Lancaster Castle is Cool – Or thoughts on Getting eyeball to eyeball with a Cow


Cows look a lot larger when you are standing in their field – and they are inches away. Good thing I had the Intrepid Traveler along – she’s just tall enough to hide behind! But I’m getting way way ahead of myself – so lets backtrack a bit!

We left Birmingham by train – which meant a trip to their absolutely outstanding new train station. It looks a lot like a giant foil covered Jelly Bean – with wavey bits, and entrances on the underside. But inside, it just looks like a train station – and from that perspective, it’s a bit disappointing. I mean it’s modern and everything – just not up to the foil covered jelly bean look in terms of fancy. Signs everywhere explain that the building has won awards for being eco-friendly – and apparently somewhere there is a green space that is reducing the carbon foot print. But mostly – it looks large and foil covered – and maybe a bit out of place.

But it works great. We take a lift down to the tracks – and board our train for Lancaster. Despite the modern trappings – they still haven’t figured out how to label doors by seat number – so once inside we have to struggle the length of the carridge to get to our reserved seats – which are facing the wrong way. I know I reserved seats in the direction of travel, but apparently the trains flip around so much that it’s impossible to be sure which way the train will be heading when you eventually get on board. Oh well – at least the ride is so smooth that the reverse orientation doesn’t really bother me.

The countryside between Birmingham and Lancaster is lovely – green fields with dry stone fences carving up spaces. Like the earlier ride to Birmingham from Oxford – the sheep dotting the slopes resemble musical notes an a giant scale. Up close they look a bit shaggy – but from a distance – with their black faces and white coats they look like a child’s version of sheep. They look like every stuffed animal you’ve ever seen – warm and fuzzy and soft.

The trip goes by fairly painlessly. We are seated across from an older woman who is headed up north to see the puffins. She’s a serious bird watcher (her description), and this is her last chance to see the birds with some very famous birder. We wish her luck, and go back to reading our books – or in my case – staring at the passing scenery.

Getting off the train in Lancaster turns out to be a treat. Not only are Rose and Andy (Jill’s son-in-law’s parents) there to greet us with hugs and kisses – but there’s a group of men walking down the platform in front of us wearing suit jackets, short shorts and red high heels. I’m impressed. I can’t walk in those things – and these guys are doing great! And they have great looking legs.

Turns out it’s Lancaster’s Gay Pride Parade today – but Rose and Andy are worried that the traffic will be tied in huge knots – so they insist on going the back ways to their house. No Gay Pride Parade for us. We rest up, and when they deem it safe, we take a car tour of the seaside of Morecambe (beautiful), and then end up at the Castle of Lancaster.What a treat that is! We opt for the optional tour – based on the guality of the guide we run into – and it’s a brilliant decision. He gives us a ‘family’ rate – and takes us into the inner workings of the Castle. He’s a wonderful story teller – and there are lots of stories to tell.

We walk into one section and the alarm is ringing. I say “What’s that noise?” He says “The Castle is backing up”.

We tour the Royal courts (used only for Civil cases – and not much for those these days), and the Criminal Court – which is still very much in use. I peek into the ‘dock’ – reached by the accused from underground in a holding cell – and seriously scary – and admire the elaborate Gothic Design. The Civil Court was designed 2 years before the Houses of Parliment – by the same architect. I think he was practicing.

We visit the ‘hangman’s’ cell – conveniently weather protected, so all the hangman had to do was push the accused out of a window – wait an hour while he/she slowly died, then haul them back in. No getting wet in the horrid weather on this side of England. And plenty of time for a good lunch since hangings were always at noon.

Our guide tells us that a ‘slow drop’ death is long and drawn out because your neck doesn’t break – so sometimes friends of the accused would try to help him out by grabbing his legs. Hence the term ‘Hanger’s On’.

Told you – wonderful story teller.

We end our tour in the ‘modern’ prision which dates back 200 years, and was last used in the 70’s. Rose and Andy remember being unable to tour this part of the castle because it was still a prision.

I am reminded, not for the first time, that this is a seriously old country with a history that overwhelms our poor excuse for a history in North America. Written records date back to the Romans for goodness sake! So a castle that dates from Norman times (1066 onward) is considered young indeed.

Home we go – to a very traditional British Roast Beef and Yorkshire pudding dinner. Rose pulls out all the stops – and makes carrots, broccoli, and sugar snap peas for veggies. For dessert – it’s rubarb fresh from her garden in a sponge cake crust. Bed time for us comes soon enough. Tomorrow will be a big big day!

Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler

Manchester Bombing at Ariana Grande Concert hits achingly close to home


Andy Warhol might have thought that everyone would have 15 minutes of fame, but for most of us – life is better lived outside of the limelight. So finding ourselves even remotely close to what may well be a history changing event like the Terrorist Bombing at the Ariana Grande Concert on May 22, 2017 is gut wrenching. It’s not our style. But it happened.

We had boarded the train in Lancaster and were headed towards Manchester-Picadilly where we are to change trains for York.

Again with the poor labeling – and despite our best efforts, we find ourselves dragging our luggage down the entire length of the coach to find our assigned seats.

Across from us sit a very quiet, very cute mother and daughter. We’re hard to ignore, so eventually they start to chat with us. The daughter has just turned 14 and as a birthday present – she and her mother are heading to Manchaster to go to a concert. They are going to be seeing and hearing Ariana Grande. Some brief chit-chat about how exciting this is – and how we should listen to her music when it turns out we have no idea who Ariana Grande is – and the train pulls into the station in Manchester.

Typically quick goodbye – hope concert is swell – and they head off toward the exit while we figure out where to catch the train to York.

Fast forward 20 hours – I’m lying in bed in our BnB in York when the phone rings – it’s my daughter Adrienne checking up on us. Where are we, and are we OK?

It’s the first we’ve heard about the bombing in Manchester-Picadilly – not a mile from where we’d been standing not 20 hours before. The Intepid Traveler and I let friends and family know we are ok – and not near Manchester – but it makes one wonder – were the daughter and Mom we met impacted – We are going to guess yes, because even if you were not hurt – you were still there and still scared.

