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Walking in a Winter Wonderland

By 22 December 2013 London, Travel, United Kingdom
London at Christmas - Leicester Square funfair lit up at night

I’m a bit of a sucker for Christmas. To be honest, I’m a bit of a child! I love how pretty everything looks in the run up to Christmas. The lights, the trees, all the decorations… I even enjoy wrapping up presents. So when the chance came to visit Winter Wonderland in London’s Hyde Park with some work friends (and my sister) I jumped at the chance.

Winter Wonderland has been held in Hyde Park since 2007.  It’s free to get in but once you’re there you need to get your purse out, unless you simply want to have a wander around.  There’s a German-style Christmas market, fairground rides and plenty of stalls selling mulled wine, alcohol-laced hot chocolate, beer and German sausage. You can’t beat a good German sausage! 😉 Bratwurst of course!

I read on Twitter that it was likely to be very busy, especially since we were visiting on a Saturday so I was anticipating a huge queue to get in.  As we walked up to the entrance from Hyde Park Corner tube station I spotted the queue!  It was quite big but actually it was just the organiser’s way of staggering entrance into the park.  Large swathes of excited people were allowed in at once.  We only had to wait about 5 minutes.

Winter Wonderland 2013 Hyde Park queue

Rachel Birchley in the queue for Winter Wonderland 2013 London

Rachel Birchley with Father Christmas at Winter Wonderland

More people waiting to get in to Winter Wonderland

Our first stop, once inside, was a sausage stall!  It was very yummy and warming.  I was so busy eating away that I didn’t take a photo 🙁 Winter Wonderland was quite busy, but I imagine that after dark, when it would look a lot prettier, it would be even more crowded.  The stalls were expensive, and the rides even more so.  My friends wanted to go on this huge, scary looking ride so they disappeared to buy the necessary tokens, however they found out that they would need 8 tokens each for that one ride. Each token costs £1! Needless the say, they didn’t go on that ride. They could have had two mulled wines for that!  (And I think that’s the option they went for!)

My sister and I broke off from the main group so we could explore on our own.  I’m not really one for ‘group’ days out.  Unless there’s a leader with a plan, you can end up spending too much time wandering aimlessly while deciding on what to do.  We ventured into the Bavarian Village because I was searching (in vain as it turned out) for pretzels.  They were selling huge steins of beer but I think it was too early as there was hardly anyone in there.  My sister simply had a cider, and we stood for a while listening to the live music.

Back out in the German market section of Winter Wonderland we came across a huge group of people dressed as Santa! I’m not sure what was going on but everywhere we went from that time on we saw a lot of Santas.  It was a bit weird, especially since they were mostly drunk.  I don’t think Father Christmas normally staggers around London carrying a four-pack of Strongbow!

Looking for culture at the British Museum

After stuffing our faces with candy floss, we headed out of Hyde Park.  We felt like a bit of culture so we headed for the British Museum.  Unfortunately I didn’t count on it not being that interesting.  We saw the mummies, which were pretty freaky to be honest.  The idea that a 2,500 year old dead person is inside those wrappings is quite gross really.  We didn’t really do the museum justice and only spent an hour in there.  Although I wasn’t particularly taken with any of the exhibitions, I love the building!

Inside the British Museum

London’s Christmas lights

The capital is famous for its illuminations at Christmas.  So we didn’t miss out, my sis and I got the tube to Covent Garden, which I love.  I love the hustle and bustle, street performers and the general atmosphere.  Outside the market building there’s a gorgeous Christmas tree.

Twinkling Christmas tree Covent Garden London 2013

From Covent Garden, we walked to Leicester Square, which had a funfair in the centre and all the surrounding buildings were looking fab.  We braved the crowds inside M&M World because the smell was just so delicious!  I spent nearly £6 on the chocolate candies.  The pick and mix bit is obviously a real money-spinner for them, and a nightmare for parents! They handed out massive cellophane bags, inviting you to fill them.  A full bag must cost in excess of £30!

We managed to squeeze our way through Piccadilly Circus, where the Eros statue was enclosed in a huge snowglobe, and find ourselves on Regents Street.  The lights here were quite traditional yet commercial.  They were sponsored by a new Dreamworks film.

Photo Credit:

Photo Credit:

The Oxford Street lights were awesome but it was just so busy!  Our walking pace turned into what I call the “Disney Shuffle”, i.e. the shuffle that you do in a queue or down busy Main Street.  This pace is actually more tiring than walking normally.  We escaped onto a bus back to St Pancras International and the train home.

It was a fun but tiring day.  I was asleep on the sofa by 9pm!  All that fresh air.  I do like London at Christmas but kind of wish I hadn’t bothered with Winter Wonderland, especially since I saw the Winter Festival on TV last week.  That looked much better.  There’s always next year!

