London’s Growing Skyline

London's skyline

London’s towering skyline

London is getting taller. The city’s skyline is changing as an explosion of skyscrapers grows upwards across the capital.

I’ve noticed a dramatic change during my recent visits to London. And these skyscrapers are becoming big tourism attractions in their own right.

The Shard, London’s tallest tower, attracted 1 million visitors over the last 12 months. So what’s driving our obsession with tall buildings?

More than 230 towers over 20 storeys are planned to meet London’s population boom over the next few years with a dramatic impact of the city’s future skyline.

Growing up

Waterloo Bridge London

The changing view from Waterloo Bridge

It’s estimated that over 10 million people will be living in London by 2030. But this growing population will create challenges for the city. Increasingly, London is going to have to build upwards.

The big building boom is already underway and it’s changing the way London looks and feels from street level and from up in the air.

This changing skyline is the subject of a new exhibition called London’s Growing Up! The Rise and Rise of London’s Tall Buildings at London’s Building Design Centre.

I went along to see how London is growing up and what it means for the city’s future skyline.

Reach for the skies

The Shard

The Shard

Welcome to London’s skyline, a world where skyscrapers have evocative names like ‘The Cheesegrater’, ‘The Atlas’. ‘The Quill’ and ‘The Blades’.

The Gherkin, Canary Wharf and The Shard were the trailblazers in the early Millennium.

The Shard is perhaps the most striking of London’s tall buildings at an impressive 800 feet high. It’s also the tallest building in Western Europe – for now.

With its sleek design by architect Renzo Piano, it offers spectacular views over London for up to 40 miles from the dizzily high 72nd floor.

The Shard is almost twice as high as any other vantage point in the city, and claims to be the only place where visitors can see the entire city of London at once.

It has a definite ‘wow’ factor. I remember seeing it close up for the first time and gasping open-mouthed. This is one big, towering building.

Its crystalline tower with public viewing platform looks like something out of a Disneyland fantasy world.

It’s well worth a visit to see the panoramic view despite the sky-high admission prices.

After a trip to The Shard (near London Bridge Station), my recommendation is to take a tour along the Thames to see London’s changing skyline for yourself. Start with a boat trip from Waterloo or Millbank (Tate Britain) down to either Bankside (Tate Modern) or further down to Greenwich.

From the Thames you’ll get a great view of the tall buildings that are springing up around the riverfront. Get off the river boat at Bankside and take the lift to the top of the Oxo Tower where you’ll get another aerial view.

Oxo Tower

Oxo Tower – aerial view

Then walk over the Millennium foot bridge to the City of London, a magnet for new skyscrapers, including the Leadenhall Building.

You’ll also spot 20 Fenchurch Street – which my partner Tony has nicknamed ‘The Shampoo Bottle’ because of its flared shape.

This new tower boasts an uninterrupted view in every direction but I’m really not sure that I like its chunky design. Make your own mind up as this 37 floor monster rises above its smaller neighbours.

Afterwards, take a Tube from Bank in the City to the London’s Growing Up! exhibition off Tottenham Court Road where you’ll see a fascinating model of the future London skyline.

Model of London skyline

Model of London skyline

Architectural wonders?

It’s intriguing to discover that The Shard has many more younger big brothers marching their way across London.

The daddy of them is The Pinnacle which towers over other developments at 64 floors high. With its swirly shaped top, this sleek building looks like a giant fountain pen. It’s due to be finished in 2017.

Still on the drawing board, The Blades in Elephant and Castle is also likely to rival The Shard with its twin, wafer thin towers.

The towers are designed to cut through the blustery winds on a notoriously windswept site. The idea is that people walking in the large public piazza below don’t get blown away!

One Wood Wharf London

One Wood Wharf London

Another blockbuster is the Leadenhall Building, the younger sibling of The Shard with a sloping facade. This has been nicknamed ‘The Cheesegrater’.

Inside there’s the usual mix of offices, shops and flats but the unique selling point (in marketing parlance) is its dramatic seven storey high landscaped galleria.

This architectural wonder is located right in the heart of the city of London so you won’t miss it if you take the walk I described above.

At 52 stories high, this distinctive tower looks set to make a big impact on London’s skyline, not least because it dwarfs its historic neighbours.

Nearby St Paul’s Cathedral looks like a miniature Lego building a few hundred metres down the road. And I’m not sure this is a good thing.

To be fair, the ‘Cheesegrater”s design is classier than most new buildings.

But I have my doubts when I look down the Thames and see how it is changing the landscape of the City of London.

St Paul’s is protected by something known as ‘St Paul’s Heights’, a policy which limits the size of buildings in its sight lines. But these new towers look perilously close to the edge of this protected envelope.

On the opposite side of the Thames, I’m concerned about the tall building which is going up close to one of my favourite London landmarks, the OXO Tower.

The OXO Tower is relatively petite, having been built at a time when building upwards was more controversial than now. Its Art Deco style fits well with the scale and urban rythym of the riverside.

But it’s getting harder to see the OXO building properly now that a large tower block is rising up over the road behind it.

Oxo Tower

The Oxo Tower – getting dwarfed?

Shape of things to come

‘Stylish’ and ‘sexy’ are the two words that leap out when architects and developers talk about London’s new skyscrapers.

One of the class acts they refer to is The Quill, a redeveloped 1960s tower in Southwark, which looks like a building topped off with a giant pen nib.

Located near London Bridge, this flashy building boasts a 31 storey tower with a steeply sloping roof. It’s rather good.

The list of concrete and glass giants is endless with the greatest concentration of towers springing up in the Isle of the Dogs, the City of London, Tower Hamlets and Vauxhall.

Down at the Isle of Dogs, those of you who like their buildings rounded should check out One Wood Wharf (shame about the dull name). Cylindrical in shape, this tower looks like a giant periscope.

It’s a big statement building, a sign of the times.

Leadenhall Building London

‘The Cheesegrater’ soars above the skyline

Perhaps it’s a symbol of London’s optimism and energy that so many of these buildings have been mushrooming.

But I can’t help thinking that this new vertical urban jungle is built on rampant capitalism rather than any sense of community. Whilst passing another homeless guy sleeping rough next to The Shard, I’m tempted to be cynical about these sexy, shiny towers.

Who owns or indeed lives in all these towers? Rich Russian oligarchs? Arabian millionaires? Chinese investors? London’s super-rich?

Go take a look for yourself, marvel at the towers and ask yourself what this is all about. Are they vanity projects? Money-making machines? And how green and sustainable are they?

As visitors to London should we care?  I think we should because these skyscrapers are changing the look of the capital. Beautifully designed towers can enhance London’s skyline. Bad buildings can become carbuncles on the skyline for decades to come.

So are we doing enough to protect sensitive historic areas for the future?

London Waterloo skyline

Will London’s Waterloo skyline change for the better?

It’s interesting that the New London Architecture think-tank has called on Mayor Boris Johnson to create a Skyline Commission to control the quality of new buildings in the capital.

Boris has always sat on the fence about London’s tall buildings compared with his predecessor Ken Livingstone who was a big ‘tower man’. Ken was keen on skyscrapers which he saw as glamorous billboards ‘advertising’ London as a World City.

With the boom in skyscrapers is London in danger of becoming like Shanghai or Dubai where there’s a big building free-for-all? Or is the race to the skies good for business, Londoners and tourists?

After all, Bilbao in northern Spain has developed huge kudos and a boom in tourism following its promotion of architectural towers and iconic buildings.

Rise of the titans

Heron Tower London

The Heron Tower

The rise of the titans has become almost an unstoppable force but some of these skyscrapers have tried to go ‘green’ in response to their critics.

My personal favourite is ‘Canaletto’ in Islington which comprises the eponymous luxury apartments, penthouse suite and recreation facilities.

The architects have gone all eco-friendly and have built over-flowing gardens that look like the Gardens of Babylon on each level.

The Stage in Shoreditch, with its museum, offices and exhibition spaces, will include an energy centre designed to reduce CO2 emissions.

The Heron Tower near Liverpool Street Station, an office building in the financial heart of the city, has gone one step further with Britain’s largest privately owned aquarium.

One big criticism is that a lot of these tall buildings don’t encourage public access. They’re private spaces.

So the Bishopgate tower in the City of London will feature an area of public space where lesser mortals like you and I can wander freely.

Since skyscrapers pierced London’s skies for the first time in the 1960s, London’s skyline has changed dramatically.

During the 1960s controversy raged in the battle between conservationists and modernists.

St Paul's London

St Paul’s with creeping towers

Today, London’s skyline is changing at perhaps the fastest pace ever.

With London facing a housing crisis and keen to grow economically, the temptation to build upwards is at an all-time high.

Londoners might like looking at high quality skyscrapers but recent surveys have shown that they are less keen on living in them.

Their favourite modern building is one of mine – The Gherkin, Norman Foster’s sculpted tower with a bulbous frame.

Originally dubbed ‘the Erotic Gherkin’, it opened the floodgates for more tall towers.

It reminds me of an old-fashioned rocket, the sort featured in Hergé’s Tintin cartoons.

It feels less aggressive and softer in style than other modern towers.

No surprise that Londoner’s least favourite tower was the concrete jungle of The Barbican, a dour development built in the 1970s and early 1980s.

I try to avoid it unless I’m going to a theatre or music event. It’s an example of how tall buildings and bad design can make a visitor feel alienated and overwhelmed.

London Leadenhall skyline

Reach for the skies – Leadenhall and The Gherkin

City challenge

The tall building debate isn’t just peculiar to London. Other cities also face the challenge of whether to build sky-high or keep their skylines lower.

Paris has a blanket ban on super-tall towers in its historic centre and no building can be more than 83 feet high. So the Eiffel Tower is unlikely to face competition from a skyscraper like The Shard.

Chrsyler Building New York

Chrsyler Building – New York

Instead, it has concentrated its tall towers at La Defense on the edge of the French capital.

The Hermitage Plaza towers in La Defense, designed by Norman Foster, could soon become Europe’s tallest buildings with 92-94 floors, knocking The Shard off its top spot.

Vancouver in Canada has opted for mid-rise developments and lots of green parks to keep its maritime character and preserve its historic centre.

Of course, New York has continued to be a leader in skyscrapers with some of the world’s most beautiful high-rise buildings.

But even here, the city has strict zoning designed to control where tall buildings can be built.

The Chrysler Building is still one of my all-time favourites.

Once the tallest building in the world, it was built in 1928 in glittering Art Deco style. It remains a classic design and a truly thrilling skyscraper.

Hong Kong and Shanghai have taken over New York’s crown as skyscraper capitals of the world with high-rise being the norm to cater for their huge populations.

London Fenchurch skyline

London Fenchurch skyline with ‘The Walkie Talkie’

With at least 236 towers above 20 storeys currently planned for London, the skyscraper is in the ascendancy.

Construction on London Bankside’s 50-storey One Blackfriars – dubbed the “Boomerang” – has begun whilst plans for a 60-storey residential skyscraper in Nine Elms and further towers in Elephant & Castle and Waterloo have also been approved.

So what are your favourite London buildings and how do you feel about the capital’s towering skyline?

And what are your thoughts about what one architect has called “a veritable tsunami of towers”.

For me, I like the high quality towers but fail to see the merit in the mundane ones. Good design is the key to London having a world-class, vibrant skyline.

We must learn from the lessons of the 1960 when tall buildings took over but not all were brilliant designs.

Let’s hope that London’s new skyline is truly exciting and something that we can be proud of for future generations to come.

Tammy’s top travellers’ tips

Blackfriars London skyline

Blackfriars – London’s future skyline

London’s Growing Up! is at London’s Centre for the Built Environment at 26 Store Street off Tottenham Court Road until Thursday 12 June 2014. It’s open Mondays to Fridays between 9.30-18:00 and Saturdays from 10.00-17:00. Admission is free.

The nearest Tube stations are Goodge Street and Tottenham Court Road.

Bishopsgate London

Bishopsgate London

The exhibition explores the history of London’s high-rise buildings through images, models, video and photographs.

Look out for the impressive panoramic view of London charting the ever-changing landscape from the 1960s to the present day.

The interactive displays are well worth trying out too. A touch screen enables visitors to rewind time or fast-forward to the future to see how London will look in years to come.

Although specialist in places, there’s enough in the show to keep the average visitor engaged.

The best places to get an aerial view of London are The Shard, Heron Tower and The Gherkin.

The Shard’s viewing platform is open Sunday to Wednesday 10-19:00 (last entry 17:30) and Thursday to Saturday 10-22:00 (last entry 20:30). All tickets are dated and timed for your arrival, but there are no time restrictions on your stay. But the tickets are a pricey £24.95 per adult.

Visitors take the high-speed ‘kaleidoscopic’ lifts to ascend to the first triple-height viewing platform on Level 69.

State-of-the-art interactive touchscreen telescopes enable The Shard’s guests to explore the views.

You can then ascend to Level 72, the open-air viewing gallery, where guests can gaze up to the top of the building as the shards of glass that form the spire reach up into the sky.

The entrance to The Shard is on Joiner Street which leads to London Bridge Underground Station (Northern and Jubilee line services), London Bridge Main Line Station (Via The Vaults), Tooley Street and St. Thomas Street.

One Wood Wharf London

One Wood Wharf – high rise

Plan your visit to us with TfL’s journey planner.

The Heron Tower has two restaurants on its upper floors. Sushi Samba (Japanese/Brazilian/Peruvian cuisine) is located on the 38th and 39th storeys. The Duck And Waffle is a good viewpoint on the 40th floor if you have a head for heights.

The Gherkin is London’s 6th tallest building and features a top floor restaurant called Searcys. The building is located at 30 St Mary Axe.

It’s home to London’s highest private members’ club, featuring an exclusive lounge, restaurant and bar with 360° views over the City.

There are lower level views from the Oxo Tower’s 8th floor deck.

