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.
Boxing Day is the obvious day for a family walk over the Christmas period. It’s a great opportunity to get outdoors, blow the cobwebs away and walk off some of the excesses of the previous day.
We’ve walked all of the routes below with the children, most are 5 miles or less and linked to the relevant blog post. I’ve indicated below places that will be open on Boxing Day but it’s always safest to fill up your flasks and pack some turkey sandwiches just in case.
Lastly, excuse my fluid interpretation of ‘southern England’. It covers central southern England, with a nod to the counties on either side (Somerset and East Sussex). London somehow made it into the definition too!
1. Avebury stone circle and West Kennett, Wiltshire
Arguably one of the finest prehistoric walks in the country. A 5 mile AA route discovering the stone circle at Avebury, West Kennett Long Barrow and The Sanctuary. The stone circle is always open from dawn to dusk but the associated National Trust visitor centre and cafe will be closed on Boxing Day.
2. A walk from Regent’s Canal to Camden Lock, London
A short gentle city stroll along Regent’s Canal, suitable for all ages. Wander past expensive houses, see the aviary at London Zoo and wonder what it would be like to live on a houseboat.
3. Lepe Loop, Hampshire
I’ve found a cafe that’s open on Boxing Day! The Lepe Country Park cafe will be open from 10am-4pm and is a great place to start your walk along the south coast. We followed the Lepe Loop which includes a lovely stretch along the shorefront.
4. Bath skyline walk, Somerset
A varied walk around the outskirts of Bath passing the National Trust Prior Park Landscape Garden (open, including Tea Shed, on Boxing Day). Elsewhere on the walk you can play on the Family Discovery Trail on Claverton Down and enjoy Bathampton Wood.
There are many walks to choose from around Winchombe, as befits its ‘Walkers Welcome’ status. The walk up to Belas Knap is a great option for first time visitors with lovely views and a hill to get your heart rate going!
7. Seven Sisters Country Park, near Seaford, East Sussex
Definitely a walk to blow away cobwebs. Best for older children as there are steep hills and cliff edges. Park at the Visitor Centre and walk the South Downs Way over the Seven Sisters cliffs. It’s likely to be very busy, but there’s a good reason for its popularity – the views are stunning!
8. White Horse Hill and The Ridgeway, Oxfordshire
Our favourite local walk. Park in the National Trust car park and head up to the chalk figure on White Horse Hill. From here walk past Uffington Castle (grass mounds only) on to the Ridgeway and turn right. You can either follow a circular route back to the car or, if you want a longer walk, carry on along the Ridgeway to Waylands Smithy, a Neolithic burial long barrow.
9. Great Bedwyn and Wilton windmill walk, Wiltshire
An easy 5 mile walk along the Kennet and Avon canal, past Crofton Pumping Station and Wilton windmill. The windmill itself won’t be open but you can visit the outside at any time and use the picnic benches.
10. Hurst Castle, Hampshire
A bracing walk along a shingle spit to Hurst Castle, a coastal fortress built by Henry VIII. I’ve cheated a little by including this walk. The castle is actually closed on Boxing Day but open from Tuesday 27 December to Monday 2 January. If you can, it’s worth waiting the extra day to visit the castle.
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.
Last weekend I ran the 2016 London marathon. When the ‘You’re in’ magazine landed on my doormat last October I was excited, nervous and frankly amazed (only 1 in 15 entrants secured a ballot place). I was even more excited and nervous six months later.
Getting to the start
I wasn’t the only one. The train to Blackheath was packed with runners discussing finish times, training plans and previous races. Chatting to each other helped settle the nerves but there was no getting away from the challenge of what we were about to do. As we disembarked a helicopter overhead was transmitting pictures of us streaming up to the start area. We were famous!
It’s hard to envisage how much organisation must go into getting 39,000 runners ready for the marathon but from my perspective it was seamless. Runners are split between three different starts; red, green and blue, which all join up by the third mile. Each colour has its own area, with luggage lorries, changing areas, information point and toilets.
Ah the toilets. Female urinals. I have never seen so many perplexed women holding up bits of cardboard and wondering how to use them. And what to do with them when finished. (Note to organisers, next year put the rubbish container inside the urinal area).
Fortunately there were alternatives to the ladies urinals, as long as you didn’t mind queuing. The portaloos certainly seemed the more popular option.
The baggage drop took seconds, as did the pick up afterwards. With time to spare I decided on one last cup of coffee before the run. This wasn’t my wisest decision of the day but I never say no to coffee.