Their pictures are not on the news, thank goodness – But worse news is still to come. We now know that in addition to the children killed or wounded, there were parents killed, two of them from York. And Sam, the son of our hostess, knows the York family well and is very upset and demanding retribution. It’s not an easy situation. The grocery store where the mother worked is collecting money to help the two young girls who are suddenly orphans – thru absolutely no fault of their own. We are sure this is 15 minutes of fame they could have lived without.

The British news is filled with reports on what happened, on the US leaks of information, on the British reaction, and all the museums we visit are implementing a tighter bag check policy. But this is not what bugs us.

We can not help but think that anyone, on either side, who thinks this kind of behavor will be rewarded by G-d is going to discover how very wrong they are. And until the entire world understands that ‘an eye for an eye’ leaves everyone blind, we fear that the world is moving not towards enlightenment, but into the Dark Ages.

I walked past a young lady today here in York who was wearing a face covering. Only her eyes were exposed, and for some reason I do not understand she threw me a very angry look. I wondered if she was angry at me, angry at life, tired of being judged by the actions of others, or if perhaps I’d mis-interperted her glance as angry when all it was was curious.

I hope we will never know.

Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler

Getting the Low Down on Birmingham’s History


We wake to the Doves in the Peace Tower just outside of Sameer’s flat when we get up in morning. They make the most wonderful sounds – and as we are on the 6th floor – watching them fly by is up close and personal.

We were joking last night – and asked Sameer if he had bats in his belfrey – but he didn’t get the joke! Instead he told us about how bats are protected animals in London. Nice to know – but not what we were laughing about.

This morning, Sameer dashes out before we are up – leaving us to fix our own breakfast from the fixings he left us – blueberries, bananas, oranges, milk, and an excellent Granola. There are also eggs – but we opt for a simple breakfast, lunch will be a bigger meal.

We have reservations for a tour at 10:15 at the Birmingham Back to Back Houses. We’ve been reading up on these houses – and the ones we will see are the last in existance – as late as the 1940’s there were thousands of people leaving in Back to Back Houses. They could be crammed in – up to 14 in what is effectively a 3 room house – under 900 sq feet in total – and some of that taken up with narrow spiral stairs that go from the first to the third floor.

Today these houses are in the heart of China Town, and adjacent to a large restaurant and bar complex, but in their day they were the key stone of lively neighborhoods. We were excited to take the tour.

The visit starts in front of a sweetshop, and our guide, Jane, begins by explaining that just before these houses were finally demolished in the 1970’s, they were mostly used as shops – and the sweetshop was what was in this location at the turn of the century. Back to Back Houses were built – surprise, surprise – back to back. So there are 3 houses with windows facing the road, and three more built against their back walls. These 3 houses have windows only on the ‘courtyard’ side. The entrances are street or courtyard level – and most of these houses had no running water and no toilets. Instead the toilets are located in the shared courtyard. In earlier times, these shared toilets were modified chamber pots, but eventually they were renovated to have ‘flush’ toilets. But you are still outside! In one of the houses, running water had been added – but only on the first floor. Water was never available above the first floor.

There is basically only one room on each floor – a living/dining/food prep room on the ground floor, a bedroom on the 2nd floor, and a 2nd bedroom on the third floor. The floors are linked by steep narrow twisting staircases – hard to go up, and frightening to go down. There is only one window in each room – depending on the house, facing either into the courtyard or into the street.

There was a fireplace in both the kitchen and ‘master’ bedroom – but while the kitchen fireplace was on from dawn till bedtime, the one in the ‘master’ bedroom was lit only when someone was feeling ‘poorly’. As for those sleeping on the third floor – crowding was the solution to a cold night. Families were known to put 6 kids in one bed, sleeping head to toe, and then renting out the other bed in the third floor bedroom to strangers!

So – no running water, no toilets, no sewer, and a central washing area that each family sharing the courtyard got to access once a week – life in the Back to Backs was not easy. There are audio tapes of folks who used to live here talking about what life was like. There was no reason to go home until bedtime, because there was nothing to do in the house except sleep. So kids ran wild and wooly all over the area – keeping themselves busy until going to bed was unavoidable.

And jobs, while plentiful, were neither well paying nor safe. Birmingham was at the center of the Industrial Revolution in England, and had more than it’s share of stuffy unsafe factories and challenging work environments. So Dad and the older boys would work all day – while Mom and the girls did the washing, cleaning, cooking, and sewing needed to keep the family together. Young boys went to school – a priledge rarely available to young girls in the UK until after 1870.

Back to our tour. The small block of back to back houses that has been saved has been extensively renovated. Of the three houses facing the street on the northern side, the bottom left is the sweet shop – and above that is ‘holiday’ let.. The center one is also a ‘holiday’ let, and the last one is used for storage by the National Trust. Of the back 3 houses on the north side, the one to the right is set-up to show life in 1840 – when this block was first built. The middle house is set-up as 1870, and the left most house is set as 1920. Of the 3 houses on the East side, the left most has been left as it was in 1970 when the last resident – a tailor – left. The center and right houses are now the welcome area, space for staff and an exhibit area. In the exhibit area you can see the 28 layers of wallpaper that were removed from one wall. Turns out it was much cheaper to just paste on new wallpaper – and that’s what happened.

We totally enjoyed the tour – our guide was very informed, the houses are very interesting, and unlike most museums – you are welcome to touch everything. I found the clock making tools in the house from 1840 particularly intriging.

Our tour finished, we decided to visit the rag market – which quickly gets boring, and then stop for traditional English Fish and Chips. Yum.

Now we stroll just a few blocks North and West – on our way to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. The city changes drastically as we work our way these few blocks North. As we leave the ‘Rag’ Market – we also leave the majority muslim crowd and the boarded up and abandoned shop fronts. We pass the dramatically new Central Train Station – a huge Silver sphere shape that dominates the western view from St. Martins in the Bull Ring. Once on High Street – we are on a Pedestrian Mall with fancy shops, folks in nice dresses, and a general sense of well-being. What a drastic change from the rather scary feelings of the area near the ‘Rag’ Market!