Take a lift to the restaurant where there’s a narrow walkway where you can look out over the South Bank.

Check out the league table of tall buildings in London on Wikipedia.

Photo Credits – Future London images are courtesy of Hayes Davidson and the London Building Design Centre. Current London photos are by Tammy Tour Guide.


Goddards – Glamorous city living and chocolate!

Goddards York

Goddards York - rustic residence

Chocolate is a passion of mine. I’m an incurable chocoholic. But for one family in York it has been the source of their wealth and fortune for over a century.

Goddards in York was once the home of the Terry family who are best known for their world-famous Chocolate Oranges, Twilight and All Gold chocolate boxes.

Rarely a Christmas went by at our house in the 1980s without Terry’s confectionery being offered around as a seasonal treat.

So a trip to the Terry’s York house proved to be interesting in more ways than one. It also provided proof that chocolate can be big business.

Goddards York

The ‘gate’ to Goddards

Driving up to Goddards it would be easy to miss this hidden gem. It’s hard to imagine that a large house and gardens lie behind the impressive brick entrance on a busy main road running out of York city centre.

Fifteen years ago my parents lived around the corner but I never ever noticed what lay behind the rustic facade, probably because the main house is obscured from view.

Goddards only opened to the public in summer 2013 so I was intrigued to see what I’d been missing all these years.

Goddards York

Arts and crafts style at Goddards

As you drive along the private road up to the house, it’s a surprise to see a striking red-brick Arts and Crafts style house coming into view.

Designed by architect Walter Brierley, it is reminiscent of William Morris’ Red House, another classic Art and Crafts home.

In his day Brierley was known as “the Yorkshire Lutyens” with his designs being characterised by their rustic elegance and homely style.

Goddards is more country manor than city dwelling. It was a bolt hole for the family, just far enough from the Terry’s nearby chocolate factory on the other side of York Racecourse.

The house is a livable and cosy family home rather than a palatial mansion. You can almost imagine living here yourself.

Goddards York

Cosy living room at Goddards

Chocolate dreams

Everywhere there are signs of the family’s chocolate business including the designs of old boxes of confectionery and posters from the 1930s.

The Chocolate Orange is the most famous of the Terry’s confectionery lines. First launched in 1931, it was made in York for 70 years. Noel Terry made his name introducing the Orange to the British public.

When food giants Kraft took over the Terry family business in 1993, it promised to keep production in York.

But it wasn’t long before Kraft went back on that promise. In 2005 it switched production to Poland with other Terry’s brand names being moved to Kraft factories in Belgium and Slovakia.

Today the Chocolate Orange is made in Eastern Europe. An important part of York’s industrial heritage has been lost.

I’d been wondering why they don’t taste as good as they used to. Perhaps they’re using a different recipe? Or may be it’s just a  false sense of nostalgia for the orangey chocolate treat?

Goddards York

Chocolate Orange heaven

Modern tastes in chocolate have become more sophisticated and expensive over the last decade but the Terry’s Orange remains a firm favourite.

So it’s great so see that the menu in Goddards’ cafe includes a Terry’s Chocolate Orange cake!

Family house

Goddards is essentially a family house. Entrepreneur Noel Terry lived here with his wife Kathleen and four children between 1928 and 1980.

Out on the garden terrace you can sit and take in the atmosphere of a 1930s house where the adults sipped their refreshing gin and tonics on a hot summer’s day.

Today, you can do the same, complete with blankets on a chilly spring lunchtime.

Goddards York

On the terrace

Inside the house, you can see how the family lived and went about their daily routines.

In a small wing you can enter the world of a 1930s child with an interactive exhibition of kids’ games in the old playroom.

Upstairs there’s a fascinating exhibition about the history of Terry’s chocolates. I loved the idea that the company started as Terry and Berry, a great rhyming name if I ever heard one!

The name was later abbreviated to Terry. In its heyday in 1867 under chocolate magnate, Joseph Terry, the York factory employed hundreds of people and made 400 confectionery products.

One of my favourites in the 1980s was the short-lived Pyramint, popular for a short time. It was designed to look like an Egyptian pyramid and tomb made from dark chocolate with a minty centre.

Another was the luxurious 1767 Chocolate Assortment with drawers of chocolates  - which only made an appearance when posh friends were visiting.

Goddards York

Terry’s Factory in York

The Terry’s Factory boasted a distinctive clock tower and Art Deco architectural style. You could even see the tower from the gardens at Goddards at one time although trees now obscure the view.

In fact, Noel Terry used to walk to work from his back garden across the racecourse to the chocolate factory every day. There’s not many business men that would walk to work today!

Terry’s confectionery became a household name with shops and even a cafe in York city centre. At one time there was also a Chocolate Apple which pre-dated the famous Orange.

During World War II the factory was used to make aeroplane propellers, but then reverted to chocolate production once the war ended.

Today the old factory lies empty whilst plans to refurbish it for housing and commercial developments take shape. It’s sad but I guess that it’s a sign of the times. Chocolate production is now a global business.

Goddards York

Terry’s shop and cafe in York

A house for living in

Goddards is a modest affair but it makes for an enjoyable trip, not least because it’s unlike most National Trust properties which tend to be grander and more palatial.

This is a house that was made for living in rather than a place to show off. It’s about a family quietly demonstrating their wealth rather than flaunting it.

Goddards York


This was also a working house as reflected in the ground floor study where Noel Terry would go about his business for the company.

There’s some fascinating documents and photographs on the large desk in the centre of the room.

I wondered if the great confectionery magnate ever nibbled on a Chocolate Orange whilst he was working but I felt too stupid to ask anyone!

Goddards York

Inside the study

1930s style

Goddards is all about 1930s style so don’t miss the splendid downstairs dining room which is now a cafe and restaurant. Stop by for a coffee and cake, as we did, to soak up the authentic atmosphere.

But it’s the upstairs rooms that perhaps provide us with the best clues about the family and how they lived when they were at Goddards.

Goddards York

Peter Terry’s bedroom

Noel Terry’s son, Peter, was sporty and a wander into his bedroom takes you back to the time when he was a keen cricketer and tennis player.

Peter had all the benefits of a wealthy upbringing. He was educated at Marlborough and  Cambridge before returning to York, where he spent his working life in the family firm.

He lived through dramatic changes in the confectionery industry at a time when the firm changed hands five times. But here at Goddards we learn more about the man behind the business.

Goddards York

Sporty mementoes

Next door, there’s a poignant reminder that even wealthy families like the Terry’s were not immune from the horrors of war.

Noel Terry had narrowly cheated death at the Battle of the Somme in the First World War when a bullet hit him in the thigh. Fortunately, his silver cigarette case took the hit and saved his life.

But Noel’s son, Kenneth, wasn’t so lucky. He served in the RAF during the Second World War. Tragically, he was killed in action when he was just 23 years old.

His room has been kept almost as it was when he left for his military service.

Goddards York

Poignant memories – Kenneth Terry’s’ bedroom

Garden glory

Goddards’ crowning glory are its gardens which start coming alive in the spring and come into full bloom in the summer.

In their heyday, the main gardens would have been backed by tennis and croquet courts. There are a relaxing series of spaces designed for chilling out rather than formal, showy and over-manicured gardens.


Goddards York

Garden at Goddards

A wander down the garden takes you into a hidden wonder world as you disappear into a small wooded area with a charming rock garden, small ponds and walkways.

It must have been a small and calm oasis away from the city and a stone’s throw away from the Terry’s factory across the Knavesmire.

Today, it’s like walking back in time to the 1930s. I could almost hear the babble of voices and laughter of guests sitting drinking wine on the terrace in the distance.

Goddards York

Wooded walk

Wandering around the gardens it’s almost like being one of the family. In fact the whole visit to Goddards feels very personal, helped by the friendly staff.

For a relaxing trip out, take yourself back to the 1930s with a touch of elegance and style at Goddards.

This is a house built on chocolate. A house fit for a chocolate magnate and his family. Perhaps it could even be the house where the Terry’s Chocolate Orange was first conceived?

Either way, indulge yourself with a trip to Goddards – and don’t forget the Chocolate Orange Cake!

Tammy’s travel tips

Goddards York

Goddards – the side garden

Goddards is located on the edge of York’s historic city centre in North Yorkshire on Tadcaster Road close to the Racecourse.

It’s about 30 minutes walk from York city centre although the number 4, 844 and 12 buses will take you there from outside the Marriott Hotel in York city centre.

Goddards York

Chocolate poster

Goddards is open Wednesday-Sundays plus Bank Holiday Mondays. Car parking is located next to the house.

There’s an admission fee but National Trust members go free.

You can also visit the cafe and terrace (for free) for a drink and cake if you don’t want to take a trip around the house.

If you’re interested in the history of the old Terry’s Factory as it is today, take a trip to the other side of York racecourse.

A trip to Goddards only takes an hour or two so why not combine it with one of York’ other visitor attractions.

My top York recommendations are the National Railway Museum, Clifford’s Tower, Jorvik and the Castle Museum.

The Castle Museum in York city centre has a Terry’s archive and there’s also a reproduction sweet shop.

Take the walk into York City Centre from Goddards with this downloadable historic walking route. Read Tammy’s guide to days out in York city centre.

Stratford upon Avon – A weekend in Shakespeare country

Stratford upon Avon

Stratford upon Avon

Brush up on your Shakespeare if you’re travelling to Stratford-upon-Avon.  It’s the Bard’s birthplace so expect an overdose of the literary giant’s life and works.

Stratford-upon-Avon is one of the UK’s top tourist destinations outside London so I was curious to see what it has to offer other than men in Tudor tights and Elizabethan excess.

So are there enough attractions for an extended stay? Or is it a one-trick pony?

And, most importantly, how can you avoid the large numbers of coach parties and crowds?

Stratford’s big attractions

My last trip to Stratford-upon-Avon involved a lovely walk over the fields on a hot summer’s day to visit Anne Hathaway’s Cottage 15 years ago.

More than a decade on, I was keen to see how it has changed. The answer was - not very much.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised because traditionally Stratford’s strength is that it has been preserved in a time warp.  A successful conservation story.

Beautiful Tudor buildings and Shakespeare’s legacy. These are the things that bring the coach parties and tourists flocking to Stratford.

Stratford upon Avon

Stratford upon Avon’s timbered buildings

As soon as you arrive, there’s no denying that it’s an attractive town with historic inns, timber-framed houses and charming streets.

Everywhere you look there are Shakespearian references from the Hathaway Tea Rooms,  Othello’s Brasserie and Shakespeare Hotel to Iago’s jewellery emporium and Cordelia’s wedding shop.

My favourite themed shop was The Shakespeare in Love Bridal Boutique, a cheesy name if ever I heard one.

Othellos Brasserie Stratfor

Othello’s Brasserie – moorish restaurant

Brushing up on Shakespeare

It’s no bad thing that Shakespeare is all-pervasive, I guess, as long as you know what you’re signing up for.

So I decided to “do” Shakespeare by visiting all the main attractions in the town to see if they’d upped their game since my previous visit.

First stop was Shakespeare’s Birthplace, the most popular of the historic sites in Stratford by a mile. This is where William Shakespeare was born and bred so it’s the busiest of his houses.

Shakespeare also spent the first five years of married life in the house with his wife, Anne Hathaway – and it retains the authentic feel of a Tudor home.

Shakespeare's Birthplace

Shakespeare’s Birthplace

Being a Friday in early springtime, I was hopeful that this popular historic house would be quieter than usual with fewer crowds.

How wrong I was!

As I booked my ticket, I noticed a large crowd of French school children ahead of me. Sadly, it was too late to avoid them and take a quick detour.

I was locked into the walking tour of the house, every room crowded with babbling teenagers looking bored and sullen, blocking the doorways, aisles and exhibits. Rabbiting away on their mobile phones.

Shakespeare's Birthplace

Shakespeare ate his dinner here

It was impossible to appreciate the ambience of the house or navigate around it. I did my best but it was a lost cause. A little voice in my head wanted to scream “Aargh!”.

It wasn’t the school holidays in the UK but obviously it was in the rest of Europe. I should have known better.

I don’t mind a bit of educational tourism but when you decant two large coach parties of kids into a small Elizabethan house, it’s totally overwhelming.

Shakespeare's Birthplace

Crowds at Shakespeare’s Birthplace

Earlier, I had managed to avoid a large party of Japanese tourists snapping away as I was going in.

In a nutshell – Stratford-upon-Avon has a real problem managing tourist numbers. And this is only March, not even the peak summer season.

It’s a shame because the Bard’s Birthplace is a lovely building and makes for an interesting trip, if you can avoid the tour groups.

But the interpretation needs to be much better for a world-class heritage site.  There’s little sense of the man and his lifestyle.

In search of Shakespeare

Once outside, I breathed a sigh of relief and headed for one of Stratford’s many coffee and cake shops – Patisserie Valerie.

Having recovered from the coach party hell (the cake helped), I decided to try the quieter Shakespeare attractions – New Place and Nash’s House.

Nash House and New Place Stratford

Nash’s House and New Place Stratford

Shakespeare lived at New Place, his family home, when he wasn’t in London. It is thought that he wrote some of his later plays here including The Tempest.

It was Shakespeare’s last home and he died in the house in 1616 at the relatively young age of 52. Today the building is long gone, a hole in the ground, so there’s none of Shakespeare’s belongings to see.

For archaeology fans there are some exhibits from the excavations on the site but that’s really all that’s left.

Once again, I got very little sense of what Shakespeare was like, what inspired him and how he lived here with his family on a daily basis.

Shakespeare memorial -

Shakespeare memorial – New Place

Next door is Nash’s House, a lovely Tudor building named after Thomas Nash, the first husband of Shakespeare’s granddaughter, Elizabeth.

Although there’s much to admire about the building, I was disappointed by the displays which are dull and lacking in imaginative presentation.

