000m². The Riccarton Mall in Christchurch is 47,000m², and Dunedin's Meridian Mall is 16,000m² (which Wikipedia still thinks is the South Island's largest mall).

And what awaits you in Europe's "largest urban area indoor shopping centre"? Just like all malls, fashion stores. There is an Apple Store and a few bookshops, but little else. I did a circumnavigation of some of the floors (I got bored after 20 minutes), briefly looked in hmv, and then left to get my bus.

Oh, and I did find Kathmandu. They were conveniently located right next to my entrance, and even more conveniently were having a sale.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Chinatown and the MOMA

Monday was our last full day in San Francisco, and we decided to do the Chinatown walking tour, as we'd been through the area on a bus and thought it looked interesting. The tour started from Portsmouth Square, and our first major stop was the old phone exchange building. As lots of people didn't have phones when it was first set up, they used to send runners out to tell people that they had a phone call.

We went on down the main shopping street, and saw various live seafood waiting to be bought. One of the people on the tour ventured into a shop and saw chickens waiting in cages. We also saw a truck pull up and unload all its fish for a shop.

We learned about Donaldina Cameron a missionary who, aside from having an awesome name, rescued girls who had been sold into slavery. We also visited a fortune cookie factory and got to sample some unfolded cookies.

After lunch we visited the Museum of Modern Art which contained art by people like Matisse, Mondrian, Warhol, Rothco, Lichtenstein, and Picasso. We saw the famous Fountain sculpture by DuChamp, which is a urinal on a pedestal, as well as a rather creepy sculpture of lots of poodles surrounding a baby.

There were a few special exhibitions. One was a video with people wearing masks of characters from The Cosby Show and Rosanne, dancing around crazily; another was by this conspiracy theory guy and had photos of American military operation badges, and explained they really meant.

After our cultural experience we tried to find the CNET building so Leah could see her idols, but it wasn't meant to be; we just couldn't find the building. So we consoled ourselves by going back to the Musee Mecanique and squashing a penny.

We headed back to our hotel, but decided that we should visit Bloomingdales before we left the city, so we went to the gigantic mall near our hotel. Not only did we visit the multi-storey Nordstrom store inside the mall, but we got to ride on curved escalators! Leah also had an interesting encouter with a salesman who was intent on selling her some Gojuju berry beauty products, and cleaned her wrists and hands (and didn't believe her when she said she showered that morning). After that experience, we felt our San Francisco visit was complete, so went back to the hotel to pack and psych ourselves up for the move to London.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Crazy English Trivia #1

Stuart was doing an online English Road Test yesterday, just to see how well he would do, and it was interesting how many things we just had no idea about, like some of the road signs, or converting miles to km for stopping times etc. One of the things that had us baffled was the mention of a Puffin Crossing, which I just figured was another name for a normal old Pedestrian Crossing. But I was intrigued, so I looked it up and discovered that it's not a normal old Pedestrian Crossing at all: it's a Pedestrian User-Friendly Intelligent Crossing! Apparently it's a fancy crossing with sensors that detect when there's someone waiting to cross, or if someone's crossing the road.

But not only that -- they have lots of other funny names for crossing. There's the Pelican (Pelicon?) Crossing (Pedestrian Light Controlled) which is your normal light-controlled crossing, the Toucan Crossing which is so-called because it's for both pedestrians and cyclists (i.e. two can cross the road, haha), and a Pegasus Crossing which is for horses as well, and has a button up high for the rider to press. We actually saw some of these in town around Hyde Park and St James's Park, but had no idea they had such a fancy name. And of course there is the humble old Zebra Crossing too, familiar to us all, but which now has a step-brother: the Tiger Crossing, which has yellow lines instead of white, and is for cyclists too.

Anyway, I found it fascinating and a bit ridiculous that they had all these weird names for crossings. Isn't just 'Pedestrian Crossing' enough?