Within minutes we are at Victoria Square – dedicated by the Princess of Wales (Diana?) in 1970. And just past that is the museum. And a glorious museum it is too. As with most of the museums here, it has a bit of everything – from Egyptian artifacts, a brief history of the Irish in Birmingham, to a room dedicated to the Stratford Hoard. The Hoard is impressive – and the rooms dedicated to the Pre-Raphaelite painters contain art that is both extensive and beautiful. But the absolute best part of the museum, despite the lack of any marketing, even on the museum map – is the 3rd floor display on the history of Birmingham.

We’ve seen histories that are as dull as paint drying, but this is not one of them. This series of rooms takes the history of Birmingham and makes it personal – entertaining – and facinating. The curators have used every trick in their books to make these displays interesting, and they are amazingly successful.

The fun starts in the Medieval Past – over 1000 years ago. There’s a model of the town showing clearly that the Bull Ring Market, St. Martin’s of the Bull Ring, and the High Street were already known in those days. A series of short videos featuring kids from a local drama department explains why Birmingham was growing by leaps and bounds in those days – a combination of a belief in freedom of religion, and the lack of a town charter. Without a charter, guilds couldn’t operate – so a free-for-all attitude took hold. Anyone could do anything – and folks flocked to Birmingham in response.

To cover the years during the industrial revolution the display becomes a ‘tourist guide’ to Birmingham. Hints include finding the best places for food, and cover the ‘building boom’ with humor and attention to detail.

Moving historically forward, there is a series of puppets who demonstrate how to make a musket, and a display of the hand made buttons that made Birmingham famous in the 1800s. There are model kitchens from the 1900s for kids to play at, there are build it yourself models to practice town planning in the 1920s, and a multi-screen video presentation on Birmingham’s participation in WWI and WWII.

The display ends with a nod to the issues of the present – including the recent announcement by BMW to close their plant, putting 6000 out of work.

It’s an outstanding example of the curator’s art – and a fabulous examination of the history of Birmingham in particular and England in general.

We are thrilled to have wandered in!

But now the museum is closing around us – and we are gently escorted out by the guides who have appeared from nowhere.

So it’s home, a lovely roast chicken dinner with wine at Sameer’s flat – and early to bed. Tomorrow we travel – and we need our rest.

Signing off to get our beauty sleep – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

Getting down and dirty in Birmingham


Birmingham is definitely not on most tourists hot lists. In fact – when we’ve told folks we were headed this way after our visit to Oxford – they were either surprised, stunned, or bewildered. Why would anyone want to visit dirty old Birmingham? It’s not known for anything really – except being the center of Industry for the UK.

But we’re museum buffs – and there are two noteworthy museums in Birmingham. The National Trust Back to Back Houses were on the very tip top of our list of places to see – and the reviews of the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery with it’s huge collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings sounded intriguing. So we planned to hop a bus from Oxford and spend 1 day, 2 nights in this under visited part of the UK.

But first we must start at Lovely Lucy’s in Oxford. Our charming hostess bids us good morning and runs out leaving us to fend for ourselves. Breakfast finished, bags packed, and Lucy’s doors locked and the keys put in her post slot – we are off to repeat the walk back to the bus station in Oxford. It goes much much easier this time – there is simply nothing like knowing your way around to make dragging suitcases easier.

I pop in for a quick coffee at a lovely shop called Coco Loco. It’s claim to fame is it’s view of Christ Church Collage – and a lovely view it is too. Suitably coffee’d up – we drag ourselves to the bus station, guided by ‘Maps’ on my iphone. Surprisingly – it directs us into a square that has been taken over by a lively silver market – and while The Intrepid Traveler stays with the luggage – I do a quick round of shopping – finding a delightful buy in a Salt, Pepper and Mustard Silver Plated Service set. Perfect. I have little time to haggle – the bus is leaving – so I make the gal an offer – she accepts – and the service is mine.

Back to Jill who is patiently waiting by the bus driver who has already loaded up our suitcases! I have time to sit down – and we’re off. Our bus quickly gets out of the traffic jam that is Oxford – and soon enough we are driving hell-bent for leather thru the lovely British country-side.

I’m going to tell you now that there is apparently no auto-route from Oxford to Birmingham – at least no auto-route that we North Americans would consider an auto-route. We drove thru village after village – even passing quickly thru Stratford-upon-Avon – on our way. Green fields with sheep dotted on the hillsides like musical scores rolling by, puncuated by traditional british farmsteds. Nary a high-rise, nor glass enclosed modern structure to be seen.

So my first question – do they have rules about what kinds of houses can be built? Or does no one here like ‘modern’ design outside of the big cities – where modern is the go to option? But rules or no rules – there were no modern houses.

And not that much traffic either! Perhaps that’s why our driver chose back roads, but it did make for a very British riding experience.

Eventually we arrived in Birmingham, and at first look the concerns of all the folks we chatted with seemed very valid. The bus station was lovely and modern, but once you crossed that threshold you were plunged into the Bull Ring Market. There’s been a market on this site since Medieval days – and they have the archeology to prove it. The Market was a buzz of activity – one section devoted to fruits, vegetables, eggs of all sizes and to meat, another to the giant ‘Rag Market’ – which sold all kinds of objects – not just ‘rags’, although the cloth merchants were in great number.

What surprised us most was the very different look of the folks wandering the market. In London it was rare to see a hijab, let alone a woman in a Burka. But here – it was almost the norm. And they were young ladies pushing strollers, tugging on the hands of toddlers, and using cell phones. I was reminded – in a good way – of Istanbul. Anything goes, but modesty prevails.

And the street meat prices were so much lower! We enjoyed a lamb kabab, 3 skewers with salad and Nan for just 4 GBP. Definitely on our budget.

Refreshed, we tried to find our lodgings. Birmingham is a city of layers – there are under roadways and upper roadways – and the map you get for free at the tourist bureau doesn’t really have a chance of making this spaghetti easy to naviagate. In fact – they even call this area ‘Spaghetti’. Fortunately – there are traffic folks easily visible, and one of them took time to slowly explain exactly how to get where we were going.

She just forgot to mention one tiny thing. It was up a Steep Hill.