There’s a few dreary cabinets about Shakespeare’s plays and little to excite adults. For some strange reason, we’re given unwieldy, giant-sized information boards to carry around the house and gardens. This became quite amusing when I attempted to go to the loo!

There are more activities for kids than adults, largely consisting of dressing up boxes and an ‘activities room’.

Perhaps the Trust thinks that it doesn’t have to try too hard as Shakespeare is a guaranteed tourist magnet. But this isn’t good enough. Maintaining the bricks and mortar is only part of the story.

I’ve seen better heritage interpretation at the Workhouse Museum in the Midlands, a place that celebrates the common man, not Britain’s most important writer and poet.

New Place Stratford

Nash’s House Stratford

The traditional Tudor knot garden is the star attraction at Nash’s House with its sculptures and walks.

There’s also a memorial to Shakespeare plus several modern statues celebrating the Bard’s plays and poetry.

The whole experience is a missed opportunity. Whilst I don’t suggest turning the houses into theme parks or gimmicky attractions, there needs to be better and more engaging interpretation.


Nash House and New Place Stratford

The Tudor gardens at New Place

Hall’s Croft

Rather more interesting is another Shakespeare house, Hall’s Croft, about 1/4 mile up the road in the Georgian quarter of Stratford-upon-Avon.

This impressive Tudor house was the home of Susanna Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s oldest daughter, and her husband, Dr John Hall.

Built in 1613 the house reflects the Hall family’s comparative wealth and status with beautifully decorated and heavily-wooded rooms.

The interpretation is better than at Nash’s House but is still minimal. The staff are lovely and  enthusiastic but they’re not helped by the lack of a strong curatorial hand.

Stratford upon Avon

Hall’s Croft – Tudor treasure

There is a better sense of the people who lived in the house including a collection of apothecary equipment and books in the doctor’s consulting room.

The pretty gardens are well worth a look especially the herb garden used by Dr Hall for his medical remedies. You can almost imagine him strolling around picking the herbs for his patients.

In the same vicinity, it’s also worth checking out Stratford’s old Georgian town with its well-proportioned, elegant houses.

It couldn’t be more different to the Tudor architecture nearby and makes for a refreshing change of historic period.

Stratford upon Avon - Hall 's Croft

Tudor garden – Hall ‘s Croft

By now, there was just time to visit one more attraction – Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, a 15 minute stroll away. It’s like walking back in time as you cross the pastoral landscape and picturesque cottages.

This is one of my favourite Shakespeare houses. Anne lived here when the Bard was courting her before their marriage.

The thatched farmhouse with its pretty garden is the archetypal old English cottage with its traditional blooms and rural setting.

Although small inside, it’s a cosy cottage that you can imagine living in. It really felt like going back 500 years in time. And for once, I was lucky enough to see it without a coach party rampaging around its tiny interior.

The price of Shakespeare

The most annoying thing about the Shakespeare houses, run by the Birthplace Trust, is the lack of flexibility in the ticket pricing.

I had originally planned to spend time in one of the houses but was forced to buy the £15:90 ticket covering all three main properties (rising to £23 if you add in Anne Hathaway’s Cottage). Anne Hathaway’s Cottage is the only house where you can buy an individual ticket.

The £15:90 ticket  may represent good value if you have a full weekend to get around all the houses but for the day tripper, it doesn’t work, especially if you arrive after lunch.

Shakespeare's Birthplace

Shakespeare slept here?

The fact that you can’t buy a single ticket to Shakespeare’s Birthplace is ridiculous.

I found myself racing around the houses to get the most out of my ticket. The tickets are valid for a year but, like many visitors, there’s no chance of me being back in Stratford in the next 12 months.

This really needs to be sorted out for the day trippers amongst us.

What else can Stratford offer?

Globe Theatre

The Globe Theatre and bar

After a glut of historic houses, it was time to go to the pub!  There’s only enough Shakespeare you can take in one serving, even if you’re a fan.

Stratford is blessed with a good selection of hostelries from Tudor drinking houses like the black and white timbered Garrick Inn to The Black Swan which overlooks the River Avon.

I’d arranged to meet the family in the famous Dirty Duck pub but was bamboozled when, after walking up and down for 15 minutes, I couldn’t find it.

Then, I discovered that the pub has two names – the latest of which is The Black Swan. There are still two signs, pointing in different directions. Talk about confusing!

Black Swan Stratford upon Avon

The Black Swan and Dirty Duck – strange wildfowl mix

The best thing about the pub is that it’s covered floor to wall with signed photos of actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company from down the years.

A young Dame Judi Dench and Patrick Stewart plus other luminaries stare down from the walls.

It’s an entertaining way to spend an hour whilst relaxing with a pint of real ale and soaking up the atmosphere. Play at spot the celebrity - you might be lucky enough to see some of the RSC actors having a pint.

Alternatively, head into the restaurant at the back of the pub for a reasonably priced bar meal.

Black Swan Stratford upon Avon

RSC people spotting - The Black Swan

On a sunny day, you can sit outside and admire the views down to the River Avon with its famous white swans floating along in flotillas.

It’s well worth a walk along the river and canal basin to see a very different face of Stratford with canal narrowboats, rowing boats and water life.

For something completely different after your pint, head down to the Mad Museum of kinetic art and automata, ideal for families.

River Avon Stratford

River Avon – a different side to Stratford

Theatrical experience

A stone’s throw away is one of Stratford-upon-Avon’s most famous landmarks – the tower of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

Since the theatre’s renovation a couple of years ago, you can ride up to the top of the new tower for impressive views across the town and surrounding countryside.

RSC costume

Theatre costume

There’s also a cool restaurant where you might even bump into the RSC’s famous actors in between shows.

Also don’t forget to look out for the costume displays dotted around the theatre buildings.

Alternatively, why not take one of the guided tours behind the scenes or, better still, go to see a show.

Top class acting and productions are the RSC’s unique selling point and you can catch their season’s shows before they head to London.

The RSC has two programmes running at the same time, one in the main RSC Theatre and the other in the smaller Globe Theatre.

We saw the excellent historic dramas, Wolf Hall and Bring Out The Bodies in the atmospheric Globe.

After the show, there’s always a good chance of spotting the cast in the Globe’s bar.

We saw Nathanial Parker who plays King Henry VIII having a quiet post-show tipple with fellow actors from Wolf Hall.

RSC Theatre Stratford upon Avon

RSC Theatre Stratford upon Avon

It’s a thrill to explore this iconic theatre. Some of the best spaces to relax are the Rooftop Restaurant and the Riverside Cafe. And don’t forget to dive into the excellent RSC shop.

So is Stratford about more than just Shakespeare?

Well, it’s a tough call. The old Georgian town and River Avon offer something different whilst weekend visitors can combine Stratford with nearby Warwick with its impressive castle and historic centre.

But at its heart Stratford-upon-Avon is really all about its special relationship with Shakespeare.

And I guess, despite the crowds and tour buses, you have to love the place for that. Nowhere does Shakespeare better.

Tammy’s travel tips

Garrick Inn Stratford

Stratford’s shopping centre

Stratford-upon-Avon is located in the West Midlands 8 miles from Warwick and 31 miles from Birmingham. There are train services from Birmingham Moor Street (45 minutes) and London (2 hours).

The Visit Stratford website has an overview of visitor attractions.

Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Hall’s Croft and New Place/Nash’s House are located close to each other in Stratford-upon-Avon town centre.

Anne Hathaway’s Cottage is in Shottery, a hamlet over one mile from Stratford town centre. Walk to it along a pleasant, well sign-posted footpath.

Mary Arden’s Farm is a short drive away in the village of Wilmcote.

The RSC theatre is a must-see attraction with live shows, theatre tours and exhibition spaces as well as the viewing tower.

Stratford has a range of hotels from big chains to boutique hotels and B & Bs. One of my favourites is The Shakespeare where I stayed over 20 years ago. I remember the giant four poster bed.

Mercure - The Shakespeare Hotel

Mercure – The Shakespeare Hotel

Now charmingly restored, The Shakespeare has reopened as a Mercure hotel, and looks all the smarter for its sympathetic makeover.

We stayed in our camper van at Stratford Marina. Although not cheap at £20 per night (and no hook-up), it’s in a great location within three minutes walk from the RSC and town centre.

Camper van site - Stratford upon Avon marina

Camper van site – Stratford upon Avon marina

Stratford is a very walkable city if you arrive by train from London or nearby Birmingham. There’s a pleasant shopping centre with a decent selection of small shops as well as the multiples.

Look out for the Shakespeare APP on your iPhone and iPad for background information on the Bard of Avon and Stratford’s history.

For art lovers I can recommend nearby Compton Verney, an award-winning art gallery in a Georgian mansion, about 9 miles down the road from Stratford. But you will need a car.

The best time to visit Stratford-upon-Avon is out of the main summer season to avoid the coach parties and crowds. You have been warned!

White Swan

The White Swan

London’s ultimate theatre event – The Drowned Man

The Drowned Man c/o Punchdrunk

Screen dreams – The Drowned Man c/o Punchdrunk

For a dramatically different night out in London why not immerse yourself in a sensory theatrical experience?

The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Revue is a groundbreaking theatre event from the innovative company, Punchdrunk.

It’s an experience like nothing I’ve seen before. The show mixes theatre, visual art and design with a complex series of storylines that take place across four floors of a disused warehouse.

Wearing a mask and walking in silence with a crowd of fellow travellers, the show plunges you into a sensory world where you decide the path of your own theatrical journey.

Unsurprisingly, it’s already gaining a huge cult status with packed shows at the old post office in Paddington which has been converted into a 1960′s Hollywood film studio.

Behind the mask

On arrival it’s clear this is going to be an evening like no other. Once inside you’re given a white mask resembling something from a horror movie or The Phantom of the Opera.

Tammy in mask

Tammy – behind the mask

Then you’re ushered along a series of corridors into a lift where an actress welcomes the masked visitors to the studios and introduces the key protagonists.

As the lift doors open, our guide lets some of the guests out and then bangs the doors shut, taking the remaining audience to a different floor, decanting us into a large space with the sign ‘Temple Studios’.

Our hostess warns us that there will be two murders. Where and when they will take place is not divulged.

A shiver runs down our spines.

Her parting words of advice are to watch how far you stray from the main path because “there are unscrupulous people out there”.  We’re also advised to make our own way and not to follow our companions.

The sense of disorientation is almost overwhelming as we shuffle out of the lift, looking bemused.

The Drowned Man c/o Punchdrunk

Welcome to Temple Studios c/o Punchdrunk

This is not the type of promenade theatre I remember from trips to strolling productions of Shakespeare in ruined castles!

At first, it’s tricky to decide what to do and where to go. The whole building has been decked out with numerous sound stages and film sets. There are a multiplicity of options.

I try to remember the brief plot summary we were given whilst waiting in the lobby which is now stuffed in the handbag which I had to give in at the cloakroom before entering the studios.

Racking my brains, I recall something about a tragic story featuring star-crossed lovers including a drugstore cowboy, a studio diva and an American sweetheart. But I’d lost the plot and the piece of paper long ago!

Basically, there are two versions of the main story playing out simultaneously – and many more hidden secrets to discover.

Doomed love story c/o Punchdrink

Doomed love story c/o Punchdrunk

The stories are acted out across the vast sound stages which include a small town, a trailer park, a woodland and a desert complete with sand dunes.

Expect the unexpected, wherever you decide to roam.

I’m told that the drama is inspired by Georg Buchner’s unfinished play Woyzeck. It’s performed  by a large cast of actors and dancers with the emphasis on physical theatre.

If you don’t move out the way, you’re likely to get tangled up in the action!

Some scenes take place in large spaces whilst others play out in tiny, confined rooms with a handful of people watching. This gives the whole show a feeling of intimacy and immediacy.

There are dozens of locations to explore. At one point I found myself disappearing into a series of voluminous curtains that engulfed me.

Another time I ended up inside a cupboard. Just as well I’m not claustrophobic.

Then I stumbled upon a doctor’s surgery where I bumped into a strange actor amongst the alarming medical records – a disconcerting experience.

Punchdrink c/o Travis Hodges

Get outside your comfort zone c/o Travis Hodges

Everyone’s experience during this show is unique. Punchdrunk removes the audience from their comfort zone and loses them in a parallel universe.

On several occasions  I felt scared, anxious and confused. But then I also felt a sense of exhilaration, excitement and adventure.

One of the most disturbing moments came when the crowd followed a male actor through a stage set towards an office. As he unlocked the door, he ushered a female audience member inside.

Before the rest of us could follow, he slammed the door shut and locked it.

We tried to make out what was going on through the murky windows but it was hard to see in the dark. Then they disappeared from sight completely.

We never saw them again.

Back in the woods on my own I had a deep sense of foreboding that I would be whipped away by an unscrupulous stranger.

Although I knew this was a theatrical construct, my heart was pounding! Would I become a victim too?

So I hurried back to the main street to the safety of the crowd and away from the dark shadows.

The Drowned Man c/o Punchdrunk

Watch out in the woods c/o Punchdrunk

Make your own movie

The Drowned Man is all about making your own movie and storyline, matching together the dramatic pieces like a giant jigsaw puzzle.

Punchdrunk  presents a huge palette of possibilities – it’s a bit like being presented with the unedited rushes for a film which you have to cut together.

After an hour, I was starting to come up with my own version of the story, although this was derailed several times as the theatrical action constantly threw up surprises, twists and turns.

There are a multitude of characters including the Dust Witch, the Seamstress, Badlands Jack, The Fool and The Gatekeeper. Each has their own storyline which you can follow.

The Drowned Man c/o Punchdrunk

Get up close to the action c/o Punchdrunk

Being so close to the actors is an intimate and compelling experience. It’s hard not to be blown away by the intensity of the performances.

The cast play out their dramas, seemingly unaware of the audience. From time to time, an actor interacts with an audience member, adding a sense of surprise.