If you're interested in how all these crossings work, you can read about them at Learner Driving.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Cable Car Day

On Sunday it was pouring with rain again, like when we arrived, so we decided to try and do indoorsy things. We took the cable car up the hill to the Cable Car Museum to learn about how cable cars work and their history. The Cable Car Museum is quite cool because it's where the cable cars are actually run from, so it's really noisy and you can see the big wheels turning the cables that make the cars go up and down the hills. It's also where the cable cars go to sleep at night.

The Cable Cars' heyday was from the 1870s to the 1890s, but after the 1906 earthquake and fire they were decimated. In fact, in the 1940s the council decided to get rid of cable cars to save money. But a very determined lady started a campaign to save them, and in the end three of the lines were saved and are still used today (although mainly by tourists).

The Cable Car Museum has one corner on an intersection where the three lines cross each other, and you can go down and look under the road to see the cables running past each other into the museum. It's quite impressive thinking that those cables and the cable car drivers are what keeps you from ending up on a runaway tram speeding down a hill.

After that we decided it was time to get some dessert, so we headed to Ghirardelli Square to get a sundae. We got the Cable Car sundae (there was a theme to this day), and afterwards Stuart felt sick, although Leah was fine. In the cafe you could see the machines they used to make their chocolate, and even though we were pretty sure it was fake chocolate getting mixed up it still looked good.

We then headed to the Boudin Bakery but unfortunately the tours weren't going. However, the bakery shop was pretty impressive, with a bread basket carousel going around the ceiling. They also seem to have some artistic bakers, as there were lots of different shaped loaves, like turtles, alligators, and crabs.

The Aquarium of the Bay was our next stop, but we were a bit disappointed with it, especially after seeing the one at the Academy of Sciences. It wasn't even as good as Kelly Tarlton's, although it had copied their shark tunnel. We did get to touch some baby leopard sharks, as well as starfish and skates though.

After that we went to the Musee Mecanique which was a shed full of coin-operated games and machines. There were a few musical ones, like mechanical one-man-bands, as well as peep shows, fortune tellers, strength tests, and dioramas. We tried out a mechanical horse skeleton that showed how a horse runs, and Stuart tried a peep show, and said you couldn't see anything. Apparently it was a picture of a woman in a lake. There were also a few ones that seemed a bit weird and morbid, like one of an opium den, and a few of condemned men being hanged... We didn't try those ones.

That night Stuart decided to try out real American Burger King, so he had a Whopper burger with a medium-sized coke, which turned out to be massive and took him a while to finish. I don't think the photo does it justice.

After dinner we decided we needed to do some washing, so we headed down a main street to look for a laundromat. We eventually found one, and when we went in we must have looked like noobs because a very friendly man started to help us. He chose the machine for us, gave us free washing powder, and even went and got some softener so our clothes would smell nice! He was most helpful. He had been to Auckland once before the Sky Tower was built, and said that kiwis were very friendly people.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Walking Tours

San Francisco has lots of old houses. The city itself is relatively new -- it's about the same age as New Zealand -- and so it has plenty of Victorian houses (at least in the parts that weren't destroyed by the fire).

On Friday, we went to Pacific Heights to do a tour with the San Francisco City Guides. This group offers free walking tours of various parts of the city, and you can donate at the end of the tour if you think it was worth it. Our guide was Steve, an exuberant real estate agent who enjoyed loudly telling everybody that New Zealanders were the nicest people in the world. Of course, after that we had to live up to our reputation, and we had to behave ourselves for the rest of the tour.

Steve was quite knowledgeable about the different types of Victorian houses. In San Francisco, there are three main types: Italianettes, built mainly in the 1870s, Sticks in the 1880s, and Queen Annes in the 1890s. He explained how you could tell them apart, and as soon as we can upload photos we'll post a good picture of a canonical set of Italianettes so you can too. Most Italianettes in the area we were looking at were worth around US$2 million. The garages that most of them had added as a basement cost around US$400,000, which seemed like a lot until we found out how much the houses were worth.

