Londoneer: Ulster Folk and Transport Museum

I was enjoying one of my regular visits to Belfast this weekend, and we took some time out earlier today to visit the transport section of the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum in Cultra, just a few miles northeast of Belfast City Centre.

Located a few minutes from the local railway station (which is incredibly run down – very uninviting when you consider that this is the gateway to Belfast’s largest museums and one of its premium 5 star hotels) the Transport Museum’s main building houses the Irish railway collection, where you’ll find huge steam trains and their carriages, along with mocked up platforms and tableaus (one of which includes nuns!) and even a reconstructed station tea room. A section of the building is also dedicated to other forms of public transport, including trams, trolleys and buses that have been lovingly restored and feature working vehicles from Belfast and further afield in Ireland. An adjoining annex explores the history of cars and motorcycles, with the centrepiece of course being the iconic DeLorean motorcar with its characteristic brushed steel frame and gullwing doors, which was manufactured in the early 80s at the Dunmurry car plant just on the outskirts of Belfast.

A walk down the hill through some pleasantly landscaped gardens, bursting with huge rhododendrons, brings you to the general transport galleries which focus on earlier forms of transport including carts, stage coaches and even shanks’ pony. Here you’ll also find the air transport gallery (complete with flight simulator) and a dedicated exhibition tracing the history of the White Star Line’s RMS Titanic, which like the DeLorean has local connections, having been built at the Harland and Wolff shipyard on the edge of Belfast’s city centre.…

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Visiting The Manor House @ Boston Manor

Have you ever wondered what significance the name of the tube station between Osterley and Northfields on the route down to Heathrow holds? Boston Manor takes its name from the large country house which still sits a few hundred yards away from the station. Originally built in 1622 for Dame Mary Reade (who, when she remarried would enter the Spencer family), it is a fine example of a red brick manor house with a range and stable block to one side, and is set within attractive grounds which are now known as Boston Manor Park.

Boston Manor House has been owned by the local council since the 1920s and has recently been reopened to the public, although opening hours are restricted to weekends at the moment. The house has partially refurbished rooms on the ground floor – the best feature is the fine multi-coloured ceiling moulding in the large reception room at the rear of the building, and you’ll also find a fine fireplace and information displays in the dining room. The most interesting parts of the house, however, are on the upper floors – pass through the imposing wooden screen in the reception area and climb the stairs (noting the French trompe l’oeil design on the wall echoing the ballustrades on the other side – a very rare feature in a British house) and you’ll find yourself in the State Drawing Room. This room features some of the most extravagant ceiling mouldings in London – geometric patterns inset with maidens representing the elements and the virtues. It also has one of the capital’s most breathtaking fireplaces, allthough perhaps more suited to a grand palace than a fairly modest manor house!

The finds don’t end here either – while the upper part of the building is mostly closed off to the public, you can climb up to the next landing and examine the surviving fragment of the exquisite wallpaper that would once have lined the entire staircase. Dating from the early 1700s it depicts imagined scenes of classic Greece or Italy – the wallpaper would have been hand-painted on large sheets off-site and then brought to the manor house to be assembled and set in place.

Boston Manor House is just a few hundred yards from the tube station of the same name – the grounds are open every day and you can visit the house from 12pm until 5pm on Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holidays. I recommend a visit, not least because of the extremely knowledgeable and enthusiastic volunteers that you’ll meet. There’s more information about Boston Manor House on the Friends of Boston Manor website, and you can find the remaining photographs of my visit here.…

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Shaker & Company’s Camden Cocktail Bar

Earlier this week I was invited along to an evening at Shaker & Company, the new cocktail bar devised by the guys who train many of the world’s top ‘mixologists’, which you’ll find in a rather ordinary row of retail outlets down towards the bottom of Hampstead Road near Warren St. If you’re a regular visitor to the site you’ll know that invitations to glitzy bars are the kind of thing that I normally decline, however the Shaker & Company offering is a bit different. Read on…

This new venue occupies a corner building which was clearly a pub in an earlier life – it retains the half-frosted etched windows that are a feature of many classic boozers, and the decor on the ground floor is quite rustic with a big, chunky bar extending along the long dimension of the space and bench seating running along the opposite side. However, any perceptions that you might have walked into a slightly upmarket pub are swept away by the sight of the literally hundreds of bottles of rare spirits lining the wall behind the bar and the interesting range of ingredients that sit on top of it – you won’t find a basket of fresh eggs, punnets of rasberries and bunches of mint on the counter of my local anyway! In keeping with its earthy vibe I’m glad to report that there isn’t a sniff of a Sloane Ranger about the place either – the punters here seem to be a well-heeled subset of the Camden crowd, which is a far more comfortable group of people to be around… unless you find the Chelsea set particularly entertaining.