Wearing masks enables the audience to become anonymous and get closer to the action. We can almost feel the breath of the performers on us.

As time goes by, we become voyeurs watching the action unfold whether in a saloon bar, strange house or trailer park.

The Drowned Man c/o Punchdrunk

Music adds to the ambience c/o Punchdrunk

Music provides a soundtrack to these tales of the unexpected with solo singers and a full-blown band in the bar.

The production design is outstanding and draws us in with its impressive layering of detail. In many rooms there are handwritten letters, notes and books which the masked audience can read.

The visual designs are breathtaking with an attention to the smallest of details that I’ve rarely seen in a theatrical production of this scale before.

Every element of the visual design provides clues and context to the stories. The devil is – as they say – in the detail.

The Drowned Man c/o Punchdrunk

Unlocking the story c/o Punchdrunk

Grasping the plot

By now I was starting to discover that it was a good idea to follow one or two characters for a while to get a grip on the many inter-connected story lines. Otherwise, it’s hard to grasp what’s going on.

I hitched a ride with two main characters as they moved from a house to the front porch and then onto street level where they became embroiled in a dance of passion.

There’s a spectacular physical dance sequence and fight on top of a car which spills over into the masked observers. You feel like you’re part of the action.

The Drowned Man c/o Punchdrunk

Shining a light c/o Punchdrunk

Many scenes involve acrobatic performances brimming with physicality and energy.

The unpredictability of the show means that you’re never sure what’s going to happen next. There’s a surprise around every corner.

The roaming audience are witnesses to two murders. Everyone becomes a voyeur. Complicit in this film noir thriller.

The Drowned Man c/o Punchdrunk

Surprising story lines c/o Punchdrunk

Camera, lights, action…

It’s also easy to miss much of the action. After an hour I realised there were three or four floors to explore and many more stories to be unpackaged. My film plot required a major rewrite!

As I grew bolder, I  explored  further afield. On the top floor I discovered a film set covered in sand where a distressed male character was flailing around on the ground.

I didn’t expect what happened next. He whipped off his clothes and performed a naked dance like a whirling dervish, as if possessed by demons.

The whole experience was surreal, a bit like being an extra in the darkest of David Lynch movies.

The Drowned Man c/o Punchdrunk

Sand dancer  c/o Punchdrunk

Things get weirder as time goes by but I’m not going to spoil the experience for anyone who hasn’t seen the show.

There are moments of madness, beauty and brutality. It’s riveting stuff.

The show culminates in a hoedown style finale when all the actors assemble for the first time together. Gradually, the pieces of the jigsaw fall into place. Perhaps.

The Drowned Man c/o Punchdrunk

David Lynch meets film noir nightmare c/o Punchdrunk

Surreal world

The Drunken Man is in a league of its own. Punchdrunk has succeeded in reinventing promenade theatre and creating a truly memorable spectacle.

Punchdrunk has created a sprawling, surreal world which is impressive, imaginative and sometimes baffling.

There are deserts, mountains, hillsides, woodland and even a rain shower in this visually arresting extravaganza.

As I left, I overheard people saying that their friends have seen the show three times. It’s hardly surprising when you consider how many different narratives are running in parallel.

The Drowned Man c/o Punchdrunk

Looking for clues at the Red Moon Hotel c/o Punchdrunk

By deconstructing the structure of the play, Punchdrunk’s show allows for return visits and multiple interpretations.

After my trip I realised that I’d missed some key scenes (I’m not telling which) and even some locations including a children’s dormitory, complete with teddy bears. How did I miss that?

But that’s kind of the point. You aren’t supposed to see everything. After all, The Drowned Man is meant to be a journey of exploration and discovery.

This is immersive theatre at its very best.

Punchdrunk will show you something you’ve never seen before. You’d be mad to miss it!

The Drowned Man c/o Punchdrunk

The Drowned Man c/o Punchdrunk

Tammy’s top tips

Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable is currently running to the end of April 2014 although its run may be extended.

Tickets are available online or from the National Theatre box office, who are the co-production company for this show. Performance times vary. You can also book specific time slots for arrival at the event.

The Drowned Man

Dramatic climax c/o Punchdrunk

The show takes place at Temple Studios which is located opposite Paddington Station at 31 London Street.

This is a promenade show with the audience of up to 600 guests constantly on the move, following the performers and exploring the sets.

It is hard to remain with your mates and Punchdrunk recommend that you “go it alone” to get the most out of the performance.

On the way out don’t miss the fantastic bar, decked out in full studio style as you enter the ‘wrap party’.  It looks absolutely beautiful with feathers in glass bowls and Hollywood-style decorations.

No bags, mobile phone or other distractions are allowed inside Temple Studios. Expect to leave everything in the cloakroom.

There is no talking whatsoever allowed during the three-hour show.

Wear sensible shoes because the show involves a lot of walking. I felt like I’d walked 5-6 miles during the three hours.

The Drowned Man c/o Punchdrunk

Imaginary worlds c/o Punchdrunk

At the end of the show you’re allowed to keep your mask which spooked out some folk when I was waiting at the bus stop on the way home!

Curiosity is the key. The more you explore, the richer your experience will be.

Be bold and immerse yourself.

The Drowned Man c/o Punchdrunk

Let your curiosity run riot c/o Punchdrunk

Farndale – Spring bursts out!

Daffodil Walk

First signs of spring – wild daffodil

Spring is one of my favourite times of the year when nature wakes from its winter’s slumber.

The first green shoots peek through and the wild flowers start to bloom in profusion. It’s an invigorating season as everything starts to come alive.

Farndale is renowned for being the best place in Britain to witness one of spring’s great spectacles – a carpet of daffodils and wild flowers.

After winter’s chill it’s great to see the first signs of spring starting to burst through so it seemed a good time to capture this colourful spectacle with a countryside walk.


Tony on the Farndale country walk

Moors and valleys

After a stunning trip in the camper van over the moors and down into the valley, we parked up in the village car park at Low Mill in Farndale, part of the North York Moors National Park.


Domestic daffodils bloom earlier than wild ones

With the sun shining and temperatures hitting 14 C, it was the perfect day for a country walk.

There was just one problem – we’d remembered to bring the posh camera but nobody had checked that the SD card had been packed.

There were grimaces because we wouldn’t be able to take any decent photos – it would have to be an iPhone job.

After a huffy moment, Tammy checked the Farndale website, only to discover that the wild daffodils don’t generally bloom till late March. We were two weeks early!

There was a good chance we wouldn’t see a single daffodil on the famous ‘Daffodil Walk’. So we decided to turn the walk into a daffodil safari to see if we could spot any signs of the wild flowers.

At the start of the walk (by the car park), there was an eccentric sign that made me laugh after the realisation that we were extremely ‘early birds’.

Wild walk


Don’t pluck the daffodils

If you’re planning to do this walk, I have good news – it’s not too strenuous. Most of the short walk takes you along the easy riverside path which is mostly paved.

Naturally, my partner Tony wanted to go off piste and complete the rougher route at the top of the river loop so our trip ended up being the longer 5-6 mile version.

As we started the walk to the nature reserve, I noticed one solitary wild daffodil on the river bank – but would this be our only sighting?


Easy track along the river

As we walked further along the valley bottom, there was plenty of evidence of spring starting to burst through. Some of the trees already had catkins on them so I got hopeful that we’d see more daffodils.

After all, the weather had been glorious and warm for the last five days so perhaps the daffodils had sprung up earlier than usual.

Everywhere we looked there were clumps of daffodils which were still in bud. But there was just one problem – they hadn’t bloomed yet. There was a carpet of green not yellow daffodils!

Daffodil safari


Daffodils ready to bloom

As we walked along the River Dove, there were plenty of signs of nature reawakening after what has been a very wet winter.

Across the fields there were game birds strutting their stuff from brightly coloured pheasants to the gorgeous, rare black grouse and the commoner red grouse feeding on heather shoots.

It’s a treat to spot the black grouse with its fluffy jet-black plumage and scarlet red eye markings. The more common red grouse is a browner bird which reminds me of the image on a certain famous whisky bottle.

Red Grouse

Red Grouse

Looking back down the river there were plenty of early wildflowers blooming, especially snowdrops, always the first to burst through at the end of winter.

But the daffodils were still proving elusive. Normally, you’d expect a host of golden daffodils beside the lake, beneath the trees, fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Perhaps I had been dreaming too much of a scene reminiscent of William Wordsworth’s famous daffodils poem?


Early snowdrops

But all was not lost. As we walked onwards, there were a few groups of wild daffodils in sunny spots lining the river banks.

They were poking their heads into the air, their yellow trumpets craning towards the sun’s warmth.

At last, we had a proper sighting of the wild daffodil which resembles the pretty narcissus with its delicate flowers and petite size.


First blooms

This is a much smaller flower than the large daffodils that spring up in my back garden every year.

Rumour has it that the medieval monks from nearby Rievaulx Abbey planted the first daffodil bulbs in Farndale.

These wild daffodils (Narcissus Pseudonarcissus)  flower along a seven mile section of the River Dove which has been carefully managed as a nature reserve to protect the bulbs.

Local landowners and the National Park Authority look after the local habitat together to avoid damage to the leaves or roots of the daffodils while they are growing.

They also cut back scrub and branches to allow in light to enable the daffodils to thrive.

As you walk further down the river, more and more daffodils are starting to bloom especially around the middle section of the walk.

Don’t forget to look down the river as you stroll along because this is excellent territory for kingfishers who build their nests in the banks.


The River Dove

Tea break

Halfway round the walk there is the brilliantly named Daffy Caffy where you can grab a cuppa and rest your weary feet.

It’s a good place to stop to review your progress and decide on whether to continue around the top loop of the walk or return back along the same riverside path.

Farndale Daffy Caffy

The Daffy Caffy

Sitting in the garden next to the cafe there’s some good bird watching opportunities – the trees, bushes and feeders are popular with small birds.

We were surprised to see a large flock of cheeky chaffinches at close quarters – on tables, chairs and bushes, begging for food and photo opportunities.

They’re regulars in the spring and summer months when tourists outnumber the local population by 200:1.

Only 200 people live in the Farndale area but up to 40,000 visitors arrive during the spring to go on the Daffodil Walk and the wild trails.

Chaffinch at Daffy Caffy

Cheeky Chaffinch at Daffy Caffy

After a few refreshments we carried on to complete the circular loop of the walk which takes you up through Church Houses and beyond.

The top end

The walk continues along an attractive area of farmland, reaching the small village of Church Houses which is as sleepy as you can get.

Farndale Feversham Arms

The Faversham Arms in Church Houses

If you missed stopping at the Daffy Caffy, there’s a chance to drink something stronger and tuck into some hearty nosh at the Faversham Arms pub.

We were full of cake and tea so took a right turn and staggered on up the hill past the pub. It’s not like me to walk past a public house but I was now into my serious walking stride.

Although there are fewer wild flowers along this section, it’s a pleasant country walk with panoramic views across the landscape.


Panoramic views across Farndale

Admire the local dry stone walls as you make your way up the bank.  I’m always amazed by the technique that locals use to construct these walls. They look precarious but are as sturdy as a solid brick house.

At the top of the hill, look out over the landscape as you look out over the moorland with its dramatic change of scenery.

It’s much wilder than the surrounding, manicured farmland with its heather and bracken. If you’re lucky, this is a good time of year to see the farmers burning the heather, an annual ritual designed to rejuvenate the landscape.

Take a right turn and follow the signs across a series of farmers’ fields where you’ll encounter a number of stiles.


Tony’s outdoor style

Listen and look out for game birds on the moors and fields. They tend to get spooked as you come by, flapping loudly and emitting a cackling alarm call as they fly off overhead.

I was amazed at the numbers of pheasants and grouse roaming the whole area. No doubt, many will end up on somebody’s dinner table in the coming months.

A word of caution at this point. This winter has been very wet so expect the fields to be boggy and muddy. Don’t fall in – something I nearly did several times!


Watch the mud!

If you’re finding the going a bit tough, there’s the option of taking a less boggy parallel route back to the main riverside path.

We persisted on through a number of farms and then finally appeared back on the main walk back to the car park.

The sun was starting to go down and the sky had turned a lovely orangey-hued colour as dusk crept in.


Farndale at dusk

Far in the distance I heard the first warbler of the year, a chiffchaff repeating its distinctive song, a sure sign that spring has sprung.

As we left the reserve, I spotted one final clump of daffodils in bloom, waving in the gently late afternoon breeze.

Although we hadn’t seen the yellow carpet of daffodils, we had enjoyed a completely different experience – the first signs of spring breaking through.

Spring’s first buds and blooms are special.  It’s a treat to see the season’s reawakening.

So why not go on a spring safari? By the end of March the daffodils will be in full bloom and you’ll be able to enjoy one of Britain’s nature spectacles in its full glory.

Tammy’s travel tips

Farndale and the Daffodil Walk are located near Low Mill car park, 4 miles north-east of Hutton-le-Hole in the North York Moors National Park.

The best time to see the daffodils in full bloom are the last week in March and the first two weeks in April, although timings can change depending on the weather.

There are numerous places to stay in the surrounding area from holiday cottages to guesthouses, small hotels and camp sites.

We opted to stay in Hutton-le-Hole, one of the most picturesque places in the National Park where there’s an excellent small motor home and caravan site in the centre of the village.


Hutton-le-Hole village

Hutton-le-Hole is about five minutes drive from the Farndale Daffodil Walk. It has a decent public house called The Crown Inn, serving food and drinks.

Also in the village is the Ryedale Folk Museum with its interesting collection of old houses, shops and farm buildings.

Worth a trip nearby are the town of Pickering, with its castle, Rievaulx Abbey, Dalby Forest and the North Yorkshire Moors scenic steam railway.

Nature lovers shouldn’t miss taking one of the many wild walks from the village over the moors where there is dramatic scenery and good bird watching.

