Tag Archives: England

Science, beautiful botany and determination


The Victoria & Albert museum welcomed us with its neck-craning burst of Dale Chihuly color hanging in the entry.  We could not miss a notebook of Da Vinci’s written in his mirror-image cursive.


This eye-catching bust of Donatello’s physician shows what happens when you treat a gifted master sculptor.




[enjoying a picnic in the sunny courtyard]

At London’s extensive botanical garden—Kew Gardens—we were treated to an unexpected show of aircraft on final for Heathrow. 


[great picnic by the largest greenhouse I’ve ever seen]


I even got a later view of the enormous Airbus A380.

We walked along the platform in the treetops


and raced each other through a low log trail. 



Almost immediately, once we saw this log trail someone had broken out the stopwatch and we started dashing one at a time.  I was in the lead till Luke decided to try it one more time.  He came rushing in about two seconds ahead of me.  The little man was elated.

We decided not to try and unlock the marijuana plant in the cage. 


The garden carefully displayed “risky” plants such as cannabis, poppies, and peyote.  The kids kept a wary eye on the meat eating plants.  The kiddos disappeared under plant canopies and attacked the playground with gusto. 



[the boys covering the path in case any scary plants tried to sneak up on us]


[a Giant Sequoia living up to its name]





[treasuring, treasuring, treasuring this time]




We devoured the science museum and—surprise—I somehow ended up making the airplanes the main dish.  We stumbled upon great displays on the Wright bothers, a WWII Spitfire and a German V-1 buzz bomb.  An air traffic control display chirped out controller radio communications.  Next thing the poor kids knew their Dad had launched into discussions on innovation in aviation and the courage of those WWII aviators. 




At St Paul’s cathedral, we relished the masterpiece of Christopher Wren.  He obsessed over each detail for 35 years, finally finishing the project in 1710.  A technological marvel, its dome towered as the tallest building in London for over 250 years. 




We caught our whispers across the room in the Whispering gallery and claimed the summit of the church for its views.  Christopher Wren actually designed a lower dome ceiling within the tall exterior dome so you climb up part of the time between the two domes.  






The iconic picture of St Paul’s cathedral shrouded in smoke but standing defiantly through the blitz has always inspired me. 


Civilian defense brigades—the cathedral’s was St Paul’s Watch— worked through the attacks to quickly extinguish the fires that erupted after the bombs fell.   At one point an unexploded bomb was removed at great risk from the roof of the cathedral.  Even Churchill directed that the cathedral be a priority in firefighting as a means to keep up the people’s morale under German attacks on the city. 

Here’s the St Paul’s Watch–Hogwarts chapter…  Don’t even try to get past those wands.


The Wimbledon Library right near our flat as we were rolling our mobile homes out of England.  This was the place where they generously gave us a library card and we were checking out English books left and right.  Love you London, and on to Scotland!


Casting a spell on us

London fills our minds with wonder as we marvel at where our own history began. Remnants of imperialism abound in the historical buildings and in the population. The Middle Ages, Absolute Monarchy, Industrial Revolution, Age of Information/Globalization — all are adequately represented on the streets and in the museums. Famous preachers like Wesley and Spurgeon leave their traces about town. However, besides the history centers, we pause as we pass the places of literary imagination. The (recreated) Globe theatre where Shakespeare performed his plays stands active and lively. We imagine the children at the train station in The Chronicles of Narnia. I’m on the constant lookout for Mr. Darcy (he did take trips to London, right?). We think of Oliver, Ebenezer Scrooge, and Eliza from My Fair Lady. We even notice where Lightning McQueen was in Cars 2. Everything looks familiar, even though of the Mesquits, only Brent had visited before. One special literary work dominated all our thoughts: Harry Potter.

As parents, we had the first clue, when trying to show the kids the renowned Thames river and the London Bridge. The kids only had eyes for The Millennium Bridge, the one destroyed by the Death Eaters in the 6th movie.  The Harry Potter wands accompanied us on most of our outings, just in case we passed an important site. We visited Piccadilly Square with Harry Potter in mind (movie 7). And of course, King’s Cross Station, Platform 9 3/4 and the adjoining St Pancras Station that is the actual location of Harry Potter’s “dream” conversation with Dumbledore in the 8th movie. We re-watched most of the movies at the end of our tiring days of touring. Fun.

Our biggest Harry Potter adventure was a pilgrimage to The Making of Harry Potter at Harry Potter studios. Wow. Here is Camille’s version of us arriving at the studio:

“…I just couldn’t believe my eyes as I saw a large double decker bus pulling up to the tube station lot. It was incredible! The bus was tall and you would have never missed what it was because there were pictures of scenes from the movie and a large ‘The Making of Harry Potter’ spread across the top. We were at the front of a small crowd. I hoped we would fit. Then, a friendly driver ushered us inside and everyone crowded in. Grandma stayed on the bottom [level] but I went on up to the next level.


‘Wow,’ the whole bus seemed to say as we pulled up to a large yellow building. … There were more people here than the Churchill war rooms.”

I agree. The entire crowd appeared awed to arrive at the studios, and our kids were among the youngest there.

Once inside, larger than life pictures of the characters gaze down on you from high on the walls. I’m struck with the affection I feel for many of them, like I’m perusing a baby album or a yearbook! A cafe is on your left and a gift shop is on your right.