The speciality at Shaker & Company is their range of uniquely formulated cocktails – we got to try a few (including one rather fiery concoction served straight out of a cute miniature cocktail shaker) but my favourite of the evening was definitely the ‘Potato Sack Sour’, a combination of (deep breath) Benedictine, Aperol, Pisco, lemon juice, Peach Bitters, egg white, and then a dash of Angostura and Peychaud’s Bitters to finish it off. Cocktails come in at a not-unreasonable £7.50 a piece, and to help you fortify yourself for the next round they also do an interesting range of ‘soul food’, taking their inspiration straight from the New Orleans scene. Take your pick from ‘hush puppies’, jambalaya, gumbo, sweet potato fries and lots of other Southern delicacies, priced at around a fiver or so for a generous portion of food.


To add to the atmosphere, Shaker & Company also have mid-week live music sessions – up until mid-January singer-songwriter Toby Connor will be entertaining customers from 8 until 10pm every Wednesday, with other artists to follow, and for visitors seeking a bit more intimacy for their evening there’s also a small space downstairs which is regularly re-decorated around a different theme. Switching from a Benedictine Monastery feel last month its now the BelvedereRED Room for Christmas (with Svarovski crystals and frosty Belvedere trees decorating the …

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On The Trail Of The Queen’s Silver Jubilee In London

As the 60th Anniversary of the Queen’s Coronation has been celebrated in the last few days, I thought it might be fun to wind the clock back to 1977, don our denim flares and our flowery shirts and take a look at what physical remnants of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee can be found in London…

Paul Fitzgerald’s 1977 official portrait of the Queen

Given how much London’s physical and cultural landscape can change in just a year or two, I think you’ll be surprised at exactly how much has survived the intervening three and a half decades, but lets start with the biggest of the tributes to Her Majesty – the Jubilee Line. Originally planned as the Fleet Line (named for the Thames tributary which gives Fleet Street it’s name) the name and colour change came as the result of an election pledge made by the Conservative members of the Great London Council. The line’s original battleship grey colour was swapped for a lighter silvery hue and two years after the Jubilee, on 30 April 1979, the line was formally opened by the Prince Of Wales.

The event of the Silver Jubilee itself was marked by over four thousand street parties in the capital on 6 June, and very soon afterwards one of the most well-known of the London tributes was unveiled by the Queen herself – the Jubilee Walkway. Unveiled on 9 June 1977 it connects just about all of central London’s tourist sites, with the route marked out by crowns set at intervals into the pavement – a popular way to take a walking tour of the centre of town, it has been added to in the intervening years. Several more miles of walking routes were added to mark both the Golden Jubilee and the recent Diamond Jubilee…

One of London’s most well-known engineering marvels also owes a debt of gratitude to the Silver Jubilee – painted up until that point in a rather drab greenish-blue, Tower Bridge owes its present patriotic red, white and blue colour scheme to the occasion. Just on the northern side of Tower Bridge is another tribute – the Coronarium Chapel. This multi-faith religious building can be found in the middle of St Katharine Docks, although time has definitely taken its toll here – for the last few years this unusual circular building has housed a branch of Starbucks. Ian Visits has written an interesting article on the sorry fate of this piece of 1970s architecture.

Of course the fine art world made a contribution to the Silver Jubilee, with the Queen’s only official portrait of that year being painted by celebrated Australian artist Paul Fitzgerald. This  beautiful work, which shows the Queen wearing a tiara and a blue cloak decorated with some of her regalia, can be found at London’s Commonwealth Institute which occupies Marlborough House on the Mall, just a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace.

With all of these very grand gestures it’s nice to find that a much more modest …

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All Aboard The HMS Belfast

Moored near to Tower Bridge on the Thames in Central London, the Royal Navy’s light cruiser HMS Belfast was in active service with from 1939 until 1963, seeing action in the North Sea, the Arctic and the East China Sea, the latter during the Korean War. She has been at her current berth since 1971, and is now part of the Imperial War Museum’s collection.

A visit to this floating museum will allow you to access almost all areas over nine decks, from the magazines storing the shells for the ship’s main guns (heavily armoured boxes well below the waterline for safety), to the bridge with its commanding view of Tower Bridge just up the river. You can visit compartments throughout the ship, many of which have tableaus showing what activities would have taken place there – ratings peeling potatoes in the galley all the way through to the ship’s surgeon carrying out an operation in the sick bay. Most of the deck is also accessible, allowing you to examine the decks and to climb inside one of the gun turrets. Worryingly, the displays inside indicate that the ship’s bank of 12 6″ main guns are currently trained on the motorway service area at Scratchwood in Hertfordshire – a distance they could hit accurately even though, as the crow flies,  this is over 20 miles away from the ship’s berth on the Thames!