I’d love to hear about what happens in your capital city at Christmas time.  Please leave me a comment 🙂

By Rachel Birchley


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The National Lottery Anniversary Run in the Olympic Park

By 22 July 2013 Life, Lifestyle, London
The National Lottery Anniversary Run 2013 took place at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, with the last 300m run on the track inside the stadium.

Sunday 21st July came round all too quickly!  I signed up to do a 5 mile run a couple of months ago with my work colleagues and somehow never got round to doing any training!

The National Lottery Anniversary Run was staged to celebrate the London 2012 Olympic legacy and the money that National Lottery ticket sales has donated towards training British athletes.  The run took place in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and finished off in the stadium!

I got the train up to Stratford with my colleagues.  The closer we got to London the busier the train got; the vast majority of passengers were travelling up for the National Lottery Anniversary Run.  I’m not psychic by the way, we were all wearing the blue run t-shirts provided by the organisers!  The atmosphere getting to the stadium was buzzing and I was really excited to see the stadium and the rest of the park since I wasn’t able to get any tickets for the Olympics.

Rachel Birchley during the National Lottery Anniversary Run 2013.  The Orbit and Olympic Stadium are in the background.
Me with the Orbit and Olympic Stadium in the background

I couldn’t believe how busy it was; my bib number was 15401!  There were people everywhere.  I was starting in the pink wave, which was last.  I can understand why they wanted to put the slower runners at the back but it also meant I had less time to finish the race!  Also, the wave was so huge that there was a real mixture of abilities and quite a few frustrated people I think who were trying to push through the crowds.  Now I want to let you know early that I am NOT a runner.  The only time I run anywhere is if I’m going to miss the train or something!  I haven’t run properly since school, which is beginning to become a distant memory.  I had planned on doing some training and using the couch to 5k podcast that I’d downloaded.  Unfortunately, the closest I got to actually using said podcast is putting it on my iPod.  I am pretty impressed that I managed to run about half a mile.  This is probably the furthest I’ve ever run!  Once I realised I couldn’t run any further, I walked.  But this was no casual stroll in the park!  I power walked/racewalked the whole way, except for when I stopped to go for a wee, and to take photos.

The track wound its way through the Olympic park and took us past the velodrome, the Copper Box, the Orbit and finally into the stadium, which was the best bit by far!  The track went down into a service road under the stadium.  This is when I took my headphones off and I’m glad I did.  Over the PA system they were playing crowd noise with bits of Olympic athletics commentary and the music from Chariots of Fire!  I was so tempted to do the slow motion run but decided I’d look like a bit of an idiot really.  Then there was light at the end of the tunnel and I ran out onto the track!  The last 300m of the run was on the athletics track inside the stadium in front of thousands of cheering spectators.  It was amazing.  I started to jog but then realised I couldn’t keep it up so I continued my brisk walk until I got to the 100m mark  when I decided to make a run for it.  The girl band Little Mix was singing live on the stage, the crowd were cheering me on and I just about managed to hold back tears.  When I got to about 50m from the finish line I gave it my all and ran as fast as I could, all the time worried I was going to face plant the track in front of all those people and the photographers.  Luckily, no such thing happened and I ran across the line.  I completed the 5 miles in 1:17:52.

Rachel Birchley, The Humble Tourist, inside the London Olympic stadium.
In the stadium wearing my medal

Apart from the fact that it was hot and tiring, I actually quite enjoyed myself.  I had my music turned up and I just went for it!  I wish I was able to run though.  I am currently losing weight and hopefully that and my podcast, which I really am going to start to do once I’ve bought new trainers, will enable me to run the 5k fun run that I’m doing in September.  It was a fantastic day and one I’ll remember for a long time.  Plus, I got a medal!  My first medal ever 🙂

By Rachel Birchley

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5 Free Things to Do in London, England

By 22 July 2013 London, Travel, United Kingdom

England, and the UK as a whole, is notoriously expensive for visitors.  You’d be lucky to find dorm room accommodation for less than £20 (US$30) and when you add this to food and travel costs it soon adds up.  According to Lonely Planet, backpackers could scrape by on £50 per day, but this is unlikely in London.  To help you get by in this pricey city I’ve compiled a short list of five free things to do in London.

Westminster Abbey ticket entry prices
£18 to get in to Westminster Abbey?
No thanks!

