C. L Debnam 2014

Richmond Park

I never cease to be amazed every time I walk in the vast expanses of Richmond Park. I’m in a wilderness, yet I can see the City of London from here, some 12 miles away in the distance. I read somewhere that there is a ban on building high rise between the Park and the City just to preserve the view. How wonderful if that is true!

Copyright L Debnam 2014

Richmond Park with the view to The City

The park stretches for 2500 acres bounded by Richmond, Sheen. Roehampton, Kingston and Ham. Originally created back in the 12 century, it was known then as the Manor of Sheen. Henry VI changed it’s name to Richmond Park and it has stayed intact since then. In the 1600’s, Charles I introduced the descendants of the deer that the park is famous for when he moved the court out of London to Richmond Palace to escape the plague. It’s been the home to many members of royalty since then. Edward VII was born there and Elizabeth the Queen Mother and the future King George V lived there in the 1920’s. The White Lodge, where they lived, is now famous for being the home of the Royal Ballet School (remember the audition scene in the movie Billy Elliott?).

The royal links to the park live on through the Queen’s cousin, Princess Alexandra, who lives in Thatched House Lodge in the Park.

The park is a popular place for bike riders and pedestrians. It also has roads running through it to all of the major gates which has become a bit of a rat run for those wishing to escape the traffic jams on the roads outside the parks. This can cause some friction between car and bike users. On sunny days the roads are full of bike riders and pedestrians need to watch out, as there are quite a few lycra speedsters zooming around at above the speed limit! Some of the hills and corners can be dangerous and several bike riders have been seriously injured and, sadly, a couple have died on some notorious spots.

You can park at one of the carparks near the major gates and there is limited free street parking just outside the park in Richmond. There is also parking at the cafes within the park. Pembroke Lodge has tearooms in a beautiful Georgian building with views right out across Surrey. If you are coming by public transport, the nearest train station is Richmond (Tube, National Rail and Overground). The park is at the top of a decent hill, so if you wish to avoid the walk up, you can either catch a cab from outside the station (about 5 pounds) or walk around the corner to the bus stop outside Waitrose on Sheen Road to catch the 371 bus to Kingston. This will take you to the Richmond Gate. Alternatively, you can walk down to the Thames from the station and walk along the bank of the river and then follow the path that takes you to the foot of the park at Petersham. There is a lovely little kid’s playground at the entrance to the park here. The number 65 bus to Kingston will take you to this entrance and you can catch it from right outside the train station.

The best way to walk the park is to avoid the tarmac paths and roads and head down the grassy paths. Here you can be in the middle of a wilderness centuries old while still being so close to one of the word’s most famous cities. Meander through woods, walk around ponds, swish through long grass or squelch through mud (yes, take waterproof shoes if it’s been raining), this is a place to go to recharge your soul if the grime and noise of the city is getting too much for you. If you are lucky, you will go past one of the many deer herds that roam freely.

Be aware that during rutting season (September – October), the stags can be aggressive. Also, the does hide their babies in the long grass during the birthing season (May – July). If you accidentally get too close to a bub, the aunties will start getting a bit upset and head over your way. If you have a dog, fantastic – the place if full of dog walkers. But make sure they are either on a lead or well trained to return when called and not bark. You don’t want to have to sort out a standoff between your dog and a stag! Generally the dogs come off worse. There are criminal penalties for owners of dogs who chase any wildlife in the park.

Enjoy this treasure in the middle of suburbia.

Thank you to royalty past for establishing such a fantastic park!

C. L Debnam 2014

Getting back into blogging

Dear Friends,

Still in London and doing so much! But that is no excuse for not writing posts for my blog. Will post a piece about Amsterdam soon and will endeavour to review every theatre I have visited since we’ve been here. I know that I find the reviews of other’s experiences useful.

Hope you are all well and will check out your blogs – I’m sure you’ve been more productive than me!


London Wetland Centre 2014

IMG_1821London Wetland Centre

The paparazzi waited for their prey, huge lenses posed to grab a shot. Then suddenly, click, click, click, click all around us! Who was it they had spotted? It wasn’t a who, but a what – a bird to be precise – that got them all excited. We were at the London Wetland Centre and the paparazzi were bird watchers.

I can’t tell you want sort of bird it was as I couldn’t identify it quickly enough from the brochure I bought at the entrance to the Centre. But it was certainly an interesting bird, with a crest that made it look like it was wearing mini Mickey Mouse ears. It had the twitchers going for the few seconds it was there!

