World’s Best Botanic Garden at Kew

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I wanted to save money on my last hotel night in London before I caught my flight home from Heathrow, and still be able to do something interesting. I love, love, love the Royal Botanic Garden. If it is not the best in the world, it is in the top three. It also is conveniently located to hotels and a subway station. So my plan was to take the train from Essex to London and the Tube to Kew Gardens, check in and spend the rest of the day in the gardens.

IMG_1807Whoopsie, no one told the London Underground and they decided to do maintenance and close the station at Kew Gardens on Sunday.

I could recount the perils I faced finding my way to Kew, instead I am going to recount the many kindnesses I received:

  • UK Sarah driving me to the train station and staying until the train arrived.
  • Woman offering me the tip about taking the train to Kew Bridge station and then catching a cab.
  • Security man allowing me through with my goofy train/underground ticket.
  • Young man who carried my 50 pound bag up the stairs at the Kew Bridge station.
  • Pub man in Kew calling a taxi for me.
  • Hotel reception that included carrying my bag up the stairs and setting up my fan on a 90+ degree day.

Was it worth all the trouble? Definitely yes. Just look at this beauty!

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The Royal Botanic Garden at Kew is constantly changing. It has been a few years since I last visited and it now has a Treetop Walk. I really enjoyed the experience of walking through the tops of trees with a bird or squirrel view. Please don’t make people who are afraid of heights go up. I saw people really suffering. It is not for everyone.

Another new feature is The Hive, a fascinating interactive experience to celebrate the role of honeybees in nature. I love bees and this was a joyful time for me.

It was a very hot day and I was already worn out from traveling all day. I found the gardens motivating me, still, some old men (one with a cane) were walking down the path faster than me. I stopped for an ice cream cone and it melted faster than I could keep licking and I used napkins to mop up my continuing mess. I tucked them in my bag because there wasn’t a trash can nearby. Later when I wiped sweat from my face, I must have spread chocolate all over my face! When I was on the treetops walk, a kind woman leaned over and whispered, “You have chocolate on your face.” I was chagrined but had to laugh. How long was I walking around with chocolate all over?

The Kew Gardens Hotel is a lovely, relaxed pub hotel. There is no A/C, but the fan did it’s work. The food was just okay but the environment was convivial and the staff super helpful. The journey to Heathrow Airport in the morning was a cinch. I hope I can return in a few years.

Walking Where Jane Austen Once Walked

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The poet Shelley stayed here when he was sent down from Oxford.

I set aside one of my days in London to follow the path of Walk 5: Soho to the British Museum from Walking Jane Austen’s London by Louise Allen. I started from Paddington Station, but the Bakerloo line was closed for maintenance so I walked to the next station and got off at Oxford Circus.

Oxford Circus is a busy shopping area with a Top Shop, Marks and Spencer’s, and street performers, people raising money for charity, and tourists. It is hard to imagine Jane Austen might have once walked here. I walked towards Poland Street and glanced down Argyll Street before crossing. I spied the Liberty Stores and took a detour (see earlier post).

IMG_0166I rejoined the walking tour and entered Soho. The book gives a variety of historical facts not all of which are directly related to Austen but from the same time period. Occasionally, there are tidbits like, “The house of Doctor James Stanier Clarke, the Royal Librarian who showed Jane around Carlton House, was on the north side of No. 37. In December 1815 he wrote to her to offer the use of his personal library and to assure her that there was always a maid in attendance. There is no record of Jane’s response to the shocking invitation to visit an unmarried man’s home.” (p61)

I got to the brink of Chinatown and I was beginning to flag. I realized I was also a few blocks from the famous Foyles bookstore. I left off the walking tour and went in search of books, a loo and some hot tea. Little known fact, the creator of the mystery series Foyle’s War named the lead character Christopher Foyle for his favorite bookstore. There a number of outlets but 107 Charing Cross Road is the flagship. I started on the 5th floor at the cafe and then leisurely worked my way through every floor.

I rejoined the tour and walked to Bedford Square where I discovered not every blue historic marker is so special. On to the British Museum. The British Museum’s collection is first rate. The empire gave them the opportunity to haul a lot of cool loot back to London. I was disappointed that a few things have changed since I my last visit. I do not remember so much junk for sale in the center reception area, plus cafes. The museum is free of charge (although a 5 pound donation is suggested). I was not interested in a sandwich wrapped in plastic so I moved on to find a place for dinner.