1. Museums

Surprisingly, many museums in London are free to enter.  The list includes:

  • The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square
  • National Portrait Gallery, next door to the National Gallery
  • British Museum, Great Russell Street not far from Tottenham Court Road
  • Natural History Museum, Kensington
  • Science Museum, Kensington
  • Victoria and Albert Museum, Kensington
  • Tate National, Millbank
  • Tate Modern, South Bank

It’s a pretty impressive list!  You could spend hours in each of these wonderful national treasures.  There are privately owned museums that charge an entry fee, for example the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden and many other attractions charge some, quite frankly, extortionate amounts to get in.  Did you know it costs £18 to visit Westminster Abbey?  I understand that they need to pay for the upkeep of the Abbey but surely if they reduced the costs they would attract more visitors and bring in just as much?

2. Walk Over Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge is a sight synonymous with London.  The bridge was completed in 1894 after it was decided that another river crossing was needed in the East of London.  At the time, the only other bridge was London Bridge.  One of the best places to capture those classic Tower Bridge photographs is from the South Bank near the HMS Belfast.  Walking over the bridge is totally free and offers some great views up and down the River Thames.  There is an exhibition you can visit which lets you walk across the high level walkways but it’s £8 so I’ll leave that one up to you.

The River Thames view includes Tower Bridge and the HMS Belfast
Tower Bridge from the North bank of the Thames with the HMS Belfast in sight

3. Take in the Markets and Street Theatre at Covent Garden

Covent Garden Street Performer Street Theatre London Covent Garden is home to a huge market.  There’s the Jubilee Hall that houses a wide range of stalls selling anything from antiques to I heart London t-shirts, the East Colonnade Market where the stalls sell homemade soaps and other handicrafts, and in the Apple Market you can find a huge selection of products for sale by artisans.  The surrounding buildings are home to high end shops and eating places galore.  Of course, window shopping is always free and while you’re wandering around Covent Garden you’ll come across street theatre acts.  The best acts are found in the piazza in front of the church, but they’re all dotted around.  Covent Garden is also a fantastic place to sit and people watch.  If you like beer, try the Porterhouse brewery pub.  It has a whole menu of beers from around the world!  Opposite, used to be The Australia Shop.  I’m really sad that it has closed down as whenever I was in London I was go in to pick up a Cherry Ripe or two.  Now I’ll have to order them online and pay even more for the delicious Australian choccie bar.

4. Explore the Sights of London on Foot

Although the distances are quite large, London is a very walkable city.  It’s actually pretty flat.  Many of the main attractions are centrally located and it’s possible to walk a loop that takes them all in.  From Trafalgar Square you can walk through Admiralty Arch and down The Mall to Buckingham Palace.  You can watch the Changing of the Guard most days at 11.30am, get there early to get a good view through the railings.  From Buckingham Palace walk through St James’ Gardens and see if you can spot any pelicans.  At the end of the park you’re in Whitehall and the Houses of Parliament, 10 Downing Street and Horse Guards Parade are all within easy reach.  Both Leicester Square and Covent Garden are a stone’s throw from Trafalgar Square as well.  Just walk north past the National Portrait Gallery to reach Leicester Square.  West from here is Covent Garden: east of Leicester Square is Soho.  Handily, there are lots of little maps dotted about.  You’ll see black sign posts that have maps on them.  One map shows the wider area and the other the local area with a walking time guide on it.  They are really useful!  If you’re want to travel further afield, the Barclay’s Cycle Hire scheme is brilliant value for money and there are bike stations all over London.  For just £2 you can have unlimited cycle rides up to 30 minutes in duration.  Take a look at the website for more pricing information.

5. Enjoy the Many London Parks

Photo of Rachel Birchley, The Humble Tourist, in St James' Park
This is me in St James’ Park

One of the wonderful things about London is the amount of green space.  There are large parks all over the capital and of course they are all free to enter.  Some of the parks are:

  • St James’ Park
  • Hyde Park
  • Regent’s Park
  • Green Park
  • Greenwich Park
  • Kensington Gardens

All of the above are historical Royal Parks and the Government look after them so that future generations will also be able to enjoy the parks.  London’s parks are a brilliant place to unwind, have a picnic and spend time with friends.
I love the hustle and bustle of London.  There’s always something going on and you can never be short of something to do.  When I visited last week it was really hot and very busy.  London is fun all year round, each season brings different events and the landscape changes.

