My Humphry Davy MOOC review and a visit to the Royal Institute, London

I can imagine many of you wondering what on an earth a MOOC is. Simple really. It’s A Massive Online Open Course. Or in other words an online course, often created by a University, open to anyone with an Internet connection. I discovered them recently whilst browsing the web and decided to try one out.

Why did I study a MOOC?

I completed a Natural Sciences degree through the Open University (OU) in my 30s and often think about studying again. However I cannot afford the time or money to study another degree at the moment.

Fortunately many MOOCs are free and take just three to six weeks to complete. In the UK, FutureLearn (a private company offshoot of the OU) have been providing courses since 2013. They work with UK and international universities and provide an eclectic choice of courses. There’s bound to be something for everyone!

Humphry Davy MOOC

Sir Humphry Davy, Bt by Henry Howard oil on canvas, 1803 NPG 4591 © National Portrait Gallery, London
Sir Humphry Davy by Henry Howard NPG 4591 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Created by Lancaster University, this MOOC focussed on the life and works of Sir Humphry Davy. I have a fascination with polymaths and Davy fitted the bill perfectly. Probably best known for inventing the miners’ safety lamp, he was also a chemist and a poet. He isolated several elements, experimented with nitrous oxide, helped found the Zoological Society of London and wrote Salmonia, the fly fisherman’s bible. A man of many talents.

The course took place over four weeks, with about three hours study per week. It’s easy to extend this if you want to read more around the subject; indeed I’ve just bought one of the further reading suggestions.

The course is a mix of online videos, reading and discussions. Each week we looked at two or three different aspects of Davy’s life. For example, investigating the controversy around the Davy safety lamp or looking at Davy’s possible connection to Frankenstein.

The work involved was quite straightforward but I struggled to understand and enjoy some of his poems. Whilst I appreciate Davy’s many talents his poems were not to my taste.

Davy’s safety lamp - and a variety of other designs, Royal Institution, London
Davy’s safety lamp – and a variety of other designs, Royal Institution, London

Students were encouraged to contribute to online discussions with comments and questions after each piece. I didn’t always have time to add my thoughts but it was interesting to read everyone else’s. The course educators also commented and created a weekly summary arising from the online discussions.

Whilst browsing the comments I couldn’t help but sneak a look at some of the other student’s profiles. Most appeared to be retirees who I guess have time on their hands and want to occupy their brain cells. It also appears that once you’ve completed one course you start another. That’s my experience too as I’ve already signed up for another two courses!

And what’s the connection to the Royal Institution (Ri)?

I’m a regular visitor to London but have never considered visiting the Royal Institution. That is, until it was offered as an opportunity as part of the Humphry Davy course.

Founded in 1799, the Ri was set up to promote scientific education and research. Humphry Davy lectured at the Ri; his chemical experiments were incredibly popular but would be a health and safety nightmare today.

Professor Frank James at the Royal Institution
Professor Frank James at the Royal Institution

Located in Mayfair the building is set amidst luxury hotels, jewellers (Faberge is at the end of the road) and high end restaurants. Not an area I’d usually visit.

Our course educators had arranged for us to view some of Davy’s notebooks from the archive, take a guided tour of the Faraday museum and listen to them presenting in the lecture theatre that Humphry Davy presented in. Professor James even demonstrated how Davy’s safety lamp worked (with real flame!). It was an incredible opportunity to learn more about Davy and a definite highlight of the MOOC for me.

Although the Ri is open to visitors I’m not sure I’d gain the same enjoyment from a visit without the context of the course. You’d need an interest in the history of science to truly appreciate the Faraday museum but I’d certainly attend the regular public lectures if I lived closer.

My introduction to the world of MOOCs was an excellent experience. I think my other FutureLearn courses will have a high bar to overcome!

More info:

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A summer day out on the South Bank, London

As the kids get older it’s harder to find days out that appeal to us all. When you’re fourteen you want action, adventure and preferably no parents!

Fortunately London is still cool, whatever your age. When South Bank invited us to sample some of their ideas for days out this summer I knew we’d be fine. Even if summer was looking decidedly grey and wet.

A boat trip along the Thames

Bankside Pier, London
Bankside Pier, London

Our day started with a boat trip along the Thames. It’s the best way to see the city and the one thing I’d recommend to every visitor. The Thames has shaped the history of London, indeed was responsible for its founding back in the Roman times, and there’s no better way to experience the juxtaposition of old and new than to see the sights unfold along the river bank.

There’s a wide selection of boat trips available; we travelled as guests of City Cruises who operate a hop-on, hop-off boat between five piers.

Tower Bridge from the River Thames
Tower Bridge from the River Thames

Our circular route took us past the Shard, the Monument, HMS Belfast, Tower Bridge, Millenium Bridge, and the Houses of Parliament. The boat has an open upstairs deck which is perfect for photography on a dry day. However we sheltered in the covered section below. You can always guarantee rain during an English summer!