After we'd been shocked by the price we moved on to see various other houses of interest in the area, including the ex-British embassy. While we were hearing about its history, the current owner came out the front door and invited us in for a tour of the house. It was amazing seeing how some people live! He had bought this huge house just to house his art collection, which was very impressive. There was a 'Souper Dress', Renaissance paintings dating from the 1500s, a bed bought from Heast Castle, and beautiful furnishings everywhere. The Royal room contained an Arts and Crafts bed, and was where Prince Philip stayed once. During his stay he had to use a secret escape path because of IRA raids.

Each room in the house had been decorated by a different designer as part of the 2004 Decorator Showcase (held in May each year). The sad thing was that the owner didn't even live in the house! He and his wife and daughter lived in an apartment, and used the house for entertaining, charity events, and to host musicians who were in town for a show.

Our next stop was a famous house in Steiner St, which was used in the movie Mrs Doubtfire. Stuart was very excited to see this house :)

After this we raced off from the tour to catch a bus to Land's End for our second walking tour of the day at Sutro Heights. This is an area of land on the coast that was owned by Adolf Sutro in the late 1800s, which he planted with tropical plants and decorated with statuary and opened to the public. He built his house there, but still kept the grounds open for the public, and even built a railway out to the area so that people could visit for the day.

The gardens were a great attraction to the people of San Francisco. The statues that Sutro imported from Europe often cost more to ship than they were actually worth, and were all replicas of famous statues. No picnics were allowed in the gardens, as Sutro wanted to keep them neat. At the edge of the gardens, overlooking the ocean, Sutro built a sun deck. The remains of the stone steps down the cliff to it are still visible.

Sutro had a great collection of books, and he had always hoped to start a library. For whatever reason, this never came about, and unfortunately he wasn't very clear about this in his will. So, his collection of books (which included plenty of rarities and first editions) was put into storage after his death. Unfortunately, they were kept in two places, and one of the places wasn't fireproofed. 60% of his books burned in the 1906 fire.

Sutro was still a businessman as well as a philanthropist, and he eventually sold off the railway to his gardens. The first thing the new owners did was double the price to 10¢, which incensed Sutro. He promptly built another railway, resumed charging 5¢ for it, and charged anybody who used the old railway 25¢ to get in to the gardens (which were free for everybody else).

He also built a massive bath complex down next to the sea, which had the largest indoor swimming pool of its time. The complex had 20,000 swimming costumes (people had to hire them to swim there) which gives some indication of the numbers of people who went. The baths had a tunnel system that used the sea to fill and drain the pools, ensuring that they were clean. It is still not completely understood how this system worked.

Further around the coast was a memorial made from the bridge of the USS San Francisco which had holes from battle. You could also see a dangerous rocky part of the coast where there had been a few shipwrecks, and the tour guide told us that a couple of the rocks were actually parts of ships that had been wrecked there.

From there it was just a short bus ride back to Fisherman's Wharf where we got some fried chicken from Safeway. By this time the weather had packed up again, so we had a damp ride back to our hotel room and called it a night.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Exploratorium and the Golden Gate Bridge

On Thursday the day dawned sunny as you liked, with a cool breeze. After a delicious breakfast at our hotel we headed off for a day of science at the Exploratorium.

The Exploratorium is just fabulous. It's a museum full of hands-on exhibits -- admittedly, for kids -- which are designed to teach you about various scientific principles. The building itself is the old Palace of Fine Arts, which was originally used for a world fair in 1915. It looks stunning, especially on the beautiful day that we saw it.

Inside, the first half is dedicated to physics experiments. We had fun playing with iron filings and magnets, and trying to get a small marble ball to jump through a series of hoops when we dropped it from a height. One of our particular highlights was a camera that was sensitive to heat instead of light. This let you see how warm you were, and what it looked like when you held something cold for a bit and then held up your hand (you got an awesome tattoo, depending on what you touched). It also proved that Leah's hands were much colder than mine.