London’s Temple of Discoveries


Discoveries – from Dodos to Inuits

Where in the world can you see a Dodo, Darwin’s famous egg and DNA discoveries collected together in one place?

Little-known treasures and rare objects sit side by side in the intriguing Discoveries exhibition at Temple Place in London.

It’s a fascinating look at human discovery in all its forms. There are unusual and quirky discoveries ranging from artworks and scientific artefacts to prehistoric treasures and rare zoological specimens.

Eclecticism rules in this intriguing show, the strangest collection of objects I’ve seen for some time.

Journey of discovery

Discoveries at Two Temple Place London

Discover intriguing objects

My recent trip to the Discoveries exhibition reminded me of the Sir John Soane’s Museum which I visited in London a few weeks ago.

Both are ‘cabinets of curiosities’ featuring odd and eclectic items. They also display their collections in fascinating buildings which are intriguing destinations in their own right.

This exhibition challenges us to think about the meaning of ‘discovery’, not just groundbreaking scientific or artistic discoveries, but everyday objects.

Once inside the galleries , there are ancient fossils, Inuit sculptures, a rare dodo skeleton and archaeological finds. 

There’s even a state-of-the art digital detector that searches for sub-atomic particles in the frozen depths of Antarctica. A modern piece of wizardry.


Antarctic wizardry – c/o Polar Museum

Darwin’s egg

Which came first – the chicken or the egg? It’s a question that must have perplexed one of the world’s greatest naturalists, Charles Darwin, as he laboured to write On the Origin of Species.

The famous Tinamou Egg, collected by Darwin on the voyage of the Beagle (1831-1836), is one of the stars of the Discoveries show.

It also proves that not even the world’s greatest scientists always get things right.

Discoveries - Darwin's egg

Discoveries – Darwin’s egg

The egg was cracked by Darwin as he tried to store it in a box which proved to be too small. It’s the sort of clumsy thing I would have done but you’d expect more of a great thinker like Darwin!

One of just 16 eggs collected by Darwin on his five-year voyage, it is the only one known to have survived.

It was thought to have been lost until its rediscovery in 2009 by a museum volunteer who, fortunately, didn’t drop or crack it.

Dead as a Dodo


Dodo c/o Museum of Zoology, Cambridge. Photo by Paul Tucker

There’s nothing quite like coming face to face with a Dodo. To be precise, a Dodo skeleton in a display case.

It’s an unsettling experience because this bird has been extinct since the late 1600s.

Once native to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean, the demise of this large, flightless bird was caused by the usual suspect. Humans.

Hunting, habitat destruction and predators introduced by European outsiders killed off this sitting target.

It’s shocking to reflect that human’s intervention in an ecosystem could lead to the extinction of an entire species of animal.

The bones of this Dodo were gathered by islanders with the help of a British zoologist in Victorian times. They were found in a swamp ironically called the ‘Sea of Dreams’.

The symbolism of the Dodo is incredibly powerful, revealing nature’s fragility in the face of the human onslaught. And it remains a sobering lesson today.

Butterflies and birds

Call me strange but I do like a bit of zoological history. After looking at the Dodo, I was keen to learn more about evolution.

As a nature lover I’m fascinated by how species were classified and described by the early zoologists, the precursors of today’s TV naturalists like David Attenborough and Chris Packham.

So I was pleased to find that the Discoveries show provides a few historic answers with an early foray into the world of animal evolution.


Butterflies c/o Museum of Zoology, Cambridge

One of the star exhibits is a case of the butterflies used by zoologist Reginald Punnett. He used these actual butterflies in writing his groundbreaking book on these delicate insects. 

Another intriguing exhibit which kept me fascinated for ages was Hugh Edwin Strickland’s Chart of Bird Classification, an early attempt to group together birds species.

As a bird watcher, I was amazed to discover this tree-like chart pre-dates Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by 16 years. A true breakthrough, captured in delicate pen and ink.

The chart had never been on public display before so it’s a treat to see it restored to its former glory.

Bird classification chart

Bird classification chart c/o Museum of Zoology, Cambridge

Appliance of science

Scientific discoveries are a major feature of the show. If you’re a gadget geek or a science specialist you’ll want to linger longer than I did over these exhibits.

That said, I was fascinated by many of the objects, because of their beauty and intricacy.

This Table Orrery from the 1770s is a mechanical model of the Sun, Earth, Moon and planets.

When the handle is turned, the planets and Moon revolve at their exact relative speeds, demonstrating the phases of day and night, the seasons, the lunar cycle and eclipses.

It’s a stunning piece that would be perfect for my study, but this one would probably have been used for teaching in the home of a wealthy family in the 18th Century.


Charting the planets c/o Whipple Museum, Cambridge

Polar discovery

Polar exploration requires a very different type of discovery from art or pure science.

I’ve never had the guts to undertake anything adventurous in an extreme polar climate. Perhaps this has fuelled my admiration for explorers like Scott of the Antarctic who features prominently in the Discoveries show.


Polar goggles c/o The Polar Museum, Cambridge

Snow goggles have always played a vital role in expeditions like Captain Scott’s. They enable explorers to deal with the extreme exposure to UV rays reflected from snow and ice.

Snow blindness, the equivalent of sunburn of the eye, is an occupational hazard for polar adventurers.

So I was fascinated by the odd-looking goggles in the exhibition, many dating back over 150 years.

Most striking were the wooden goggles used by the Inuits. But the goggles worn by Scott and his team were even more bizarre especially the wire gauze goggles worn by Dr Edward Wilson on the 1901 Discovery expedition.

Captain Scott and his men experimented with a variety of goggles, some based on Inuit designs. By the Terra Nova expedition in 1910-13, experimented with tinted glass which led to the use of goggles that look like modern sunglasses.

There is some lovely and evocative art from the Scott excursions including this watercolour by Edward Wilson, the scientist and artist who travelled with Captain Scott on his Antarctic expeditions.


A Great Day on the Great Ice Barrier by Edward Wilson c/o Polar Museum, Cambridge

Wilson accompanied Scott on the British Antarctic Terra Nova expedition in 1911 but on their return from the South Pole, the party encountered extreme weather.

Wilson died with Scott and Bowers, holed up in their tent in a blizzard. They were just 11 miles short of the nearest cache of food and fuel. They had paid the ultimate price for their journey of discovery.

Artistic adventure


Gaudia Brzeska c/o Kettles Yard

Discovery isn’t just about science and exploration, particles and physics.

Artistic adventures are also at the heart of the Discoveries show with a selection of exquisite works by artists who pushed back the boundaries.

The eclectic collection includes a Henry Moore figure, Gaudia-Brzeska portraits, a modern Inuit sculpture and a print by Australian artist Brook Andrew.

There are several paintings and sketches from one of my favourite art museums, Kettles Yard in Cambridge.

My favourite piece was this Gaudia-Brzeska drawing which reveals an intense journey of artistic self-discovery.

This insanely talented artist and sculptor should have been one of the big names of 20th Century art. Tragically he was killed in France during the First World War in 1915.

Known as ‘the Savage Messiah’, his work is fascinating and challenging. It’s a treat to see several of his wonderful drawings on display in this exhibition.

Odd objects

Maria c/o Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge

There are many kinds of discovery in this exhibition. But I love the wonderful stories behind the exhibits especially the archaeological and anthropological objects.

This striking sculpture – called ‘Maria’ – represents the wife of a chief on the Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal.

It was collected by a Royal Navy commander, Arthur Hulbert, during a visit to the islands in 1905.

The figure was originally created to protect ‘Maria’ from fever spirits. But when she died of a severe illness, her family thought the sculpture was useless and gave it away to Hulbert.

This sculpture is rare because the Nicobar Islands had much of its cultural heritage destroyed by the 2004 Asian tsunami.

Nearby there’s a strange-looking Snakes and Ladders board, a game which originated in India about eight centuries ago.

Players moved through squares depicting virtues (ladders) and vices (snakes) to reach the Throne of God, reflecting the moral path through life. I’ll never see modern Snakes and Ladders the same way again.
Snakes and Ladders Board

Snakes and Ladders Board

Weird science

Discoveries don’t always hit the mark and it’s interesting to discover that some are completely bonkers.  So the exhibition gives a nod to what it describes as ‘discoveries gone awry’ or plain wrong.

The Muggletonians were a religious sect who rejected Isaac Newton’s view of the universe. They argued that the sun and moon revolved around the earth.

Their rival system of the universe was based on a particular and literal reading of the Bible. They believed the Earth was stationary and that Heaven existed as a physical reality.

It’s a fascinating but flawed theory. Their illustrations are interesting, if not illuminating, and downright wrong.

A muggled view of the universe c/o Whipple Museum, Cambridge

Discover hidden treasures

The Discoveries exhibition is fascinating but sometimes it is overshadowed by the spectacular building in which it is being held.


Scientific discoveries

Don’t forget to take a look at the beautiful mansion as you wander around the exhibition.

Two Temple Place is one of London’s best kept secrets and it provides the perfect backdrop for this show.

This architectural gem is an extraordinary Victorian mansion in the Neo-Gothic style built by William Waldorf Astor on the Embankment in the 1890s.

Astor was arguably the richest man in the world at the time. The house was designed as Astor’s estate office by the famous architect, John Loughborough Pearson.

No expense was be spared.

Today you can admire its extravagant and opulent interior, the stunning stained glass windows and quirky features including what was once the biggest strong room in Europe (for all Mr Astor’s money, I guess).


Discoveries at Temple Place c/o Two Temple Place

Don’t miss the Great Hall with its crazy carvings and giant frieze of historic characters which has been described as “Victoriana meets Disney”.

Once outside, look for the strange bulldog sign hanging from the front of the mansion, the Astor’s symbol.

Look up to see the grotesque gargoyles, the cherubic figurines, and a roof-top weather vane in the shape of a sailing ship.


Beware of the bulldog

This is a very strange Victorian Gothic mansion. It’s like walking through a movie set, with its strange staircases, highly decorated timber panelling and odd carved figures everywhere.

There’s much to discover inside and outside.

Eccentric and eclectic it may be but I’d recommend a trip because, like Charles Darwin, this is a voyage of discovery. A bit like the Discoveries exhibition itself.

Tammy’s tips


Two Temple Place c/o Bulldog Trust

Discoveries: Art, Science and Exploration is at London’s Two Temple Place and runs from 31 January to 27 April, 2014.

The exhibition opening times are Monday, Thursday, Saturday – 10:00-16:30. There’s late night opening on Wednesdays – 10:00-21:00. Sunday  opening is 11:00-16:00. Closed Tuesdays. Admission is free.


Fossil collection c/o Sedgwick Museum

The exhibits have been selected from the University of Cambridge’s eight museums. It’s the first time Cambridge’s world class collections have been drawn together under one roof.

The eight university museums featured include The Fitzwilliam Museum, Kettle’s Yard, Museum of Zoology, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Whipple Museum of the History of Science, Museum of Classical Archaeology, Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences and The Polar Museum.

Also in the vicinity are the Sir John Soane’s Museum and Lincoln’s Inn Fields. You can also walk along the Thames and cross over the bridge to the Tate Modern (12-15 minutes walk).

Credits:  Images are copyright and courtesy of University of Cambridge Museums. The Two Temple Place image is courtesy of The Bulldog Trust.


Historic paddles at the Discoveries show

The Viking invasion of London

Brooch shaped like a ship, 800-1050. Tjornehoj II, Fyn, Denmark.  Copper alloy. Copyright of The National Museum of Denmark

Ship brooch c/o The National Museum of Denmark

The Vikings are coming! Watch out for longships, horny warriors and armies of Danish invaders at the British Museum in London.

The story of the Vikings has intrigued us for centuries. It’s a tale of plunder and pillage.

The Vikings are synonymous with men wearing horned helmets and wielding axes, raping and rampaging their way through foreign lands with no mercy.

Ivar the Boneless and Eric the Red were Viking names that struck terror into our ancestors.

But now those thuggish stereotypes are being questioned. Could the Vikings have been misunderstood?

Pillage and plunder

Viking Tammy

Viking Tammy

The Vikings: Life and Legend show at the British Museum presents a more complex view of the Nordic invaders than has been portrayed in the past.

Were the Vikings benevolent colonialists and down-to-earth  family guys?

The exhibition reveals a ‘softer’ side to the Vikings including their domestic life and artistic achievements.

Earlier last year I was lucky enough to see the show at Copenhagen’s National Museum.

It’s a brilliant exhibition, beautifully presented with stunning artefacts from longships to weaponry and jewellery.

During the show, I felt an affinity for the Vikings despite tales of their aggression and bloodthirsty behaviour.

Perhaps the stories of their family life, hardships and achievements helped to change my opinions?

There are many examples of how the Vikings co-existed with the people whose lands they colonised. Sometimes they married local women.  Others even became Christians.

Shining a fresh light on the Vikings, this exhibition is an eye-opener. It blasts away the Hollywood version of events in movies like The Vikings, featuring Kirk Douglas and Tony Curtis

Then again, Hollywood was never big on historical accuracy, preferring Viking rape and pillage to reality.

Star of the show

The Longship (Roskilde 6). The largest Viking ship ever discovered. The thirty-seven meter long warship was built in southern Norway around 1025, and deliberately sunk in Denmark in the mid-11th century. Copyright of the National Museum of Denmark.

Roskilde 6 is the largest Viking ship ever discovered c/o National Museum of Denmark.

Longships are one of the most spectacular achievements of the Viking age.

The star exhibit of the show is the impressive longship, known as Roskilde 6.

The ship was excavated from the banks of Roskilde Fjord in Denmark in 1997.

It’s the largest Viking ship ever discovered at a massive 37 metres long.

Sitting at the heart of the exhibition, you can imagine the ship in its heyday sailing the high seas laden with men and cargoes.

It must have been an awesome sight. The ship could reach a speedy 20 knots – that’s around 19 mph.