We dragged ourselves past industrial buildings, closed and deserted storefronts, and the occasional homeless asleep on the street to Holloway Circus. This is a giant round-about – under construction. So detour signs for drivers and pedestrians abounded. We navigated this hurdle, and slowly make our way up, and up, and up till we found the “Peace Garden”. This is a garden built on the remains of a church bombed out during WWII, and where our lodging was located.

Relying on the kindness of strangers, we find the conceirge, get the key – and examine our new lodging.

It’s designer minimalist. A two bedroom, two bathroom flat we’ll be sharing with out host – furnished with a combination of Ikea functionality and high design. The airplane coffee table is not terribly useful – but as our host expalins – reflects his passion for high adrenaline sports – from skydiving to road racing.

Floor to Ceiling windows form all the walls on the ‘view’ side of the condo – there are no windows on the other 3 walls. But the view is spectacular. We’re on the 6th floor – overlooking the “Peace Garden” and the city scape. At night, with the city lights aglow – it’s a stunner.

Our host, Sameer, is a charming young man (ok – not so young – probably in his mid thirties) who works for Jaguar in the marketing department, owns 5 fancy cars, another flat in London, and land in India. He’s elegant, well spoken, and fascinating. In our conversation – I ask him why he’d want BnB guests – and he admits – it’s for the chance to meet interesting people. Isnt’ that sweet? We chat over wine and dinner before he annouces that he must work tonight. He works, we sleep – tomorrow will be a busy day.

Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

London to Oxford – Big City to University Town


It’s time to move on – we’ve spent 14 days in London, toured 12 Museums, saw 3 amazing plays, rode buses from East London to West London, attended Services in Cathedrals and local parish churches, worked at an Organic Wine Fair, even enjoyed a gourmet meal at “House” at the National Theatre. So – London done – we’re on to Oxford.

Oxford – town of 38 colleges that together make up one University – the University of Oxford. Not surprisingly – there sure are a lot of students here. And with all that youth comes plenty of coffee shops, lots of walking tours – and the 2nd largest library in the UK after the British Library in London.

The Bodleian Library has well over 153 miles (230 KM) of shelving, and adds 1000 books and 2000 periodicals a WEEK. It’s huge. And housed in bits and pieces, all connected by underground tramways, throughout all of Oxford, plus the new huge facility outside of Oxford in the town of South Marston for less used books. Clearly it’s a must do tour – and being the budget travelers we are – we opted for the lowest cost option – an audio tour that allowed us in to see only one small part – the Divinity College. And really only one tiny part of that – but a very nice part it was. For a bit more you can take a guided tour of the Humphrey Library – which is featured in Harry Potter when they are searching the ‘reserved’ section. But we were content with the Audio Guide and simply looking around.

Best part of the tour – and it was free to everyone – were the two special Exhibitions in the ‘new’ Weston Library (First built in 1937 as the ‘New Bodleian’ and extensively renovated and re-opened to the public in 2015 – it’s beautiful). The first was on Volcanos, and featured books dating from 1430 onward that had drawings of the supposed inner workings of Volcanos. Incredible to think that this library has kept these books safe for so very long. The 2nd exhibition, entitied Treasures of the Bodlian Library, is a revolving exhibition of rare finds. The version we saw featured contrasting items – in one case there was an original copy of the Magna Carta from the 13th century, complete with rodent chewed holes where the document had been folded for storage – and not properly stored at that. In the same case, the contrasting item was a book so small that it was shown chained to a life sized mouse – who could have easily dragged it around.

Other remarkable treasures – one of the First Folios of Shakespeare (not such a big deal as per the easy to read description – there are 233 known copies), and most impressive to me – a copy of Tycho Brahe’s “Astronomiae instauratae mechanica” dated 1598. This is the data collection that allowed his assistant, Johannes Kepler to formulate the laws of planetary motion. 1598. Imagine.

We then wandered over to the Oxford Museum of Natural History, known best for it’s outstanding glass topped building and wonderful displays of strange things – including the bones of the last Dodo. Famously, this is the spot known to have been visited by Lewis Carroll (aka Charles Dodgson), the author of “Alice in Wonderland”. The best section was a new exhibit hidden high up on a balcony and dedicated to new research on the brain. This very intriguing exhibit focused on the growth and development of the brain, carefully tracing it’s changes from pre-birth to old age. So interesting.

The day before we’d ‘done’ the Ashmolean. This huge museum has literally something for everyone, and then some. Our favorite section was on the challenges related to conservation, including detecting frauds, using UV to check for repair work, and a series of displays on making the decision to repair vs leave it as it is. Clearly being a museum curator isn’t as easy as one might imagine!

Naturally – I had to visit the Harry Potter ‘sights’ – including catching a glimpse into the courtyard used for learning to use your broomstick at New College (New in 1379). We also checked out Blackwell’s – billed as one of the worlds largest book stores with 7 km of shelving – and winding under Trinity college from a tiny and easily missed door front on Broad Street.

Our visit culimated in Evensong at Christ Church Cathedral in Christ Church College. It is ‘song’ nightly, sometimes by the church choir, sometimes by visiting choirs, sometimes by just male voices. We lucked into the male voice version – and it was glorious. Mostly done without organ music (A Cappalla) – the 14 choir members filled the huge space with wonderful sound.

What did we miss? We didn’t get into the Pitt River Collection – so we didn’t get to gawk at the shrunken heads. It was closed for a university function. We did wander into the Covered Market, but didn’t think it so remarkable. We checked out the college quads that were easily visible thru their wrought iron gates, and spent time chatting up a guide in St. Mary’s Parish Church – the official Church of the University of Oxford, with sections going back to the Medevial history of Oxford.

We skipped most of the modern part of Oxford, and sadly didn’t get to go into a pub. But lovely Lucy’s lodging, that we found thru Air BnB, was right on the river – so we did get to admire the boats on the water.

All in All – it was a great visit – but we need to get on – and Birmingham is our next stop. First thing tomorrow we will pack out bags and head on out to the bus station.

Signing off for now – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

London’s Top 12 Museums – Rated and Reviewed for your Amusement


12 museums in 13 days – hours and hours spent walking up and down stairs and corridors – and the result is our list of the 12 Top Museums in London – in order from Best to least favorite. Enjoy – and let us know if you agree – or disagree!