Our tour began with a walk by the cupboard under the stairs and then into a movie theatre. Luke describes this part of the tour in his journal:



“We moved into the Harry Potter movie theater where we watched a short clip. Afterwards,the movie screen lifted up and the tour guide was there. Then, behind the screen the huge brass doors to the Great Hall appeared.”

The tour guide asked who had a birthday. The lucky birthday “boy” and “girl” shared the task of opening the doors to the Great Hall. They opened up to the full set, complete with costumes from teachers and each school within Hogwarts. The children disagree on the grandeur of the Great Hall. Luke says it was huge and I concur. But, I will share Will’s opinions on the Great Hall from his journal:

“The hall looked different from the movies in many ways:

  1. It had no roof. 
  2. It was extremely smaller. 
  3. There was no fire. 
  4. It wasn’t real marble. 
  5. It had a lot of mannequins wearing the costumes. 
  6. It had a gap in the wall. 
  7. It was decorated with Halloween. “









Walking through the Great Hall we entered the self guided part of the tour. A person could spend between 15 minutes and 2 days exploring the rest of the studios. The 15 minute estimate was for someone walking through briskly without looking at anything. Some displays discussed parts of the filming, such as the various directors or how they used animals in the filming. A large portion of the space was filled with sets and props. Do you want to see the time turner? It’s there. How about the Goblet of Fire? Check. The Potions room,


Dumbledore’s office,


Gryffindor common room,


Hagrid’s Hut,


the Burrow,


The Ministry of Magic,


the Night Bus,


Malfoy’s family table (scene of muggle murder),


the bridge, the Chess Set, 4 Privet Drive,


Harry’s parent’s home, and the infamous flying car.


Some sets appear small, some large. The beds in the Gryffindor room look terribly small and we learn that by the 6th movie, the actors had to hang their feet off the ends because they’d grown so much!


A giant green screen hung on two walls and showed how they created the flying scenes, fight scenes, and many of the landscape scenes. We enjoyed seeing Mad Eye Moody’s flying broom chair and the goblin cart.

An amazing part of the tour explained how they created magical creatures and Hagrid. Will found this to be among the most interesting parts of the tour. 

“They put a real flame thrower inside of the dragon! The goblins were drenched in make-up. The spiders were remote controlled,” he explained.



Camille agreed, “[I find it fascinating] that Hagrid’s head was animatronic. It seemed so real when he blinked, moved his head, and talked. It was really cool!”

She added, “Buckbeak the Hippogryph stared at us through animatronic eyes. Apparently they had to put every little feather in the right place.”

The section was followed by a walk through Diagon Alley. Ana loved walking on the “real” street, by the “real buildings”

“They had all the real buildings. They were real and all right there. They weren’t fake. They were a real street and real buildings.”




At the end of the Alley was the beginning of the planning section. Hundreds of drawings hung on the walls. These were the artists sketches in planning the scenes. Some were followed, some weren’t. They were beautiful to behold and led up to the grand model of the Hogwarts castle. I’m sorry to spoil it for you, but the castle is not real. Hogwarts is pretend. So, all the scenes of the grounds and the exterior of the castle were completed from this impressive model. 




Luke was especially inspired by the model. He said it encouraged him to build a model, which he later did.

Finally, the gift shop. Will bought a journal that he uses for planning. Camille said, since things were a little expensive, she bought candy. Ana bought a chocolate wand. We left with sugar quills, fudge flies, and chocolate frogs. Yum. We avoided the butter beer, since we knew of our distaste from our earlier visit to Universal Studios. If JK Rowling can’t turn that invention into money, something must be wrong with it!  





Overall, we soaked in the magic. 


Camille said, “I bet it would stay in my mind forever. It was great, just great.” 

Inspired, Ana said, “That one person could create such big influence. JK Rowling had all this stuff just because she wrote a book.”

Yes, thank you JK Rowling and authors everywhere for writing good books. 


“Dad, I don’t get modern art.”

So that’s Luke’s view of the Tate Modern museum.  And, haven’t we all experienced some semblance of that emotion?  We took in modern art masterpieces but the best part for us was likely the hot chocolate in the museum cafe, the wonderful Midwest couple we met there and the view of the Millennium Bridge.  “Mom, that’s the bridge from Harry Potter!”



[Diego Rivera picture and sculpture] 

A few times I had the chance to feel a bit like Clark Griswold from European Vacation. 

Kids-“Dad, why are they not wearing any clothes in that picture?”

Me-“And…how about we walk this way children, to this other room.  Look, a baby wolf!”

OK, I know that was mixing ’80s movie references, probably even worse than mixing metaphors.

Actually, the kids are getting quite used to the classic nude sculptures.  Not sure if that’s the sign of a kind of cultural immersion occurring or part of my contest entry for most traumatizing Dad of the year…




The Tate Modern displays its treasures inside a former power plant right on the Thames River.  The cavernous interior doubles as a great place to hassle your brother. 


We enjoyed a wonderful walk along the waterfront and past Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. 



[Shakepeares’ circular Globe theater]


[Will is likely thinking, “If only we could reach the ground so we could ride these rental bikes.”]

