Posted in Art, History, Holidays, Museums & galleries

Canals, basins, docks – and a fish on a bicycle

Last week we spent a few days in London, on our first holiday in over two years. We were only there for two and a half days but managed to cram in masses of exploring, and seemed to gravitate towards watery places without really trying.

First on the list, and not particularly watery, was the Museum of the Home in Hoxton, newly re-open after major refurbishment. This was formerly known as the Geffrye Museum, but has been distancing itself from that name as the man who established the alms houses the museum is based in had strong links to the slave trade. New name, new entrance direct from the train station, but the museum is much the same as it was – a fascinating look at the development of the English middle-class home down the centuries.

After a good mooch round we caught trains and tubes back to Kings Cross and explored the area at the back of the station, which used to be a no-go wasteland but is now covered in office blocks, shops, cafes, and landscaped gardens including water features and trees. Behind that is an area we’d never visited before – Coal Drops Yard, a former wharf on the Regents Canal handling coal for the barges. It’s been heavily redeveloped/gentrified with yet more shops, restaurants and arty venues and looks amazing, but the prices were rather astronomical.

On the second day we headed for Canary Wharf (main photo) to see the Docklands Museum. This is based in some of the original sugar warehouses of the West India Docks, built in 1802. The museum focuses on the history of the London docks and the East End in general, with big displays on trade, life as a dock worker, the docks during World War II, and the history (often financially uncertain) of the area’s redevelopment after the war.

After that we discovered the East India Docks basin, a pleasant open space around a large basin with lock gates onto the River Thames. From here there are terrific views up, down and across the river to the Millennium Dome (O2 Arena).

Finally we walked through to Trinity Buoy Wharf, a little further along the banks of the Thames. I first saw this on The Great British Sewing Bee and knew it had links to both Trinity House (the organisation that runs lighthouses in Britain) and the famous scientist Michael Faraday. Sure enough, we found the wharf and its buildings, which include a small experimental lighthouse where different lighting systems were tried out. Nowadays it’s another arts/culture hub with lots of studios and arty businesses, and there are weird industrial heritage/street art sculptures everywhere you look – including this wonderful fish on a bicycle!

There’s also what may be the world’s smallest museum, based quite literally in a garden shed which houses books, artefacts and equipment used by Michael Faraday in his scientific experiments. The surrounding area is being heavily redeveloped into apartment blocks, so we were glad we saw it before the atmosphere changes forever.

Posted in Books, History, reviews

Ex Libris review

exlibrisIt’s taken me longer to read this book than I’d hoped. At first it all sounded fantastic, with an elderly bookseller hero and a plot involving spies, ciphers, hidden libraries and a missing (and extremely valuable) book. And at first, it bowled along with great vigour as Isaac Inchbold was asked to track down the lost book, The Labyrinth of the World, by Alethea, a mysterious woman living in a vast Gothick house in Dorset surrounded by mouldering books and papers.

Inchbold set off on his quest, rather against his own inclinations, and soon found himself tracking down clues in the seedier inns and back streets of London. Interwoven between his sections were chapters involving two earlier characters, Emilia and her lover Vilem, fleeing war in Prague and travelling to England in the care of Alethea’s father, to deliver a rare manuscript to the then Prince of Wales.

So far, so ingenious. But gradually the book tailed off. The author had clearly done heaps of research, but had a tendency to put too much of it on the page, often in the form of stilted dialogue where one character told another chunks of backstory or extolled the virtues of book after book after book. Sometimes the wrong character seemed to be delivering these lectures – one who would know less than their audience – and the constant listing of this medieval edition or that classical author became tedious, and really got in the way of the action. So much so that it took a very long time indeed for the plot to get anywhere, and then when it did, it rather petered out.

Without giving too much away, Emilia and Vilem vanished from the pages before their story had been fully told. The Labyrinth of the World turned out not to be the missing book Isaac Inchbold thought it was. And the whole of his quest proved to be something of a ruse.

In the end, there was a neat twist involving Emilia, Vilem and Alethea, and a melodramatic climax involving cataclysmic flooding at the Gothick hall. But it wasn’t enough to make up for the flaws, and I was left wondering rather what the point of it all was. A shame, as Inchbold made an engaging hero and the flight from Prague was dramatic enough for a book of its own. But all the breathless hints about intrigue and mystery came to nothing, and I was left feeling disappointed and more than a little let down.

Posted in Nature, Photography

Friday Five – daft birds

Birds can be really difficult to take good photographs of – just as you click the shutter they move, squawk, waddle away or fly off. But over the years I’ve been lucky enough to snap a few memorable, and unusual, shots, which I thought I’d share with you here.

Seagull, Windermere


This seagull was cheerfully ignoring the local parking regulations at Lakeside, on the shores of Windermere, but flew off before anyone could fine it.

Pigeons, Liverpool


Even the pigeons looked fed up on a recent trip to the (otherwise brilliant) Liverpool waterfront in non-stop pouring rain.

Cormorant, River Thames


These birds perch on anything to dry their wings after a fishing trip…

Doves, Windermere


Sleepy, puffed-up doves braving the promenade on a freezing cold morning in Bowness.

Pigeons, V&A


Who needs waiting staff or cleaners when you can just get the pigeons to tidy up for you? Taken at the V&A museum café in London a few years ago.