The ship dates from around AD 1025, the golden age of the Vikings.

At that time the Viking empire extended to England, Denmark, Norway and parts of Sweden which were united under the rule of Cnut the Great.

The size and style of the ship suggest that it was a royal warship, possibly connected with the wars fought by Cnut.

It’s impressive how the surviving timbers have been re-assembled in a specially made stainless steel frame that reconstructs the full size and shape of the original ship.

Never seen before in the UK due to its scale and fragility, it is now displayed for the first time in special facilities at the British Museum’s new Sainsbury Gallery.

Giant projections of Viking life

To bring the ship alive, the exhibition has a giant projection screen featuring animated images next to the longship.

There’s a real sense of time and place as you stand looking at the ship with the film behind it. As well as the seafaring sequences, the film re-creates scenes of Lindisfarne and Bamburgh in northern England being raided by Vikings.

The film also illustrates typical Viking living which reminded me of my visit to the Roskilde Museum in Denmark last year. Did I mention that the Danes love dressing up as Vikings?

Viking life at Roskilde

Viking life at Roskilde

The Roskilde Museum  has many more of these longships on display. And they have a remarkable story to tell.

Most of the ships were deliberately scuttled and sunk by the Vikings to block the fjord as they repelled an attack by their enemies on what was then Denmark’s capital city.

For 21st Century audiences it means that the ships survived under the waters and can be seen today following painstaking restoration work.

Roskilde Museum longship

Roskilde Museum longship

If the ships hadn’t been scuppered, we might never be able to see these impressive vessels.

Next to the ship in the British Museum exhibition there’s a box of clothes which will transform you from 21st Century boy to Viking warrior.

There’s also a film with a ‘Viking’ demonstrating how to get dressed correctly in the Danish style. Boys and men will need a long beard to get the full effect!

Viking discoveries

But the Vikings: Life and Legends show is not just about large-scale exhibits.

Wandering around the exhibition there are many small but perfectly formed objects of great beauty which will stop you in your tracks.

This axe inlaid with silver is a stunning  example of the art of the Vikings with its beautifully carved head. It also suggests the wealth of the Vikings who were successful traders as well as invaders.

Silver-inlaid axehead in the Mammen style, AD 900s. Bjerringhoj, Mammen, Jutland, Denmark. Iron, silver, brass. L 17.5 cm. Copyright of The National Museum of Denmark

Silver-inlaid axe head c/o  National Museum of Denmark

This axe was found in Jutland in northern Denmark. But many of the pieces on display come from the British Isles which was subjected to Viking invasion and influence.

Up the road from my home town of Newcastle, the Northumberland coast of England was the first place in Britain to experience a fierce Viking attack in 793AD  - on the island of Lindisfarne.

It was the start of 300 years of Viking raids on England and Scotland - the rest is, as they say, history.

The Lewis Chessmen, berserkers. Late 12th century, Uig, Lewis, Scotland. Walrus ivory. Copyright of The Trustees of the British Museum.

The Lewis Chessmen – Copyright of Trustees of the British Museum.

Despite being portrayed as violent, bloodthirsty and uncompromising, the Vikings also produced many great artistic achievements.

Look out for the Lewis Chessmen, one of the show’s highlights,  which were probably made in Norway around AD 1150- 1200.

Found in Scotland’s  Western Isles, which was once part of the Kingdom of Norway, they were buried for safe keeping en route to be traded in Ireland.

The chess pieces illustrate the strong cultural and political connections between Britain and Scandinavia in the Middle Ages.

Treasure trove

One of the striking things about the Viking exhibition is the quality of the treasures on display.

One of the most impressive exhibits is The Vale of York Hoard which is being shown in its entirety at the British Museum for the first time since it was discovered in 2007.

Comprising 617 coins, six arm rings and a quantity of bullion, the Vale of York Hoard is one of the largest and most important Viking hoards ever found.

The Vale of York hoard, AD 900s. North Yorkshire, England. Silver-gilt, gold, silver.  British Museum, London/Yorkshire Museum, York. Copyright of he Trustees of the British Museum

The Vale of York hoard, AD 900s – c/o Trustees of the British Museum

With coins and silver from places as far flung as Afghanistan, Russia and Uzbekistan, this is a truly impressive collection. It shows how extensive the Viking’s global network had become.

Can you imagine being David Whelan, the retired metal detectorist, who accidentally happened upon this collection in a field when pursuing his hobby in Yorkshire?

Luckily he revealed his discovery to the wider world so everyone could see the treasure in its full splendour. What an amazing cache.

Historic detective stories

Odin or volva figure c/o Roskilde Museum

Odin or priestess figure c/o Roskilde Museum

Not everything in the Vikings exhibition has a history that is cut and dried. This figure of Odin sitting on his throne is now thought to be a female priestess – and calls into question our interpretations of history.

My favourite moment in the Copenhagen show came when my Danish cousin Bettina, a historian, explained the two theories behind the Odin statuette.

Within minutes a group of 20 visitors had gathered around as she argued her theory that it is the priestess Frigg or Freyja, a kind of Norse witch.

So forceful was her argument that it led to a change on the description of the display. For her, there is no question that this is a woman not a male figure. Why not make your own mind up?

She also explained some fascinating stories about the Vikings and witches which made my hair stand on end. I’ll never see broomsticks in the same way again!

Gold and silver treasures

Neck-ring, 10th century. Kalmergarden, Tisso, Zealand, Denmark. Gold. Copyright of The National Museum of Denmark

Neck-ring c/o The National Museum of Denmark

Many of the new archaeological discoveries in the exhibition have not been seen in Britain before.

So it’s a thrill to discover them for the first time.

Ostentatious gold and silver jewellery is shown off in the show to great effect.

There are many gorgeous piece which demonstrate how status was displayed by Viking men and women through what they wore.

This exquisite 10th Century neck ring – pictured opposite – looks almost contemporary in design.

Also look out for a stunning silver hoarde from Russia, never previously seen in the UK, which shows a combination of Scandinavian, Slavic and Middle Eastern influences.

These cross-currents contributed to the development of the early Russian state in the Viking Age.

There’s many little known areas of Viking history that the exhibition brings alive. I had no idea that the Viking influence had spread as far into Russia.

They also travelled much further to Iceland, Newfoundland and the Canadian coast. What a long and perilous journey that must have been on the tempestuous seas.

Horny Vikings

Valkyrie brooch - 9th Century c/o National Museum of Denmark

Valkyrie brooch – 9th Century c/o National Museum of Denmark

But the big question posed by the show is – were Vikings horny?

Everyone’s traditional image of a Viking is a warrior with a horned helmet, but once again the exhibition debunks this myth.

There were no horns.

The horns were added centuries later in the 18th and 19th Centuries by artists keen to romanticise the Nordic warriors.

Historians also agree that Vikings never wore helmets in battle.

There’s even controversy over when they did and didn’t wear beards. Some experts argue that they only wore beards when at sea.

So do we really understand the Vikings after all?

I wasn’t entirely convinced they were peace-loving family men.

After all, there is still plenty of evidence that they burned down settlements and left a trail of destruction in their wake.

Their narrow-bottomed longships meant they could travel up rivers and creep up on communities. They’d take them by surprise, hitting them with what one historian describes as a “maritime blitzkrieg”.

And the jury is still out on whether it’s true that the famous Viking, Ivar the Boneless, strung up Edmund, King of East Anglia, and commanded his men to shoot arrows at his head until it exploded.

But the exhibition has proved one thing. Vikings were global traders. It could be argued that they were the inventors of modern globalisation.

This set me wondering how many British people are descended from Viking ancestors?

Viking re-enactment

Do you have Viking blood?

Despite attempts to make the link between my surname and Viking ancestry, I’ve found that my family roots are Anglo-Saxon in origin.

But I’ve grown to admire the Vikings’ culture in many ways. And this show is one of the best I’ve seen in terms of reflecting their lives at home and abroad.

The Viking invasion is – without doubt – London’s blockbuster exhibition of 2014. Don’t miss it but try to forget the horned warrior stereotypes as you enter the doors!

Watch the Vikings video on YouTube below…

 Tammy’s top tips

Pin with dragon's head c/o Wikinger Museum

Pin with dragon’s head c/o Wikinger Museum

The Vikings: Life and Legend is at the British Museum in London from 6 March- 22 June.

It’s the first major exhibition on Vikings at the British Museum for over 30 years. There’s an admission fee.

The exhibition will be the first in The Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery, part of the British Museum’s new wing opening later in 2014.

The nearest Tube station is Russell Square.

Book ahead online as this show is set to be especially popular over the spring and summer months. Tickets will sell like King Arthur’s hot cakes.

If you love Vikings, why not take a trip to Roskilde to see the longships and artefacts in their home city in Denmark.

Travel to Scandinavia for the full Viking experience. Oslo and Copenhagen’s national museums also boast a great collection of Viking culture and ships.

Bring out your inner Viking. Why not take a trip on a replica Viking longship on Roskilde Fjord? I can recommend it for those who fancy some peaceful pillaging!

Roskilde Viking boat

Roskilde Viking boat

Heart of glass – Sunderland’s glass blowing adventure

Glass blower

Glass blower at the National Glass Centre

I love the sound of breaking glass! And I’ve discovered that I also have a passion for blowing it.

I know it sounds crazy but glass blowing is addictive, fun and deeply satisfying. Perhaps it’s something to do with the elemental quality of fire?

Fiery furnaces, glowing flames and roaring ovens with heat hitting the 500 degrees mark – what’s not to like?

But don’t try this at home. You’ll need an expert. Luckily we had a team of them on hand.

Glass blower

Don’t try this at home

What was supposed to be a quiet trip around the revamped National Glass Centre in Sunderland turned into a much more exciting experience than anticipated.

It was a visit organised during a weekend conference for travel bloggers called Traverse 14. Me and my blogging buddies were on a day trip and were surprised to find ourselves at the heart of the glass making action.

My vision of a leisurely stroll around the galleries followed by a giant Sunday lunch in the centre’s impressive cafe was abruptly blown apart by a trip to the glass making workshop.

Perhaps I should have read the blurb properly. I thought we were booked in to watch a bunch of experts demonstrating the fine art of shaping and crafting glass into charming vases and paper weights.

Gazing into the display cupboard of beautiful designer glassware, I was surprised to hear our group being called in to the studio for some ‘flame work’.

Glass art

The art of glass

Once inside, I’d expected to watch from the sidelines but no, we were next in line for some heavy duty huffing and puffing at the glass face.

One brave soul volunteered to go first whilst I looked on in trepidation, remembering my last experience of employing my lung power.

It had ended badly when I was told that my lung capacity was well below par. I was a pathetic physical specimen.

Would today be any different? What if you had to puff really hard and nothing came out?

Worse still, what would happen if you breathed in or choked accidentally? This could all go horribly wrong!

Puff power

Puff power – a brave volunteer

Fortunately David and his colleague, our experts, were true pros and knew exactly how to coax a decent blow job out of even the most hopeless puffer!

Our mission was to create a decorative glass bauble which could be hung on a Christmas tree or in a window display.

Would it be mission impossible or an artistic triumph?

On the second call for volunteers, I stepped into the breach with a swagger and confident air.

Then it struck me. You just have to put your lips together and blow, a bit like Lauren Bacall’s description of kissing in the Hollywood movie, To Have and To Have Not.

As I was coached in the complexities of making the glass into coloured patterns and swirls, I felt an adrenaline surge. I was ready for oven duties.

The heat is on

After a few instructions, it was time to discover if I’d make a master glass blower. Or if I’d be out of puff.

First there was the plunging of the rod into a glowing furnace. This was followed by rolling the hot blob through brightly-coloured crystals to create the colour scheme.

The ‘blob’ of molten glass had just emerged from the 500 degree heat of the oven behind me so it was a scary, but exhilarating, challenge.

Glass making

Crystal rolling – it’s awesome!

As I walked over to the bench wielding the hot rod, I wondered what would happen if I accidentally tripped up and poked someone in the eye.

But it’s safety first in Sunderland. There’s always somebody to stop you making a fool out of yourself or, worse still,  blinding or branding a nearby colleague with the hot end of the blowing tool.

There’s also the giant goggles which you have to wear which make you look like an extra from a sci-fi movie. Strangely, they reminded me of U2 Bono’s giant, tinted shades.

Glass making

Glass making goggles

Crafty stuff

Then there came the tricky bit – the crafting of the glass which is basically done by David, a former glass worker. He used to work at Cornings so he knows his stuff inside out. Let’s face it – he needs to with amateurs to teach.

Having donned the funny glasses, I picked my colours – red, blue, orange and white. The next step was to keep the glass ‘blob’ hot and rotate it in the oven. I loved dangling it in the flames and twirling it around.

“Don’t let the blobbing bits drop off,” said one of the staff as my bauble looked precariously close to disintegrating in the fiery furnace.

By now I getting a very red face with the intensity of standing next to the heat from the ovens. This isn’t for the faint-hearted.

Shaping the glass

Shaping the glass

Then it was back to David to twist and shape. He employed a giant pair of pliers that looked like an early dentist’s instrument for extracting teeth.

On the work bench, David was able to rectify whatever I’d done wrong and make my glass bauble into an object of beauty.

With my tiny blowing power, he shaped and worked it until it looked like it might turn into a piece of art. I had just enough lung power and puff to make it work. What a thrill.

Glass making

Watch that fiery furnace

Mind blowing experience

How these guys also work in this heat all day is amazing. They must be acclimatised. For me, it was a mind blowing adventure. But they do this day in and out.

Glass making is like playing with fire – literally. A bit like being the Greek god Vulcan. A must for pyrotechnic thrill seekers.

But the best bit of wizardry was still to come. We gathered around for the grand finale as David demonstrated his sand blasting skills with a blow torch.

His tool was a giant bunsen burner which he used to separate the bauble from the stick. Thank goodness, we weren’t allowed to try out this dangerous looking final stage.

