A visit to BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir (Neasden Temple), London

Tucked inside the North Circular and close to the temples of football (Wembley) and shopping (Brent Cross), is BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, also known as Neasden Temple.

Made from 5000 tonnes of Italian and Indian marble this Hindu temple dominates the local area, a spectacular building in a pretty nondescript area of London. Opened in 1995, it was funded entirely through donations from local worshippers and is the first traditional Hindu temple built outside of India in modern times.

Haveli entrance
Haveli entrance

As the kids and I walked through the entrance gate I was a little concerned. Would we be the only non-Hindu visitors? Would it be obvious what to do once inside? I needn’t have worried. The temple welcomes half a million visitors each year; friendly volunteers and explanatory signs help those unfamiliar with Hindu beliefs.

We entered via the haveli, a cultural centre, whose facade and courtyard are carved from teak and oak. I wish I’d taken more time to look at the carvings but after leaving our shoes in lockers we were directed to join a school party and ushered in to the Prayer Hall to watch a short film about the temple’s history.

Neasden Temple
Neasden Temple

The facts and figures relating to the Mandir are astounding. Neasden temple comprises 26,000 stone pieces which were hand-carved in India and then shipped to the UK. Back in London, 100 full-time and 1000 part-time volunteers worked alongside 80 stonemasons to help assemble the temple from its constituent parts over a two year period.

Entrance to BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir (Neasden Temple)
Entrance to BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir (Neasden Temple)

After the film we headed up the marble staircase to the Mandir. Photography is not permitted inside the temple so you’ll have to take my word that the interior is even more impressive than the exterior. Intricate carvings of Hindu figures adorned every column, punctuated by patterns and friezes.

BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir
BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir

We stayed for Arti, a prayer ceremony which takes place daily at 11.45am. Male and female visitors sit in separate areas during the ceremony, and my son was initially a little hesitant about being directed to sit on his own in a different section. However, he wasn’t alone for long as the room filled with visitors and several school groups (who weren’t as silent as they should have been!).

The Arti ceremony involves the waving of lighted wicks in front of the sacred images, to the sound of music and prayer. It seemed like a joyous and happy occasion, plenty of worshippers were clapping along to the music. Afterwards we were directed to walk clockwise past the shrines which enabled us to take a closer look at the deities.

Neasden Temple
Neasden Temple

It’s easy to spend a couple of hours at the temple, particularly if you co-ordinate your trip with the Arti ceremony and visit the exhibition about Hinduism. I’m embarrassed to say that we missed this out as my materialistic twosome were desperate to go to the temple souvenir shop instead!

It takes some effort to get to Neasden Temple from central London but I wholeheartedly recommend a visit. The architecture is truly stunning and we felt welcomed by everyone we encountered at the temple.

More info

  • BAPS Shri Swaminarayam Mandir is open daily between 9am-6pm; entrance is free although there is a small extra charge for the exhibition. Respectable clothing is required and bags should be left in the storage facility across the road.
  • The temple is about 20 minutes walk away from the nearest Underground stations. We travelled to Stonebridge Park, but Neasden is equi-distant.

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Family walks around Faversham, Kent

The image above sums up our introduction to Faversham in North Kent. We arrived on a miserable day and after dropping off our luggage headed to the local nature reserve to stretch our legs. Contrary to what you may think I rather like the bleakness of the mudflats against the grey sky.

Faversham may not be an obvious tourist destination but it has an interesting history. In particular it was home to the first gunpowder plant in the country, an industry that featured in most of our walks.

Oare Marshes Nature Reserve

Oare Marshes Nature Reserve comprises an area of saltmarsh, mudflats and reed beds. We followed part of the nature trail from the visitor centre along to the hide where we stopped to look for birds. The track forms part of a 2km route around the reserve and is perfect for a short evening walk.

Looking over to Sheppey island
Looking over to Sheppey island

There are good views over to the Isle of Sheppey which looks tantalisingly close across the Swale Estuary. At one time a ferry operated to the island from the causeway but nowadays it’s a 45 minute detour by road.

Oare Marshes nature reserve
Oare Marshes nature reserve

The tide was out so we watched the birds wading through the mudflats. I’m no expert, but my other half informs me they included curlew, avocet, redshank and shoveler ducks.

Oare marshes
Oare marshes

It’s hard to believe but this peaceful place was once home to a gunpowder factory. In 1916 a huge explosion occurred at the nearby Guncotton factory in Uplees which killed more than 100 men and boys. Despite being heard as far away as Norwich the explosion was kept secret for several weeks, presumably due to the ongoing war. Much of the factory that once stood on this marsh was destroyed although there are still remnants of concrete bases in the grassland.

Gunpowder Works Country Park

This is a small reserve that’s full of interest. As its name indicates it is sited on the remains of a former gunpowder factory. The park contains relics from it’s industrial past, including parts of the mills and the leats (canals created to enable movement of gunpowder around the site).