Under the Tower bridge, London
Under the Tower bridge, London

One of the highlights was when our boat slowed and turned under Tower Bridge so visitors could take photos from all angles. For me, Tower Bridge holds a fantastic memory as my favourite part of the London marathon route.

No polar bears at the Tower of London today
No polar bears at the Tower of London today

The boat stopped for several minutes to let passengers off at Tower Pier. My son informed me that Henry VIII once kept a polar bear at the Tower of London which was taken out to fish in the Thames. Whilst some of my son’s facts are of dubious origin this one does appear to be correct. What a sight that would have been.

Cranes and a police boat, River Thames, London
Cranes and a police boat, River Thames, London

Leaving Tower Pier we headed back towards Westminster. It’s only when you see the cranes that you remember how much building work is constantly transforming London. Every time I visit there’s another high rise.

Houses of Parliament, from the Thames, London
Houses of Parliament, from the Thames, London

The sight of red London buses crossing Westminster bridge, with Elizabeth Tower and Big Ben in the background must bring out the inner tourist in everyone, however many times you’ve seen it. I certainly snapped away as we headed towards our disembarkation point at the London Eye.

Sea Life London aquarium

Back on the South Bank we wound our way through the throngs of tourists; it’s incredibly busy but for good reason. The South Bank is home to several major attractions, including the London Eye, London Dungeon and the National Theatre, but it’s also a great place to wander, with plenty of bars and restaurants to stop in.

We headed to Sea Life, where we donned lifejackets and took turns to go out onto a metal walkway to feed the rays. The rays are fed on a shallow platform, primarily to stop Boris and Phoenix, two Green Sea Turtles who share the same tank, joining the party.

Visitors can also swim with sharks, although the Health & Safety sign about how to treat a sharkbite worried me!

Feeding the rays (and turtle) at Sea Life London aquarium
Feeding the rays (and turtle) at Sea Life London aquarium

Afterwards we were given a short tour of the new jellyfish exhibit at Sea Life. The jellyfish are mesmerising to watch as they float around, highlighted by ever changing colours. If screensavers were still a thing (remember them?) these would be perfect.

We learnt about the complicated life cycle of a jellyfish. And found out plenty of interesting facts.

Jellyfish at the Sea Life London aquarium
Jellyfish at the Sea Life London aquarium

I discovered jellyfish have something in common with me, they’re not very good swimmers. You’d have thought an animal that lives in the ocean would be a strong swimmer but they rely on the ocean current to get around. At Sea Life this means they are kept in round tanks (called a kreisel) as they get stuck in the corners of square tanks!

Leake Street grafitti and street art

Regular readers will know I have a soft spot for street art. The route to our next destination, the House of Vans took us through Leake Street tunnel where several street artists were busy creating new pieces.

Leake Street, near Waterloo station
Leake Street, near Waterloo station

House of Vans skate park

Exiting Leake Street we found ourselves behind Waterloo Station. The old railway arches are now home to the House of Vans.

It may be an unpromising location from the outside but step inside and, wow, the transformation is incredible.

House of Vans, London
House of Vans, London

The phrase hidden gem is often overused. However I cannot think of a better way to describe this place. Whilst trains rumble overhead the tunnels have been converted into an exhibition space, cinema, music venue and skate park. And incredibly, it’s all free!

House of Vans, London
House of Vans, London

We were invited to take part in a skateboarding lesson. After donning helmets and protective knee and elbow pads the kids were ready. Me? Well someone had to take the photographs. OK, I wimped out. That concrete floor looked unforgiving.

House of Vans skating lesson, London
House of Vans skating lesson, London

Dave, the skating instructor, made everything look super easy. I was even tempted to try a couple of the tricks he demonstrated. But I’ve been on a skateboard before and think I’ll stick to feet rather than wheels.

The kids really enjoyed themselves. My daughter decided she’d come every weekend if she lived locally. Although probably more for the cool location than the skating. Oh, and the photo booth.

Cocktails at The Mondrian

Our last stop of the day was for cocktails at the boutique Mondrian Hotel. I felt rather a fraud as I sat sipping my cocktail in such a swanky hotel. Pretending I do this kind of thing all the time. When usually I’d be drinking coffee in a cafe. That said, it slipped down nicely. I could get used to this lifestyle. I checked the website after our visit and notice they do a botanical theme afternoon tea. Now that’s right up my street.

So, thank you South Bank. Our family had a great day out and you provided plenty of ideas for us to do this summer. Particularly on a typically wet summer day!

More info:

  • Head over to the South Bank website to find out more about visiting the area. There are lots of events and ideas, including free outdoor theatre.
  • We travelled with City Cruises. They offer a £10 (adults) hop on-hop off river pass plus combined tickets to many London attractions.
  • Sea Life London Aquarium is one of London’s premier attractions. It can be expensive but is free to Merlin Pass holders. Check out offers before you travel as it’s easy to find 2 for 1 tickets (particularly if travelling by train).
  • The House of Vans is open four days per week. Check the website for details of upcoming performances and exhibitions or to book on one of the free skating lessons.
  • The Mondrian Hotel is fabulously located in the Sea Containers building, overlooking the Thames. Ideal for a special night out.

