Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Taking a vacation from our vacation!

We're heading to Paris in the morning on the Eurostar high-speed train. I'll be back on Sunday or Monday with pictures and stories. Bye!

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Royal Botanic Gardens

Today we finally made it to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, better known as Kew Gardens. The gardens are 300 acres of beautiful trees. There are some flower gardens, but the trees are the stars of the show here. Many are well over 200 years old, and the oldest tree, a sweet chestnut tree, is over 300 years old.

Here are the girls next to the trunk of an oak tree that was planted in 1846. Amazingly, the sign said that this tree was moved to its present location when it was 70 years old! I can hardly imagine what it would take to move a mature oak tree with today's equipment. I wonder how they did it in the 1920s!

Here's a shot looking up into the branches of the same tree. Wouldn't it make a great climbing tree?

Here's a really interesting tree. From a distance, it looks like it might be some kind of pine.

Let's get a little closer, though. It is a conifer, but the branches almost look like some kind of cactus and are very spiny and stiff. Here's what they look like. Its common name is monkey puzzle. Very cool.

There was also a treetop walkway. It's 18 meters up to the walkway, and it goes around a roughly triangular path. The floor under your feet is perforated metal, so that you can see the ground below. The entire walkway sways a bit with all of the people on it. It's a little bit freaky to walk on. I can now say with certainty that I will never ever be going on that glass walkway over the Grand Canyon!

And lest you think we didn't see any flowers at the gardens, here are some for you. There were lots of fuchsias in the greenhouses.

We also took a tour of Kew Palace, which is inside Kew Gardens. The palace was the home of King George III. The ground floor has been restored to look like it did in George's time. The other two floors, though, have been largely untouched for 200 years. There were a couple of places where the walls were open so that you could see all of the layers of building materials used, such as plaster made from lime and horse hair.

Here is a photo of a beautiful garden, taken from the top floor of the palace.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

More royal sightseeing

The girls and I took an excursion to Kensington Palace today. Kensington was the home of Princess Diana. There were two special exhibitions at the palace; one of some of Diana's dresses, and another entitled "1958: The last debutantes". Both were very interesting and well-done. There was also a tour of the State Apartments. I wish I could show you photos, but again, cameras were not allowed. You're just going to have to visit and see it for yourself!

We purchased a family membership to Historic Royal Palaces when we were at the Tower of London over the weekend. It includes admission to five different palaces for a year, plus discounts at their gift shops and cafes. It turns out that if you're going to visit at least two of the five, you'll save money with the membership. So today's adventure didn't cost much at all. Two down, three to go!

Here's the outside of the palace. It's not actually all that large compared to some of the others. Of course, you could fit my house inside it several times over!

This is the Sunken Garden near the palace. Isn't it beautiful?

In the park near the palace, we found a carousel. The girls enjoyed a ride. Every carousel we've seen in England (at least five so far) has had names on all of the horses. This is new to me. Either they don't name the horses in the U.S. or I've been really blind to it all my life.

In the park is the Round Pond. Look at how many swans live here! We saw dozens of them. And they're extremely tame. Juliette got almost nose to nose with one. You can even pet them. Very interesting.

I think it's finally summer here! The school kids are out as of this week, and the high temperature is staying above 75 pretty much every day now. Yes, I'm aware of how lucky we are, since the temps at home have been topping 95 for weeks. I am happy to leave my jacket at home during the day now, though!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Tower of London, Belgian food, and more

It was another busy sightseeing day here in London. We're becoming very aware of the passing of our remaining time here. We've been able to see things in a fairly leisurely manner, and it's so tempting to start racing around because we have ONLY three-plus weeks left. Isn't that silly? We still have so much time left compared to most every other tourist, but there's still so much we haven't done!

I had to get a picture of the family in a classic red phone booth. In this cell phone age, I wonder how much longer these will even exist.