By Rachel Birchley

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Photo Essay – A Day Trip to London

By 15 July 2013 London, Photography, Travel, United Kingdom

With Britain in the middle of a heatwave I was determined to get in on the action.  Lowly Folkestone is right on the coast and never reaches the hottest temperatures since it’s almost always cooled with a breeze.  To make the most of the weather I decided to jump on the train and take a day trip to London where I seemed to join the world and his wife in exploring Britain’s historical capital city.  I had intended to visit the British Museum because I’ve never been but once I got there it was so busy that I turned back around!  With no other plans and no money to spend I took a hike, literally.  This photo essay shows some of the sights I saw along the way.

statue of eros picadilly circus London
The statue of Eros in Picadilly Circus
Chinatown London gates
The entrance to Chinatown
green and orange building Dycott Street London exterior view Google London
I took a picture of this cool looking building and it turns out to be Google’s  London HQ!
British Museum London outside view crowds of visitors
All the people! July obviously brings the crowds to the capital. Outside the British Museum.
Pall Mall London building demolished except for frontage
Rebuilding while maintaining the original frontage. Pall Mall.
Selwyn House London lion head door knocker
Regal looking door knocker.  Selwyn House, Cleveland Row
British soldier wearing red tunic and bearskin outside Clarence House London
I bet he wishes he could stand at ease. Wearing a bearskin and full tunic in 30degree heat must have been unbearable.
St James Park, London Eye, lake
St James’ Park lake with view towards Horse Guards Parade and the London Eye
Westminster Abbey London
Westminster Abbey
Pretty flower – foxglove? – outside Westminster Abbey
Buxton Memorial Fountain emancipation of slavery in British Empire in Victoria Tower Gardens
Buxton Memorial Fountain, Victoria Tower Gardens. This fountain was built to celebrate the emancipation of slaves in the British Empire in 1934.
Houses of Parliament London as seen through Lambeth Bridge
View of the Houses of Parliament from Lambeth Bridge
Lambeth Palace residence of Archbishop of Canterbury London Southbank
Lambeth Palace – the official residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Street entertainer in Covent Garden London
Street entertainer in Covent Garden
The most amazing ice cream! One scoop of Irish Cream, one scoop of Tiramisu from Patisserie Valerie, Covent Garden
The most amazing ice cream from Patisserie Valerie, Covent Garden

I had a brilliant day and because I left my Oyster Card at home and refused to pay full price for the Tube or bus I walked more than 7 miles!  It was great exercise but perhaps a little excessive when it was so hot!  It reminded me of my ridiculously long walks around Singapore.

By Rachel Birchley

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Visiting London During the Olympics

By 9 August 2012 Life, Lifestyle, London, Travel, United Kingdom

When I first learnt that my University reunion was due to take place in Central London during the Olympics I was less than impressed.  In my mind this was not the best time to go to London.  I thought the trains would be rammed and everywhere would be mobbed.  To me London would be best avoided.  I was considering not going.

The Shard – London’s newest skyscraper – from London Bridge Station

Having finally made the decision to go, it turned out that the train from the Kent coast up to London in the early evening was not at all busy.  On arrival at London Bridge, I was diverted out to an exit that I wouldn’t normally use but it actually took me out in the direction that I wanted.  There were brightly-clad volunteers on hand on the platforms at both Ashford International and London Bridge offering timetable/platform advice and directions.

Everywhere was busy but in a good way.  The atmosphere was buzzing and everyone seemed happy and excited.  There were visitors everywhere sporting their countries colours and adorned with face paint.  There was a festival atmosphere.  Walking along the river towards Tower Bridge, I was one of the hundreds of people snapping away at the huge Olympic rings hanging from the Bridge.  Just by Tower Bridge is a giant screen where thousands were cheering on the athletes in the summer sun.

The iconic Tower Bridge with those rings

From Tower Bridge I walked through to St Katharine’s Dock to visit the Imagine Denmark event that I’d read about on Twitter.  Here I found the most Danes I’d ever seen in one place!  Since I’ve never been to Denmark, this isn’t a difficult feat.  Fans were enjoying the Danish beer in front of the big screen.  The reason for my detour was to check out the Lego Olympic stadium and park, which I have to say was pretty cool.

Imagine Denmark

LEGO Olympic Stadium

The lovely St Katharine’s Dock

My evening destination was The Tattershall Castle bar on a boat on the Victoria Embankment.  I made the wrong decision to walk, rather than take the Tube, based on a complete underestimation of distance and overestimation of the comfort of my sandals.  4 miles and 2 very painful feet later I arrived at the boat ready to meet my friends, whom I’d not seen for about 7 years.  As it grew dark the bridges and skyline lit up.  I do think that most cities look better at night and London certainly does not disappoint.

The view from The Tattershal Castle – not bad eh?

When I left the bar after 11pm, the area around Embankment Station and Charing Cross was still teeming with life.  Olympic spectators were mixed in with late night revellers.  The atmosphere remained jovial and I felt safe on my solo walk to the station.

So although the Games are nearly over, I just want to highly recommend to anyone considering making the journey to London to do it.  Even if you don’t have event tickets there are plenty of big screens to watch the action and enjoy the party atmosphere.  The travel for me wasn’t negatively affected by the Olympics, actually a later last train than normal has been put on for my line so I was able to have another half an hour with my friends.

Olympic fever has hit the nation – come and join the party!

By Rachel Birchley

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