The most direct way to get back on the Tube at Tottenham Court Road was also closed so it took a little longer to get back. By this time my ankles and feet were not responding to the signals from my brain so I went back to my room at the Hilton and put my feet up. I had yarn and stationary to sort through from the Liberty stores.

IMG_0192There are 8 walks in all to appreciate Jane Austen and the rich history of London. It also helps to pay attention to the layers of detail all around.

 

 

Swatch: Liberty of London

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Originally built in 1885 and opening to Regent Street, the store front was redeveloped using retired British naval ship timbers in the 1920s.

I have long drooled over the Liberty of London fabrics and clothing. It is harder to find the fabrics in the USA. J Crew carries some of the clothing. I have been to the fabric corner of Harrods numerous times to stroke and oogle the Liberty fabrics, the whole time not realizing that they have an entire department store near Oxford Circus!

I had just started the #5 Jane Austen walking tour (more on this in future blog), when I looked down Argyll Street and spied Liberty stores at the end of the street. I had to detour.

Starting with the stunning florist at the entrance, the entire place is a palace of beauty. My heart beat faster as I tried to take it all in. I quickly recalculated the day I planned. I was not going to rush through this store. I wanted to soak in every display, every lovely English item.

Liberty does not just carry their own brand. You can find Stella McCartney baby outfits in the children’s section and designer clothes throughout. I started in the stationary shop and looking at bags and scarves. Some of the prices were quite reasonable and some made me hyperventilate. I bought some notecards and decided I may as well sign up for the loyalty points program because I was headed to the third level where the fabric and yarn is displayed.

I thought I might be going to a yarn shop in Islington at the end of the day, so luckily I had tucked in a couple of patterns that I plan to knit for my expected grandson. I shed all my bags and jackets and prepared for a good long browse.

Trudy asked if I needed assistance. We had a wonderful time trying to sort it all out with different weights and US and UK measurements. She is a very experienced knitter and we shared back and forth. The wifi in the store is excellent so I was able to show her Little Cotton Rabbits (I could hardly believe she had not seen this UK treasure!). She showed me her knitting project. In the end I spent more than I expected and I could not be more pleased.

I looked through many more departments and I stopped in the cafe for tea and an English cheese tray. The lovely customer service department refunded my VAT. Yet, the highlight for me was shopping with the assistance of Trudy Healy-Potter. She is a textile designer and offers classes at Liberty.

She showed me how she spliced three patterns from the Rowan loves… pattern book to create the colorful sweater she has almost finished. Not only am I excited about the projects I will be knitting this summer in anticipation of Grandson #1, I am reenergized about the craft overall. Liberty is so clever to have Trudy on their team.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sharing Travel Resources

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Over New Zealand; photo by Sarah Clare

My son Tevis is spending 4.5 months in Southeast Asia on a backpacker’s holiday. He made all of his own travel arrangements. I was having difficulty finding flights from London to Florence and Venice to London. I sent Tev a WhatsApp message asking for advice.

When Tev worked at Google he used a travel hack that was first available to Google employees then to public. Go to Google.com/flights and then search for flights. It is an amazing summary of available flights without all the palaver you find on Travelocity and similar sites. I was able to fix my flights in no time.

I also rediscovered a copy of Smithsonian Journeys, a travel quarterly magazine, that I had saved. It appears to be a new venture. You can buy each issue for $13.99 but cannot subscribe yet. My copy is Fall 2015 and the theme is “The Inca Road.” All of the articles are about the history of the Inca empire and all sorts of interesting articles from Ecuador, Peru and Argentina. It is an interesting approach that plays to the Smithsonian’s strengths. Priced like a paperback, it is worth saving.  They also have tours and other services.

I just discovered a local Jane Austen Reading Group at my local library. As I was leaving I mentioned that I would miss the next month as I will be in Italy and then spending a few days in London. One of the members recommended Walking Jane Austen’s London. Sometimes the best resources are found by word of mouth from other traveller’s.