Darrell guided us to another of the pubs on his famous list. This one is called The Dove Tail Bar. Its specialty is Belgian food and Belgian beer. We love both, so it was an easy choice. It was over-the-top wonderful. They have over 100 different Belgian beers. And the food - oh my. We had their tomato basil soup and some french fries as a starter. The soup was amazing, one of the best we've had anywhere, and the fries are always great at Belgian restaurants, in our experience. We also had waterzooie, which is a Belgian seafood stew, plus a beef stew, a whole stuffed roasted chicken and lots of roasted vegetables. We all loved it and will try to return before we leave for home.

I just loved this church steeple. It must be made of copper, based on the gorgeous oxidized green color.

Next on the agenda was a visit to Her Majesty's Palace and Fortress, better known as the Tower of London. The tower's primary function was a fortress, a royal palace, and a prison. Today it is mainly a tourist attraction, housing the Crown Jewels and an extensive display of armor and weaponry. The jewels are breathtakingly beautiful, and of course, there is no photography allowed in that area.

Here is the White Tower.

This is the Norman chapel inside the White Tower.

This is a beautiful weather vane atop the White Tower.

The tower is right next to the Tower Bridge, which we visited a couple of weeks ago. While we were sitting and chatting about what to do next, along came a nice tall boat, requiring the drawbridge to be raised. We were all very excited to see the bridge in action.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

What would be the hardest thing to learn if you lived in England?

What's wrong with this picture?

Nothing if you're a Brit! But if you're American, yikes. It's been very easy getting around in England so far, because we've let others drive us around on trains and buses. Today we tried a different plan:

Yes, that's Darrell, sitting on the "wrong" side of the car. We tried driving in England for the first time. What an experience! Here's just one example of a road sign in England:

And that's a pretty simple one. There are much crazier arrows than these on many signs. Why did we decide to drive? Well, we wanted to go here:

This is the Farnborough Air Show. It's huge, and it's only about 20 miles away. So we wanted to go. Finding a way there proved frustrating. There are the trains - at least three transfers and a minimum of two hours each way. There were special buses running to the show - £60 for the four of us. So after much discussion, we thought it would be simpler to just rent a car instead. How naive could we be?

The cars are all manual transmission in the lower price ranges. No problem - we have a manual transmission car. But it's another thing entirely to drive a manual transmission with the shifter on your left, while driving on the wrong side of the road and the wrong side of the car! And then there was the map, or rather, lack of a map. We had directions that I had hand-written from the map site, but no actual map. Anyone who knows Geography Girl (that would be me) is laughing his or her butt off about now at the thought of me navigating anywhere without a map in hand. I love maps. And I especially love knowing that even if we go off track, I can get us back on track. So now we're driving with no map into a part of the countryside where I have no mental picture of where the towns are in relation to each other, and the directions from the map site were basically worthless right from the start. They were about 50 steps worth of "bear left for 0.1 mile, then take the 2nd exit at the roundabout for 0.1 mile, then take the 3rd exit at the roundabout for 0.2 miles, etc." Surprisingly, we actually made it to the outskirts of Farnborough in record time. And then we sat in traffic for about an hour.

Once we got into town, the setup was very nice. The parking was in a huge grass field, with tons of parking attendants. Very efficient. And then there were shuttle buses to the airfield. Many, many shuttle buses. I swear, this is something the U.S. needs to learn how to do. There were no less than a dozen double-decker buses waiting when we arrived. They filled them up and sent them on their way super fast. Same thing at the end of the show. Huge crowds waiting for the buses, but the wait was not long at all, as one bus after another pulled up and took them away.

We watched a lot of great flying stunts. Some of them weren't surprising at all. We've all seen aerobatics from small fighter type planes, for instance. But have you ever seen an Airbus 380 doing aerobatic stunts? The Airbus below did some crazy stuff. I swear, that pilot should fly in the movies! He did some moves that would have had all of the passengers plastered to the side windows of the plane - if he had passengers, of course. And the climb he made on takeoff was amazing!

