Three Days Spent Investigating London

My wife and I had a three day break in London during December. This journal is an account of our stay and places visited.

Neasden Temple

Member Rating 0 out of 5 by Drever on December 24, 2008

The Shri Swaminarayan Mandir is a Temple in Neasden, a place of worship for Hindu’s of the Swaminarayan faith. Since opening in the mid 1990s it attracts more than half a million visitors annually. However getting there isn’t all that easy. It’s about a one walk from Neasden underground. It seemed longer to us as it was raining at the time. Within sight of it is Wembley Park, which in it’s own right is a temple – to football.

The Shree Swaminarayan Mandir is Europe’s first traditional Hindu Temple. It is the largest temple to be built outside India. One of London’s most striking monuments, it is open daily throughout the year and welcomes all visitors.

Security is taken seriously so you are expected to leave bags at the security office. Shoes have to be placed in the shoe racks provided in the Mandir. On this rainy day in December we had the place almost to ourselves. The temple personnel appeared keen to brief me on key facts regarding the temple.

The Temple has been carved and constructed entirely according to an ancient treatise on Temple architecture. 2,820 tonnes of Bulgarian Limestone and 2000 tonnes of Italian Carrara marble were shipped to India where more than 1,500 craftsmen worked on the project out of devotion. Over 26,300 carved pieces of marble including intricate ceilings of Indian Ambaji marble were shipped back to London. Within three years they were assembled together like a jigsaw with help from over a thousand followers of the faith.

The temple consists of seven pinnacles, six domes, 193 Pillars, 32 windows and four balconies. Inside the temple there are two levels. The lower one contains a permanent exhibition on "Understanding Hinduism" combined with a Culture Centre. The temple has free entrance, but to go into this exhibition area you have to pay.

Hinduism is the world’s oldest religion. It precedes recorded history and has no one human founder. It is a mystical religion leading the devotee to personally experience the truth within, finally reaching the consciousness where man and God are one.

The Swaminarayan faith (better known as BAPS: Bochasanwasi Shri Akshar Purushottam Swaminarayan Sanstha) started around the 18th Century by Bhagwan Swaminarayan. The current leader of BAPS is Shri Pramukh Swami Maharaj, the fifth spiritual leader. He is the inspirer of this Temple and many others around the world. By guidance from the spiritual leaders, the basic main aim of BAPS is to "inspire a better and happier individual, family and society".

This temple is full of intricate detail. Intense yet beautifully and perfectly carved flowers, animals and symbolic patterns surround you. Hindu’s believe this temple not only is the home of God but also a bridge between man and the Divine.

The second floor is the main area for worship and a number of different images of God are presented here. The daily Worship is done by a priest who is the only person allowed in the inner most Shrines. Appropriate mantras are chanted at each ritual. At festival times worshippers may enter the inner shrine and make offerings to the images of God.

Adjacent to the temple, on the right hand side is another building consisting of a number of halls for prayers and dining facilities. Like others I believed the vivid carpets, containing patterns skilfully mirroring that of the carved wood on the ceiling, had been woven in India. Imagine my surprise on finding out that they had been made in Ireland.

A down side to the visit is that you are not allowed to take pictures inside the building. In the gift shop, however, in the foyer you can buy pictures. They also have a range of books for sale suitable for children and adults, and a variety of languages available, such as English, Gujarati, and Hindi.

This building rivals the best in London and is a must visit.

The Victoria and Albert Museum

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Drever on December 24, 2008

Like most museums in London The Victoria and Albert museum is free apart from special displays that incur a charge. In effect it is the permanent version of the 1851 Great Exhibition in London. Queen Victoria laid its foundation stone in 1899 and from the start the V&A has had an important role as a research institution. The museum showcases the applied arts of all disciplines, all periods, all nationalities, and all tastes and has become the greatest decorative-arts museum in the world.

We could think of no better place to spend a rainy day in London. We alighted at South Kensington tube station and followed a long titled tunnel leading to the V&A and the other museums in the area.

We received a floors plan at the entrances to help us navigate the seven-mile, four-storey maze of halls and corridors. The museum’s offers hourly free introductory talks but we decided just to wander and to use the floor plan only when lost. We meandered through levels 0 where we entered and level 1, which leaves scope for many more visits.

Level 0 contains the collection from Europe 1600-1800. These galleries begin with displays of extravagant objects from the 1600s. They continue with an exploration of Baroque from France, Italy and Spain. Highlights include an altar made of amber and ivory, Italian silk embroidered wall hangings and terracotta sketch models by the sculptor Bernini. Each object displayed is in context often with a partial room formed around it with colours chosen to show it off to best effect.

A highlight of the 16th-century Renaissance Italy collection is the marble Neptune with Triton by Bernini, and the cartoons by Raphael created as designs for tapestries for the Sistine Chapel.