Gunpowder Mills country park
Gunpowder Mills country park

Gunpowder was produced here until the 1930s when the site was closed and left to nature for more than 70 years. Nowadays the woodland is managed and new structures such as a boardwalk across the marshland have been put in place.

Gunpowder Works Country Park
Gunpowder Works Country Park

There’s a small visitor centre based in the old cooperage, where the gunpowder barrels were once made. When it’s open you can find out more about the history of the site and pick up a walking trail leaflet. Walks around the park are colour coded; we chose the longest yellow circuit which took about an hour.

Looking up, Gunpowder Mills country park
Looking up, Gunpowder Mills country park

If you’re in the area on a weekend afternoon you can also visit Chart Gunpowder Mills. Situated in the middle of a housing estate you’ll find Faversham’s first gunpowder factory. It’s a fully working mill but given its location I assume they don’t manufacture the gunpowder!

Faversham town and creek

The town of Faversham is great for random wandering. We walked through the town, nosing at the various houses, along to Standard Quay. Whilst the area where the barges are moored is interesting, most of Standard Quay appears to be given over antique shops.We’re not ‘antique tourists’ so carried on through to Iron Wharf. This is a working boatyard where you’ll find boats in all stages of repair.

Faversham creek boatyard
Faversham creek boatyard

We weren’t sure if we were supposed to be walking through as it’s a bit haphazard with rusting boats and containers stacked on top of each other. There’s a definite boating community feel to the area and lots of different vessels to look at. At the end of the boatyard there’s a small bridge that takes you out on to the marshes, and signs for the Saxon Shore Way which indicated we’d been on the right route. We turned back soon after, but if we’d felt energetic we could have walked all the way to Whitstable. Next time maybe!

More info:

  • Oare Marshes Nature Reserve is open all year round. There’s no entrance charge.
  • The Gunpowder Works Country Park is open from 9am-5pm daily. The visitor centre (where the only toilets are) is open from 10.30am-4.30pm at weekends between April-November.
  • Chart Gunpowder Mills are open 2-5pm weekend afternoons from April to October. It’s a bit tricky to find so keep a close eye out for the signs whilst driving round the estate.
  • We didn’t follow a specific trail in Faversham but if you want to know what you’re actually looking at this walk looks perfect. It’s a flat 4 mile route through the town and along Faversham Creek.

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Shaun in the City trail, London

Last year London was home to the Books about Town and Paddington trails. This year it’s the turn of Shaun the Sheep to grace the streets of London (and Bristol). We spent a pleasant couple of hours following one of the art trails, spotting Shaun in his various guises.

Rule Britannia (Broadwick St), Ram of the Match (Regent St), Monsters (Picadilly Circus), Woolly Jumbo (Leicester Square)
Rule Britannia (Broadwick St), Ram of the Match (Regent St), Monsters (Picadilly Circus), Woolly Jumbo (Leicester Square)

The models have been designed and decorated by artists and celebrities and placed in key locations around the city. With the exception of five lost sheep they can all be seen by following four trails around central London. The trails range from 3-5km; they are supposed to take between 35 minutes and 1 hour 10 minutes to complete although we spent about double that time.

We picked up a free map from the information centre at Paddington railway station. You can also download an app for £1.49 which details the sheep in both cities, provides bonus information and challenges. One lady I spoke to on the trail said it had drained her battery so make sure your phone is fully charged before heading out.

The Gruffalo Shaun, Picadilly Circus and Mossy Bottom, Leicester Square Gardens
The Gruffalo Shaun, Picadilly Circus and Mossy Bottom, Leicester Square Gardens

We followed Shaun’s trail; from Oxford Circus we walked through Carnaby Street, along Regent Street to Picadilly Circus before heading to Chinatown and Leicester Square. The whole area is popular with tourists and it was quite funny to see them taking photos of the attractions whilst we were busy photographing sheep.

Jingtai, China Town
Jingtai, China Town

Most of the sheep were outside although we did have to battle through the madness of Hamleys Toy Store to find one. Another was in the foyer of Ripley’s Believe it or Not!, where my son would have happily stayed for the afternoon if I hadn’t dragged him away. However, my favourite sheep was Nelson in Trafalgar Square, particularly as it was home to one of the few pigeons you’ll find there nowadays.

Trafalgar Square Shaun the sheep
Nelson Shaun the sheep

Have you visited the trail? If so, which was your favourite?

More info

  • The trail runs in London from 28 March-25 May 2015. There’s a separate trail in Bristol from 6 July to 31 August 2015.  The trail is raising money for Wallace & Gromit’s Children’s Charity; all 120 sculptures from both locations will be auctioned off to the highest bidders on 8 October 2015.
  • Full trail details can be found on the Shaun in the City website.

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5 free things to do in Cardiff

There are plenty of places to spend your money in Cardiff but on a recent visit we discovered the city attractions you can enjoy for free. Read on to find out more.

1. Bute Park

Bute Park is located between the River Taff and Cardiff Castle. Walking up to the entrance we passed the Animal Wall which consists of a variety of animal sculptures such as lions, a hyena and a sea lion.