Another highlight was the particle accelerator. This is basically a large clear globe with a small marble inside. You move the globe around in circles, and the marble spins around faster and faster and makes a terrific racket.

The back half of the museum was full of psychology things. I did an emotion test on Leah, and got her to tell lies and do embarassing things while monitoring her reactions (she doesn't like singing in front of strangers, but she likes to imagine herself on the beach). There was also a 'de-balancer' -- you stand on one leg in front of a big chequerboard panel which the other person then moves to-and-fro. It's very hard to stay balanced when they do this -- apparently this shows how you use your surroundings to keep yourself balanced.

Just before we left I got to have a go at the bubble table. You get to make enormous bubbles with giant frames, and if you're really good they float away (I wasn't good enough). There was another floor of experiments left, but we'd been there for 5 hours and it was time to go to our next attraction.

Eventually, we managed to get ourselves to the Golden Gate Bridge (the bus stop looked close on our map, but unfortunately it was missing some streets). After seeing so many photos of it, it felt a little unreal to be actually standing in front of it. We snapped a few pictures, and then braved the crowds to walk across it.

The bridge is 2km long over its main arches, but it felt a lot longer as we walked over. We did get some lovely views of both the city and the islands in the bay, but the bridge itself was unsurprising. It's constantly being repainted to stop it corroding, and we saw some of the equipment they use to paint the cables (it looks like a little box that winches its way up). We decided we didn't really want to have that job.

Wikipedia says the bridge is the most popular place to commit suicide, but thankfully we didn't see any of that. We did see plenty of signs and phones urging people to call for help, and apparently they're going to build a 'suicide net' around the bridge to deter people from actually jumping.

After we'd gone back over the bridge, we bussed back to Safeway to get some dinner, and then took a cable car back to our hotel. I rode on outside, which isn't as terrifying as it looks (the hills in San Francisco are fairly hair-raising). It is pretty good fun though, as long as you don't mind cold hands and ears.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Alcatraz

We know you're all just dying to see our photographs, but we haven't got any way to upload them to Flickr just yet. Don't worry, we're working on it, and eventually we'll update this post with some pretty ones.

On our first full day in San Francisco it had stopped raining, so we headed for Alcatraz. We caught a tram there, after eventually figuring out where it stopped. The trams in San Francisco are all quite old: they maintain really old ones that they have purchased from around the world. The one we rode on was from Milan, and it was dated 1928.

We arrived at Alcatraz Cruises rather early, and had little to do for about 40 minutes while we waited. Eventually we got to go on, and after a 20 minute ferry ride, we arrived at the island and headed up to the prison block to do the audio tour. It was very interesting, and pointed out the cell that Al Capone stayed in (he got done for tax evasion rather than anything gangster-related). We also heard about the various escape attempts, including one succesful one, where three guys used spoons to dig around the air vent and climbed up to the roof using their sheets as ropes. They're not sure if the guys actually made it to land or not, as no sign has ever been found of them.

One thing we both noticed was that the cell block was very cold. The windows seemed very draughty, and although we were visiting on a warmer day we could imagine how cold it must have been in the middle of winter. On the tour, they mentioned that the prisoners on one side of the block could sometimes hear the sounds of parties in San Francisco when the wind blew the right way, and that it always seemd to on New Year's Eve.

Alcatraz Island is actually a national park, because of all the birds that like to nest there. After the cell block, we did a short island tour with one of the National Park guides. We listened to Ranger Dave who told us how the island was basically just rock before people got there, and how soil was imported from another nearby island and piled around the guns to stop the shells from bouncing around everywhere (this was when it was a fortress, before it became a prison). People planted flowers and plants in the soil and now the island has lots of wildflowers etc. It's also become a haven for birds and is a bird sanctuary.