Although I’d arrived early the minutes flew by and it was soon time to find my starting pen. I was in pen nine, the final pen on the blue start. It took about ten minutes from the race start to the time I crossed the start line. This doesn’t matter as your final chip time takes this into account. The five hour pacemaker was also in this pen but I stayed clear of the pacers as they were usually surrounded by crowds of runners.
So how did the race go?
London marathon miles 1-6
These were my novelty miles. Running past houses whose residents had come out to cheer us on. Hearing the race marshals shouting “Hump!” every few hundred metres to warn us of road humps. Spotting the Guinness World Record contenders and feeling relieved I didn’t have to run as a dinosaur or carry a boat. High-fiving the children beside the road and trying not to miss any of them out. I quickly learnt to avoid the plastic bottles in the road after the water stations and not to stand on sticky gel sachets.
The weather was perfect for running; cool, mostly cloudy with a slight breeze. I’d wavered at the start about whether to wear my jacket or start in a T-shirt. I chose the warmer option. Although if it had warmed up much more I’d have been faffing around re-pinning my number onto my T- shirt whilst running.
Six miles in and the crowds were out in Greenwich town, drinking beer at 11am and making lots of noise around the Cutty Sark. I don’t think many people heeded the information in the Spectator’s Guide about staying away from this area!
London marathon miles 6-13
These miles were great. I was still fresh enough to enjoy the experience and towards the end it included my race highlight, Tower Bridge.
However I was regretting my last minute cup of coffee. There were long queues at the first few toilet stops and I didn’t want to waste time. This didn’t appear to affect the men who were relieving themselves wherever there was a gap in spectators. I eventually took a break and queued for a few minutes but the relief was worth it.
As I ran one of my favourite diversion tactics was reading the spectator’s signs: “If Donald Trump can run for President you can run 26.2 miles” and “Smile if you’re not wearing underwear” (I was, but couldn’t help smiling anyway).
On to the best part of my race. Everything I’d read about Tower Bridge was true. It really is a fantastic experience to run across the bridge, cheered on by the crowds. I couldn’t resist another quick break, this time to take some photos.
London marathon miles 13-18
After Tower Bridge the route turns right along The Highway and you’re passed, on the opposite side of the road, by the fast runners approaching their 23rd mile. I looked over enviously. When it was my turn to run back I looked at those just passing their 13 mile mark and wondered if they had similar feelings. Particularly given they were being overtaken by the road sweepers and followed by coaches to pick up retiring runners.
Everyone who runs the London marathon talks about the support from the spectators and volunteer marshals. There’s music for all tastes too; brass bands, drummers, pipers and a street rave. Even a group of portable church bell ringers. But sometimes I relished the quieter parts of the route, away from the shouts and cheers.
Ben, the man running 401 marathons in 401 consecutive days, and attempting to raise £250,000 for anti-bullying charities was running near me for some of the way. Wow, I could hardly walk the following day let alone run another marathon. I also ran beside a man with ‘Sexy’ printed on his top. The spectators loved supporting him!
Towards the end of this section I’d eaten most of the food I’d bought along. Most runners used energy gels, and spectators were handing out jelly babies and Haribos, but I relied on my stash of Nakd bars. I liked them before the marathon but am not sure I can ever face one again.
London marathon miles 19-26
These miles were hard, very hard. I always knew I was going to finish but my running reduced to a shuffle, interspersed with bouts of walking. At around 19 miles I got stitch. I hardly ever get stitch! Added to this, my knees and shins were screaming with every step. Did I hit the dreaded wall? I don’t know, but my body had decided it was time to stop.
Fortunately my mind decided otherwise; I wanted my medal. I let the last few miles pass in a blur. Head down and one foot in front of the other. I almost missed Mo Farah running towards us at one point high-fiving the runners.
I counted down the miles, then the 100 metre markings and finally the last 385 yards (interesting mix of measurements). It was such a relief to reach the finish line and receive my medal, I really didn’t enjoy those last few miles.
After the medal came the goody bag queue. I received a huge T-shirt, a bag full of snacks (mostly distributed to the family later) and a welcome bottle of water.
Fifteen minutes later I received a congratulatory text from a friend who’d been tracking me. She let me know I’d run the London marathon in 4 hours 28 minutes and 2 seconds. I’d also raised almost £600 for Style Acre, an Oxfordshire based charity that supports adults with learning disabilities.
So how do I sum up my London marathon experience? If I had to define it in just three words, they’d be noisy, inspirational and painful. But I cannot miss out the cheering spectators and helpful marshals, perfect weather and world-class sights. I don’t plan to run again though; my knees tell me it was a once in a lifetime experience. And it’s only fair to let someone else take a chance with the ballot.
If you fancy running the marathon next year then pop over to the Virgin London marathon website for more information on the ballot and other ways to enter.