Have you ever watched a court case? I’ve wanted to visit the Old Bailey ever since I realised the general public were allowed to observe trials. When a recent child free day came along I jumped at the opportunity to see the Old Bailey and other law related places in the city.
The Old Bailey (Central Criminal Court)
The Old Bailey deals with major criminal cases, mainly from the Greater London area. There are eighteen courts covering serious cases such as murder, terrorism and drug related crimes.
Despite being on the right side of the law I was a little nervous walking towards the public gallery entrance. I rang the doorbell, hidden down Warwick Passage, and waited to be called up for the security check. After passing through security I asked one of the guards about the best trial to visit.
The courts were relatively quiet on the day of my visit and the only option was a terrorism trial. The case related to four defendants, accused of supporting the funding of terrorism. The case had already been ongoing for several days; I entered the public gallery as the prosecutor was giving his closing speech to the jury.
The court room was smaller than I expected but familiar from TV court dramas. Visitors sit in a small balcony area, opposite the jurors. To my right sat the four defendants, to the left the judge. In the middle sat the Court Clerk and barristers. Their wigs intrigued me. Made from horsehair, evidently the older and grubbier they look the better!
It was really interesting to listen in and watch the workings of the court. I’m not going to write about the trial itself as it impacts real lives. Suffice to say the evidence was compelling and the subsequent outcome wasn’t a surprise.
Once in the courtroom there is a 30 minute minimum stay. However time passed quickly and I stayed for a couple of hours. Leaving as quietly as possible I crept out of the galleries and headed to my next destination, Temple Church.
The Temple Church
It’s hard to imagine that the serene Temple Church is just a couple of minutes walk from Fleet Street. Founded in the 12th Century by the Knights Templar it’s modelled on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. In 1608 the Temple was granted to two societies of lawyers, the Inner and Middle Temple, who look after it to this day.
The most distinguishing feature of the church is its round nave. Certainly impressive but I enjoyed the interior stonework just as much. On the floor of the nave lies the effigies of nine knights, whilst all around are grotesque gargoyles.
The nave contains a lot of display boards detailing the history which I really should have read. But I was more interested in climbing the winding staircase to the clerestory for views back across the church.
Inns of Court
The area around Temple Church is surrounded by two of the Inns of Court. These are the professional associations for barristers; every barrister needs to belong to one of them. There are four Inns in London; Gray’s Inn, Lincoln’s Inn, Middle Temple and Inner Temple; I explored the lanes and gardens of the latter two.
Wandering down the lanes it was hard to believe I was in central London. Lined with barristers’ chambers and intercepted by gardens and courtyards it feels more like a film set. I half expected Sherlock Holmes to walk down the street. There are maps dotted around the area but it’s more fun just to stroll around.
The buildings themselves are off limits to casual wanderers. Fortunately I didn’t need to be a barrister to enjoy the gardens. The borders were in full bloom, perfectly demonstrating the beauty of high summer. If I ignored the background sound of car horns, I could almost imagine I was enjoying a town garden.
As I reached the front of one garden, bordering Victoria Embankment, I realised the last time I’d been near here was whilst running the London Marathon. I’d struggled the last few miles and this section didn’t hold particularly good memories! It was good to reminisce in less painful times.
Royal Courts of Justice
Close by is one of the other major legal buildings, the Royal Courts of Justice, and my last stop of the day. The Law Courts house the High Court and Court of Appeal and preside over civil, not criminal, trials. It’s a huge Victorian Gothic style building on the Strand, just opposite Temple Inn.
Although there was an airport style scanner to pass through once in you appear to be free to wander. I picked up a self-guided tour leaflet from the entrance desk; it’s also possible to book guided tours. I walked around the Main Hall, past a small costume display to the Painted Room and then along past court rooms.
In a similar way to the Old Bailey it’s possible to watch trials. Although personally I think criminal trials sound much more interesting! I’d definitely like to visit another Old Bailey trial at some point, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the workings of our legal system.