I thought it was cool that I managed to capture the picture of this guy with his bomb bay doors open. It was tricky taking the pictures, since I have a fairly simple camera. Most of the time, I was aiming a little ahead of the plane and just clicking, hoping that the plane would end up in the frame. I got pretty lucky on this one.

All in all, a very fun day. But after driving back toward the general London area, again without a map, we decided that one day of driving in England was plenty for us, and we turned in the rental car (we had planned to keep it for another day and figure out somewhere to go tomorrow). Darrell was very patient with my no-map freaking out self, and to his credit, didn't even once threaten to make me walk home. He's a keeper for sure! I think we'll let someone else drive from now on.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Who needs a stairclimber?

Here we have St. Paul's Cathedral. See the two arrows? Those are the outdoor galleries (walkways) that the girls and I climbed to today! (Yes, Mom, you can cover your eyes now!)

We climbed up 528 steps, stopping at the Whispering Gallery (indoor, lower than both of the arrows), then continuing to the Stone Gallery and finally to the Golden Gallery. It was definitely a bit of a workout. The stairs to the Whispering Gallery are broad, shallow, wide spiral stairs. Piece of cake, even though there are 257 of them. Once you leave the Whispering Gallery, you are warned that it's steep, narrow, and one-way - no turning back. From the Whispering Gallery up to the Stone Gallery, the stairs - 119 of them - are spiral, but made of concrete. They're not very uniform, meaning that you have to watch your step, and the overhead clearance varies, meaning that you have to watch that you don't hit your head. At one point the passageway was narrow enough that my shoulders touched both sides. The views from the Stone Gallery are very good, but the railings are high and obstruct the view enough to make it difficult to take photos. The climb from the Stone Gallery to the Golden Gallery is on spiral iron stairs - 152 of them. The Golden Gallery is small - we had to wait at the top of the stairs for a few minutes for enough people to move on so that we could get out the door. The views are spectacular! And strangely, the railings are much lower here, a little lower than my shoulders, so it was easy to take pictures. The total climb to the Golden Gallery takes you 85 meters above the cathedral floor.

The climb back down is blessedly much less strenuous than the climb up. From the two upper galleries, there are separate stairs just like the "up" ones, so the traffic is again one-way. Once you descend to the Whispering Gallery, you rejoin the wide, easy spiral stairs for the rest of the way down. I told the girls that someday when they're 80, they'll visit again and that then they'll be really happy that they made the climb now!

We toured the interior of the cathedral as well, but photography was forbidden, so I'll just have to take my memories with me. Once again, the ceilings were my favorite part of the whole place. Completely amazing!

This next picture is of the main entrance of the cathedral. You can't see the steps in this shot, because I couldn't back up any farther to get it all in. Last summer, Katrina went to "Kids on Broadway" camp, and they learned and performed several songs from Mary Poppins. Katrina's favorite was "Feed the Birds", which begins, "Early each day, to the steps of St. Paul's, the little old bird woman comes..." I was treated to several beautiful rounds of the song while we sat on the steps of St. Paul's! I love moments when everything comes together like that.

Here's some great outdoor sculpture that was nearby, part of a temporary architecture exhibit.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Swan family update

We have really enjoyed watching our little swan family grow up this summer. I posted these pictures of them about a month ago. The babies are getting very big now.

This is one of the parents. It is amazing how flexible those long necks are! Look at how they sleep, with their necks laid down on their backs.

Here are the babies with one of the parents. The canal is right under our living room windows, and almost every day, someone on a floor above us tosses bread crumbs out the window for the ducks and swans. Lately they'll go for a swim with one parent while the other one naps. When they were smaller, they never went out without both parents. We've been able to watch the parents teach the babies how to look for food. They go down the canal a bit to where the water moves faster and stick their heads under water. I don't know what they catch that way, but it looks like they like whatever it is they find!