1. Museum of London – This is one huge exhibit divided up into generations of London History, and it’s astoundingly well done. I loved strolling the Victorian Shop Street and evesdropping on the Regency chatter in the Secret Garden. I suggest skipping the pre-history and start with the Romans – walking through and around the displays is simply incredibly interesting. And take a moment to do the docent guided talks and tours. Super. Plan on 3/4 of day – maybe more if you watch every video and listen to every talk.

2. Natural History Museum – Dinausaurs, Human Biology, Creepy Crawlies are steller displays – and rate a “Must See”. This museum really needs an entire day – we had to skip at least one major secton – Human Evolution. Human Biology is a remarkable collection of interactive toys and videos and games. It is a challenge to leave. And the Dinosaur Display is justifably famous. The audio-animatronic T-Rex is worthy of Disney Land, and the multi-layered effects create a dramatic and exciting stage on which information about Dinosaurs can be displayed.

3. Somerset House – The Courtauld Galley – Outstanding collection of Impressionists. It’s hard not to love a museum that boasts such an extensive and well laid out colleciton of such magnificant works of art from Degas to van-Gogh, Monet to Manet and all the artists inbetween. Well lit, well curated, interesting tid-bits of information – what’s not to love. It’s really only two floors – so 1/2 a day is enough to see everything.

4. Design Museum – The only free section is on the third floor – but it’s outstanding. It covers Industrial Design from the Designer, Maker, User perspective starting in the 1700 and in a rather jerky fashion – moving forward till today. And it’s brilliant. Engaging, entertaining, and in some cases – down right funny. Since you only see one floor – you can do this one in 1/2 a day, easy.

5. Imperial War Museum – Only the WWI and ‘Family thru the War’ sections are worth spending time at – but the WWI exhibit is truly outstanding – probably one of the best and most complete museum treatments of WWI I’ve ever seen. I even enjoyed walking thru the Trenches. So see those 2 – and leave. Budget 1/2 a day here.

6. Tate Modern – it took us a day and 1/2 to ‘do’ the Tate Modern – there’s simply so much information crammed into the audio tour. But this is modern art – and not all of it is going to be your ‘cup of tea’. So it’s easy to skip past some very interesting exhibits because you just don’t understand or can’t appreciate what the artist is trying to do. Budget a day – but be prepared not to finish if you opt for the audio tour – which is highly recommended.

7. National Gallery – The individual talks about specific paintings by a curator are not to be missed. We lucked into one about a Rembrant – and she made the painting come alive in surprising ways. Highly recommend figuring out where/when these talks will happen. 1/2 a day was long enough to get the idea – they have a lot of art! Be aware that the Rembrants have been moved to the first floor to make room for a special exhibit – we ended up circling around twice before we found them.

8. Tate British – Like the V&A, this is a mother-ship of museums and could use a bit of sprucing up. The Turner collection is huge – and honestly, if you’ve seen 10 Turners, you’ve seen them all. I did love the small collection of Henry Moore pieces – donated in most part by the artist. And there are some stunning pieces hidden in almost every room – which makes the Tate British slow going. You skip ahead at your own risk. You will miss something amazing – you have been warned.

9. RA – Royal Academy of Arts – America after the Fall. This special exhibit was a block-buster – but since there are constantly new special exhibits, and no standard exhibit – we voted to demote the museum to the #9 slot. But given how great the exhibit was, I’m willing to suggest that this is one museum where paying the extra for the ‘special’ exhibits might actually make sense. How often does one ever come face to face with Grant Wood’s American Gothic.

10. Kew Garden – comletely weather dependant of course – but the Princess of Wales Conservatory is the star attraction – and possibly one of the best of these we’ve ever seen with over 14 different climate zones and simply incredible flowers. I found the 2 carnivore sections particularly interesting. The acres and acres and acres of wandering space is also wonderful.

11. Victoria and Albert – Great Tour, Great Restaurant – rest of the museum is more ho-hum. There is a lot of wonderful things inside, but it’s hard to read the signs, and there’s little to engage you unless you have a specific interest in the topic. One clear exception, the Display on Theatre and Staging. That we can easily recommend. We also enjoyed the free hour intro tour to the Museum. It was fast, but surprisingly entertaining.

12. Science Museum – terrible let down. Could’a been great – didn’t deliver. Skip it. You have better uses for your time – even if you are here with kids. Just watching the horse guards was more fun.

Ok – there you have it – the Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler’s reviews of the Museums of London. I feel a bit like an ad for a financial planner – this represents our views – you might disagree completely. And past performance is no guarentee for success.

Signing off to go tour the museums of the rest of the UK – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.

Take on the Tate Modern!


So – you think you know Modern Art, eh? Well think again. The Tate Modern isn’t your soft fuzzy easy approach to art. This is ranchy, hard core, over the top (and sometimes under the bottom) art. None of those cutsie Impressionists – no sir. We are the Tate MODERN!

Which doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t visit – it just means come prepared for some rather surprising things to be called art. And some pretty nice things too. This is a museum devoted to the surprise, the curious, the edgy and it definitely delivers.

The building itself is hardly the glory that is the Herschorn in Bilboa, Spain with it’s stunning silvered outside and huge Koons Puppy. Nope – the Tate Modern is housed in an old pumping station and switch house located on London’s South Shore, catty-corner from the Sommerset House with it’s outstanding collection of Impressionists. Talk about contrast. And between the Tate Modern and the Thames is one of the main sections of the Queen’s Jubliee Greenway – a walking, strolling, family friendly path that winds for miles along the Thames. Just walking in to the Tate Modern past the bubble blowers and living statues is an experience!

The building is huge, and the collection is also huge. The ceilings are at least 40 feet high – as befits it’s factory origins. And the renovation has creatively made light as important as the art. The ceiling of the inner courtyard is a massive 2 floor high light box – and the enormous hallowness of the courtyard echos the emptiness that most of the art on display is attempting to explain.

Modern is not necessairly comfortable or easy.