“Minoans and Myceneans”—this especially goes out to our Classical Conversations brethren. Classical Conversations is a cooperative educational group that meets weekly.  Tutors teach the kids in subjects then the rest of the week the families homeschool the kids in the curriculum.  This methodology is classical in nature and encompasses a Christian worldview.  The students must master impressive amount of memory work and study math, Latin, science, music, grammar, history, and geography.

The young scholars learn a wonderful context for history as they memorize a “timeline” song of historical events.  The song takes about 12 minutes just to recite.   I think the context they are getting for history through Classical Conversations will serve them well. 

Thus, the kids pounced on several items in the British Museum—“that’s from a timeline card.”  You see, the various historical timeline events are often represented by pictures of ancient art or archaeological finds on their study cards.  Our little students have spent so long staring at these pictures that it is a thrill to see the items in the flesh here in London.

The timeline song nearly starts out with “Minoans and Myceneans”, and as we begin to tour here is a piece of history from a timeline card. 


I would have walked right past it but the kids yell out as if we’ve seen some kind of celebrity.  This tiny bronze sculpture of a bull and acrobat from Crete weighs in at about 3500 years old. 

Huge, bearded, winged lion creatures from Assyria.  Useful for impressing your houseguests.  Hittite objects.  Egyptian sun gods.  Everywhere you turn it’s biblical and Near East archeology resurrecting ancient days to life before your eyes. 






Want to see actual mummies and learn how they were made?  This is the place. 




The Elgin Marbles that graced the Parthenon in Athens.  So many works of beauty that make you scratch your head— “Now, why is this treasure here in London?”  But it was a different time and in defense of the British it is hard to imagine many of these priceless watermarks of civilization surviving the past as well in their native environments. 







The British Museum just overwhelms the visitor.  It’s the kind of place you can return to again and again.  And no doubt, we must have sleuthed our way around on four different visits. We would grab the family ‘scavenger hunt’ cards from the desk and go exploring through a narrow slice of the museum to keep it manageable. 

A courtyard of yesterday now sports a bright ceiling done for the Queen’s Jubilee; transforming an outdoor space into what must be the world’s biggest skylit chamber. 



[A Chinese tour group surrounds a huge artifact]

We’ve wrestled with the various languages we’ve encountered and yet English is nearly always the accepted second language here in Europe.  If you can’t enjoy the guided tour in German for example then there may be English guided tours twice a day.  But not so much for other languages.  Large Chinese and Japanese tour groups unfold out of gigantic tour buses.  They must have to be sure to reserve a tour spot to ensure they can get the information in their native language.  We feel fortunate to speak English.  

The Rosetta Stone still blows me away.  I remember it in the same spot as when I first visited here 16 years ago.  Incredible to witness the ‘answer key’ that first allowed scholars to decipher hieroglyphics.  The decree issued in 196 BC and written in three languages-ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Demotic script and Ancient Greek – gave scholars the ability to unlock the meanings of the symbols.  Kinda like discovering your sister’s decoding key to her and her friends’ secret code. 



Below, just a couple of fun ones…




Please forgive the blogging gap.  We were blessed to get a few days in with our wonderful family we house sat for as they returned to France then we had several quick moves across France.  Travel days always challenge us with long hours and logistics.  Then the wildness of arriving into a Paris on edge during the most significant attack on French soil in 50 years. 

“Everyone say hello to the Americans…or they’ll invade your country”


The Tower of London Yeoman Warders (“Beefeaters”) know how to show the tourists a good time.  The short Tower tour is clearly practiced, able to handle large crowds and showcases the strong voice and cutting jokes of the guards.

Each Beefeater is a retired senior NCO with at least 22 years of service and a Good Conduct medal.  They guard the tower and the crown jewels but also find themselves tour guides and the target for innumerable tourist questions.  We grabbed a quick picture with one of them before he could get away. 


The “say hello to the Americans” crack was brought up as we all answered by nationalities.  The good ol’ USA was well represented, by the sounds of the shouts. 

“Children, if you do get separated from your parents just find someone dressed like me and we’ll get you reunited with your parents.  If we cannot reunite you with your parents, you’ll need to go to the lost property office.  You stay there about 15 years then we make you join the Army.”

“The elderly may not have realized just how little time they have left, let’s hurry along now.  If they’re in your way just push them along.”

“History is written by those who win, which explains all the empty pages in French history books.” 

The moat held polar bears for a time.  And if you are the King of France what do you give the King of England who has  everything?  Why, an elephant of course!



In honor of the WWI centenary, these actors cry out for volunteers to fight for their country as a period-dressed protester challenges their every claim. 


Legend has it that the monarchy will fall if the ravens leave the Tower of London.  One Beefeater is the raven master who cares for the ravens.  The birds eat raw meat purchased for them from a nearby market and have their feathers trimmed so they cannot fly long distances. 

Volunteers in the moat place 888,246 individually crafted ceramic poppies to commemorate each British and colonial life lost in World War One.  2014 marks the centenary of the beginning of the War.  Every poppy made its way to buyers who snapped them all up. 




Though I’ve been here before, it feels so strange to be walking around where so much evil happened.  Born in bloodshed, the Tower was erected in 1078 by William the Conqueror to subdue the Londoners.  In one of the Tower’s darkest days, the two young princes—heirs to the throne—were found dead beneath a stairwell.  The traitor’s gate allowed the entry of traitors to the crown directly from the river  Thames which was more secure. 