After getting back to the mainland we tried to go on a walking tour but were about 15 minutes late, so instead we caught the cable car to Lombard St, aka the Crooked St. It is awesome, especially when you're looking back at it from the opposite hill. We also went to Coit Tower, which has good views of the city. Coit Tower was built by the city when one of its former citizens bequeathed a sum of money to be used to beautify the city. It essentially looks like a giant fire hose. Over on Alcatraz we saw some paintings one of the prisoners had done of the San Francisco cityscape, and Coit Tower was the dominant feature. When we looked, it was hard to make out amongst all the other skyscrapers.

The tower's carpark apparently used to have great views, according to the tour guides we read, but we think that the trees have grown significantly since then because we couldn't really see anything over them. The tower itself has murals painted all around the inside, which date from the Great Depression. They depicted working people's lives during the depression, and apparently some were controversial at the time.

After that we walked down the hill and walked around Fisherman's Wharf for a bit. It was very quiet there because it was getting dark, but it's meant to be the touristy area of the city. It showed -- there were lots of touristy activities you could do, like all kinds of Believe it or Not style museums and restaurants. There were a few curbside seafood diners as well, and as we walked past plenty of people tried to hustle us inside. Instead, we caught a tram home, and that was the end of day one.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Still alive

Just a quick update to let you all know that we're still alive. We're now in London after having had a great holiday in San Francisco. We took lots of photos and notes of what we did, so when we have some time we'll upload and write and let you know what we got up to.

London is great so far; it's been cloudy the whole time but no rain or snow, and we haven't frozen to death.

Hope you're all doing well,
Leah and Stuart

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Frist!

Well, I'm sure you'll all be pleased to hear that we're finally leaving the country! It's been a while in the planning, but today is the day.

For the last couple of weeks Stuart and I have been holidaying in the South Island, going to weddings, and generally just not going to work which is a bit of a change. In fact I'm getting used to it... I guess we've got another two weeks or so of not working so that's good.

After we left Auckland, we attended a friend's wedding in Dunedin, and Stuart was a groomsman. It was a lovely sunny day, and a lovely wedding between two lovely people. You can see some photos on our Flickr album.

The next afternoon we headed off on our Milford Sound-Central Otago holiday with Stuart's mum, Christine. I'd never been to Milford Sound and I wanted to see it before I left NZ, so we managed to squeeze it in before going to Christchurch. We stayed in Te Anau for two nights and drove to Milford Sound on the Saturday. It was a bit cloudy but with the sun coming through sometimes, and it was beautiful seeing the mountains with mist all over them. We went on a boat ride out to the sea and back which was great, and saw lots of waterfalls and steep mountainsides covered with trees and plants. Have a look at the photos on Flickr.

On Sunday we drove to Cromwell which took most of the day. On the way we saw an old steam train (the Kingston Flyer) and lots of nice scenery. The bushfires in Victoria had made the sky go a funny colour, and also made the sun and moon look orange.

We stayed in Cromwell for two nights and visited Alexandra and Clyde while we were there. On Wednesday we drove to Queenstown and Stuart and I picked up a rental car. We farewelled Christine, who was driving back to Dunedin, and met up with Walter at Vudu and had a delicious hot chocolate while catching up on all the Orion gossip.

Then Stuart and I headed up to Christchurch. We had to do a bit of backtracking, going through Cromwell again before stopping for lunch in Omarama. I had a Jimmy's pie, which was quite nice (I'd never had one before). Then we pressed on, going through Twizel before stopping for a break in Lake Tekapo.

Lake Tekapo was very pretty. We had an icecream and admired the view, then went round to see the stone church. It must be nice to have that kind of view during a church service.

The weather deteriorated soon after Lake Pukaki, and through Burke's Pass it was very dreary. We didn't stop in Fairlie or Geraldine because of the inclement weather. We kept going to Ashburton, where we got to see my grandparents and have fish and chips.

From then on it was just the usual drive back to Christchurch, and we got home safe and sound at around 9.30pm. Since then we've had a nice time in Christchurch catching up with friends and family, and trying to stuff everything into our suitcases. And now it's almost time for us to go to the airport! When you next hear from us it will be from a different hemisphere...