It’s the Chinese New Year this Saturday. And it was my birthday last weekend. What better way for us to celebrate both events than with a trip to the 2017 Magical Lantern Festival in London.
This is the second year of the London festival. From my perspective it’s a much more relaxing way to celebrate the Chinese New Year than getting squished at the festivities in London’s Chinatown. Although a lot of other people have the same idea.
The 2017 festival theme is ‘Explore the Silk Road’. One of those exciting sounding places that I have always wanted to travel along. The marketing blurb promises a journey through Central Asia, India and China. Via Aladdin and the Houses of Parliament.
The trail, through the grounds of Chiswick House, took us about an hour to walk round. It’s flat and accessible for all but there were bottlenecks at some displays. Each lantern is accompanied by a couple of lines of explanatory text in Mandarin (I presume) and English.
It sounds really obvious but remember to dress for the outdoors. It was freezing during our visit, although we’d probably not helped the situation by roaming the Richmond Park tundra until sunset. The upside of the weather was the frozen lake. I love how it blurred the reflections of the lanterns around it.
The lanterns are not the floating fire starters that you imagine. In fact, impressive though they are, I wouldn’t think of them as lanterns. More like giant illuminated sculptures. I’d love to know more about they how they were made.
One of the surprising highlights for me was Chiswick House. I’ve never visited in the daylight but loved the glimpses of statues, architectural details and the villa itself. I’m not usually one for historical houses but I am inspired to return.
The lanterns are very well displayed and make the most of their setting. It’s hard to pick out favourites but I enjoyed these pandas. They weren’t the biggest or most intricate, I just like pandas!
At the end of the trail there’s a group of food and drink stalls, including an ice bar. There’s also an ice rink which looked much smaller than the advertised 600 square metres. As I had no desire to celebrate my birthday with a broken leg we didn’t try it out.
Overall we were really impressed. If you’re looking for something a little different to do in London over the next few weekends I’d definitely suggest checking this festival out.
The Magical Lantern Festival runs in London until 26 February. It’s open Thursday-Sunday evenings, and throughout half-term. Buy your ticket and book a timed entry slot in advance on the festival website. An advance purchase weekend family ticket costs £56.
Chiswick House is a 10 minute walk from Turnham Green underground station.
Woo hoo, I’ve completed the first of my British bucket list challenges, a walk to the top of Box Hill in Surrey. At 224m Box Hill would be a mere pimple if it was in the Lake District but down in this part of southern England it’s one of the higher hills.
The first part of the walk, alongside the busy A24 dual carriageway, wasn’t the tranquil stroll I hoped for. However it was a necessary evil to get us from the railway station to the foot of Box Hill.
Fortunately, as soon as we stepped off the main road we were away from the traffic noise and fumes. Instead we faced a steady climb uphill, the wet chalk underfoot making for a gooey path. We stopped a couple of times, looking out across Denbies Wine Estate, the largest vineyard in England. The estate attracts around 300,000 visitors per year with a visitor centre, cinema, restaurant and art gallery all appearing to contribute to the wine making experience.
Further on the hill levelled out and we were able to see cyclists tackling the famous Zig Zag Road to the top of Box Hill. This hill climb has been popular since the 1880s but achieved widespread fame in the 2012 Olympics cycling road race events. Given its proximity to London its a cyclist’s mecca, and particularly appeals to a certain cycling demographic.
National Trust cafe and visitor centre
We reached the top of the hill pretty quickly. At which point I realised how busy the Country Park gets. Although most people seem to drive to the top and then go for a walk rather than tackle the hill from the bottom. I’m sure that’s cheating!
I can understand why though as this is where the visitor facilities are located; toilets, information kiosk and of course a cafe. Albeit one that was heaving with small children and middle aged men in tight cycling gear. We’d bought a picnic with us but I couldn’t resist sharing a brownie with the children. Followed by a flapjack. Both very tasty. As was the picnic that followed.
Natural Play Trail
After lunch we wandered over to the Natural Play Trail. Whilst the kids have grown out of more traditional playgrounds the National Trust encourages everyone, not just youngsters, to enjoy its Natural Play Trail. Think stepping stones, balancing logs and trees to climb. Not that I saw any adults climbing trees.
The kids enjoyed it for about five minutes. Until my son slipped and flew, rather spectacularly, backwards off a tree trunk. Luckily he only had his pride, mud and a sore shoulder to deal with. The perils of natural play!