This is the ritual after a swim. All of the swans come up on the little island in front of our building for an hour or so of grooming. All of those little white and gray spots in the grass are feathers. The babies lose more and more of their gray baby feathers every day. Their chests are mostly white now.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The long and winding road

Here's where we ended up today - the prime meridian, where you can stand with one foot in the eastern hemisphere and one foot in the western hemisphere. This plaque is on the side of a building at the Royal Observatory in Greenwich.

The red ball on top of this building drops at exactly 1 p.m. every day. It's used by ships on the Thames to set their chronometers.

How we got to Greenwich is the real story for the day. A few days ago, I mentioned that some locals consider the London Underground to be overcrowded, inconvenient, and unreliable? Well, today it was all of those. There are frequently "planned engineering works" on the weekends causing various lines to be partially or completely shut down. This weekend was a very bad one for such shutdowns. We live in Uxbridge, which is on the northwest side of London. Greenwich is on the southeast side of London. Since Darrell had to go in to work for a bit this morning, we didn't get started until about 12:30. It normally would have been about an hour and a half to get there. Today, it took over three hours! There were partial outages on three different lines which affect our travel, and long delays on some of the others, meaning that for about a half dozen stops, we spent more time sitting in a stopped train in the tunnel between stations than we did moving.

Upon arriving in Greenwich (by "replacement bus" service, since there were no trains running to Greenwich at all from the direction of our approach), we set out to find the Greenwich Union, a pub that Darrell had on his "to try" list. The beer was great, we were no longer starving after a snack there, and could finally get on our way toward the observatory, which we knew closes at 5. We hiked up the hill - the observatory is of course on the highest hill in the area - and arrived at the entrance at 4:30. We didn't have much time, but there is no charge for admission, so we made the best of it. We followed the signs to the meridian, where hundreds of people were lined up to take photos of their friends in front of a sculpture straddling the line. I opted to photograph the sign on the wall instead, as we had views to take in of London from the top of the hill, and even more importantly, a gift shop to visit. The girls have enjoyed gift shops almost as much as anything else on our trip. Almost all of the shops have a small pin or badge for less than a pound that makes a good souvenir.

After leaving the gift shop, the girls opted to get back down the hill by rolling down the grassy slope, joining many other kids doing the same. Darrell and I chose to walk, wimps that we are.

After our whirlwind visit to the observatory, we walked back into town and had dinner at a Tex-Mex restaurant called Cafe Sol that we had seen on the way in. We didn't have high expectations. All I wanted was better food than we had at the Texas Embassy Cantina last week. Much to our surprise, the food was pretty good, definitely better than the cantina.

The ride home was much less eventful than the ride out. Other than the replacement bus service from Greenwich to the North Greenwich Tube station, everything else was running just fine. I think that we should try again for the observatory on a weekday!

Saturday, July 12, 2008

High up over the river

Today's adventure was a visit to the Tower Bridge. I'm sure you've seen it:

The Tower Bridge is London's only drawbridge. About 1000 times per year, the road deck is raised to allow large ships to pass through. The bridge is over 100 years old and was a major engineering feat in its day.

There is also a tour, called the Tower Bridge Experience. Did we go on it? Of course we did! See those walkways way up high between the two towers? That's where you get to go on the tour. The views are wonderful. The walkways are completely enclosed and don't feel at all scary. There are two walkways, one facing east and the other facing west over the Thames. The tour sends you along both walkways. There are numerous little (about 6x10 inches or so) open windows along the walkways for the purpose of taking pictures. That way you can get your photos without having to shoot through window glass.

This picture was taken from the sidewalk at road level before we went up in the tower for the start of the tour. What a gorgeous bridge!

Here are a couple of shots taken from the walkway. This one shows all of the boat traffic on the Thames.

This is one of the shots that shows why I think that London's official bird should be the construction crane! Everywhere you look, there are dozens of huge cranes working on what must be massive projects. That funky rounded building in the foreground is London's city hall.

This photo was taken from one of the walkways looking toward the other walkway.

As we were leaving, the clouds had gathered, looking kind of ominous. I love this shot of the bridge with the darkening sky.