- The Old Bailey is for those aged 14+ years only; you may be asked for photo identification. Court generally sits on weekdays from 10am-1pm and from 2-4.30pm but do check before you visit. Security is strict. Cameras, mobile phones, large bags and refreshments are not permitted. You can leave mobiles at the nearby Capable Travel Agent at a cost of £1 per device. Details of the cases are posted on the boards outside.
- The Temple Church website details its varied opening times. It’s generally open on weekdays from 10am-4pm. Entry charge is £5 for adults, free for under 16s.
- Middle and Inner Temple Gardens are open to the public from 12-3pm on weekdays during the summer. There is no entrance charge.
- The Royal Courts of Justice is open on weekdays from 9am-4.30pm. Entry is free.
Bath’s Georgian architecture, honey coloured stone buildings and famous Roman remains are a magnet for tourists. But hordes of summer visitors are not my cup of tea. Fortunately the National Trust have created an escape route, the Bath Skyline Walk.
Bath Skyline Walk
This six mile circular route skirts around the city, following trails through woods and across commons. We picked up a printed map from the tourist office; it’s also available on the National Trust website. The directions were straightforward and easy to follow once we eventually managed to find the start at Bathwick Fields.
As we crossed the meadow of Bathwick Fields the city views opened up to our right. We stopped to try and work out the various buildings but as I’m not particularly familiar with the city we didn’t get far. As our walk continued I realised this was probably the best view of the Bath skyline so do savour it whilst you can.
We continued downhill, passing Smallcombe Nuttery. I cannot imagine there are many other cities with community nutteries! Visitors are welcome to wander around and view the cobnuts, walnuts, almond and sweet chestnut trees.
A steep uphill stretch followed. We were grateful for some tree cover as we sheltered from a short sharp shower. That hadn’t featured in the weather forecast. Not that I minded taking a quick rest on the way up.
If you’ve got time there are a couple of additional places to visit en route. We saw signs pointing to the NT Prior Park Landscape Gardens and I was very tempted by the cafe. But not by the steep walk back uphill to rejoin the route afterwards. Later on there’s also the option to detour to the American Museum.
Whilst the Bath skyline walk is perfect for older children, those with younger kids may find some parts too hilly. However the National Trust have produced a separate Family Discovery Trail leaflet for a flat two mile stretch of the walk around Claverton Down. There are mini fairy doors in the trees of Long Wood, geocaches to find and an excellent woodland play area. I even joined the kids on a couple of the apparatus. It’s the perfect place to stop for a picnic. If I’d remembered to bring one.
Bath Cats and Dogs Home
The sound of barking signalled our approach to Bath Cats and Dogs Home. I knew from Trip Advisor that it had a small pet store which also sold drinks and snacks so we stopped for a short break.
After drinks my cat-mad son asked if we could pop in and see the cattery. The receptionist advised they do not usually allow casual visits but kindly allowed us in. Of course my son wanted to adopt every cat he saw. We emerged, thankfully cat-less, and continued our walk across Bushey Norwood to Bathampton.
Bathampton Wood was a highlight for me. Despite the lack of recent rain parts were quite slippy and muddy making me wish I’d worn trainers. However the luxuriant greens of ferns and mosses and an entire tree trunk covered in small mushrooms made up for the slippiness underfoot.
As we walked through Bathampton Wood we crossed several small tracks heading off in various directions. Although the instructions stated we should maintain our height the path seemed to get narrower and less distinct. I worried that we’d gone the wrong way so it was a relief to pop out of the wood in the correct place. Rather ironically some lost walkers immediately approached me and asked for help.
We circled around Bath Golf Club, heading towards two radio transmitters, before a steep route downhill through more woodland. We emerged near a bench which was perfectly positioned to once again take in the Bath skyline view.
