24 July 2014

London's Imperial War Museum reopens with a wow factor!

The Imperial War museum has been getting ready for the centenary of the First World War (1WW) and has been closed all year but this great museum reopened on Saturday with its new 1WW Galleries at the heart of its £40 million pound revamp. 

On arrival the same impressive building greets you with its rather menacing guns pointing straight at you.  These massive guns fought battles in both world wars mounted on battleships and challenge the imagination to visualise how big the ships must have been.

The new atrium grabs your attention as soon as you enter: it's huge and full of dramatic symbols of war. They have dug down an extra floor to give this area even more height and more wow factor. The atrium houses a collection of items, symbols of war both old and new. It's good to see as you go round the museum that, although the focus is on 1stWW, there is plenty of attention given to more recent and ongoing conflicts. In the atrium you can explore the 9 iconic items chosen to introduce themes of war from the 1stWW to the present day. These include: a huge V2 rocket, a T-34 Russian tank, a damaged press Land Rover from Gaza and the remains of a car from a Baghdad market.  Look up and there is a Spitfire and a Harrier jump jet both easily contained within the vast atrium space. Each item has a film or generous information to supplement those already with knowledge or to easily inform those coming to this subject afresh. 

My eye was caught by the V2 which stands at 14.3m high. I realised from watching the film how little I knew about these rockets which along with the V1s killed over 8000 Londoners and destroyed over 30,000 homes, flying their deadly path from launch sites mostly in Holland and Belgium.

The vast Fosters + Partners atrium

A V2 rocket towers above visitors

The menacing sight of the Russian tank

Battered press vehicle

What's left when a car is caught in a bomb blast in Iraq

This wreck of a car, caught in a suicide bomb, was taken around the USA by the British artist Jeremy Deller as an artistic piece called 'It is What it is'. He crossed America with a US soldier and an Iraqi citizen to confront people with the reality of war. 

I was drawn into the new 1WW galleries to see the result of all the Curator and his team's hard work. As you will have gathered already, the subject matter is bound to be hard to take in and the new galleries can be a bit overwhelming as they carefully and accurately portray the horror of this war that saw millions lose their lives and millions more have their lives damaged for ever.  The galleries take you through the war on a chronological path and aim to tell the story of the 1WW through the lives of those who experienced it and they are mindful that, although this generation is no longer with us, their words live on and deserve to be read by future generations.

There is so much to see that I can only bring you a fraction of the impressive galleries. Out of so much sadness, the medical section showing how soldiers were assessed for service told a powerful story. Eye sight was tested and chests checked but as the need for men increased the height requirement was lowered and in our terms these men were very short and I suspect not that healthy. 

War fever lead to many being desperate to sign up and this letter from a boy of 9 wanting to be a bicycle messenger at the front was a poignant read.

Posters rallied men to join up and worked on their guilt if they didn't!


The photo on the bottom right above shows you one of the examples of interactive displays which feature all through these galleries and well designed displays really add to the experience, the fun and the learning. 

I was interested in the role of women during the war and photos of women taking the place of fighting men in factories as well their role as nurses, including the fateful role of Edith Cavell, a nurse who helped Allied soldiers escape and was executed by the Germans.

Smaller items often give insights that the appalling numbers of dead do not. Having said that, reading that 20,000 men could die in a day at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, over a million in total, is still hard to comprehend.  These next 3 photo give some insight in the everyday struggle of existence for the soldiers, the fear and the mundanity.

As you leave the 1WW galleries, you should take a moment to read and digest this quote from the last soldier to die who had experienced the 1WW and reflect on its impact:


I was pleased to see that some areas had survived the museum revamp such as the 2WW feature on the Allpress family, tracing how the war affected their lives and what happened to them. On a more sombre note the Holocaust rooms continue to tell their powerful and shocking story through information, interviews, models and personal possessions. 

I was lucky enough to attend a press preview and reports since have described how busy the museum is, especially the 1WW galleries, so get there early and expect long waits to get in. 

Bye for now,

17 July 2014

How to make the quintessentially English afternoon tea

Eating a great afternoon tea is a wonderful experience and one I would highly recommend to any readers who have not yet indulged themselves. There are savoury sections, cake sections, scones with clotted cream and jam sections, endless tea and you can even upgrade to some fizz to make it even more special.  London's top hotels will spoil you and Fortnum and Mason, the famous purveyors of fine tea, is also on my list of favourites. 

I took my love of afternoon tea one step further this week when I was invited to a 'Quintessentially British High Tea Class' at the Cookery School by Oxford Circus. 

We were greeted with a glass of fizz and some incredibly more-ish biscuits. I was really pleased to learn that the fizz was English, from the Chapel Down vineyard in Kent near my mother's home. I have a loyalty to it through her and luckily their award winning sparkling wine is extremely good. The Cookery School is very keen on locally, responsibly and sustainably sourced products so an English fizz fits in very nicely.