Two of HMS Belfast’s most interesting exhibits can be found on the two decks below the bridge. As well as containing banks of radar displays and other tactical equipment, visitors to the operations room can take part in simulated naval exercises using several large touch-sensitive  ‘tables’ (which I think are examples of the ‘Microsoft Surface’, but I can’t be certain). You can also visit the radio room, which contains lots of old equipment as well as some newer gear which is still in operation – that’s because the radio room is actually home to the very active GB3RN ham radio club. Ham radio enthusiasts may be interested to know that during the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee River Pageant this Sunday the radio room will be fully staffed, and will be operating under the special call-sign GB60QE. It was manned when I visited on Sunday, and as a licensed operator I was invited to use the equipment – in fact, I had a lengthy contact with a radio amateur all the way over in the USA, who had trouble believing where I was transmitting from!

Due to a botched repair job, in November of last year HMS Belfast’s gangway collapsed, however it has was reopened to the public after the repairs were completed on 18 May. I’m assured that the newly-engineered gangway is much safer than its predecessor so you should have no worries when boarding. The ship is open from 10am until 6pm every day and tickets for adults are priced at £14, but note that for security reasons she will be closed on Sunday 3 June.  I …

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What’s In A Dane?

With the Olympics coming up, the main roads leading up to Stratford have been sprouting new high-rise housing developments for a few years now. However, for whatever reason some plots have failed to attract the attention of developers.

So it is with the factory complex belong to the Dane Group of Companies which sits at the far end of Stratford High St from the town proper. As far as I can tell it doesn’t appear to be functioning as a business any longer given its state of repair and nothing’s going on at the site in terms of demolition or construction – which in this particular case might be a good thing because of a particularly odd cultural treasure that it contains. Witness the mural that sits out in front of the main building – from the design I’d say this is a 1960s piece but I’m happy to be contradicted. It’s a Great Dane – get it?…

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The Antiquities @ the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

Secreted in the centre of the University College London campus, and up a rather unassuming flight of stairs, you’ll find one of the city’s best kept secrets – the Petrie Musuem of Egyptian Archaelogy.

Much like its sister museum, the Grant Museum of Zoology, the Petrie represents the University’s earliest forays into this area of study. Amelie Edwards, the Victorian novelist and explorer left her collection of Egyptian artifacts (and a considerable sum of money) to the University so that they could establish an academic position to further study this ancient civilisation – its interesting to note that she chose this institution because at that time it was only the University in the UK to award academic degrees to women. The first professor appointed as a result of her bequest was William Matthew Flinders Petrie in 1892.

The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology contains over 80,000 artifacts encompasssing the entire breadth of the Egyptian civilsation, from prehistory right through the reign of the Pharaohs to about 1000 AD  – representing about 6000 years of history. What I found particularly impressive was the cabinet after cabinet containing the most incredibly decorated domestic pottery, from a time when we were just figuring out how to erect Stonehenge. There are also areas focusing on jewellery and adornment, the complexities of Egyptian sacred ceremony (there are examples of daggers, canopic jars, shantis and the like) and several large cabinets contain fragments of pictograms and heiroglyphs, some of which even retain their original pigments. For those whose visit to an Egyptian museum wouldn’t be complete without a ‘mummy’, you will find an ornate sarchophagus amongst the objects!

Visits to the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology are free, however because it is part of the University complex visiting times are a little protracted – opening hours are 1pm to 5pm on Tuesdays to Saturdays. A visit to the museum is a magical experience – it’s far more intimate than the British Museum. Pick the right time and it could be just you and the Pharaohs in the room… You can find more images from my visit…

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London Transport 150 At The Buckinghamshire Railway Centre

Although it’s some time away, I thought it might be useful to fill you in on a steam-related event coming up in early August – a London Transport 150 event organised by the London Transport Museum and the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre.

Of all the celebrations taking place as part of the network’s 150th Anniversary celebrations, this has to be the biggest in the calendar, taking place at the Quainton Road station in Aylesbury on Saturday 3 and Sunday 4 August and the following Wednesday – if you’re wondering about the connection, Quainton Road was a Metropolitan Line station up until 1936 and has been .

The highlight of the weekend will be the opportunity to take trips on several vintage carriages pulled by Victorian steam trains. Vehicles that will be put to use include the now-restored Metropolitan Steam Locomotive No. 1 and the Metropolitan Jubilee Carriage 353 which was built in 1892 and fully restored last year, as well as the ‘Milk Van’ – this train transported milk from the dairies of Buckinghamshire and returned with a full load of horse manure!