The 42 acres of wetlands were established in in the 1990’s from a disused Thames Water reservoir. They are home to 180 bird species, 8 species of bats, over 500 species of butterflies and moths and various other reptiles, amphibians and dragonflies.  It is a perfect place to take the family on a sunny, winter’s day. We were lured by the addition, for two days only, of an introduction to hedgehogs. A delightful hedgehog rescue lady talked for hours to kids and adults about this small creature and allowed us to see some of the hogs that she had rescued. This is Alfie, who patiently posed with a number of children to have his photo taken.

Alfie the Hedgehog at the London Wetland Centre Feb 2014

Alfie the Hedgehog at the London Wetland Centre Feb 2014

Also a big hit with both kids and grownups alike, were the otter couple that live at the Centre. Not the shy European variety, but two very vocal and certainly not shy Asiatic otters live in a glorious otter habitat. With the female reaching maturity, the Centre is hopeful that they may see some more otters in the near future. The otters are fed publicly at 11am and 2pm and the friendly keeper provides an educational and interesting talk about the pair, including stories of how they turn on him and try to bite him if he dares to be more than a minute late for their feeds!

The pair of otters in an intimate moment at the London Wetland Centre 2014

The pair of otters in an intimate moment at the London Wetland Centre 2014

But the birds are the big drawcard here and you will see different breeds at different times of the year depending on who has migrated when. There are wetlands of the world (including one of Kakadu, complete with fake crocodile and black swans), grazing marshes, reedbeds and lagoons, complete with large hides to allow you to gaze at the large variety of birds. You have to be quiet so as to not disturb the birds and our kids found the experience captivating and peaceful.

Kakadu Wetland, London Wetland Centre 2014

Kakadu Wetland, London Wetland Centre 2014

Have kids that aren’t the quiet type? Head to the entrance area and upstairs to the interactive water display area. Great fun for both young and older kids as they get to splash around, shoot water and balls at things and hopefully learn a few things about water and how it impacts on our lives.

Interactive water displays London Wetland Centre 2014

Interactive water displays London Wetland Centre 2014

This is a great spot for serious bird watchers and families. There is a café and gift shop and if you love the place and would like to visit during the different seasons, you can convert your day pass into an annual pass for a little more cash.  Our kids, aged 13 and 11, just loved this excursion and we had no complaints about ‘being bored’ at all. The only complaint I heard was from hubby, who didn’t bring a warm jacket with him and found the cooling afternoon air a little bracing!

Reservoir Lagoon

Reservoir Lagoon

Pools in South West London – Pools on the Park Richmond

I’m a keen, but amateur, swimmer and am looking for a regular pool to go to. The first thing I’ve discovered about sporting facilities in London is that they are EXPENSIVE! We enrolled the kids in the local hockey club – 110 pounds fees, 75 for uniform and 5 pounds per game – each!

There are several pools in the Richmond Borough and after my try out at the closest one to me, it looks like I’ll visiting a few more before I find a pool I’m comfortable at and enjoy swimming in.

Pools on the Park is just out of the Richmond Town Centre and has three pools – one indoor, a small indoor training pool used mainly for kids lessons and an outdoor pool used only in summer. The website says that the pools are 33 metres long. It will cost you 4.80 for a casual swim. Yes, 4.80 – that’s $8.20 in Australian dollars! And to get a locker it’s an additional 50 pence, though this is a one off charge as you can keep the token and re-use it. So what do you get for this amount?

Start with a surly girl at the counter. I explained that this was my first time here and could she please direct me to where things were? I got “change rooms through there – you’ll be able to see where the pool is”. Right. Thanks for the help. So I head around the corner to the change rooms and there is a man standing there blow-drying his hair. Confused, I look at the door, but no help there. Then I see a woman and realise that it’s a communal change room. The room has a series of tiny cubicles that you can get changed in and then you can spend a minute trying to figure out how the lockers work (put the token in the box on the inside of the locker door and then it will lock for you).

She was right about being able to see the pool – it’s right next to the change rooms. There are a row of showers you walk through to get to the pool with a request that you shower first. It takes a while for the hot to come through, so expect a cold surprise if you step straight under. The pool is old and was made up into 4 lanes. It could be a 6 lane if all the lanes are roped up. The training pool is full of toddlers having lessons, some enjoying it, some not…

The water was about 24 degrees, so a decent temperature to swim in given that’s it’s 10 outside. But the water wasn’t very pleasant and it was one of those pools that you keep your lips tightly sealed while swimming, so that the minute debris on the surface isn’t swallowed. I swim breaststroke, so I chose the slow lane. I was overtaking the people doing freestyle in the fast lane next door! After 11 laps, I was asked to move out of that lane as two toddlers were starting a lesson in the first 5 metres of the lane in the shallows. I hate having to overtake swimmers as breaststroke is quite a wide stroke and I always end up whacking someone with my leg or arm, so I got out. Back to the showers – they are the only showers it turns out, so you can’t strip off your bathers, unless you get a kick out of personal exposure, since you are in full view of the pool! It’s quite a challenge to get wet bathers off in a tiny cubicle as I found out. There are some parents/child cubicles as well, which are double size. I noticed several elderly people using them as there’s no way they could manage the regular sized ones.