With the playground out of favour we continued with the walk, heading towards Salomons Memorial.
Salomons Memorial isn’t the highest point on Box Hill but its viewing platform is a target for most visitors. The view stretches more than 20 miles southwards and commemorates the donation of Box Hill by Leopold Salomons (or possibly Salomon, depending on whether you trust Wikipedia or the National Trust).
Whilst I enjoyed the view the kids had a mad five minutes, chasing each other up and down the steep grassy slope. When they rejoined me we followed the route down off the hill through some wonderfully shaped trees. I’m glad we chose to descend this way. The 275 steps made it seem a lot steeper than the route up.
Down at the bottom we reached one of the highlights, stepping stones across the River Mole. I smiled when I read the stones were temporarily removed in World War II as an anti-invasion strategy. If an invading army was deterred by the lack of a few stepping stones I doubt they’d get far anyway!
Once safely over the river we rejoined the A24, following the traffic into Dorking. Box Hill might not be the most exciting or adventurous option on my bucket list but it’s a place I’ve wanted to visit for a while. A good choice to complete as my first challenge. Now, which one next?
Box Hill is open to the public from dawn to dusk. The National Trust cafe, shop and discovery zone are usually open from 10am-4pm except Christmas Day. Check the National Trust website for full opening details and links to walks.
Thomas Telford was one heck of a busy man. In between designing bridges, roads, churches and tunnels he also found time for the magnificent Pontcysyllte (and Chirk) Aqueducts.
We visited Pontcysyllte Aqueduct as part of a longer walk. I cannot recommend the walk. Particularly the section past a landfill site, walking beside a 50mph road. Lorries whizzing past. Whipping up leaves and dust. Instead I’m just going to tempt you with the highlights, the canal and the aqueduct.
I have a love-hate relationship with canals. On a grey winter’s day they can be deserted and pretty dreary. But at other times they’re magical.
We visited in late October when autumn was busy turning the leaves yellow and orange. Reflecting the colours in the canal. Plenty of boats chugging along the still waters. Walkers and dogs parading the banks.
Approaching the aqueduct we came across these ducks all in a line. Which got me thinking. I wonder what they make of it. Do they ever paddle across?
The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, the longest and highest in Great Britain, is an impressive beast. Built between 1795-1805 it carries the canal 38 metres over the Dee Valley, linking the villages of Froncysyllte and Trevor. Someone, presumably a marketing guru, has named it the ‘stream in the sky’. Not technically correct but a great description; easier to pronounce too.
If we’d timed our visit better we could have taken a narrowboat ride across the aqueduct. Regular trips allow you to experience the scary side of the structure, with just a few centimetres of iron trough to stop you going over the edge. Although I’m sure no boat has ever sailed off it.
Instead we just walked. The path can easily fit two people side by side. But most people naturally gravitate to the handrail side. Which results in a moment of nervousness when you meet someone in the middle. Be polite and risk slipping in the canal? Or stick rigidly to the railings?
I stopped to enjoy the view and take a few photographs halfway over. Ignoring the sewage works. Focussing on the swirling River Dee far below. Watching birds fly beneath me. And checking that my son hadn’t gone for a paddle.
The aqueduct and part of Llangollen canal achieved Unseco World Heritage status in 2009, a worthy tribute to Thomas Telford’s vision. Could you imagine it being built nowadays? It would be festooned with barriers and safety nets. And I’m sure the mortar wouldn’t have been made with ox blood!
At the far end we stopped for lunch, before continuing our walk down the steps and alongside the River Dee. Turning round every so often to marvel once more. The further away you get the more it looks like boats and people are crossing the canal with no protection at all.
The walk across isn’t for everyone. But it’s easy to appreciate Telford’s engineering mastermind from plenty of vantage points without stepping foot on it. Well worth visiting!
I’d suggest parking at Ty Mawr Country Park and walking beside the River Dee to Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. There are great views as you approach, although you’ll need to climb a few stairs to access the aqueduct itself.
The short grey days of winter do their best to encourage hibernation. Or at least give the kids an excuse to spend all day indoors on technology. Instead I lured them out with the promise of a pub lunch. I may have forgotten to tell them about the walk afterwards but they’re old enough to realise this for themselves now.