Glass making

Blow torching – a definite art

Then David popped each of our baubles into a large oven ‘to bake’ or cool off, I’m not sure which, with the promise  that they’d be ready in three days time.

It was time to take our goggles off and explore the rest of the Sunderland Glass Centre. After all that hot work, our first port of call was the cafe for lunch.

Glass works

It’s been a while since I visited the centre and since its refurbishment the cafe is looking splendid with its riverfront views and spectacular glass interior.

Sunderland Glass Museum

Sunderland Glass Museum’s cafe and restaurant

There’s a great panoramic view down the River Wear, once home to shipbuilding, glass making and heavy industry. That of course is now history – a victim of the Thatcher years.

But today we can enjoy the heritage of glass making, an industry that started in Sunderland back in 700 AD and reached its zenith during the 17th and 18th centuries.

It’s time to tuck into a giant Sunday lunch complete with some of the largest Yorkshire puddings I’ve seen in some time. Pure bliss.

Sunday lunch

Sunday lunch – perfection on a plate

Gallery tour

Feeling stuffed with food, we decided that a walk around the galleries would be a good idea so we took the obligatory tour of the collection.

The history of glass galleries are enjoyable and well curated, even for visitors with limited attention spans.

You can step back to the early days of glass with some intriguing displays and exhibits which bring history alive.

Early glass blowing

Early glass blowers

The early glass blowers looked like they needed a lot more blowing power than I’d shown in my session earlier in the day.

There’s stacks of information about glass techniques, all with evocative names like Graal, Latticino, Sandcasting and Slumping.

Slumping with a Latticino is something I perhaps should have done after the big lunch, but hey this tour was going to expand my mind rather than my waistline.

Look out for the modern exhibits from Sunderland’s old Pyrex factory, once one of the city’s biggest employers.

Pyrex glassware

Pyrex glassware

I recognised a few pieces from my granny’s old kitchen cupboards including these glass plates with giant rose decorations.

Don’t laugh. They were very trendy back in the day – and they remain design classics, if you like that sort of retro style.

And there’s plenty more historic glass to admire too, some with stunning colours like azure blues and amber hues.

National Glass Centre

Old style glass

Spectacular glasses

But the National Glass Centre really scores with its changing programme of contemporary art exhibitions. The latest – called Spectacles - is a real eye-opener.

It features eyewear from the famous Oliver Goldsmith Collection, a designer who invented the notion of modern ‘designer glasses’.

Think 20th Century icons. Grace Kelly, Colin Firth, Michael Caine and Audrey Hepburn are all featured in the show togther with iconic style makers like Givenchy, Dior and Vidal Sassoon.

Sunderland Glass Museum

Spectacular glasses as worn by Audrey Hepburn

From Audrey Hepburn’s huge fashion shades to Peter Sellers’ trademark spectacles and John Lennon’s iconic gold rimmed glasses, there’s a real feeling of fashion and fun in this exhibition.

We made a spectacle of ourselves, of course, picking out our favourites and posing for photos with the most outlandish designs.

There were some particularly mad specs with musical notes, birds, feathers and even butterflies. Not even Elton John would wear some of these, although there was a pair of his flamboyant shades too.

My favourite eccentric pair were these groovy butterfly glasses designed to make a big and beautiful fashion statement.

Butterfly glasses

Butterfly glasses

Oliver Goldsmith was synonymous with stars and style so this exhibition will appeal to anyone who’s into celebrity.

The Glass Centre also wants your spectacular selfies. Take part by uploading photos of yourself in your best specs to Twitter and Facebook using the hashtag ‘bespectacular’.

I’m not sure my plain black glasses are cool enough to trend on Twitter or Instagram.

Eric Morecambe's glasses

Eric Morecambe’s glasses

The glass ceiling

Lunch was now really taking its toll so we ambled outside for a walk on the centre’s distinctive glass and concrete roof.

Being a native of these parts, I remember the controversy about this roof when the centre opened for the first time in 1998.

There was all sorts of discontent about the cracks that appeared in some panels of the hardened glass – and the fear someone would fall through. In reality the glass tiles are a sturdy six centimetres thick and nobody is going to die.

Sunderland Glass Museum

Up on the roof at Sunderland’s Glass Centre

It was one of those early design glitches that was fixed quickly but I still recall the furore about the brutalist style of the centre’s exterior and the roof’s controversial look.

Today, we can appreciate it better although I still think the grey of the concrete looks oppressive and drab on the greyest of grey days – which it was when we visited.

I’ve got used to it but I prefer the interior to the industrial-looking exterior. Apparently, you can get 460 people up on the roof at any one time. That would be quite some party.

Sunderland Glass Museum

Industrial style

As you stand on the roof, it can be very blowy on a windy day. It’s quite an experience and one to cool you down after the heat of the glass blowing adventure.

Look down the river and you’ll see a few remains of the industrial past that have lived on into the present. A little bit of ship repairing and the occasional crane poking its head into the clouds

But mostly it’s a landscape populated by sea gulls, dog walkers and gallery visitors. The place where ships were born has long gone.

Sunderland Glass Museum

Vestiges of the past on the  River Wear

Back inside, there’s a final chance to buy up the good value glass art, paperweights and marbles.

And time for a final peek inside the glass workshops where a row of impressive deer heads – minus their antlers – are being made for a Scottish whisky company for promo in the world’s airports.

Suddenly the fact that Sunderland once made things hits home. I remember that the slang phrase f0r Wearsiders is ‘Mackems’, meaning ‘makers of things’.

Today the Mackems still have those old skills to showcase, rekindled with a contemporary twist.

Glass head

Glass horse head

It’s a fitting end to the trip. Sunderland as a glass making centre seems to have come full circle – from old glass factories to modern day glass making.

In the gallery there are displays  of contemporary artists and designers, many from Sunderland University’s glass degree graduates.

Today, Sunderland is turning out a new generation of designers and glass blowers.

Glass art

Glass art

I’ve come to one conclusion about the whole trip.  Glass sucks and blows – in the nicest way possible.

A few days later I had a nice surprise when a neatly-wrapped package arrived in the post at home. As I unravelled the endless bubble wrap, a flood of memories came rushing back.

This was my bauble, now solid and perfectly formed. It was swirly, colourful and cool – and it even looked quite professional.

Tammy with her bauble

Tammy with her bauble

This just goes to prove that even with my limited abilities, I can blow glass with the best of them.

Who would have thought it?

Tammy Tips – Sunderland’s heart of glass

Sunderland Glass Museum

Welcome to Snnderland’s National Glass Centre

The National Glass Centre in Sunderland is located on the River Wear in Monkwearmouth.  It’s open daily from 10:00 – 17:00.  Admission is free but there is a charge for the glass blowing workshops.

It’s an easy ride from Newcastle to St Peter’s Metro station, a stone’s throw from the National Glass Centre. It’s a short 5 minute walk.

Alternatively, take the train from Newcastle to Sunderland and walk back over the bridge along the waterfront for some scenic views. There’s ample car parking too, if you’re driving.

Nearby there’s also time to squeeze in the historic St Peter’s church and the Monkwearmouth Station Rail Museum, if they light your fire.

Once inside the National Glass Centre, you can lose your marbles in the shop or get stuck into the regular glass blowing workshops.

The Spectacles exhibition is on till 4 May 2014 and it’s free so why not take a look?

Glass marbles

Glass marbles

Look out for taster sessions in glass blowing as well as longer courses and classes.

If you don’t fancy rolling your sleeves up, you can watch the experts crafting stunning pieces and demonstrating their flame skills.

Here’s Ed Rex, my fellow blogger, proving he has what it takes to set the world alight with his glass making abilities.

Perhaps next time he’ll even get to make some glass bowls like these impressive designs in the National Glass Centre’s shop?

As for me, I’m hooked. I’ll be back to make those paperweights for Christmas presents!

National Glass Centre

Cool designs @ the National Glass Centre

The Sounds of Britain

The sound of waves Norfolk

Listening to the sound of waves on Norfolk’s coast

What is the sound of Britain?

The pouring of a cup of tea, a black cab beeping and the chimes of Big Ben are all being used in a new Visit Britain tourism campaign.

Dubbed ‘Sounds of GREAT Britain’ it is designed to inspire the world to choose Britain for their next holiday.

So what would be your soundtrack to the British Isles? Or, if you live abroad, which sounds would make you want to visit?

Having watched the tourism video, I was a bit surprised about some of the sounds picked to represent Britain – the splash of a surfer, the cracking of a poppadum, a New Year’s fireworks display and the hitting of a tennis ball at Wimbledon.

Andy Murray at Wimbledon

Andy Murray at Wimbledon c/o VisitBritain

Call me cynical but these are sounds that could be heard in so many other cities and countries. They’re not exactly unique or different.

I can also think of better places to watch spectacular fireworks (Dubai, Kuwait), go surfing (Bondi Beach, Hawaii) or tuck into poppadums and curry (India).

Then, I don’t suppose the campaign is designed for me or fellow Brits. It’s aimed squarely at the American market place with a nod to Europe and Asia.

A soundtrack for GREAT Britain

London Guard

London Guard c/o VisitBritain

‘Sounds of GREAT Britain’ is a £2.5 million global campaign to promote British tourism.

The fact that this tourism campaign has to spell GREAT Britain in capitals is really annoying. Do they really need a megaphone?

For me, the whole campaign reeks too much of corporate marketing, quick to tick all the right boxes by featuring the big locations including Edinburgh, London, the Lake District, Birmingham and Stonehenge.

The choice of London attractions is almost cheesy – Buckingham Palace, Harrods, Big Ben and Wellington Barracks – and feels distinctly old-fashioned.

It would have been nice to have a little more variety and a few more surprising images and sounds.

So do you agree with their choice? And what would be yours? Guess it’s time for me to ask myself what would be my top 10 sounds of Britain.

Top British tourist sounds

1. Big Ben’s chimes

Big Ben is an obvious choice as it has been the soundtrack to British life for generations.

It brings in every New Year and its chimes can be heard on countless TV and radio news programmes.

2. Parliament’s Black Rod

Parliament goes hand in hand with Big Ben which is why it’s my second choice.

One of my favourite sounds is Black Rod striking the doors of the House of Commons with his long, ebony staff at the State Opening of Parliament.

It’s a great but slightly bonkers British tradition.

 3. House of Commons – ‘Order, Order’

Eccentricity is another British characteristic which is sadly absent from tourism adverts and campaigns. It’s best captured in the House of Commons when the Speaker tries to control the rowdy politicians at Prime Minister’s Question Time.

The sound of him crying out ‘Order, Order’ at the top of his voice to calm down a bunch of badly behaved MPs is a truly British treat.

4. Bagpipes

North of the border, Scotland would not be what it is today without the sound of bagpipes, something that has mysteriously disappeared off the Great Britain tourism soundtrack.

An acquired taste, I always associate my arrival in Edinburgh with the sound of a sole piper standing on the corner of Princes Street.

It’s not to my musical taste but it does set the soundtrack to the city perfectly.

If you’re a fan, don’t miss the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, the mother of all bagpipe jamborees, in August.

5.  The Shipping Forecast

Another iconic and surreal British sound is the shipping forecast on BBC Radio Four. If you’ve never heard this, it’s well worth a listen – the style and sound are unforgettable.

The whole effect is enhanced by the deadpan announcer reading a long list of weather information and names. The waters around the British Isles are divided into sea areas with weird names like Dogger, Rockall, Forties and Fastnet.

The reading of the shipping forecast has a strangely lyrical quality and has inspired several songs and poems. It even has its own Twitter feed  and several fan sites.

6.  Wild geese honking

Wild geese are my favourite wildlife sound in Britain. There’s nothing better than lying in bed and hearing the sound of wild geese flying overhead in rural Scotland or Northumberland during the winter months.

Thousands of Barnacle Geese fly in to the Solway estuary daily in winter, honking as they fly over.

For me, this symbolises the great wilderness sound of Britain – perhaps only rivalled by deer ‘barking’ during the autumn rut. It’s a huge shame that these sounds failed to make it into Visit Britain’s adverts.

Listen to the sound of the Barnacle Geese on the RSPB website’s audio clip.

Barnacle Geese at Caerlaverock

Honking Barnacle Geese in Scotland

7.  Elgar’s music

OK, it may not be trendy to listen to Elgar, one of England’s greatest composers, but nothing symbolises the sound of the British countryside better than his music with its pastoral quality and lyrical romanticism.

It also reminds me of the Last Night of the Proms at London’s Albert Hall, another great sound of Great Britain, complete with party poppers and rousing cheers.

Every time I hear Pomp and Circumstance, I can’t help thinking of the gently rolling countryside of England’s  West Country including the Malvern Hills, Chilterns and Cotswolds.

Chalk horse

Pastoral landscape in the West Country

8.  The Tube announcements

If I’m travelling around London I’m bombarded with noises so a few striking sounds stand out.

One of my favourites is the Tube announcements which range from ‘stand clear of the doors’ to ‘there’s currently a good service on the Jubilee line’.

Everyone’s favourite Tube phrase – ‘Mind the Gap’ - is still being used on Northern line trains and stations too.

There’s something so intrinsically British about some muffled Cockney or Londoner proclaiming that there’s a good or bad transport service running – or not. It won’t be the same if and when they replace these with 100% robotic announcers.

My favourite Tube story is one about the old-style announcer Oswald Lawrence whose voice was used on the Northern Line but was phased out until only Embankment station used it.

His widow Dr Margaret McCollum said she often went to the station to hear his voice and was devastated when “he wasn’t there” in 2013 after his voiceover was dropped.

After hearing her story Transport for London bosses decided to restore his  ‘Mind the Gap’ warning on Embankment Tube. Pure genius!

9. British actors

British actors ‘doing the classics’ has to be on my list. The dulcet tones of some of Britain’s greatest thespians is a real joy.