The museum has the greatest collection of Indian art outside India, plus Chinese and Japanese galleries. In complete contrast are suites of English furniture, metalwork, and ceramics and the national collection of paintings by Constable. The Dress Collection includes a collection of corsets through the ages that's sure to make women wince. There's also an extraordinary collection of musical instruments. A most unusual, huge, and impressive exhibit is the Cast Courts containing life-size plaster models of ancient and medieval statuary and architecture.

With so many cultures displayed it becomes clear how like a relay race the progress of the world has been. A nation will go through a rapid stage of development falter and then another nation picks up the baton and runs with it.

European culture was slow to pick up the baton. While it was in the dark ages nations under Islam influences were powering ahead. It was only on the capture of their libraries and knowledge the West started to race ahead. Nations have taken it in turn to carry the baton. Will it return to China or India? Certainly they are challenging the current baton holders.

The museum is thought provocating and where else can you see such an amazing collection of ceramics, furniture, fashion, glass, jewellery, metalwork, photographs, sculpture, textiles and paintings? The V&A is home to 3000 years' worth of artefacts from many of the world's richest cultures and is the world’s greatest museum for art and design.
Victoria and Albert Museum
Cromwell Road
London, England, SW7 2RL
+44 (20) 7942 2000

Camden Town Market

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Drever on December 24, 2008

Camden Market is one of London’s largest weekend tourist attractions, offering fashions, exotic foods and a rich diversity of people. The area of Camden has been described in the literature of Charles Dickens, George Orwell and Mary Shelley- highlighting its importance to the culture of London. We visited on a Sunday in December but even though it was busy.

The area surrounding the market has a diverse history. Regents Canal was built through Camden at the end of the 19th century. The canal was a vital supply of produce for London- warehouses and production lines soon appeared in Camden where goods were processed before being sent further down the canal to the City.

Camden enjoyed only a brief spell of prosperity, as rail and road soon became a less expensive way of transporting produce. Many of the warehouses and processing plants were closed down and the area was left to decay.

In 1970 an idea to use the Camden area as a market space was formulated. The British Waterways agreed to lease out some of the land and buildings in Camden and Camden Market was born. The success of the Market brought more and more stalls to the area.

Today Camden Market consists of four separate markets, hundreds of stalls and many permanent shops. The Market becomes a hive of activity every weekend and attracts shoppers from right across the Capital.

Camden is in northwest London and can be easily reached by tube or bus. Coming out of the tube station we found ourselves immediately in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the market. Next to the station is the Buck Street Market. Stalls here are so tightly packed together that it is a relief to come out the other side. Teenage merchandise abounds accompanied by masses of tourist merchandise.

Over the road from the Buck Street Market is the Inverness Street Market specialising in fruit and vegetables and thankfully spaced out better. Stalls even here though have popped up selling tourist tat.

Camden Lock Market was really what I was most interested in. For one thing it had a more historical setting being clustered around the canal lock area. On the canal many colourful barges still sit although the surroundings are very different from their heyday. Orphanage kids were once transported up this canal to work in the ‘ dark satanic mills’ of Lancashire. Warf buildings once full of merchandise for transportation are now full of market stalls.

Camden Lock consists of a number of small shops and stalls with both inside and outside sections to it - you can buy clothing, cards, small gifts, furniture, toys, shoes and books. It is a much more arts and crafts-style market than the others. There are lots of Jewellery stalls inside, which sell some unusual and vintage pieces.

Unfortunately, many of the markets in Camden do seem to be selling a lot of the same items. My wife was looking for a handbag and even I could see that the same bags were appearing on numerous stalls and shops. The shops and the Buck Street and Inverness Street Markets are the biggest culprits here, with the other markets retaining a little more of their individual identities.

If you visit Camden have a good look around. Don’t just stay around the station. It’s quite a big area and there’s lots of shops and stalls, some quite hidden away.

Overall Camden is a superb place. Its fun and won’t cost you loads of money. It’s a really interesting place.
Camden Town Market
Camden High Street
+44 20 7284 2084

Tower of London

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by Drever on December 24, 2008

The Tower of London dates from Roman times. The present building contains nearly 1,000 years of history within its forbidding walls. One of the most popular tourist attractions in England, it is according to paranormal experts the most haunted location in the world.

The Tower holds the royal gems because it's still one of the royal palaces, although no monarch since Henry VII has called it home. Its most renowned role has been as a jail and place of torture and execution. The Tower has been the site of bloody events ranging from famous beheadings to the murders of two royal family teenage boys. The last executions being from the early 1940s of WWII German-Nazi spies.

The closest Tube station is Tower Hill only a short walk away. The ticket booths sit across from the entrance. Once you pass through the entrance there is a sign displaying when the next tour starts. Allow at least three to four hours at a minimum to tour this tower.