We didn’t visit on the nicest of days. The rain was just stopping when we arrived so our first port of call was the cafe. Unlike a group of Japanese visitors we resisted the lure of afternoon tea (at 10am) although it was rather tempting.

Bute Park, Cardiff
Bute Park, Cardiff

The park covers an impressive 130 acres and includes an arboretum collection, fitness and play trails and a riverside path. It’s famous for its champion trees, which are the tallest or broadest specimens of their type. As ours was a springtime visit the leaves weren’t out but this meant we saw some great tree shapes (photo above).

I was also impressed by the amount of bird life so close to the city centre. We watched a jay up close for ages and also saw a tree creeper, nuthatch and lots of robins and coal tits.

2. St Fagans National History Museum

St Fagans is the most visited heritage attraction in Wales. Its 50+ historical buildings have been moved from around the country and re-erected at the open air museum. The buildings cover a wide time frame and range from farmhouses through to urinals and workshops.

St Fagans National History Museum
St Fagans National History Museum

It’s best to visit on a dry day as the buildings are spread out across 100 acres of parkland. Whilst you can shelter in the buildings there’s a fair amount of walking between them.

Some of my highlights were the coloured paintings at St Teilo’s church (picture above), the 1940s prefab and watching the blacksmith in the smithy. I also enjoyed the Ironworkers cottages, which were similar to those we visited at Blaenavon Ironworks last year.

St Fagans National History Museum
St Fagans National History Museum

We spent most of our planned time looking around the buildings and hadn’t left much time spare to look at St Fagans Castle. This was a mistake as it meant we had to rush round the rooms and didn’t get much of a chance to enjoy the castle or its grounds. Plan to spend a whole day here if you want to see everything the site has to offer.

3. Cardiff Story

Cardiff Story is a small museum providing visitors with an insight into the history of the city. It takes you on Cardiff’s journey from a small market town to a world port through to the modern capital it has now become.

It’s a good place to start your exploration of Cardiff, allow a couple of hours to see it in detail. We only popped in for a short visit but lingered over a dolls house exhibit and a ‘build your own’ model city which I think was probably aimed at younger children rather than us!

4. Cardiff Bay

It’s easy to spend an afternoon wandering around Cardiff Bay. The area was once a thriving dockyard but fell derelict as the coal industry declined. The building of the barrage and subsequent regeneration of the area has resulted in Europe’s largest waterfront development.

Some of the original buildings remain, such as the Pierhead, where we watched a short film illustrating the growth and decline of the docks. The Norwegian Church is another survivor. Formerly a place of worship for the Norwegian community in Cardiff (Roald Dahl was baptised in it) it’s now a cafe and arts centre.

'People like us', Mermaid Quay, Cardiff
‘People like us’, Mermaid Quay, Cardiff

There are new buildings too, most notably the Senned, the National Assembly for Wales, and the Wales Millenium Centre. Both buildings are impressive from the outside although we didn’t go in.

The Mermaid Quay area is a ‘leisure district’ and primarily home to shops and restaurants. It’s a nice enough place to wander but I found it a little soulless. If you’re a Torchwood fan however you might enjoy Ianto’s shrine, a board full of notes left following the fictional death of the character. It was a bit lost on me though as I’ve never see Torchwood.

5. Cardiff Barrage walk

The controversial construction of the Cardiff Barrage created the 500 acre freshwater Cardiff Bay and has contributed (some would say, at great cost) to the regeneration of the local area.

Whilst there was strong opposition to the original project the resulting trail along the barrage is popular with walkers, cyclists and kids on scooters and is an excellent choice for a city walk.

Walking out along Cardiff Bay Barrage
Walking out along Cardiff Bay Barrage

Walking from Mermaid Quay, we were waylaid by a Tardis (courtesy of the Doctor Who Experience), playgrounds and a skate park en route to the barrage locks. These control the flow of water into the bay and it’s fun to watch the bridges opening up to let yachts and sailing boats through. We also enjoyed watching the cormorants diving for fish in the fast flowing waters of the fish pass.

Cardiff barrage locks
Cardiff barrage locks

The yellow rings in the photo above are part of an art installation ‘Three ellipses for three locks’. The full set of aligned concentric circles can only be seen from one spot; they highlight the different parts that go into making the barrage work.

We had planned to take the water bus back into the city centre from Penarth but timed it wrong so ended up walking both ways. If you’re visiting late on a Sunday afternoon check sailing times in advance!

More info:

  • Bute Park is open daily from 7.30am until 30 mins before sunset.
  • St Fagans is open daily from 10am-5pm. It’s 4 miles from the city centre so you’ll either need to drive (parking charge applies) or take the bus from outside Cardiff Central station. A return adult fare is £3, children £1.70.
  • The Cardiff Story is open 10am-4pm from Monday to Saturday (closed Sundays).
  • The Pierhead building is open daily from 10.30am-6pm; the Norwegian Church is also open daily from 11am-4pm.
  • The barrage embankment is open daily; further details are available on the Cardiff Harbour website.
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