There is a café onsite and a gym and sauna which you can sign up to. There are (very expensive) packages available that allow access to gym, pool and the fitness classes.

This pool is likely to be a great place to visit in summer when the outdoor pool is open and the kids can have a swim and muck around in the sun, while we relax on the grassed area. The location for me is a 5/5, as it is within walking distance of our house. Sadly, on facilities and price it’s a 1/5. I handed in the locker token on my way out…hopefully the next pool I try will be of a higher standard.

Dr Who Experience Cardiff

A Weeping Angel - possibly one of the scariest baddies ever created on the series

A Weeping Angel – possibly one of the scariest baddies ever created on the series

In August we took a trip to Cardiff to see the Dr Who Experience. It’s not a long trip to get there from London – about 2.5 hours from Paddington – and you do get glimpses of the countryside as you hurtle from East to West, however, there are a lot of hedges by the side of the train line, so you also get a lot of green flashing past.

We decided to stay for 3 nights and got a deal through The Trainline website  http://www.thetrainline.com/. They are worth checking out as they often have great specials. We choose the Novatel, as on the map it was showing as walking distance to both Cardiff Central and Cardiff Bay. It turned out to be in a ‘nothing happening’ sort of area, but was conveniently placed. It also offered family rooms with a queen sized bed (that’s kingsize to you English) and a double sofa bed, although the kids said it wasn’t very comfortable. It also had a pool which was a big hit with the kids! I would probably choose to stay somewhere nearer the centre of the city in future and just catch the rail link down to the Bay.

When we went there, the football season hadn’t started, there were no rugby games on and the many Universities that are located in Cardiff were on a break. So it was very, very quiet. I can imagine that it would be quite lively if any of the above were happening. The train comes into Cardiff Central and you are very close to the Millennium Stadium if you are coming to see a game. There are bus links and a one stop train link about 500 metres from the main train station that will take you down to Cardiff Bay. The Bay area has been undergoing a major redevelopment in past years and is a pleasant place to wander around on a summer’s evening and have dinner at one of the many restaurants. It reminded me a lot of the Fremantle Fishing Boat Harbour in Western Australia.

It is also where you will find the Dr Who Experience. Situated right on the waterfront in an oversized tin shed, the Experience will take you about 1.5-2 hours to go through. You can find details of what is on offer and ticket prices here  http://www.doctorwhoexperience.com/ . When we went, there was an option that allowed a limited amount of people onto the current TARDIS set, but now it is just general admission. We weren’t able to snag the extra option tickets, but the general admission was good value. You get a Matt Smith interactive movie – this will obviously need to be changed soon – get to stand in the previous TARDIS set as part of the interactive movie and then get to see a great collection of old sets, costumes, baddies and general material associated with this iconic TV series.

Lots of Daleks to see!

Lots of Daleks to see!

I would recommend that you take the time to watch the video about the woman who wrote the original music for the show. Quite an interesting and poignant look at a women who really wasn’t recognised for her talent at the time.

Cardiff is a very pleasant place to visit. We travelled on the open top tourist bus one day, which gave us a look at the main parts of the town and it does go to Cardiff Bay. This would be a good option if you were doing a day trip and wanted to see a bit of the city as well. There is also a huge shopping mall in the City Centre with most of the major stores there (including a large John Lewis), so if Dr Who isn’t your thing and shopping is, this will be the place for you.

And while you’re in Wales, don’t forget to try the local beer. I imagine it is a hit with zombies!

Beer for Zombies

Beer for Zombies

Madame Tussauds…what can I say

Shrek in wax at Madame Tussands Copyright L Debnam 2013

Shrek in wax at Madame Tussands Copyright L Debnam 2013

The cult of celebrity is in full swing at the bizarre place that is Madame Tussauds. Thousands of people queue to enter a venue filled with wax figures that they then have themselves photographed with.  I’ve now been twice and it’s a strange, strange world…

My daughter was able to choose where she wanted to spend her 11th birthday when we arrived in London. The choice was Tussauds, where she wanted to have her photo taken with her idols, One Direction. Sadly, once inside we searched fruitlessly and were finally told that the boys were “out”. Cue one very disappointed 11 year old. Full marks to the customer service department who responded to my email explaining the situation with 3 tickets to return once the boys were back. This explains why I have been twice in the past 10 weeks.