Lunch at The Bell Inn, Aldworth
I generally prefer cafes to pubs for lunch (more chance of cake) but I make an exception for the Bell Inn in Aldworth. This tiny traditional freehouse epitomises the classic English village pub; it even has a cricket pitch out back.
Whenever we visit the pub is packed with locals, walkers and families. As you enter there’s a small serving hatch to place your order for food and drink. A room leads off to one side with several tables and a fireplace but we’ve never managed to get a seat indoors yet.
Instead, after placing our order, we retreated to the pub garden to find a seat. There aren’t many places I’d consider sitting outside in the depths of winter but this is one of them. Fortunately we had a picnic rug in the car so I popped back to get it to cover the wet benches.
The food is simple, cheap and delicious. A choice of soup, rolls or ploughmans; I opted for a cheese and onion roll. The warm buttered roll arrived with a huge chunk of cheese, half an onion and various accompaniments. I don’t drink beer but the pub’s local ale offerings are evidently excellent.
Before leaving I squeezed back through the pub to pop to the Ladies. Compared to the men’s open air option this was luxury, although the plumbing looked circa 1930s.
A circular walk from Aldworth to Ashampstead
I had bought my trusty OS map with me so put together a circular walk of sorts, taking us from Aldworth to the next village, Ashampstead, visiting their renowned churches. The area is wonderful for walking with the Ridgeway and many downland options nearby. We were short on daylight though so only had time to squeeze in a couple of miles.
St Mary’s Church, Aldworth
St Mary’s Church is famous as the home of the Aldworth Giants, nine stone effigies of the De La Beche family. The family were local landowners in the 14th Century and were supposedly all over seven feet tall! Sadly the effigies were damaged during the Civil War so many sport broken limbs.
The church is also notable for its thousand year old yew tree. When I mentioned this to the family I was met with howls of despair. A few months earlier we had driven ‘halfway across France’ (so they say) to look at a thousand year old oak tree, which had rather underwhelmed them. The yew tree made even less of an impression than the oak. But at least we hadn’t made a special journey just to see it.
On to Ashampstead
Our onward route to Ashampstead wasn’t the best. It started out well with a muddy wander through the woods. Lots of pheasant feeding stations. Along with pheasants. Always ready to cause a heart attack by unexpectedly flying out of the undergrowth.
The downside was the road walking. There aren’t many direct routes, solely using footpaths, between the two villages so we resorted to using country lanes. These were nice enough and easier walking than mud. But the drivers were making the most of the open road, whizzing by us with little space to spare. Not the relaxing walk I was hoping for.
It was a relief to walk on footpaths again as we arrived in Ashampstead. Fun to spot this re-purposed telephone box cum library too. I’m glad the village managed to keep hold of it when so many are sold off to private owners.
St Clement’s Church, Ashampstead
I’m not a churchgoer so it’s pretty unusual for me to visit one church, let alone two in one day! But I’d read about the medieval wall paintings at St Clement’s Church and decided a visit was worthwhile. Probably painted by a monk in the 13th Century they were covered up in the 16th Century and only discovered again in the late 1800s when some plaster fell off the wall.
Some of the paintings were hard to make out but when you consider they’re more than 700 years old it’s an achievement they’re still there.
I was taken by the wooden bell tower too. I’m sure that when I had an I-Spy Churches book back in the 1970s, a wooden tower would have been worth a few more points than the common stone one!
With only an hour to go until dusk we didn’t hang around on the way back. Although some of the route was through woods we still had to contend with the roads and I didn’t fancy being caught out on them in decreasing light.
Walking back towards Aldworth we passed Beche Farm, once the site of the De La Beche family castle. Nothing remains these days, the only evidence of its existence being a silver seal which was dug up and donated to Reading museum. Onwards past Aldworth’s second pub, The Four Points. How does a village with only 300 inhabitants support two thriving pubs?
Back into Aldworth and the treat of some chocolate chip shortbread that I’d left in the car for our return. You didn’t really expect me to complete a walk without cake did you?
The Bell Inn is closed on Mondays, with the exception of Bank Holidays. Bar food is served at lunchtime and early evening on all other days.
I wouldn’t recommend our particular walking route! If you’ve got a day to spare the circular route from Goring along the Ridgeway is good. Alternatively grab the OS map and devise a longer route that avoids the roads where possible.