The painting “The Execution of Lady Jane Grey” (Paul Delaroche) at the National Gallery depicts the awful scene.  A political pawn between warring sides, Lady Grey reigned as queen for only nine days in 1553 before being deposed by supporters of Catholic Queen Mary.  Lady Jane was beheaded at Tower Hill early the next year at age 17.  Told that her head would be taken off after she put it down on the block she failed to find it due to being blindfolded.  She exclaimed, “Where is it  What shall I do?” until being guided to the block by another.   The executioner looks on with the axe and the red tights.  


Queen Anne Boleyn was beheaded in the courtyard here, as was another of Henry VIII’s wives—Catherine Howard. 

William Wallace (aka Braveheart) was likely brought in via the Traitor’s Gate, though he’d been knighted by Scotland.  During his execution in 1305, he was brought to the Tower, stripped naked and drug through the streets to nearby Smithfield.  There, his captors hung him till nearly dead then brought him down so he’d experienced that terrible feeling of choking to death. He was disembowelled before his head was cut off and he was divided into pieces that were sent to the corners of the English kingdom as a warning to others. 

To see the crown jewels you walk past the Queen’s guard defending them by walking back and forth with taps on his shoes and an impressive rifle with bayonet attached.  


Then, inside, you step onto a moving platform so that everyone has an equal shot at gawking.  No photos allowed.  Here are just a few of them.  


Queen Elizabeth II wearing the crown and holding the scepter and orb at her coronation in 1953. 


She still wears the crown every year when she addresses Parliament. 


In the treasury inside we get this gander at the executioner’s axe and block.  Note the concave portion for holding heads in to better get at the neck.


Later, the British Library held us spellbound.


  Original Da Vinci notebooks and drawings, alongside Michelangelo sketches and Shakespeare’s notes under glass.  We feasted our eyes on a 1215 copy (one of the four surviving) of the foundational Magna Carta with its wax seal and admired its Latin script. 


From the British Library’s website, “The Codex Sinaiticus is one of the most important books in the world. Handwritten well over 1600 years ago, the manuscript contains the Christian Bible in Greek, including the oldest complete copy of the New Testament. Its heavily corrected text is of outstanding importance for the history of the Bible and the manuscript – the oldest substantial book to survive Antiquity – is of supreme importance for the history of the book.”  It’s amazing to see the scholar’s strikeouts and notes in the margin. 


A Gutenberg Bible shines in the dim light as do some of the earliest known copies of the Koran.  But nothing seems to attract the attention of the handwritten lyrics of the Beatles across the room.  Along the masterpieces, we see John Lennon’s notes on the lyrics to “In My Life” and his son’s birthday card that was grabbed to jot down the lyrics for “A Hard Day’s Night.” 


Birthday card with Lyric A Hard Day's Night (written on the back of a birthday card to Julian Lennon, black biro and felt-tip) in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library at The British Library. The phrase attributed to Ringo Starr t

We feel so fortunate to meet a kind American, Edane, at the local Wimbledon church.  The church was planted in the area at the direction of Charles Spurgeon and we attend one Sunday on “Nations Sunday” as about 15 people get up to recite a bible verse in their original language. Edane invites our whole family to see where he works because he thinks the kids will like the aquariums.  He is right! 

Edane works at Bloomberg in London’s financial district.  The kids are blown away by the free snacks, tea and fruit—“they even have ice cream Dad!” 


There must be 12 different, enormous aquariums across the different buildings and we hunt the eel in the large tank by the front door. 


We see the desk that Michael Bloomberg works at when he’s in town.  Everything is out in the open or protected only by clear glass as the company ascribes to a notion of transparency in all they do.  No corner offices here.  No pictures either but I was able to find a few to show you.  We get to sit in the actual seats of the Bloomberg TV studio in London.  



Edane explains about the different Bloomberg offices that pick up the Bloomberg channel as the financial markets wake up around the world—New York, London, Hong Kong.  Recycled office materials have been given to local artists who’ve returned fascinating artwork to the building.  The kids decide they want to work for Bloomberg.  I think I do too.  Thank you Edane for the wonderful tour!


[Why wouldn’t you have a tree sculpture inside an office cubicle?  Looks beautiful to me]

We are all worms, but I believe I am a glow worm

“We are all worms, but I believe I am a glow worm” — Winston Churchill


Surely one of the greatest (and controversial) figures of the twentieth century, it is hard not to respect Winston Churchill.  A Boer War correspondent at the age of 25, he was taken prisoner by the Boers in South Africa.  The man who pointed his rifle at Churchill as young Winston reached for his missing pistol was to later become the Prime Minister of South Africa as Churchill was of the United Kingdom.  Though a young civilian, the Boers realized he came from a very prominent British family and treated him as an officer POW, in case he needed to be traded later.  After four weeks in captivity, he managed to escape and jumped trains to get to a local British consul. 


The relatively new Churchill Museum attached to the underground Cabinet War Room tells the story of this determined statesman.   


He was not without controversy, as a planner in WWI he helped prepare the failed Gallipoli campaign that led to more than a quarter million Allied casualties.  He bought into the idea of eugenics.  His decisions in WWII led to the RAF campaign of firebombing German cities. 

He demonstrated inspiring resolve when it was needed and clear vision.  He came up with the idea of a “United States of Europe” and of a European court for human rights.  He said that the Brits would win once the Americans joined the war.

