Parliament Tour

October 31, 2007 at 2:50 pm | Posted in General, London, Out and About, Tourism, Travel, UK | Leave a comment
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Every year during the summer recess you can take the opportunity to go on a tour of the Houses of Parliament or, more formally, the Palace of Westminster. Outside this period you can make a request of your local politician but for foreign tourists this may be challenging.

It’s best to buy your tickets early online but you can try and purchase them on the day as well. After progressing through the security check point you’ll make your way into the reception hall and divided into your tour group (for example the 10AM tour has 4 sub groups A-D). 

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Throughout the next hour or so they will be pushing each sub group through the halls quickly and efficiently. Generally, two or three groups will be in any one section and the downside is that you will get audio overflow from the other groups potentially drowning out the content of your own guide. On the flip side each guide seems to have their own slant on the history of Parliament, focusing on slightly different aspects and for the aural multitasker you have the opportunity to take in a greater wealth of information.

That’s right! An actual guide, no audio tours at the Houses of Parliament. My guide was a particularly friendly and esteemed looking woman who gave a certain gravitas to the tour. She was also helpful in answering additional questions.

Throughout the tour you will only be able to take photos in the final great hall and this even extends to the central hall the camera crews use for the nightly broadcasts. Given their desire to keep people moving I can appreciate the restriction even if it is annoying.

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Within the context of about an hour they pack in a digestible history of the building and some of the practices that go into current UK democracy. Conversely, there isn’t a great deal of time spent on the formation of said democracy.

The differences in the pomp and ceremony between the more ostentatious House of Lords and the relatively plainer House of Commons was interesting as are the struggles and competitions between the Houses, for example for the Queen’s arrival and speech.

Architecture and artistry fill each space making the House of Parliament tour a worthwhile stop for history/ politics buffs and fine arts connoisseurs alike.

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Return to the museum – The Terracotta Warriors

October 30, 2007 at 1:10 pm | Posted in British Museum, General, London, Out and About, Travel | Leave a comment
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China’s First Emperor’s terracotta warriors are on display at the British Museum for a relatively short time. So drop everything buy a ticket and see it! Or so the advertising would have you believe. While it’s true that the exhibition won’t be here forever I’m not fully convinced that it is a must see. For a brief history of the warriors read the wiki.

So the basics, if you haven’t bought a ticket in advance online then you must vie for one of 500 extra tickets released each morning. I was going with Ankush at 2PM and walked into the museum at 11 and the earliest tickets were for 1:30. On a Monday and at 2 when we came for the tour they had completely sold out. So my advice is if you can pre-buy and if not get in early, buy your tickets for late afternoon or evening and then explore other parts of London or the museum.

There is no photography allowed inside but at the end of the tour you can get plenty of merchandise at the gift shop! Exciting, no? On the other hand for a few extra pounds you can pick up an audio tour. The audio tour helped keep me engaged with the subject matter but that’s probably because I have a short attention span. While there was some additional content on the audio tour I don’t think this really exceeded what was on the signs and explanatory materials. In many instances I was rereading what I’d only heard moments before thus protracting the experience.

While I was aware beforehand that each warrior was a unique work I was oblivious or failed to think about the other aspects of the tomb. What was new to me or at least reinforced was the variety of other statues found within the tomb complex such as civil servants, acrobats and animals. No women though. Maybe they’ll be uncovered one day.

The artistry and gruelling workload required to create the vast number of statues is inspiring and shocking at the same time given the number of prisoners ’employed’ in their construction.

I feel let down a little by the display as it only featured about a dozen warriors (as well as various other statues) and a part of me had imagined a more extensive display reminiscent of the columns of soldiers you see in videos of the excavation. Nonetheless, The British Museum has provided a snapshot of the Terracotta Army and it is likely that only the museum in Xi’an could do better.

One of my hopes was that by coming to this exhibit I could ignore Xi’an and the effort of going to the Terracotta Warrior site. I’d heard from numerous travellers that there isn’t anything else worthwhile in Xi’an besides the museum. Unfortunately, the British Museum only offered the tip of the iceberg or should that be tip of the burial mound so it looks like one of these days I will return to China and trek over to Xi’an and then get out quick!

The exhibit is interesting and something people with an interest in ancient history or China should see but there’s no rush, if you see something on the History Channel first then that might be sufficient.

Oxford – the mini trip

October 29, 2007 at 1:10 pm | Posted in Out and About, Tourism, Travel, UK | Leave a comment
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A while ago I went for a mini reunion with Richard and Rhiannon to Oxford. Richard acted as guide as we wandered around in the inner city for the day. That is when we weren’t eating and drinking or sitting! Though I needed to wait a while for anything on this day after birthday trip. Ouch! My head.