The inner courtyard links the two original buildings. On the Thames side is the Boiler House – 6 floors high, only 2 of which contained ‘art’. The restaurant on the 6th floor was – for us – an overpriced waste of money, but the view was lovely. More stunning was the view from the open observation floor on the 10th floor of the building on the ‘not’ Thames side – the Switch House. Open to the air, and running completely around the entire exterior – you had massive views into the million dollar appartments that are the Tate’s neighbors. No curtains or window treatments blocked the view into these homes, although their mininmal decor made it hard to imagine who might be living in these places. Curiously – signs on the columns of the viewing platform suggested it would be nice to be polite to the neighbors – I’m not sure how we could have been polite given our birds-eye view directly into their homes.

But as usual I meander. This is supposed to be about the art.

We splurged and paid for the audio guides, an expense that is well worth it in this case. Too often you get cheap and figure the audio guides will slow you down – but I find that the better guides give you insights into the art and the artist – and sometimes even the curator – that you would never normally get. And in the case of the Tate Modern – the audio guide is a clear winner. Each selection had at least one short discussion about the art – but often there were additional options, including videos of the artist at work (I loved the one where the artist is shooting at balloons filled with paint hidden under the surface of the work). Do get the guide.

While there are many ‘rooms’ – there are really only two sections that require a significant time to explore – both on the 2nd floor of the Boiler House – the building nearer the Thames. Entitled ‘Artist and Society’ and ‘In the Studio’. I found both well worth the 4 hours we spent in them, although I will admit that ‘Artist and Society’ made more sense to me. It was clear in this section that the artists were responding to the society of their times – and often they were taking on opposing and/or contrasting view points. The counterplay made for interesting viewing.

We had to come back a 2nd day to do the rest of the museum, fortunately the staff maning the audio tour guide desk took pity on us and gave us a 2nd day free. Good thing – you really need the audio tours to make any sense at all of these surprising works of art.

There is one section that I think is a must-see for any woman – artist or not. It’s on the 4th floor of the Boiler House – the building closer to the Thames, and it’s in a general display area called ‘Media Networks’. The room is called ‘Andy Warhol and the Guerrilla Girl’ – and it contrasts the approach towards gender equality that these artists were championing. Andy Warhol’s art appears sexless – while the Guerrilla Girl art is more in your face obvious. One piece was actually a poster showing a naked woman in a traditional reclining pose with the caption – Women – if you want to get in a museum – do it nude! The poster goes on the explain that while 70% of the women in a major museum are in paintings as nudes, only 2 are artists.

Another poster has the headline: The Advantages of Being a Woman Artist:
followed by a list of 13 advantages including:
“Working without the pressure of success”
“Having an escape from the art world in your 4 free-lance jobs”
“Knowing your career might pick up after you’re eighty”
“Not being stuck in a tenured teaching position”
“Having more time to work after your mate dumps you for someone younger”

You get the drift.

Most memorable piece of art? A huge room filled with what we originally thought were giant potatoes, but turned out to be hand sewn brown and burlap sacks stuffed with paper. They were scattered around the room – and the audio defended the display as art explaining that the amorphous forms were made to make us think of bodies.

I must also admit a fondness for the urinal turned sideways and labeled fountain.

Bottom line – worth two days – but not an easy two days.

And if you want to go to the 10th floor to see the view (and you should) – start on floor 0. If you try to catch the elevators upward at any other floor – they will be packed – and you won’t get in. Start at the very bottom. And don’t tell anyone else.

Off to see some more of the Impressionists – now that’s art I can understand without an audio guide….

The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler

Navigating the London Underground


Not simple this – not simple at all. First off – London is a very expensive city. Expensive to live in, expensive to eat in, expensive to travel around in. On the other hand – it does have a wonderful bus/tube system (don’t call it Metro or Subway – folks will look at you bewildered).

You can get anywhere you want by bus or tube – and while it might not be fast – you will get there. On the bus – you can only move as fast as the traffic – which is generally slow walking pace thru most of the inner city. On the tube, you move much faster – but there are frequent stops. From our lodging to downtown is over 20 stops – and we’re only in Zone 3. And there are no ‘express’ trains on the Tube lines. So it’s stop and go, stop and go, repeat and repeat.

On the other hand – the trains run smoothly. Very few of those jerks and bounces that are so hard on aging knees.

And it is clean – amazingly clean. In over 10 days of riding the bus/tube – I’ve seen someone eating on the tube just once. People are generally very polite, even during rush hour when the trains can feel more like sardine cans than transport. And there are trash bins – mostly 1/2 empty – everywhere. I’ve seen folks sweeping and picking up trash constantly. And the elevators never smell bad.

They even have toilets. And Lifts. Not in all stations – but often enough to realize it’s a reasonable thing to expect to find.

One thing about the lifts – the stations that have lifts have clear labels (the international wheelchair sign) to let you know. What they don’t tell you is if there will be escalators or just stairs at the other stations. That’s a huge difference – I do wish I knew which stations had only stairs – vs those that offer at least an escalator to get you up or down to street level.

But this blog is about the fares, not the lifts. And the fares are seriously confusing.

All over the metro there are signs advertising the ‘new’ capping system. The idea is that if you use the tube and the cost totals over 7.7 GPB on one day, the rest of that 24 hours is free. It’s a great idea.

Doesn’t work as far as we could tell unfortunately. We were averaging aound 10 GPB a day of money coming out of our ‘top-up to pay’ cards – I never spotted the cap being applied. Very frustrating.

They also have a 7 day travel card – and there’s a cap on the amount spent for 7 days. So one would assume that the cap and the card were the same. Not so. The card is a MUCH better deal if you are going to be staying outside of the Central area of London and will be using the tube/buses at least twice a day, occassionally during ‘rush’ hour. And of course you will be using the thing during rush hour. It takes a pretty amazing tourist to avoid doing that – at least in the afternoon!

Another reason the 7 day card is the better deal – it starts on the day you first use it. That means you can get 7 days from Monday to Monday, Tuesday to Tuesday – you get the idea. On the other hand, the cap only works from Sunday to Sunday. So unless you arrive on Sunday morning – it will never work out.

And here’s the most annoying thing about the CAP. Even if you qualify for a refund – you’ve spent more than 38.50 GPB in travelling around Zones 1-3, the refund only appears on Thursday of that week. So for a tourist – it’s a complete waste. You spend the money to front load the card, and by the time you get the refund- you are ready to leave.