His words lent strength to the British people as they faced Germany through the Battle of Britain and the Blitz after Poland, Czechoslovakia, Holland, France and other nations had been vanquished.   “We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the Old.”

His political career was ruled officially over at least twice and still he came roaring back.  He was prime minister then, incerdibly, lost reelection just after the war.   But he bounced back to win election as prime minister again in 1951.  After his time as PM, he became a member of parliament (MP) and served as an MP until six months before his death at age 90.

He had a unique fashion sense and sometimes met world leaders wearing a kind of robe and slippers.  He even made up a kind of flight suit that he could sleep in and jump up to meet others. 

As a writer, among his many contributions are the six-volume “The Second World War” and the four-volume “A History of the English Speaking Peoples.”  He was awarded the 1953 Nobel Prize for literature. 

In 1963, President Kennedy proclaimed him the first honorary citizen of the United States.  In 50 years, we’ve only added seven more, including Mother Theresa. 

His quotes are all over the museum, surely you’ve heard the exchange with Lady Astor. 

Lady Nancy Astor: “If you were my husband, I’d poison your tea.”

Churchill: “Madam, if I were your husband, I’d drink it.”

He also imbibed copious amounts of alcohol.  When sent to the front lines of the Boer War he felt compelled to bring 36 bottles of wine, 18 bottles of scotch, and 6 bottles of brandy.

The Cabinet War Room (CWR) displays an archive of how the British High Command functioned in London during the war. 



[Londoners sleeping in a tube station to avoid German bombing]

To keep its location secret all deliveries were sent to George Rance who made all the furniture orders for the larger governmental offices on Whitehall Rd.  The picture shows him changing the weather sign as German bombings of London would prompt a weather change to “Windy”.    



The roof was not as hardened as you would guess. The Brits did have the roof steel reinforced during the war but it was never actually bombproof.  British intelligence managed to keep the CWR’s location secret despite construction workers bringing in the steel and rebar to strengthen the facility.  Churchill did not prefer to skulk about and was known to even go up on the roof of No. 10 Downing Street during air raids. 

Here’s the cot where he slept about three nights during the war but that was always available for his use.  There was a room available for his wife as well. 


Wall charts display all the practical matters of the British view of the war—shipping tonnage and bombs dropped among other measures. 


One door was labelled prime minister’s lavatory to keep secret the scrambled telephone system used to reach Roosevelt directly. 

In the Map Room, the informational hub of the CWR, everything is as it was when the lights were switched off on 16 August 1945. Wartime maps cover the walls and the rationed sugar cubes found in an envelope are still on a staff officer’s desk drawer.  The thousands of tiny pinholes plotted the progress of Allied ships across the Convoy Map.





A short tube ride away, Piccadilly Circus is London’s answer to Times Square.  Oversized video screens (though not quite as overpowering as New York’s) and people hanging out at Cupid’s fountain fill the place with a continual energy.  The NFL banners hanging above advertise the NFL games played in London.  Strange and oddly comforting to see so many American flags prominently displayed. 




The kids hung in there for some real history and so we had to visit London’s most well-known toy store, Hamleys.  Founded in 1760 as a small toyshop, Hamleys moved to Regent Street in 1881. Seven floors are filled with every conceivable toy and playrooms of the royal family have vibe stocked from this shop.



[Camille and Ana pointing out the 325 pound price tag]








[Ah, the plastic animals our little ladies are actually interested in]


[On the tube back towards our apartment and enjoying their new purchases…]

The London walk I love, part two

Continuing south on Whitehall Road and past No.10 Downing Street, the unmistakable Big Ben and Parliament loom. 


With the rain coming down (it is London after all) we duck into the nearest coffee shop outside Big Ben to stand in awe of the enormous clock face. 



Big Ben is actually the 13 1/2 ton bell inside the clock.  By now, everyone just refers to the clock itself as Big Ben.  The size of the clock face is best expressed by noting that the minute hand is an amazing 14 feet long.  It’s the largest four-faced chiming clock in the world and the third tallest freestanding clock tower.  To get up into the clock tower and climb the 334 steps to the top, you must be a UK resident and arrange a tour through a Member of Parliament well in advance.  Sounds similar to an American getting a tour of the White House. 

Parliament, or more properly called, the Palace of Westminister holds the House of Commons and the House of Lords. 

england britain london big ben united kingdom tower bridge houses of parliament millennium bridge london city hall london parliament westminster the shard shard london shard_wallpaperswa.com_44

[wish this was my shot but it shows you the proximity to the river]

One of the most famous events of Parliament occurred in 1605 when the Gunpowder Plot to assassinate King James was discovered.  Guy Fawkes was arrested leaving the 36 barrels of gunpowder in the undercroft beneath the House of Lords.  He was arrested, interrogated and tortured for information about the plot and his 14 co-conspirators.  Sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered, he jumped from the executioner’s scaffold to cause his own death and cheat the executioner.  The English government advised Londoners in 1605 to light bonfires on November 5th to celebrate the King’s escape and safety from the plot.  Bonfires still burn every Nov 5 across the UK, with loads of fireworks. 

guy fawkes mask

[the Guy Fawkes mask]

Across from Parliament, there are wonderful sculptures of leaders such as Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill in the park called Parliament Square.



Adjacent to the sculpture park rises the majestic scene of England’s coronations, royal weddings and funerals for centuries—Westminister Abbey. 