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10 quirky ways to spend an hour in London

 

According to my oracle (Trip Advisor) there are over 1600 attractions in London. Enough to fill years of sightseeing. But what if you’ve only got an hour to spare? Maybe you’ve seen the major sights and are looking for something different. Well, look no further; here’s my top ten quirky ways to spend an hour in London:

1. Shop for silver at The London Silver Vaults, Chancery Lane

The place to buy silver in London. Housed in a large underground vault there are silver shops for all occasions and budgets. Access is via a security check and huge steel doors; all I could think about was the Hatton Garden robbery!

London silver vaults, Chancery Lane
London silver vaults, Chancery Lane

There are silver items galore in the shop windows, most leaning towards traditional rather than contemporary design. We didn’t buy anything but it’s definitely the place to come if you’re looking for a special gift.

And I’ve happily ticked this off my UK bucket list.

2. Visit a London film set

From Westbourne Park Road (Notting Hill) to Chalcot Crescent (Paddington) London is packed with film locations. A quick Internet search will help you find your favourite film locations.

Regency cafe, London
Regency cafe, London

My favourite? It has to be the Regency Cafe on Regency Street. A star of the film Layer Cake (and several other TV productions) I primarily love this cafe for its huge fried breakfasts!

3. Spot flamingos at The Roof Gardens, Kensington

Can you believe there are flamingos on a roof top in central London?

Flamingos at The Roof Gardens
Flamingos at The Roof Gardens

Head over to Kensington High St to find them, 100ft above the bustling road.

The charms of London roof gardens aren’t restricted to flamingos. Read my post about London’s roof gardens to find out more.

4. Admire the carvings at BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, Neasden Temple

Be transported to India in Neasden. This huge Hindu temple is made from intricately carved marble, granite and limestone. The story of its construction is incredible; more than 26,000 parts were carved in India,  shipped back to the UK and assembled by over 1000 volunteers.

BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir
BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir

Neasden temple is open to visitors from Monday to Saturday 9am-6pm. As the temple is a place of worship do read the visitor guidelines beforehand. You can read about our visit here.

5. Play the games at Novelty Automation, Holborn

This strange mix of arcade machines would have been at home in Banksy’s Dismaland.

It’s a hugely imaginative, irreverent and entertaining place to spend an hour or so; our family loved it. There’s no entrance charge, simply pay for the machines you want to use (generally £1-3 per go).

Novelty Automation, Princeton St
Novelty Automation, Princeton St

My daughter braved the Autofrisk machine, whilst I tested my nerve in the dog’s cage. I don’t want to spoil your fun by revealing what happens!

6. Grant Museum of Zoology, Bloomsbury

This University zoological museum is stuffed (literally) full of preserved animal specimens and skeletons. Housed in a single room you’ll find dodo bones, dissected brains and a python skeleton. It’s most popular exhibit appears to be a jar of moles!

The Grant Museum of Zoology is open Monday to Saturday afternoons, admission is free.

7. Buy a neon sign from Gods Own Junkyard, Walthamstow

Tucked away on an industrial estate this is the place to go if you’ve ever wanted to buy a neon sign. Or just to look at someone else’s collection of them. Although housed in a relatively small unit it’s packed with neon lights and retro signs.

Gods Own Junkyard, Shernhall St
Gods Own Junkyard, Shernhall St

Out the back there’s a small cafe; grab a coffee and slice of cake to enjoy in the courtyard garden whilst you contemplate where to put a neon sign in your home.

8. Sir John Soane’s Museum, Lincoln’s Inn Fields

A museum worthy of a longer visit but doable in an hour. This architect’s house is packed full of antiquities, paintings, sculptures and a sarcophagus. It’s eclectic, cramped and definitely quirky.

Sir John Soane’s museum is open 10am-5pm Tuesday to Saturday. Entrance is free, no photography allowed.

9. Ride the Emirates Air Line across the River Thames

A fun way to cross the River Thames. The cable car provides great views of London and it’s much cheaper than many other viewing experiences in the city.

Cable car across the Thames

We combined our visit with a trip on the DLR and a boat ride along the Thames, taking full advantage of our London travelcard.

10. Hunt out street art

We enjoyed searching for street art in the area around Brick Lane. It’s easy to find (sometimes with help from the Internet) but if you’d like to find out more about the artists and their work I’d recommend joining a street art tour.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my list of quirky things to do in London in an hour. What else would you add to the list?

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Magical Lantern Festival 2017, Chiswick House, London

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.

Magical Lantern Festival, Chiswick House

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.

Magical Lantern Festival, Chiswick House

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.

Magical Lantern Festival, Chiswick House

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.

Magical Lantern Festival, Chiswick House

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.

Magical Lantern Festival, Chiswick House

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.

Magical Lantern Festival, Chiswick House

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.

Magical Lantern Festival, Chiswick House

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!

Magical Lantern Festival, Chiswick House

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.

Magical Lantern Festival, London
Magical Lantern Festival, London

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.

More info:

  • 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.
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