If you even get the refund. We haven’t seen it yet. I don’t think it’s going to happen. And we spent over 90 GPB in one week before we smartened up and bought the 7 day card.

And it wasn’t for lack of asking! We must have chatted up 6 different agents on the tube line – each time getting a slightly different story. Only twice did we get the right advice. The gal at the Underground Information Booth at Victoria Station knew the ins and outs of the program, and she promptly told us – if you are here for 5 days or more – the 7 day pass pays! The gal at the airport information booth suggested it at first, but never clearly explained why spending 38.5 GPB up front was the smart idea.

Anyway – that 90 GPB is spent, and now we have the 7 day card – and life is much easier.

Signing off to go ride the Tube…
The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveller

Getting your Spiritual High in London!


Feeling the need to get a Spiritual high? Well if you are in London – you are in luck. There are so many places to get a spiritual recharge in London, it’s hard to turn around without hitting one!

For us, we get our Spiritual Highs on by going to church. And since it’s Sunday – our options are almost unlimited here in London. In fact, picking just one favorite was too big a challenge. We ended up with two.

Since the Intrepid Traveler is Catholic – we historically gravitate towards Catholic churches, but we are hardly limited. We share an open door policy. If a place of worship has an open door – we are going in! Which explains why the Intrepid Traveler and I have attended weddings and funerals, births and first communion – and just about everything in between. We are definitely fans of religious ceremony, regardless of the specific religion. Buddist, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Jewish, Private Weddings in China, Shinto Shrines, you name it – We’ve tried it.

But back to getting our Spiritual High here in London. It turns out that the Brompton Oratory offers a Children’s service on Sundays at 10:00, and at 11:00 there’s a Latin High Mass. I adore High Mass – so that was an obvious choice. But The Intrepid Traveler had heard that Anglican Evensong services were wonderful in London, so we did a quick google search – and found a site that listed every church with an Evensong service (mostly Anglican of course, but there were some Roman Catholic options – including Westminster Cathedral). And on the list was Westminster Abbey. Oh man – that’s sounds ideal.

There are 3 major reasons for seeing churches during services. Advantage One – they turn on all the lights. Too often the lights are turned off during ‘touring’ times – and it’s a challenge to see the decorations on the ceilings, or even into some of the side chapels. Advantage Two – it’s Free! If you want to see Westminter Abbey on Monday to Saturday – you’ll be paying a pretty penny. But if you are willing to go to Sunday services – you’ll see the Abbey for free – as the designers meant to be seen – as a place of worship. And Advantage 3 – they play music – the organ, the drums, the choirs – any and all of which add to the atmosphere – the spirtuality of the experience.

So our plan organized – we head out on the tube to London. Our location in Cheswick means a 30 – 45 minute tube ride, so we get an early start on the day – after I pop into my local coffee shop of course. The guys and gals at Cafe 430 are so well trained that when they see me open the door they grab the to-go cup and add in my 3 sugars. I just say hi – and pay my 2.2 GPB. Deal done. Cafe 430 – you do rock!

We take the tube to South Kensington, and encounter our first challenge – finding the Oratory. There are signs for the museums of course – but nowhere do we see a sign for the Oratory. I know it’s next to the V&A – and I use my iphone ‘Maps’ App to find the directions. This works great – until in concentrating on my phone – I miss my step and fall. Hard. Onto the road. In front of oncoming traffic.

Panic. The Intrepid Traveler tries to get me to my feet – but I’m not getting up that fast. I don’t think she could lift me in any case. Meanwhile the water bottles have flown out of the backpack onto the road, and my phone is lying about a yard in front of my face. And the traffic light is turning green. Here’s where the good news starts – right in front of us are a very good looking young man with his lady friend. They whip around when they hear the crash and he bodily hauls me to my quivering feet as his lady friend gathers the iphone and water bottles and we clear the road.

I’m dizzy, dis-oriented, and scared. My knees took the brunt of the fall, and we immediately check that I’m not bleeding. I lean against a handy lamp post and wait for my head to clear. When it doesn’t, our new friends help me across the rest of the road to a bench on the far side. I gratefully sit down – and they ask if we should call an ambulance. Having checked my knees, and knowing that I’m just feeling the effects of Adreline shock, I tell them no – and eventually they wish me well and continue on their way. The Intrepid Traveler and I sit quietly for a few minutes while I catch my breath, slow down my rapid heart beat, and stop feeling the world spinning around me. Eventually I feel well enough to go the few hundred feet to the door of the Oratory.

It’s well into the Children’s service – but I’m grateful to simply sit and listen. A children’s choir is hidden above our heads – and the music fills the large space. We kneel and stand and sit as needed, and eventually the service finishes with the priest congradulating the kids for trying. So cute.

We move ourselves up front (I much prefer the view from the front), and the High Latin Mass promptly starts at 11:00 with a short procession including 3 priests in gold cassocks. There is ample swinging of incense, and sprinkling of holy water. Not only the audience, but the altar get more then a fair share of incense – these guys mean business.

The mass is beautiful. The choir is an adult choir of about 12 men and women. Highly trained with beautiful voices, they compliment the organ perfectly. It’s splendid. During communion, everyone goes up to knee at the rail, and the priests move back and forth making sure that everyone is greeted properly. The Intrepid Traveler tells me that most Catholic Churches in North America have taken down the rails – or if they can’t do so – have the priests come ouside the rails to give communion. But this is old fashioned enough to stick to the older ways – and it’s to the rail you must go.

At the end they announce a reception to which all are invited, but we opt to leave and head over to the V&A for lunch. I’m still feeling a bit shaky, and the idea of a nice hot meal is truly appealing. We share one lunch for two, and an excellent lunch it is – Roasted Pork Belly with two sides. Yummy, and just over 11 GPB in total. We are doing great on our budget. Now if only I can figure out what I’m doing wrong with the tube fares.

