England became a unified state in AD 927 and, since the 15th century, has had a significant impact on the wider world, developing the English language, the Anglican Church, and English law – the basis for the common law legal systems of many other countries around the world. Its beautiful and varied countryside is interspersed with quaint villages and cosmopolitan cities including the capital, London.

The name "England" is derived from the Old English name Engla land, which means "land of the Angles". The Angles were one of the Germanic tribes that settled in Great Britain during the Early Middle Ages.


The Duchess of Cornwall goes back to school

THE DUCHESS of Cornwall was greeted by flagwaving when she visited Westonbirt’s new school for its official opening. She also toured the gardens which are being restored by the Holford Trust.

The Duchess of Cornwall at the school opening

THE WESTONBIRT ESTATE in Gloucestershire, home of the National Arboretum, received a royal visitor recently. Staff and pupils of Rose Hill Westonbirt School, now open on the Gloucestershire estate, welcomed the Duchess of Cornwall to the new school for its official opening on 30 November. Her Royal Highness toured the campus, meeting the pupils and teachers, then was taken to see the Italian Garden and the Camellia House, which are being restored by the Holford Trust and which can be visited by the public on special heritage tours.

The school choir entertains the Duchess of Cornwall

There she was entertained by the school choir, before unveiling a plaque in the Palm House. The new school is just part of the estate around Westonbirt House in Gloucestershire, which is also home to the famous National Arboretum.


Take a trip to Derby, me old China

Get a handle on the many looks of Crown Derby at the exhibition in the city of Derby, until 30 March 2010

Read More »

Christmas Time-Travelling at the Geffrye Museum

DISCOVER HOW Christmas was celebrated in the English home over the centuries from 1600 to the present day at the Geffrye Museum.

Christmas in 1935, by Steve Speller
Christmas in 1935, photo by Steve Speller

A NOSTALGIC exhibition called Christmas Past, running to 3 January, takes visitors time-travelling through London’s Geffrye Museum. Eleven period living rooms – which show middle-class taste from 1600 to the present day – are decorated in authentic seasonal style. The journey begins in the oak-panelled 1630′s hall, where sweet-smelling greenery entices guests towards delicious sweetmeats like marchpane (a kind of marzipan) decorated with gold leaf. Sugar is expensive, but for these festivities, it’s been made into amusing imitations of dishes like egg and bacon! Family and friends will eat hugely in the early 19th century, too, but a highlight of Regency festivities is the Twelfth Night cake. Diners who find a hidden bean or dried pea in their slice are ceremoniously crowned King and Queen with gold paper coronets. Royalty also influences the Victorian Christmas. From the 1850s, Christmas without Prince Albert’s favourite decorated tree is unthinkable. