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.

Discovering the roof gardens of London

 

We always visit London during February half term. I’ve learnt the hard way that the big attractions attract big crowds so I try to choose a less popular, more quirky option. Our theme this year was roof gardens!

The Roof Gardens, 99 Kensington High Street

*This roof garden closed in 2018*

I’ve walked along Kensington High Street many times but until last week I had no idea that on the roof of the building above we’d find trees, a stream and four flamingos! Yes, you’ve read that correctly. The 1.5 acre roof gardens took 2 years to build and opened to the public in 1938; visitors paid a shilling to enter with the monies raised going to charity. Nowadays Sir Richard Branson leases the roof gardens along with a private clubhouse and restaurant on the 7th floor.

The Spanish garden, The Roof Gardens
The Spanish garden, The Roof Gardens

We signed in at reception and took the lift up to the 6th floor before stepping out into the surreal experience of a Spanish garden. Modelled on the Alhambra in Granada it certainly brightened up the grey and dreary London sky.

Flamingos at The Roof Gardens
Flamingos at The Roof Gardens

There’s also a Tudor garden but our favourite was the woodland garden with its free roaming flamingos. This contains over one hundred trees, including six that have been there since the garden opened. Plenty of spring bulbs were pushing through the soil and a few were already in flower.

The Roof Gardens, 99 Kensington High St, London
The Roof Gardens, 99 Kensington High St, London

The middle of February is never going to show a garden in its full splendour but we thought it was great. We’ll definitely pop back to the Roof Gardens in summer to see it in its prime.

Sky Garden, 20 Fenchurch Street (Walkie Talkie)

I’ve always wanted to visit the Shard but why pay £25 when you can experience similar views and a sky garden for free at 20 Fenchurch Street? Admittedly the Walkie Talkie, so called because of its bulbous shape, is less aesthetically pleasing. It’s also significantly lower than the Shard but it still provides a great vantage point. And perhaps the Shard is too high to get decent photos?

Sky Garden at the Walkie Talkie
Sky Garden at the Walkie Talkie

I’d booked tickets to the Sky Garden a few days previously. We turned up an hour early but the staff were accommodating and let us in before our timed slot. My passport ID was checked and bags security scanned before we stepped into the lift. I haven’t been in many skyscrapers so I was surprised how quickly we zoomed up to the 35th floor.

Sky Garden, 20 Fenchurch St
Sky Garden, 20 Fenchurch St

The views are stunning. There are no information boards but most buildings are instantly recognisable. We enjoyed looking across to the Gherkin and at a helicopter flying at the same height as us. Aside from the views, I’d describe the sky garden as corporate. It’s the kind of planting you get in posh offices. Nice enough, but soulless. Maybe give it a year to mature and it’ll look better. If you visit for the views you’ll love it! I wouldn’t visit just for the garden.

Views from the Sky Garden
Views from the Sky Garden

Upon leaving we discovered both lifts were temporarily out of order and awaiting repair. The attendant announced he’d take 8 people down in the maintenance lift. At this point I started to worry we’d be trundling down the outside of the building in a cage. After several minutes of my mind running through doom-laden scenarios (Towering Inferno) the lift door suddenly opened and we were able to leave. A few seconds later and we were safely on the ground floor. Phew!

SOAS Japanese Roof Garden

Expectations for our final garden were high, but it’s unfair to compare this garden with either of the previous ones. It’s much smaller and has minimal planting. Instead, the SOAS Japanese Roof garden is all about the stone with sandstone, slate and granite chippings providing texture and interest.

Japanese roof garden, SOAS
Japanese roof garden, SOAS

There’s seating for those who wish to enjoy the peace and meditate but we didn’t linger. I’m sure it’s lovely in May when the wisteria flowers but on a cold February day we were happy to return indoors. An interesting garden to visit if you’re already in the area but I wouldn’t make a special trip just to see it.

More info

  • The roof gardens closed in 2018 following Virgin’s decision to close the bar and restaurant.
  • The Sky Garden is open from 10am-6pm weekdays, 11am-9pm weekends. Visits are free although you’ll need to book a timed slot in advance. Remember to bring ID with you.
  • The SOAS roof garden is on top of the Brunei Gallery and is open whenever the gallery is (generally 10.30am-5pm Tuesday to Saturday).

Greenwich tall ships festival, London

I’ve always had a soft spot for tall ships, probably a legacy of my 1970s childhood when The Onedin Line was prime TV viewing. When I heard the Tall Ships Festival was coming to London for the first time in 25 years I knew we’d be there.

Not a sight you'll normally see on the Thames!
Not a sight you’ll normally see on the Thames!

The festival took place at the start of September and encompassed a long weekend of events and sailing activities. More than 50 ships took part; these were handily spread out across several sites along the Thames. We spent a day wandering around three of the locations enjoying the festivities and exploring parts of London we rarely visit.

We started at North Greenwich where was a small area selling food and drinks and performances by sea shanty singers. We didn’t linger as we’d already seen some tall ships sailing past and were eager to see more.

Tall ships sailing the Thames
Tall ships sailing the Thames

Instead we joined the other Sunday strollers for the 1.5 mile walk along the Thames path to maritime Greenwich. It’s quite an industrial stretch of the river but there was plenty of interest, ranging from old wharves to rusting ships cut in half. Closer to the Old Royal Naval College you pass modern housing but you’re also treated to a cobbled area with signs and buildings that remind you of Greenwich’s maritime history. Some of the larger tall ships moored here were open to visitors although we managed to coincide our arrival with the lunchtime closure.

A giant lobster at the tall ships festival, Greenwich
A giant lobster at the tall ships festival, Greenwich

The main festival village was in Greenwich. There was lots to see, from costumed characters to dancers and pull along lobsters. I’m still intrigued by the lobster and I’d love to know what it does the rest of the year! There was also rigging to climb, model ships to sail and demonstrations to watch. This area was incredibly busy with long queues for everything; I’m sure most of London had decided to visit the festival that afternoon.

Making musket balls
Making musket balls

Our favourite stand was the man making musket balls. After melting pewter in a small pan he poured it into moulds and, when cold, released the balls and filed them smooth. The resulting musket balls were for sale and he had quite a production line going for all of the kids (including ours) who wanted to buy them.

Viewing the tall ships at Greenwich
Viewing the tall ships at Greenwich

Of course the main attraction was watching the ships on the river. It was great to see them sail past and imagine how the Thames might have looked in years gone by.

Tall ships at Wood Wharf, London
Tall ships at Wood Wharf, London

Our last stop of the day was at Wood Wharf, near Canary Wharf. This housed some of the smaller ships and thankfully wasn’t as busy as Greenwich. It was surreal to see the tall ships moored against a modern skyscraper background. A great way to finish our day out!

More info:

  • The Tall Ships festival in London has finished but Greenwich could easily occupy a day of your time. I’d love to go back and walk through the Greenwich foot tunnel, which takes you under the Thames to the Isle of Dogs. More obvious tourist destinations are the Cutty Sark and the National Maritime Museum, further details of all attractions can be found here.
  • One of the next opportunities to see the tall ships will be in Belfast in July 2015 when they’ll be visiting as part of the Titanic Maritime Festival.

Should children visit art galleries?

Jake Chapman, one half of the Chapman brothers, courted controversy this week by suggesting that children shouldn’t visit art galleries. In an interview with The Independent he stated “taking children to art galleries was a total waste of time”.

His comments are hardly surprising given the Chapman brothers have a certain reputation to uphold. Their art consists of delightful pieces such as mannequins of children with genitalia instead of faces and decaying corpses. Although he forgot to mention one of their previous shows; a macabre art exhibition for children and their families. Accompanied by a £5 colouring book.

I’m sure his aim was to provoke the middle classes and generate publicity. Yet when I read the comments associated with the various online articles he’s not alone in suggesting that children should stay out of art galleries.

Nobody would ever suggest children shouldn’t visit libraries because they’re too young to appreciate Shakespeare. Yet art galleries are generally the preserve of the more mature. Kids have their own spaces in libraries and shelves of books dedicated to them, but how many art galleries really go out of their way to attract children? And should they?

In Jake Chapman’s defence, I can see where he’s coming from. I don’t generally take my kids to art galleries yet we went to the Matisse exhibition at the Tate Museum last week. This wasn’t because I wanted to further their knowledge of art. It’s just because it had great reviews and I selfishly wanted to see it.

Chapman could have used my children to demonstrate his points perfectly. Within 5 minutes of entering the exhibition my youngest was bored, leaning up against one of the walls asking how much longer he had to be there.

Only one of the rooms grasped his attention, namely that of the Blue Nudes. Nothing to do with the art works of course; anything with the word ‘nude’ in it will have my 9 year old son sniggering.

So what do children gain from visiting art galleries?

I saw another family at the Matisse exhibition. A family whose kids who were carefully drawing some of the art works in their sketch pads. No doubt they would get the scissors out when they got home and start creating paper cut outs. Whereas mine would probably be outside having a water balloon fight. It bought home to me that every family is different. Some children will be inspired by visiting art galleries; they will become the artists and art lovers of the future. We cannot deny them this inspiration.

This brings me nicely on to another point that Chapman made. Namely that it would be insulting to stand a child in front of a Jackson Pollock artwork. He doesn’t think children understand the significance of it. Personally I don’t either, but I’m not sure that’s anything to do with my age.

The arts can be appreciated on many levels, there is no need to be over complicate. I love reading but hated Shakespeare at school. I couldn’t stand the in-depth analysis of each and every line in his plays. It took away my enjoyment. Yet I’d happily go and watch one of his plays nowadays. Similarly, is there anything wrong with just looking at an art work and enjoying it without knowing, for example, what a specific shade of blue indicates?

I’ll leave you with this. The item that has pride of place on my son’s bedroom wall is a Jackson Pollock inspired painting that he created for a school project.

art We looked at some of his paintings online (a visit to an American art gallery being outside of our budget) and watched a film for background information before he started his creation. Did this lead to his greater enjoyment of Pollock’s paintings? No, but he sure had fun dripping paint on his canvas!

So what do you think? Should kids visit art galleries?