The 39 Yeoman Warders, known as Beefeaters, conduct the tours. Resplendent in navy-and-red Tudor outfits, these are ex-soldiers with a gift for storytelling. Beefeaters have been guarding the Tower since Henry VII appointed them in 1485. One of them, the Yeoman Raven master, is responsible for making life comfortable for the Tower ravens (six birds plus reserves) - an important duty, because if the ravens were to desert the Tower, goes the legend, the kingdom would fall. Today, the Tower takes no chances and clips the raven’s wings.

In prime position stand the oldest part of the Tower and the most prominent of the buildings, the White Tower. William the Conqueror began this central keep in 1078. Henry III (1207-72) had it whitewashed, which is where the name comes from. Here are the Royal Armouries, with a collection of arms and armour. Henry VIII armour shows his massive size.

The Chapel of St. John the Evangelist, downstairs from the Armouries, is an example of 11th-century Norman style - rare, simple, and beautiful.

Across the moat, Traitors' Gate lies to the right - a forbidding entrance through which many prisoners saw the last of the outside world. Opposite Traitors' Gate is the former Garden Tower, better known since about 1570 as the Bloody Tower. Its name comes from one of the most famous unsolved murders in history, the saga of the "little princes in the Tower." In 1483 their uncle, Richard of Gloucester, left the uncrowned boy king, Edward V, and his brother Richard here after the death of their father, Edward IV. He had himself crowned Richard III, but in 1674 workers discovered two little skeletons identified as the princes under the stairs to the White Tower.

On Tower Green only the high-ranking qualified for beheaded in the peace and seclusion here instead of before the mob at Tower Hill. Only seven people qualified - among them Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, wives two and five of Henry VIII's six; Elizabeth I's friend Robert Devereux, earl of Essex; and the nine-day queen, Lady Jane Grey, age 17.

The little chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula the second church on the site conceals the remains of some 2,000 people executed at the Tower, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard among them. Queen Victoria ordered that their remains be given a Christian burial here.

The most famous displays are the Crown Jewels in the jewel house located in the Waterloo Barracks in the Inner Ward. Before you see them, you view a short film that includes scenes from Elizabeth II's 1953 coronation. Then standing on a conveyor belt, you pass a series of jewels their sparkle increased by special lighting. Each carries a brief history of the crown jewels. You can also see Charles II and Mary II coronation balls, 4 of the Consort's sceptres and several spectacular and priceless diamonds, including the largest in the world, the First Star of Africa, which weighs over 530 carats.

Although I had visited the Tower many years ago it on this occasion entranced me once again. The Beefeaters are a star act and most of the history of England is contained within these walls. No wonder it is one of the most popular tourist attractions in England.
Tower of London
Tower Hill
London, England, EC3N 4AB
+44 (207) 709 0765

Holiday Inn Regent Park

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by Drever on December 24, 2008

We have stayed in Holiday Inns before and they generally come up to a good standard. I selected this one on the basis of price and the recommendation of friends.

Coming down from Scotland by train to Euston Station the hotel is within comfortable walking distance from the station – about 1 mile. It is also centrally situated. The crossroad between Oxford Street and Regent Street (one of the main shopping areas) is just 10 – 15 minutes walk and it is 20 minutes walk to the Madame Tussauds waxworks. If you don't want to walk, Great Portland Street underground station is just two minutes walk. Warren Street underground station, which has better connections, is five minutes walk.

The hotel is a typical London 4* hotel. On arriving we entered the large lobby. The Reception Desk staff proved efficient and welcoming and we were soon being whisked up to our second floor room by one of the three elevators. We walked along several long corridors before reaching our room

The room was of medium size modern comfortable and clean. Beds proved heavenly comfortable and a true blessing after a long day of walking and sightseeing. The central heating proved a match for the winter chill outside.

Additional furnishings consist of a dressing table, small bedside cabinets and a comfortable chair. The lobby contained the wardrobe, a safe, a trouser press and a well-stocked cool box. The room had a hot water tea maker that we used every evening. For business people an Internet connection is provided for laptops and of course the room has a TV and a telephone.

Glancing out of the window I found we had no view at all. The hotel appeared to be built in the form of a quadrangle and our window looked out onto a flat roof in the space between the different areas of the building.

The bathroom proved small but adequate. My wife and I wrestled with the controls for the shower positioned over the bath for some time with no result. Eventually we decided that the one fitted to the tap was a replacement rather than an optional extra. It would have been nice to have a little notice on the wall to inform us.

The breakfast room is modern. I always take full English breakfast where available. Here it is very good with lots of choice although the plates on occasion were too hot to handle. Also available are cereals, fruit juices and cooked meats, cheese, toast and fruit.

We had two meals in the hotel. Around the central kitchen are grouped three restaurants. It means speedy service. Certainly the service and preparation of the meals were superb. There are also a couple of acceptable restaurants close to the hotel, in Titchfield Street. From two small grocery stores near the hotel you can also buy fresh food.

This is a hotel that offers good value, a comfortable stay a central location and I can highly recommend it.
Holiday Inn London - Regent's Park
Carburton St.
London, England, W1W5EE
+44 871 942 9111

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