[gorgeous side view I culled from the internet]

Voices have been raised here to God every day for one thousand years.  We attend an Evensong performance and watch the young and old male choir members file into the wooden chorister seats.  The crowd sits and kneels at various points in the service and listens respectfully to the choir.   The choir’s voices rise and swell to fill the cavernous space above our heads.  



[no interior shots allowed during the Evensong service so these are shameless pulls from other websites]

Poet’s corner lies just behind our seats with graves or memorials of writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer, Rudyard Kipling, Charles Dickens, C.S. Lewis, Jane Austen, W.H. Auden, Alfred Tennyson, the Bronte sisters, T.S. Eliot, Robert Burns, Keats, Longfellow and Shakespeare. 


The floor stone inscription next to C.S. Lewis’ memorial is a quote of his—“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen, not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.” 


There are so many monuments and memorials that you can’t take it all in.   We wish for more time as this was our second time trying to make it into Westminster.  Incredible, we plan three weeks in London and already it does not feel like nearly enough time to see even the touristy sights.  We stop to light candles and pray on our way back out the main entrance.  

Over the entrance of the majestic church stands a group of statues dedicated to foreigners and erected in 1998. Martin Luther King has a prominent position and stands with a young girl at his feet. Statues were also created for Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German  Lutheran theologian, killed by the Nazis in 1945 for standing up to their depravity and for Polish priest and Catholic Saint Maksymilian Kolbe, who gave his life for another prisoner at Auschwitz in 1941.


[in this shot, MLK Jr is smack dab in the middle]

The walk then veers through St James Park and among its squirrels and geese before Buckingham Palace appears before us.  The palace is the Queen’s London residence and workplace.  Queen Victoria was the first monarch to move into the completed palace in 1837.  A monument to her stands tall in front of the palace. 









Back in Wimbledon, we are continuing to read “Mister Pipes” at night to the kids and enjoying the characters’ travel across Europe as we’ve just been to several of the same places. 


[nice place in Wimbledon, eh?]

On other days, when we are doing school in the wonderful flat, my mom is able to walk to the nearby tube station and get all the great London sights.  We are thrilled she is with is. 

When not touring, I frequently go to write at the Wimbledon library.  While researching our Schengen visa issue, I find a bit of a breakthrough.  As you may recall, as we first landed in Germany the customs official notified us of the Schengen agreement limitation to travel in Europe.  At the time, despite our research on national visa requirements, this was a surprise to us.  Almost every nation in Europe signed the Schengen agreement and it limits non-visa travel to 90 days out of every 180 days in Europe.  You must leave the Schengen area to “reset” these dates.  I’ve found a Schengen visa calculator website that helps determine your 90 days even as you skip in and out of the Schengen area. 

The UK and Ireland do not participate in the Schengen agreement so any time there does not count towards your 90 days. 

It turns out that a bilateral treaty between France and the USA in the late 1940s predates the Schengen agreement.  The bilateral treaty appears to allow an additional 90 days in France on top of any 90 days spent in the Schengen area.  The Schengen area already includes France so it’s difficult to determine how this actually works.  Is it still valid?  I email three different French consulates and get the good news that French time is truly on top of Schengen time.  Great news and as long as we keep close tabs on our travel dates this bilateral treaty should allow us to complete our planned European itinerary!

Lisa calls around and is able to get our tiny ladies into a ballet class in Wimbledon.  We are treasuring the ease of being in a land where we speak the language.  The girls show up to class and when the teacher announces to the 7-9 year old girls that they have guests from the United States Camille and Ana find themselves instantly surrounded by the girls.  The questions fly, “Is the United States, America?”, “Do you like these ballet moves?”, “Do you know how to do this ballet move?”  Our girls come back energized and can’t wait to share all the stories from class. 

We’d also been working on figuring out where we’d be for late December and especially, Christmas.  We’d read about housesitting websites and thought it was too good to be true but might be worth a shot.  A few websites cater to homeowners who trade stays with other homeowners in various parts of the world.  Other sites look to hook up potential sitters and homeowners looking for someone to watch their place.  Homeowners may want a house sitter to watch pets, or unique house arrangements while they are out over the holidays or just on a vacation.  Many ads are for months at a time.  We found one ad in a French ski town that wanted a house sitter to keep an eye on troublesome tenants.  We were very fortunate to find a family in southwest France (Midi-Pyrenees region) in a small town looking for someone to watch their labrador, house and outdoor cats for nearly the exact dates that we were hoping to stay in France.  We exchanged emails and the wife is an English speaker and the husband a Frenchman.  So we’d even be able to communicate which is generally better than grunts.  We applied and were very fortunate to be selected to watch the house!  So we plan to spend nearly three weeks and Christmas in an old farmhouse in the village of Fustérouau, France (“Foo-stah-rew” –but you’ve got to say the “rew” like Inspector Clouseau…) about 2 hours outside of Bordeaux and an hour from Lourdes!

The London walk I love

My sincere apologies dear readers for the huge gap in blog updates.  We had a sickness go through the family and I was under the weather for some time.  Seems like sicknesses pack more of a wallop than they used to for me.  But I am back up to writing speed. Thank you so much for taking the time to see what we are up to!