After lunch we realize that the V&A have opened a new exhibit since our visit just 3 days ago. It’s a collection of giant photos from 12 of the world top photographers – competing to be photographer of the year. We slip in quickly to take a look and I’m immediately drawn to a series of photos of Japanese men and women smashed up against the glass windows of a series of subway trains. Sure enough – the pictures were taken at rush hour in Toyko – when pushers shove larger and larger numbers of commuters into the trains. They are stunning. There is also a series of photos taken of the inside of ‘container’ houses in Hong Kong. These 6′ square containers are home to thousands – including families, couples, and the odd bacholer. Everything you’d need to live in less room than a toilet takes here in North America.

We now wend our way to Westminster Abbey. It is a rather surprisingly long way from the V&A by bus – we might have made faster time walking given the congestion in downtown London – but after my fall, we are playing it safe.

Upon arrival, we’re ushered into the abbey (after they make sure we realize that this is a service, and we must sit tight for 1.5 hours), and led into the back half where royality sits. Unbelievably luckily, we manage to be invited to sit in the choir stalls – my specific seat is actually the seat of the Mayor of Wesminster if he decides to show up. I’m right behind 1/2 the choir – with a prefect view of the choir master.

Evensong is described in the ‘program’ as a service in song – and so it is. Even though this is a Church of England (Anglican) service – it is so similar to the Catholic one that it would be hard for me to explain the difference. Mainly – it doesn’t end with communion as far as I can tell. We sit quietly while the rest of the audience files in, and eventually the bells of the Abbey stop ringing to let the priests know to start the service. The choir gathers on the far side of the screen that divides the Abbey in half, and sings the first psalm. The voices are heavenly. Then they march in, escorted by two lay priests. They fill the 4 choir aisles reserved for them – two in front of me, two opposite me, and sing another psalm. Priests are marched in – more psalms are sung, readings are read, and the fully glory of the moment hits me. I’m in Westminster Abbey – listening to the organ that every Monarch ever to be corenated here heard – and hearing the voices of angels. It is the ultimate in inspiringly beautiful sound.

One young man, at most 7, looked like an adorable mischief maker, but opened his mouth and hit high notes I’ve never heard anyone sing before or I suspect again. Amazing.

After the service we went looking for toilets – and then checked out the cloisters. While I read the tomb stones, The Intrepid Traveler started chatting with Reverend Jenny from Austrialia. She is a 62 year old priest at Westminster, has been there for 2 years after a long career in various aspects of religious life. Among other highlights – she had served her first Eucharist in the Abbey just that morning. We must have chatted with her for 20 minutes – a fascinating woman with a unique career. Another highlight to grace an amazing day. Right up there with staying at the Shinto Temple in Korea, or visiting Koya-san in Japan.

After such an inspirational day, the trip home and our quick pizza dinner (just 1 GPB) is hardly worth mentioning.

Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler

Exploring the London Museum of Natural History


In a word – Awesome!

It’s hard to complain about museums in London – most of the bigger ones are free – and with an under 10 GPB budget a day – free is great. But just because they are free doesn’t mean they should be poorly laid out and boring.

We have high expectations of museums – and the London Museum of Natural History is a winner. And Free. Now that’s a tough combination to beat.

One slight negative – the cloakroom charges 2.5 GBP to keep your stuff – so pack light – and don’t say I didn’t warn you. The other museums have a ‘suggested’ donation of 2 to 4 GBP – but at the Natural History Museum, there’s no politely ignoring the sign. You must pay.

On to the muesum.

There are so many sections to love about this museum, and we carefully toured every section that wasn’t full of glass displays of stuffed animals – where the museum got it’s start. There’s the section on Earthquakes and the planet Earth – reached by an escaltor that asscends thru a sulpture of the Planet. The highlight of this section is the Kobe Grocery store that is destroyed by an Earthquake – while you stand inside. Noisy and very cool. Other interesting and very hands-on displays in this section involved looking at volcanoes, touching rocks, and studing potential early warning systems. Very well done.

Then there’s the justifiably famous Dinosaur Exhibt. Not your every day display of dinosaur bones either. There are two audio-animatronics that would make Disney proud – including an outstanding T-Rex that turns his head, studies the room, and then picks someone to snarl at! I found almost all of this section fascinating, and I’ve been to Drumheller in Alberta – I know dinosaur displays. This one is close to perfect.

The Creepy Crawly section on 4 broad categories of insects is another winner. We particularly loved the full sized house that showed how insects can have a negative impact on your home. Yuck. Watch out for that giant wasp nest – and nope – we didn’t think cockroaches were good for us at all. But the best laugh was the pasta with extra protein. That’s a positive spin on a negative subject.

Another excellent section – and one that I have since found myself quoting sections of to the Intrepid Traveler is the massive display titled Human Biology. We expected boring – and found anything but boring. At the beginning there’s a 8 times normal size infant in the womb – the detail is amazing. Even more interesting were the sections on human learning, and on human behavior. In the learning section, there are videos of babies who are at the age when a toy that is out of sight is out of mind, followed by videos a few weeks later of the same baby – now old enough to realize that when you cover a toy with a towel, the toy is still there! So well done. But the section that really ‘hit home’ with me was the part on adreline. Short videos showed people getting scared – then the video would go on to explain what happened – dilatied eyes, sweating, rapid heart beat etc. Ok, that’s cool. But then the very next day I tripped and fell onto the road. Dilated eyes, sweating, rapid heart beat, dizzy, and unable to stand. Hey – I just got hit with an adreline attack! Talk about taking learning to a new and highly applicable level!

Bottom line – this is a wonderful museum, and you don’t need to be a child to appreciate it. There’s a ton of stuff that even the most jaded adult will have to say – “Hey, I didn’t know that”. And it’s fun to explore too. Just don’t expect a nice quiet museum environment – until about 2:00 PM it’s packed, packed, packed with kids. Only after 2:00 does it quiet down. We decided that by 2:00 the school trips end, and the kids with parents are all tuckered out.

Our plans for tonight are simple – home, quick dinner, and bed.

Well – quick dinner on a budget means a 45 minute tube ride, followed by walking 15 minutes to the nearest grocery store, buying a roast chicken (5.6 GPB, enough for two meals), and then walking back home. Basically dinner wasn’t ready until 8:00 PM – but hey – nothing to do after that but bed down for the night.

Signing off – The Soup Lady and the Intrepid Traveler.