The first time we went it was August, summer, during school holidays…you can imagine how packed a major tourist attraction such as this was like. We booked a slot online and duly turned up at our allotted time (you get a discount if you book online btw). Don’t panic if you are late for your allotted time – it will take you over an hour in a queue to get inside. In the sun. On a very busy street. With heaps of grizzly, bored kids. Are we having fun yet? Our visit on a Saturday in October was a half hour wait, still busy, but not claustrophobic like the August visit.

Once inside, you head up a set of stairs into a lift to start at the top. It’s packed and for some reason, some people think it’s appropriate to bring young children in huge strollers (called buggies here) to a massively overcrowded venue where the children spend their day in terror at being crowded by unknown legs and the unknown legs spend a day having their ankles sliced and bruised by the buggies!

You start with a series of celebrity models on the first floor. You’ll find Colin Firth, Johnny Depp and Posh and Becks, to name a few, in here, along with some very popular (with the Indian audience) Bollywood stars.

Madame Tussauds on a quiet day. The Music and Political Leader section

Madame Tussauds on a quiet day. The Music and Political Leader section

You move through different sections and in October, to my daughter and her friends delight, the next section held their beloved 1D. It also had the most fabulous attendant ever. This young lady had so much enthusiasm for her job it was infectious. She sang and joked with the girls and encouraged them to sit next to all the boys – not just run in and out (luckily it wasn’t busy when we went through this section) . What a joy she was.

The world's most popular boy band with a very happy 11 year old fan

The world’s most popular boy band with a very happy 11 year old fan

If want to buy any of the pictures that are taken by staff at the most popular displays, prices start from 10 pounds.

The next section is Sports stars and you get to pose with stars of many disciplines. Doing the Usain Bolt victory pose is a favourite! Then comes people who made a difference – scientists, writers (Oscar Wilde is here), etc. Most people seem to walk through this section quite quickly, not appreciating who these people were and the effect they have had on the lives of many. Too old, not famous, not beautiful enough. But so, so important!

Then comes the Royal Family, Music and Political Leaders. I so very much wanted to drape a rainbow scarf around the homophobic neck of Vladimir Putin…

The wax figures are really quite creepy, but is creepier is how popular this venue is. We seem to be so obsessed with celebrity that we’ll be happy having our photo taken with a celeb, even if they are only a wax version. On my second time through, I got my daughter to take my photo with a couple of figures to see what it was like. They’re wax; you get nothing from them. It’s quite an uneasy feeling, quite voyeuristic in a way.

The figures do get changed quite regularly. Judi Dench was there the first time I was there (on the back of a Bond film being out) and not the second. I have to say that of all the figures, I thought she was the most convincing. Maybe because she is such a fabulous, multi dimensional actor – her complexity shone through even in wax.

It’s not just wax figures though. Given the prices to get in – family of four is 108/81 pounds (at the door/online), you would expect a bit more and there is!

You also get to go through a Chamber of Horrors, including an interactive section with actors jumping out at you, a historical display about the lady herself and a looped recording and series of displays featuring Beyoncé who takes you through how her figure was made.

Is it ironic that Madame Tussaud has a wax effigy?

Is it ironic that Madame Tussaud has a wax effigy?

There is also a trip on a ride that takes you through a potted, very abridged version of the history of Britain. It includes a steampunk version of Queen Victoria, sitting among some of the machines invented during her reign. Curiouser and curiouser said Alice…

Steampunk Victoria

Steampunk Victoria

After a trip through the Marvel Superheroes section, you are ushered into a 4D theatre that sits under the famous domed roof. The movie is good fun and there are squeals throughout as people are jabbed, sprayed and whooshed with air.

Before you leave the building, there is, of course, the obligatory gift shop to negotiate your way through. If you ever need a fake Oscar at short notice, this is the place to come.

I doubt I will ever go back to Tussauds in any country. Maybe I’m just not into idolising celebrities that much? Maybe the people I idolise aren’t there? What I can appreciate though, is the incredible work of the artists that create these sculptures and displays. They are all works of art that showcase the work of talented artists.

So if you want to see their work, or just snuggle up to a celeb or two, I suggest not going during peak periods such as school holidays, especially if there is inclement weather forecast as you will be in it for a while before you get in. Enjoy!