From the bench it’s well worth the five minute detour to visit Sham castle. This folly was commissioned by Ralph Allen in 1762 to improve the view from his townhouse. I don’t know where he lived but there’s a great view of Bath from the castle itself. Although there is nothing else to the castle apart from what you can see in the photo below!
From Sham Castle we walked downhill back into Bath. We found ourselves on a road of mansions so passed the time oohing and aahing at the houses, wondering how much they cost. Rightmove quickly provided the answer, and some impressive interior photos; what did we do before the Internet?!
Back in the centre of Bath we ate a very belated lunch and reminisced over the walk. If you’re visiting the city I highly recommend it, but do it for its countryside appeal rather than city views!
- The National Trust website details the Bath skyline walk.
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As a child of the 1970s my early knowledge of Belfast came from watching news reports of the Troubles. But the Good Friday agreement in 1998 changed the political landscape and today my children have little concept of how different things are. That’s not to say that the city has forgotten its past, or even eschewed all violence. Yet it has moved on and our brief visit was well overdue.
Our trip coincided with the centenary of the Easter Rising. Stepping out of the hotel on our first morning we heard pipers from an Easter Parade and decided to tag along to watch. It was a small parade, with several children taking part, but nethertheless accompanied by riot vehicles and a police helicopter. An interesting introduction to the city.
Onto the sightseeing. Top of my list was a visit to the Titanic Belfast. This is Belfast’s flagship museum, charting the building of the Titanic at the Harland and Wolff shipyard through to its demise. It’s in an impressive building, built in the old shipyard, about a 20 minute walk from the city centre.
Before we visited, our hotel receptionist mentioned there were no actual artefacts from the Titanic wreck site in the museum. Whilst initially disappointed the museum states this is for ethical reasons. Instead much of the focus is on the shipyard itself and the industries that went hand-in-hand with the building of the Titanic.
The museum consists of 9 interactive galleries, covering the life cycle of the Titanic from build, to launch, fit-out, maiden voyage and eventual sinking. It’s a modern museum, with some stand-out exhibits including a scaled down replica of the Arrol Gantry and the Shipyard ride. This is like a theme park ride in slow motion although the warning signs might make you worried you’re about to experience zero gravity. Instead it’s a gentle tour through the heat and noise of the shipyard, suitable for almost everyone.
One of my favourite exhibits illustrated facts and figures about the Titanic’s launch. When it sailed from Southampton it was provisioned with 40,000 eggs, 75,000lb of fresh meat, 8000 cigars and 6 Steinway pianos. It also included 18,000 bed sheets as there were no laundry facilities on board!
We really enjoyed the Titanic Belfast. It’s not cheap but along with the visit to SS Nomadic we spent much of the day there and felt we got value for money.
A visit to the SS Nomadic is included in the price of the Titanic Belfast ticket so it would be amiss not to visit. SS Nomadic is the last remaining White Star Line ship in the world and was built alongside the RMS Titanic back in 1911. It was initially used to transfer passengers from Cherbourg out to the Titanic before seeing action in both World Wars.
Once inside you can visit both the luxurious bar area and the distinctly less luxurious crew’s quarters. Our kids enjoyed dressing up as first class passengers; there’s even clothes for the adults too. We should have spent longer on board, but we were all very hungry and a late lunch was calling.
The plan on our second day was to walk from our hotel to the Crumlin Road Gaol, via the predominately republican Falls and loyalist Shankill Road areas. These roads are now part of the tourist circuit, primarily for the political murals that decorate many of the buildings in both areas. Both are easily accessed from the centre of Belfast but there are also numerous black cab and bus tours.
Walking towards Falls Road it’s hard to ignore the high-rise Divis Tower, the sole remaining building of the notorious Divis Flat complex. In the 1970s the British Army installed an observation post on the roof and took over the top two floors; these were only reinstated as residential accommodation in 2009.
We spotted murals as soon as we reached the Falls Road. Most depict the political and religious differences between the communities, although some focus on other conflicts around the world. One of the most famous is of Bobby Sands. Bobby died whilst on hunger strike in protest against the British government’s treatment of IRA fighters.