I’ve visited London a few times during my military career, including day trips during a month-long “deployment” to Mildenhall Air Base 90 minutes outside of London.  I have to call that a deployment in quotes because all of us in (or recently in) the military have learned since 9/11 such good deal deployments have largely gone the way of the dodo. 

London’s a great walking city and easy to access through the public transportation system.  With my limited experience, my favorite walk in the city center goes from Trafalgar Square and its environs, past No. 10 Downing Street, down to Buckingham Palace via Parliament and the impressive Westminster Abbey.  Of course, to dive into these places would take a few days, especially with our little legs and smaller attention spans.  We end up doing just that, and here’s the result. 

Trafalgar Square js one of my earliest Europe memories from years ago.  It must have been an organized trip from Mildenhall Air Base in England because I recall this huge column filling my bus window flanked by lions and towering above a square full of people and pigeons.  Once we parked, I remember that I had to get back there and see all that commotion. 



Atop the 170-foot tall column stands Admiral Horatio Nelson, aka Lord Nelson.  His leadership and actions at sea helped keep the British free of Napoleon’s clutches.  Admiral Nelson went to sea as a 12 year old midshipman his uncle’s ship.  By age 22, he was captain of his own ship and distinguished himself at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent.  The Brits routed the French that day but Captain Nelson was wounded and lost an arm.  At the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, the 33-vessel French and Spanish fleet threatened British control of the seas and engaged Nelson’s fleet in another naval battle of the Napoleonic Wars.  As Captain Nelson led the 27 vessels of the British fleet into combat his flagship hoisted signal flags for all the fleet to see—“England expects that every man will do his duty.”  Nelson defied naval orthodoxy of the day and instead split his force into two and attacked the larger enemy force via two perpendicular columns.  England prevailed and Napoleon could no longer challenge the British at sea.  Admiral Nelson lost his life after a French sharpshooter sent a fatal ball through his shoulder and into his back.  His body was put into a barrel of rum for the sail home and he was returned to a hero’s funeral at St Paul’s cathedral.  This most famous of British war heroes now stands atop that column in an 18 foot tall statue facing parliament.  To quote Cliff Claven, it’s a little known fact that if Hitler had succeeded in capturing London, he’d planned to remove Nelson’s column to Berlin.






Also in Trafalgar Square, we find the church of St Martin in the Fields. 


[In front of St Martin in the Fields, a striking sculpture of the gospel of John, it states “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God…and the Word became flesh and lived among us.”]

Beneath the church, the Cafe in the Crypt offers good food and that kinda-creepy ambiance that 12 year olds love.  This church has a tradition of inexpensive musical performances and for service within the city.  On a trip to London years ago, we enjoyed a wonderful, midday string quartet concert.  On this day, we are off down Whitehall after the cafe meal. 




[I tend to keep a journal with me on sightseeing days so I can capture thoughts for the blog later]

Also on Trafalgar Square, the exquisite National Gallery peers up at Nelson’s column.  The National Gallery displays many of the portraits of English royalty but we are far more interested in Joseph Turner’s depictions of nautical scenes.  ‘The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her Last Berth to be broken up” shows the end of an era as a fighting tall ship is led away by a steam powered tug before a  setting sun.  Apt nautical history for the seafaring British Empire. The kids sit and sketch their favorites.  Anything involving horses just leap out at our girls.





I’m not exactly sure which of the timeless treasures of English art that Will is attempting here…


What is this statue of George Washington doing in front of the National Gallery in London?  In 1921, the state of Virginia sent a replica of a statue.  The City of London put it in Trafalgar Square, one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions.

But George Washington had publicly stated he would never set foot on English soil. Erecting a statue of him on English soil would’ve violated Washington’s desires.  Instead, Virginia sent a bunch of American soil with the statue.  The ‘English’ soil was replaced with this ‘American’ soil, and Washington’s statue placed atop a bit of Virginia in London…


Whitehall also figures prominently in one of the Harry Potter films.  It’s the street of stately white buildings that hides the entrance to the Ministry of Magic.

Walking south down Whitehall, we pass police officers and the famous horse guards.   



A tall, friendly police officer with a submachine gun chats with us for a while.  He confides with us how the officers all get very tired of posing for pictures with the tourists. Then, a couple of officers come walking by and he grabs them, “hey guys, this family really needs to get a picture with you!”  We hadn’t asked for any pictures and all concerned got a great laugh as the first officer made a quick getaway.  


One person gets too annoying with the horse and the mounted guard suddenly draws the first inches of his sword as a warning.  Everything stops right away.  There’s something to the height and stature of a mounted soldier.  It’s no wonder just about every nation was slow to abandon its glorious cavalry. 

Down the street, we find ourselves surrounded by more police officers guarding No. 10 Downing Street.  The British Prime Minister’s residence is safely ensconced behind a huge iron portal.  Across Whitehall Rd a large group is holding a loud protest complete with drums for effect. 



Riding on the tube later, one of the kids asks Lisa who David Cameron is.  Now, the tube is pretty quiet even when it’s packed with Londoners.  No one talks.  Lisa thinks about it a moment and responds that he is the director of big-budget movies like the Titanic.  It’s crowded at rush hour so I’m about ten people away.  She raises her voice to ask me who David Cameron is.  I know she’s thinking of James Cameron and I answer as quietly as I can manage that David Cameron’s the Prime Minister.  Lisa laughs like crazy and I can see the commuter next to her trying to stifle a smile.   