We have some of the best actors in the world from Sir Ian McKellen and Michael Gambon to Jeremy Irons and Dame Judi Dench. But nothing beats them doing the sound of Shakespeare or Shelley, Marlowe or Marvell.

A trip to the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon is a great place to hear the sound of some of the best of them in full flight.

RSC Theatre Stratford

Look out for classic acting at the RSC Theatre, Stratford

10. Sound cities

So far, I’ve been a bit traditional in my choices so now it’s time to go off piste with a selection of British music. My musical sound of Britain varies enormously depending on where I’m travelling.

As a Mancunian, a trip to my home city always conjures up music from Joy Division, The Happy Mondays, Oasis and New Order especially when I’m wandering down by the streets near the old Hacienda club.

Down the road, Liverpool’s importance as a musical city extends from The Beatles in the 1960s (don’t miss a trip to the Cavern Club and Beatles Experience) and Gerry and the Pacemakers (the Mersey Ferry) to The Las and Cast.

Over in Yorkshire, a visit to Sheffield always puts the sound of the Arctic Monkees and Pulp into my head. And as I arrive in Leeds by train, I can’t help humming songs by local heroes John Newman and The Kaiser Chiefs which provide the soundtrack to the city’s buzzing night life.

London’s musical tradition is vast but if I had to pick standout tracks I’d include The Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset, The Jam’s Down in the Tube Station at Midnight and The Clash’s London Calling.

More recently, there’s the gritty urban sound of Tinie Tempah and Dizzee Rascal’s Love This Town.

Dizzee Rascal

Tinie Tempah – Britain’s urban sound

Despite these strong musical associations with places, they are absent from the Sounds of GREAT Britain marketing adverts.

I guess that the marketing team thought using Rudimental would make the campaign sound all cool, contemporary and urban.

Call me odd, but it seems a bit narrow to select one band as the soundtrack to Britain? For me, they are too urban and London-centric.

Visit Britain believes they “represent the eclectic contemporary Sound of GREAT Britain” but the band’s soundtrack to the campaign, Feel the Love, did little to make me feel all warm and fuzzy about the UK.

And whatever happened to British folk music, new and old? Surely Mumford and Sons and Seth Lakeman deserve a nod?

To be fair, Visit Britain also give punters the chance to create their own soundtrack of Great Britain itinerary -  check out this web link.

11. Croquet balls clacking

My sporting sound of Britain is an unusual choice, the gentle sound of croquet, a very British game which conjures up images of green lawns, cucumber sandwiches and aristocratic country houses.

This peculiarly British game has a sound which alternates between a gentle clacking and a fierce ‘cannoning’ of balls when they clash.

Belsay Hall and Gardens

The gentle sounds of summer croquet

The rules of croquet were set out by Isaac Spratt in 1856 in London with the first competitive meeting taking place at Moreton-in-Marsh in Gloucestershire in 1868.

This was followed by the formation of the All England Croquet Club at Wimbledon.

Last summer I spent a lazy hour watching the croquet on a glorious sunny day at Belsay Hall in Northumberland (pictured above).  The gentle sounds were a relaxing treat, far from the furious pace of the city.

12. Old phones ringing

We’re so hooked on our mobile phones and their crazy ringtones that it’s easy to forget the old-fashioned telephone with its chunky design and loud ring.

I’m a sucker for old style phones with their persistent ringing tones – a distinctive ‘brrring, brrring’ that echoes across the room.

Recently I saw this fantastic old British phone at Eltham Palace, an Art Deco house in London.

Eltham Palace old phone

Eltham Palace’s classic phone

There’s another fabulous example of Churchill’s special wartime phone in London’s Cabinet War Rooms.

The Transatlantic Telephone Room is where Churchill would speak with US President Roosevelt by phone and discuss military matters. Its ringing signalled that important affairs of state had to be discussed urgently.

13. Steam trains

Steam train North York Moors

Steam train – North York Moors

My final sound of Britain is the whistling of a classic steam train.

The first steam locomotive was invented by engineer, Richard Trevithick, in 1804. Britain also boasted the first public railway, built by George Stephenson, between Stockton and Darlington in North East England.

There’s nothing better than hearing the train’s whistle, the chuntering movement as it lurches out of the station and the blast of the engine as the train builds up momentum and speed.

My favourite film celebrating the sound of the steam age is Night Mail, the classic 1936 British documentary, which captures the sounds of the railways to perfection as it takes a trip from London to Scotland.

Today, Britain’s rail heritage is celebrated in a number of attractions which capture the sound of steam including York’s National Railway Museum, Shildon Rail Museum in County Durham and the North Yorkshire Moors Railway.

Each of them have steam trains and trips which capture the golden age of steam.

Steam train North York Moors

All aboard – the ‘sound’ of steam

14, The football whistle

Football is Britain’s national game and it comes with a vast array of sounds from the wall of noise of fans singing to club chants that echo across the stadium.

Long gone is the football rattle, once heard on 1930s football terraces, but the one thing that persists is the referee’s whistle.

Football match

Waiting for the whistle at a Premiership match

For more than 100 years it’s been the sound that’s brought triumph and despair to thousands of football fans.

Acme whistles are one of Britain’s oldest whistles. Made in Birmingham since 1870 the company is still going strong.

They made the whistle which provided the soundtrack to England’s greatest football triumph.

The Acme Thunderer whistle was used by Swiss referee Gottfried Dienst to bring the 1966 World Cup final to an end.

The whistle is now in a football museum in Switzerland. But the sound of the referee’s whistle continues to be one of the iconic sounds of English football.

15. British wildlife

If you love the sound of British wildlife, look no further than sound recordist Chris Watson’s incredible audio clips of a wide range of creatures from ants to otters.

Chris has worked on David Attenborough’s BBC wildlife documentaries as well as on soundscapes and music compositions.

His Sound Map of Sheffield – called Inside The Circle of Fire – records the sonic world around us in ‘surround sound’, from bird song and bees to park life and the city’s industrial past.

A former member of the band Cabaret Voltaire, Chris is a genius at capturing the minutest details of sound. His work proves that if you listen carefully, British nature has some amazing sound stories to capture our imaginations.

Digital map of Britain


A British music festival

That’s my sound map of Britain but what’s yours?

Why not visit the digital version of the Visit Britain ‘Sound of GREAT Britain’ campaign which allows users worldwide to create their personalised advert and itinerary.

Having completed your edit, you can  find out more about your chosen itinerary on Visit Britain’s LoveWall or you can share with friends via Facebook, Twitter and Weibo.

Watch the YouTube film here

Whatever your views on the merits of the Sounds of Great Britain tourism campaign, it has set us thinking about the authentic sounds of the British Isles.

The more you think about it, the British Isles has some truly wonderful sounds from the tranquil lapping of waves on the Norfolk coast to the peeling of church bells in a country village.

Great Britain?  More like Sound Britain… if you ask me!

Bikes in front of Horse Guard Parade

Bikes ringing bells in front of Horse Guard Parade c/o VisitBritain

Berlin Templehof Airport’s fresh take-off?

Templehof Airpor in 1992

Postcard of Berlin’s Templehof Airport in 1990

Templehof is one of Europe’s most famous and intriguing airports. It’s perhaps best known for its role in the Berlin Airlift at the height of the Cold War.

Closed since 2008, this historic airport is soon to get a 21st Century makeover.

There are plans to make a big cultural splash with an attraction to rival the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Tate Modern in London.

Two competing schemes have been unveiled which propose a cultural centre with galleries, event spaces, restaurants and a public library surrounded by housing.

One of the designs has been compared to a “concrete spaceship” whilst the other looks rather like a crystal glass snow dome.

Every contemporary city, it seems, has to have its own big architectural ‘statement’ building, from Bilbao’s Guggenheim to the Louvre Annexe Museum in Lens.

Templehof designs

Futuristic design – a space age Templehof

But Templehof’s grand designs have raised more than a few eyebrows with Berliners who, since its closure, have embraced the large empty spaces around the former airport as a massive recreation park.

The old airport runaways are popular with urban skaters, cyclists, dog walkers and picnicking families.

Some have signed a petition to keep the big, shiny new development away. Others have dubbed the ambitious scheme a “vanity project”.

We’ll have to wait seven years to see the realisation of the £225 million vision for Templehof which is due to start construction in 2016.

Having visited Templehof when it was an airport, I wonder how this grand cultural scheme will be received by Berliners and international tourists?

Personally, I prefer designs that are sympathetic to the original style of the old Templehof rather than a space age vision.

I would have liked a bigger nod to the airport’s aviation history, perhaps in the form of a museum. But  perhaps Berlin needs a new library and gallery more than another aircraft museum?

Templehof designs

What future for Templehof?

Templehof’s place in history

I remember flying in to Templehof on my first trip to Berlin in 1991, a few short years after the Wall was torn down in 1989.

There was a huge sense of history as I walked across its marbled floors and through its arrivals lounge for the first time. In fact, I’ve rarely felt such a strong sense of an airport as a historic monument.

Templehof was a stark contrast to Brussels Airport from where I’d embarked on my short city-to-city flight.

The first thing that struck me was the airport’s massive size. Even today it remains one of the world’s largest buildings.


The old departure hall

My second thought was how much the architectural style reminded me of Hitler’s Nazi architecture with its rows of classical columns, huge hallways and a symbolic design that looked like an eagle in flight from above.

It was like turning back the clock to a time when Hitler was in control of Germany during the 1940s with its mix of classical architecture and monumentalism.

Templehof Park

Templehof ‘s vast hangars

In reality the airport dates back much earlier. Templehof was one of Europe’s first city airports, originally constructed in 1927. 

The original airport terminal became the first in the world served by an underground railway.

But Templehof really took off when Hitler’s government began a massive reconstruction in the mid-1930s.

The airport was part of Albert Speer’s plan for the reconstruction of Berlin under the Nazis. Architect Ernst Sagebiel was given the job of replacing the old terminal with a new building in 1934.

The airport was designed to be the gateway to Europe and a symbol of Hitler’s “world capital” – Germania.

The bold design was to make a big architectural statement about Hitler’s ideology and Germany’s status as a world power.

The Nazis also established Berlin’s only official SS concentration camp in the grounds of Templehof.

It was here that forced labourers from German-occupied countries were put to work building and servicing combat aircraft.

I’d never read anything about this little known piece of Templehof’s history until this year, a chilling story that should not be forgotten.

It’s shocking to imagine that there were around 450 prisoners at the concentration camp in 1934 living in cramped cells. Prisoners were intimidated, abused, and tortured, and some were murdered.

By 1944, more than 2,000 foreign workers were being used as forced labour at Tempelhof Airport.

The Cold War

Perhaps Templehof’s biggest claim to fame came during the Berlin Airlift of 1948 during the Cold War.


Templehof – symbol of the Cold War

After the Second World War the Potsdam Agreement in 1945 divided Berlin into four occupation sectors – American, British, Russian and French.

But as the Cold War intensified, tensions ran high between the East and West powers. West Berlin became stranded, an island in the centre of the Soviet’s zone of occupation.

West Berlin was thrown a lifeline by the Allies who decided to use Templehof Airport to break the Soviet’s blockade of the city.

Templehof Park

Templehof Airport

During the airlift, ‘Raisin Bombers’ flew in every 90 seconds to deliver 2 million tonnes of food, coal and essential supplies. It was a hugely important support operation for people living in West Berlin.

Throughout the Cold War, Tempelhof was the main terminal for American military transport aircraft accessing West Berlin.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, everything changed. Germany was reunified and Berlin’s two halves were united for the first time in over 40 years.

Templehof continued as an airport but eventually lost out to more modern complexes like Tegel and Schonefeld. The old airport closed in 1991 and eventually became home to trade fairs, special events and exhibitions.

Outside, where planes once flew in and out to worldwide destinations, the old runways have been replaced by recreation areas.

Today all I have is one small postcard of this remarkable historic airport which brings back a flood of memories (see above).

There is no escaping from the historic importance of Templehof which the British architect Sir Norman Foster describes as “the mother of all airports”.

As for the future, I wonder if Templehof’s grand designs will make their mark on history?

Templehof designs

A new vision for Templehof

Travel guide to Templehof today

Look out for public tours of the main Templehof Airport building in Berlin. There is an admission charge.

The two hour tour takes in the following locations:

  • The entrance hall designed in a monumental style by architect Ernst Sagebiel. This is an impressive sight which you won’t want to miss.
  • The 18 metre-high and 100 metre-long check-in hall with the counters where airline passengers checked-in when the airport was still operational. Its striking design and sheer size made a big impression on me in 1991.
  • The so-called “Ballsaal” (“ballroom”) located above the check-in hall where the Americans set up sport facilities including a sport hall after 1945.
  • The rooftop terrace where visitors can get a spectacular panoramic view over vast parts of Berlin, Tempelhof Park and the large, arching airport hangars.
  • The railway tunnel features a decommissioned railway track that runs along the entire building and crosses under the terminal building.
  • The air-raid shelter contains several cellar rooms that were used as shelters during World War II.
  • The film bunker where highly flammable material such as celluloid film was stored in secrecy. The bunker burned down and remains unchanged in its charred state today.

Admission to the Tempelhofer Freiheit Recreation Park is free. Opening hours run from early morning to sunset (winter), later in summer.

Templehof Park

Templehof Park and the former airport

Tempelhofer Freiheit is one of the largest urban projects in Berlin. When complete, the urban park will be as big as Hyde Park in London.

The nearest U-Bahn and S-Bahn stations are  Tempelhof in Berlin. For a full list of public transport, go to the park’s website.

This interactive map gives a great information about the history of the Templehof Airport and the former air field.

Templehof Park

Park life on the old runways

This video provides a brief tour of Templehof Airport today with shots of the interiors and a guide to the complex.

Credits: Images of Templehof Airport and recreation park are copyright and courtesy of Tempelhofer Freiheit.