There will lots of activities to keep the kids occupied, including trips on the 1km long miniature railway that the Vale of Aylesbury Model Engineering Society (VAMES) operates, plus story-telling with Pluto (a puppet version of an early Underground train) and a Family Trail around the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre and Quainton Road station.

Amongst the classic vehicles on static display will be the Brill Tramway ‘tram’ from 1872 alongside a Metropolitan Railway Open Wagon which dates from the era when the Underground also carried freight, and a First Class dining carriage from 1901 which was used on services out of Euston, and then pressed into use as the equerries dining car on the Royal Train of all things.

Another rather special carriage to visit will be Queen Mary’s 1940 Royal Carriage which has particular significance in the context of the Second World War – it was used by Churchill and Eisenhower as a discreet place to meet to discuss war planning in the run up to D-Day. You’ll also be able to try your hand at being a postman with several Post Office carriages, which up until 2004 were used to sort mail throughout the night between large cities on the rail network.

Several documentary films will be screened throughout the London Transport 150 weekend, the most interesting being Sir John Betjemen’s 1973 ‘Metroland’ where he mused about the way that the Underground had spurned the development of London’s leafy suburbia. It’s really worth seeing – a very thoughtful snapshot of life in 1970s London.

Tickets for this event cost £10 in advance for adults and £7 for children (£9 concessions and senior citizens £9). If this sounds appealing I would get your tickets booked quickly – given the number of railway and transport fans around it’s bound to be wildly popular!…

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The Vestry House Museum, Walthamstow

Over in Walthamstow Village, the area’s historic centre, you’ll find the Vestry House Museum, the borough’s main museum and home to the Waltham Forest Archives and a Local Studies Library which has a wealth of material on the history of the area since Roman times.


The Vestry House Museum buildings

The museum, which occupies a network of connected buildings just across the street from the parish church, has a lot of interesting displays that explore various aspects of Walthamstow’s past, including information on the museum buildings, which had previous uses as a post office and the local police station (there’s even a reconstructed Victorian cell in one of the gallery spaces on the ground floor). You’ll also find displays dedicated to Walthamstow’s industrial heritage – did you know, for example, that Walthamstow had it’s own camera manufacturing company for 50 years, the Ensign company, and that as far back as the 1930s they produced popular camera models in a range of colours? I had always thought that was rather a recent development, but clearly not! There’s also an area dedicated to the world’s first ‘horseless carriage’, which was manufactured in Walthamstow. The museum also has a pleasant formal garden with raised beds of flowers at the rear of the building if you want to take a break from local history for a few minutes.


A William Morris wallpaper pattern

One gallery at the museum currently contains a small selection of material from the William Morris Gallery over on Forest Road, while that building undergoes a multi-million pound refurbishment until its reopening in July 2012 to coincide with the London 2012 Olympics. You can find out more information about the project at this link on the Waltham Forest website.

Entry to the museum is of course free, and it is open from 10am until 5pm from Wednesday to Sunday each week. The museum also lays on various special events and activities throughout the year, which you can find out about here.…

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The Flying Karamzov Brothers @ Vaudeville Theatre – A Review

Last night I was over at the Vaudeville Theatre on the Strand to check out the Flying Karamazov Brothers – a group of juggling American comedians and musicians (wearing kilts!) who are playing at the theatre until September.

It was an interesting evening, involving jazz, gentle comedy and some absolutely remarkable feats of juggling. Of the set pieces, I found the most entertaining ones to be  ‘The Challenge’ (where audience members are invited to contribute items for the performers to juggle, or pick from a selection on the stage – last night we selected a rain jacket, a toy VW Beetle and a chocolate cake for Dmitri, who also produces the show, to juggle!) and ‘The Terror’ which involves items that are introduced throughout the show to be juggled as the piece de resistance at the end of the evening. It was a rather eclectic assortment of items, including a very sharp looking meat cleaver, a flaming torch and a block of dry ice! A young lady from the audience also got more than she bargained for, but you’ll have to go and see the show to find out why…

The Flying Karamazov Brothers are also rather slick jazz musicians and can even beat out a convincing rhythm on piles of cardboard boxes! All in all, this show stands out as a rather an unusual theatre-going experience and possibly won’t appeal to everyone’s tastes, but if you’re a bit tired of glitzy West End musicals then an evening at the Vaudeville Theatre might be the perfect antidote. Tickets for the Flying Karamazov Brothers shows are available direct from the theatre here including some Sunday matinees, which are very unusual in the West End…

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