 

 

Touring Buckingham Palace State Rooms

 

 

Outside Buckingham Palace

About a month before my departure for the Tour de France I read a tweet from VisitBritain about the state rooms at Buckingham Palace opening for visitors from July 26 to September 28. On previous visits to London I toured the fascinating Mews (stables) at Buckingham Palace so I clicked through and bought tickets.

Did not give it much more thought until I was in France and looking at my itinerary for the end of my trip: ticket on Chunnel to London, check; hotel reservation at The Ampersand, check; tickets to War Horse at Theater and Buckingham Palace state rooms, check and check. Leaving myself a little time left over to go book shopping.  My flight from Heathrow was not scheduled on Air New Zealand until 4:00 p.m., so I had time to take the tube to the airport. I was all set to make the most of my 24 hours in London.

London is an easy city to navigate with the underground, taxis and footpaths through parks. My hotel’s location was perfect: a half block from the South Kensington station on the Piccadilly (red) Line. The Ampersand did not exaggerate its charms in the Booking.com email advertising its special rate. It is beautifully decorated and the service was superb.

Buckingham Palace

I already blogged about the thrill of seeing The War Horse on stage. So let us fast forward to the next morning and Buckingham Palace. A quick trip on the Tube and soon I was walking past the Queen Victoria Memorial and looking at the gorgeous Buckingham Palace gates.

I was just here on Tour de France Stage 3 and so I reveled for a moment in happy memories. When bike guide Daniel asked me the highlight of my trip while we were in the Pyrenees, I said riding the race course into the heart of London, turning the corner at Big Ben and seeing Buckingham Palace and then the finish line. I felt like a rock star. I reserved the possibility that Paris might top it, but it did not. So it was great to be back to the best spot of my Tour adventure so soon.

The Royal CafeIt took a few minutes to find the visitors entrance on Buckingham Gate Road, and then a couple of minutes to change my computer print out for actual tickets. I arrived just in time to the correct waiting area to be able to get through security and enter the state rooms a few minutes past my appointed time. 

Wow, the Queen must feel like she is slumming it when she visits the White House.  During the week, she lives above the store, so to speak, and what a store! Beautiful works of art, mostly portraits of family, fill the rooms where official drawing rooms and ballroom. In addition, there was a very interesting collection called “Royal Childhood.”

Buckingham PalaceI decided to forgo the free headphones and enjoy the rooms and the overall ambiance. After the walking through all of the rooms, I enjoyed a snack at the café and a browse at the gift shop.

The exit takes visitors through the garden. I wondered if the Queen or any of the royal family gets to enjoy the garden on their own or only on official occasions. Not that I feel sorry for them. This is one of their many stately homes and most of the others offer much more privacy. Still, what must it be like to grow up seeing art masterpieces hanging on the drawing room walls?

Garden at Buckingham PalaceAfter a quick trip back to the hotel, I hopped on the Tube to head to Heathrow Airport with about 10 pounds of new books. Air New Zealand docks in the hinterlands so I got plenty of exercise before the 10.5 hour plane ride home.

South Kensington Tube station

Spending time in Yorkshire and London reminded me why I have returned again and again to England and Ireland. Looking forward to the next opportunity. 

 

 

Absolutely Fabulous Stage 3 in London

When I met my Trek Travel team in the hotel lobby I was so excited that I was shaking. We were about to ride from the Olympic Village to the finish line on the Tour de France route. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to ride through London without traffic.

We set off from the Olympic Park in Stratford and only made it a short distance before we had to pause because the streets were not closed on time. It is the largest annual sporting event in the world and it is a logistical marvel, but nothing is perfect. I learned a “traffic leak” is when traffic is stopped and a car gets through.    

Trek Travel arranged it so we could ride the last 25 kilometers of the race. Guide Gabe followed us in the van with rock classics blaring. We were a moving party and the spectators and volunteers cheered us on. We stopped several times for photos and marveled again and again at “pinch me” moments. We rode through the Limelight Tunnel, past Tower of London, along the Thames, then under the shadow of parliament and Big Ben with no traffic. 