Argh, I should have blurted out, “Yeah, we Canadians should really pay more attention to British politics.” 

We’ve been working on our national camouflage plan in order to protect the US.  We figure if we embarrass ourselves in a country of a foreign language we can just blurt out “Par-doan” in a French accent.  And if it’s in an English speaking country I’ll just pull off the subdued velcro patch on my backpack to reveal my Maple Leaf Canadian flag!

[walk to be continued!]

Welcome to Wimbledon, love!


We aren’t in Wimbledon more than 5 minutes before Luke blurts out, “Dad, they really have English accents here!  I thought it was just in the movies.”

We found a relative bargain of a place in Wimbledon on the southwest side of London.  It is also the home of the famed tennis tournament at the All England Lawn Tennis Club.  London is one of the most expensive cities in the world so we knew we’d be maximizing London’s free museums.



Our place is framed on both sides by matching vertical town homes.  A back patio provides a bit of room to play outside and a thoroughfare for squirrels, birds and the rare cat. 





The boys are thrilled to be up on the narrow fourth floor with a room all to themselves.  The place even has a sitting room and three more bedrooms, in addition to the kitchen. 



By the way, with a traveling family our size we cannot usually fit in a hotel room and we prefer to have a kitchen anyway.  So, we are constantly on websites like AirBnB, HotelLettings, FlipKey, Interhome and TripAdvisor to find our lodging for the next month. 

I make the short walk over to the local Wimbledon library and am amazed when they allow me to have a library card. I register on the computer and am tempted by the title drop down menus of Lord, Lady and Sir.  They are fantastic here and we are basking in the ease of speaking the language.  We check out Ranger Apprentice books and a few cheap movies. 


Each day we see the school kids streaming to and from the school via the double-decker buses and the Tube station that serves the neighborhood.  Most of them are in ties and blazers with the school crest emblazoned.  Girls dash by in skirts.  We find out later that the private schools usually have blazers for uniforms while the ‘state’ schools tend to wear jumpers (sweatshirts) instead. 

One morning I’m out for a run and I round the corner into another street of flats stacked together.  Down the sidewalk walking towards me is a man in a suit and tie and carrying the typical Londoner umbrella.  Holding his hand, is his 7 year old mini-me.  The boy is decked out in blazer and tie as they both jaunt down the street on their respective commutes.  I see a vision in my head of a career in a London bank somewhere being reserved for this tiny Londoner!

We also become quite adept at the Tube and I think the kids are available for consultation for anyone looking for the quickest ways around London.  We become pros at the Transport for London website and love the fact that the younger three kids are free on the Tube.   London is so large, that even with a London zip code we generally spend at least 25 minutes on the tube getting somewhere.




Another day, the kids humor me and the five of us go out for run.  We run up the hill into Wimbledon Village (home to cafes and shops) and over into the park.  The rain begins, Dad has to take a few unplanned detours and we are out a bit longer than we anticipated.  Possibly some of the participants might have been a bit of grumpy walking here and there but we saw a horse and made it back home!  Those kids are troopers!


My uncle Stewart in Seattle made a timely recommendation about the Kirkaldy Testing Museum being open once a month and right when we were available.  Kirkaldy, a Scot, set up the first independent testing laboratory  He had this huge machine custom built to be able to test shear, torsion, and other failure types of large metallic samples.  Before him, companies would label breaking strengths on their products with no testing whatsoever.  Soon, samples were pouring in to his firm from around the world.  Will, our budding engineer and digger, is in hog heaven.  They break a few metal pieces and we even get to take a few samples home.  That’s great, because we needed some more metal pieces in our checked baggage…





I’d read an article a ways back about the adventure playground movement starting to bring back the concept of risk in children’s playgrounds.  A playground in Wales employs adult safety observers but even let’s older kids light controlled campfires and build their own plywood creations.  US and European childplay experts have been visiting it to see what can be adopted in other countries.   

It makes you think about the many playgrounds in the US where the kids have abandoned the ultra-safe climbing gyms and covered slides.  This adventure playground, the Oasis, is really three separate play areas; a playground, a nature park and a go-cart track.  At the playground there’s a pedal cart track, climbing nets on huge rocks and adult volunteers keeping an eye on the peeps.  Several parents linger under the back porch of the administrative “building” keeping tabs.  The government has provided a grant to get this concept off the ground and play staff now have just a few years to make it self-sustaining.  The nature park lets kids work in the gardens and tend to their own plants.  The staff also allows periodic campfires.  The go-cart track lists various weekly nights broken down by age and gender (Boys 13-17, Girls 13-17, Boys 10-13 and even a kid maintenance night).  It is not the “poshest” neighborhood and seems to function as a wonderful after-school gathering place for the local kids.





The kids have played in the empty lot here for decades.  The WWII blitz destroyed groups of homes and they’ve never been rebuilt.  This picture shows the gap in the row of houses where the Oasis has formed a cooperative to help the neighborhood.    


Grandma watches the kids one night so that I can take Lisa out for the national cuisine of England—Indian.  Then we drop in to a local pub and hotel, The Dog & Fox, to see the Brits out.  There’s a live band playing Sheryl Crow and The Steve Miller Band and we get to see groups duck in out of the rain in their fancy hats.  Thank you amazing Grandma!