We visited a stretch of the wall between the Falls and Shankill Roads. I was surprised to learn there are actually 109 walls in cities and towns across Northern Ireland, built to separate the loyalist and unionist areas. Originally erected as a temporary measure in the 1960s, they’re still in place almost 50 years later. Despite plans to remove them many residents believe the walls (and gates, which close nightly) keep them safe.
The walls are covered in murals and grafitti, including lots from tourists who sign the wall and proclaim peace. It’s hard not to compare it to the Berlin Wall although given all the wire on top I doubt you’ll find David Hasselhoff up there.
It was only after we passed through one of the large gates that I realised how incredibly close the two communities are to each other yet with such strongly held opposing viewpoints. The divide is still visible today; just check the colour of the flags and painted kerbstones and you’ll soon know which area you are in.
Shankill Road seemed to have even more murals than the Falls Road. The road itself was quieter with few shops open and some parts looked pretty run down. Once again we found ourselves walking through recent history; ten people died in the Shankill Road bombing in 1993.
From Shankill Road we made our way through a housing estate to Crumlin Road, passing even more murals. I do not understand all of the different factions involved in the Troubles but from reading the poignant dedications on some murals it’s clear that people are missed whatever their political or religious viewpoint.
Crumlin Road Gaol
Crumlin Road Gaol was another of my Belfast highlights. Although the gaol dates back to 1845 it only closed its doors in 1996 and many of its recent inmates, including Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, will be familiar names.
Our guided tour covered the prisoner holding cells, underground tunnel, the Governor’s office and C-Wing before heading outside to see the burial grounds and exercise yard. Along the C-Wing we were able to look into several cells, including a recreation of the padded cell and the condemned man’s cell. The tour also takes you through the execution room but this can be avoided if you wish.
The tunnel links to Crumlin Road courthouse which is on the opposite side of the road. Prisoners were taken between the courthouse and gaol through the 84 metre long tunnel to ensure they were kept away from the public gaze. The tunnel was built in 1849, but has been reinforced under the road section due to the amount of traffic overhead. This obviously wasn’t an issue when it was constructed!
Sadly the courthouse cannot be visited. Originally purchased by an investor for £1 back in 2003 it’s a crying shame that the magnificent building now sits decaying, partly destroyed by fire.
The gaol appears to do a good sideline in paranormal events and tribute acts, from an Elvis ‘Jailhouse Rock’ gig to a Johnny Cash concert. It’s worth keepng an eye out if you’re visiting as I’d imagine they’d are pretty unique events.
Despite excellent reviews I hadn’t planned to visit W5, an interactive science centre. I thought the kids were a little old, plus we’ve been to several similar places before. However we were meeting my other half’s sister and two children so this was an obvious place to head to.
W5 was very busy and generally aimed at primary school children. However the cousins loved their surprise meet up and it was the perfect place for them to explore on their own. There are several science shows throughout the day and three floors of exhibits so plenty to keep children occupied.
As always with such a short visit we missed things out. Another day in Belfast would have allowed us to visit the Botanic Gardens, Ulster Museum and perhaps Stormont. But it was time for our roadtrip along the Antrim coast!
- Titanic Belfast is open daily apart from over Christmas. A family ticket (2 adults, 2 children aged 5-16) costs £43 and allows entrance to both the Titanic museum and SS Nomadic.
- Crumlin Road Gaol is open 7 days per werk. Entry is by guided tour; these run between 10am-4.30pm and last 1 hour 15 minutes. A family ticket (2 adults, 2 children) costs £25.
- W5 is open 7 days per week; hours vary according to the day. A family ticket (2 adults, 2 children) costs £25.50.
- We stayed at the Belfast City Centre Premier Inn. It’s a typical Premier Inn, good location, cheap rooms and friendly staff; we’d happily use it again.
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