When we turned the corner and saw the Queen Victoria War Memorial my heart skipped a beat. It is so beautiful and iconic and here we were on our bicycles. In addition, the crowds began cheering and beating the boards on the barriers. It was beyond thrilling. We all had silly grins on our faces and felt like rock stars. 

When we arrived at the finish line we stopped for a brief photo op on the podium. Then it was a quick commute back to the hotel, lunch, and then off to the finish line with our VIP credentials. My orange bracelet gave me access to a viewing bus. I hopped up to the top (3 stories) and could see the finish line about 100 yards away. I scored two more autographs: Alexander Vinokourov (rode with Lance and with Astana) and the announcer Paul Sherwen. 

Marcel Kittel won the sprint to the finish. It was fun to watch from my birds nest perch. Will not likely have that opportunity again. My favorite moment was a few minutes after the Peloton crossed the finish. A racer from Tinkoff-Saxo came straggling in and stopped on the side of the route and handed his water bottle to a 4 year old little boy. The boys face lit up and beamed as he cradled the water bottle in amazement. It was the sweetest moment.

I finagled my way to the side of the podium to see the Stage 3 jersey presentations. I spent quite a bit of time wandering around “behind the curtain” photographing the electricians, journalists and others who make the Tour go. (Look for blog on rest day.) Then I returned to the hotel to shower and change for dinner. 

Our team went to Rowley’s in St James for dinner. We had a splendid meal and some good laughs. The night continued at the Hard Rock Cafe and the hotel bar. It was a late night especially as I have not been training for partying any more than I have for climbing hills! Good times. 

If you have ever considered taking a Trek Tour bike adventure and were a little taken aback at the price, it is worth every cent because of the fabulous guides who make so much magic happen for our team. Thank you Gabe, Ilona and Sam. I will miss you in France.

 

Amazing Start at Le Tour Stage 2

Life is great. Such a fabulous day. I have been WhatsApp’ing my friend Ray and I realize that I want to bring you all over with me so we can have even more fun. Sorry this blog is a poor substitute. Today I enjoyed the full benefits of Trek Travel access.  We got the yellow wrist band that gave us access everywhere at the start including the VIP staging area and around the team buses. 

We got there before 8 a.m. because they were going to close roads soon afterward so we had a few minutes waiting for things to get rolling. I saw “the Badger” Bernard Hinault, five time winner of le Tour, walking towards me. I whipped out my flag and pen and boldly asked him to sign. He was very gracious. Score!

The VIP area is interesting. They give away some free stuff and there are opportunities to take goofy fun photos. Some of the team members come in to their sponsors area after signing in and most go back to the buses. 

The buses are where the action is and I was able to see Fabian Cancellara work with his mechanic on his bike. Then Jens came out in the polka-dot jersey for King of the Mountain and he was mobbed by fans and reporters. He handled it all with aplomb signing his autograph and posing in many photos. He made sure to stop and pose for pictures with Tanya (President of Trek Travel) and JB (President of Trek).  

We began walking back to the beautiful horse racetrack where the start was staged in York. There was the injured Mark Cavendish rolling out of the parking lot with his wife driving the Mercedes SUV. He rolled down the window to greet someone and everyone began shouting encouragement and you could see he was feeling very emotional about leaving the tour. 

We all met back at our bus and rode a short distance to the Cedar Court Hotel for another gourmet three course meal. I just had a starter. What I really wanted was a cheese toastie and cup of tomato soup. Then we walked a short distance to the train station and caught the express train to London. 

We are staying at the Athenaeum Hotel in Mayfair. This is the biggest hotel room I have ever had in London. Tempting to just stay in but a caesar salad sounded good. This was our one night when dinner was on our own. I went in search of Chop’d for salad and it was closed. On my way back to get room service I bumped into Jim from the team and we agreed to relive our college days and go to the Hard Rock Cafe.

An hour later Jim, Steve and I were standing in line with all the 20 year olds to put our name in for a table. Two and a half hour wait so we went to the bar where we had a lot of fun remembering our favorite songs from the 70s, 80s and present day (yes I skipped the 90s on purpose). Steve’s mom was a big band singer so he had met a lot of famous musicians. We stayed out late for a night before our last ride. Totally worth it.

Tomorrow we are back on our bikes. I am excited. We get to ride the last part of the course and have VIP access again.