Dangerous biscuits with lovely fizz

The classes are run by Rosalind Rathouse who is passionate about good food and a born teacher. She aims to make everything as simple as possible, explains things well and doesn't worry about anyone making mistakes as she says they are always good for learning! She knows what she's doing as she set up the Cookery School 11 years ago and employs a great team to support her. 

Rosalind in action

The menu for our afternoon tea was extensive so we split into teams to each work on a section of the menu but Rosalind and her team made sure we saw how to make each item so we could make them when we got home.  I volunteered very quickly for the cake section - no surprise there for those who know me!   These rest of our jolly band of afternoon tea lovers worked on:  savoury and regular scones, mini scotch eggs, sandwiches and rolls with a variety of fillings and mini lemon tarts. 

To begin with Rosalind ran through for all of us how to make jam, bread in a mixer and scones and then we all set to work.

Teams at work - with help from Rosalind

We had great fun making our very special cake and couldn't wait to taste it.  Here are the stages we went through to make a Devonshire Cream Cake, filled with cream and topped with a chocolate granache. 

The big learning for me was right at the beginning in that you should whip the eggs and sugar until they form a huge fluffy pale mousse. These photos show the before and after of the whipping process and you can how much the mixture has grown and its texture.

Then we gently folded in the flour and filled the baking tins. You will have noted there is no fat added as the cream and chocolate give you plenty of fat and the cakes lose nothing in flavour by this recipe.

Folding in the flour

Filled cake tins ready to bake

While the ovens were doing their magic we whipped the cream by hand ever so slightly and made the chocolate granache by pouring boiling cream over chocolate pieces and stirring it - again, gently.

Pouring the cream over the chocolate
Our fillings and toppings were ready
As the other teams were completing their sections, our cakes went into the oven and then, beautiful lightly browned, our sponge cakes emerged ready to be released from their tins and cooled.

Nearly ready

Releasing the cakes

On with the cream and chocolate and then our Devonshire Cream Cakes were ready!

Rosalind's crew turned the working space into an afternoon tea table in no time and we all sat down to devour all the wonderful things we had made. Everything was really tasty but the cake was the best!

One essential ingredient of this meal is of course the tea itself and I was pleased to see that they use Tregothnan, a fine Cornish tea, which accompanied the feast wonderfully.

Anyone feeling hungry now?

Full disclosure: I did not pay for this class but would happily do so. 

Bye for now,

11 July 2014

Wooosh - that was the Tour de France in London!

Monday dawned clear and warm but the forecast was for rain later so we headed down to the Tour de France route with our fingers crossed. Rain would mean the worry that people would put up umbrellas and obscure our view as the peloton zoomed past and also the fear of more crashes for the cyclists - one of our key riders, Mark Cavendish had already crashed out the day before. 

Yes, not a bad view!
We'd picked our spot, right on the Thames by Temple, half way between the City and Westminster, where the tour would end, hoping the crowds would not be too full on. Success!  We grabbed a spot on the pavement right in front of the course with a lovely view across the Thames to look at while we were waiting.   Road races always involve a lot of waiting so good company, a good view and a good book are essential.

The Tour de France 2014 had started in Yorkshire 2 days before and they reckoned at least 2 million people lined the streets in towns, villages and throughout the countryside. A couple of hours ahead of its arrival London was quiet with miles of roads closed off but as the time approached the pavements filled up and the route was lined with spectators from all around the world. In Yorkshire it looked like the crowds were almost touching the riders so here in London we were asked, politely but several times, to keep off the road. Every runner or cyclist who happened to be using the route for exercising got a huge cheer, which seemed to be a problem for one runner who slunk off out of view - perhaps he was supposed to be at work...

Crowds building

We hoped they would keep to the cycle lane!

The long wait was broken up by a intermittent parade of vehicles from the huge team buses, various police cars and bikes and the loud and colourful sponsors' floats. We loved the inclusion of wine, well it is a French tour, chips, well it is in England, a random bear and Miffys and Yorkshire tea, well it did start in Yorkshire. On a more solemn note the 1st World War float was a quieter moment.

One of the masive team buses

A great day to be a police motorbike rider

The French police were here too

Cuppa anyone?

No idea what he was advertising but I love a bear!

They were throwing bottles at the crowd!

Miffys - why not!

Chips - of course

1st World War centenary

It may seem strange to have the Tour de France in England but they often have a section, or stage as they call them, in another country and this is the 4th time it's come across the Channel in its 101 year history. There is a lot of cycling vocabulary to get your head around but the main word to know is the peloton, which is the main group of cyclists riding together and this is what we were waiting for.

Then it was time! The crowds were huge by now and barely contained on the pavements. Then suddenly the riders were there, so many, so close together, going really fast, surrounded by motor bikes.

Crowds lining the route

Here they are!

The peloton

Really close up

And then they were gone!
As soon as the last rider had past and the waving police escort disappeared out of view, it was as it they had never been there. People wandered up and down the road in search of new amusements or went back to work. By the time we had packed up our stuff the riders would have reached the finish line and that was that - the Tour de France in London was over. Fingers crossed they come back soon!
Back to normal....
Bye for now.