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I didn’t know anything about Oxford before arriving – other than it has/is a university but no campus. Talking about a campus in the Oxbridge context is apparently a capital punishment offence. Basically in Oxford as well as Cambridge and much of London the universities are spread out over any number of buildings but are not located in a set environment.

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The historic buildings of the university easily put to shame any other university I’ve walked through but the lack of green space is a minus. That is until you arrive at one of the colleges, in our case, Magdalen College (pronounced maudlin) that includes a deer park (just because), sports fields and parks. Oh and punting but more on that later. So while the university doesn’t appear to have much green the colleges (where students spend most time) are enormous and historic in their own right. Belonging to a college provides a cache of respect (or mockery) depending on its respective strengths, age and money.

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We also took the opportunity to walk around the canals and watched the attempts by the many different punters as they tried or more often failed in successfully navigating the waterways. Then again the alcohol being imbued by some may be causing the problem.

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After wandering around the town centre we had high tea and moved on to dinner. Being seated by the windows provided the best opportunity to watch the early nightlife of the city – including at least a half-dozen hen’s nights. Popular!

That night I stayed at  Rewley House via LateRooms and despite many dead bees in the stairwell I had a restful sleep in my cheap ensuite bedroom with complimentary breakfast the next day (I missed it – sleep is good). The next day I walked through the crisp morning air to the train station. Goodbye to Oxford and hello again London.

Oxford is a pleasant escape from the busy streets of London but if it weren’t the prospect of visiting friends I probably wouldn’t rush to come and visit again. It’s nice, it’s historic but it isn’t necessarily inspiring for a return journey. Perhaps greater investigation of a guide book would change my mind or am I secretly a Cambridge supporter?       

Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill Museum plus Number Ten

October 28, 2007 at 3:51 pm | Posted in General, London, Out and About, Tourism, Travel, UK | Leave a comment
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About a month ago my parents and I went to the Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill Museum. The 1940s architecture and historical importance of the Cabinet War Rooms is placed alongside the technologically advanced Curchill Museum creating an odd juxtaposition. Though for one getting bored with any number of dry set piece museums the interactivity and flashing lights is a welcome relief.

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Briefly, the Cabinet War Rooms are situated underground in a specially reinforced bunker implemented during the Second World War – particularly in reaction to the Blitz. Their proximity to 10 Downing Street and other important ministries permitted relative ease of access and flow of information. Although Winston Churchill didn’t always abide those measures – much to the chagrin of his minders. The war rooms are not a museum per se rather a walkthrough of glass enclosed rooms that give us a perspective on the living and working conditions of the cabinet and its staff that had been sealed up almost immediately at the end of the war. In order to assist us in our journey you receive as part of your admission a History Channel sponsored audio tour. As with all audio tours it offers insight and historical context which provides significant assistance for the uninitiated. My only complaint with the audio tour is unlike others I’ve been on it didn’t feature ear buds or headphones rather a handheld headset style meaning you are occasionally disturbed by other people with the volume on high. However, not a major issue as on the day we went there were very few people. Overall, the Cabinet War Rooms are interesting – not spectacular – simply interesting.

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About mid way through you will have the opportunity to enter the Churchill Museum (no photography unlike the Cabinet War Rooms). This is well worth the visit. Regardless of your opinions of Churchill the museum will provide an insight into his character and development from his childhood to death. My major praise for this museum is the interactivity that ranges from standing on the floor to activate speeches to the massive touch sensitive table in the centre that allows you to open up any number of significant dates for further information. Some of the displays were less than intuitive but on the whole I found the technology most interesting as I’ve not seen its equal in other British museums. Yet. My parents were also able to grasp the interfaces so that shouldn’t pose any problems for older generations. Oh and the content? Right, I suppose you might want to know about that too. I admit I haven’t read much independently on Winston Chruchill so I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the content but I went in assuming there’d be some bias. It is all critical reading, right?

Once out of the museum and cabinet war rooms via the well placed gift shop we return to street level. Either on your way in or out you may want to stop by and visit the Bali Bombing memorial. A simple globe with the names of victims on the wall. Notably this is all of the victims not only the British. Contrast this with the Australian memorial in Canberra that only lists the Australians – or if it does list all of them I don’t recall seeing an additional list in the memorial garden. Not cool Australia.

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A short five minute walk away is 10 Downing Street the centre of government for the UK (Houses of Parliament, what?) and as tourists there is really no view but it’s close by and is probably a good thing to cross off.

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I wouldn’t place the Cabinet War Rooms or even the Churchill Museum on the top of my must see list in London but if you have some extra time it would be worthwhile particularly if you have an interest in modern history.

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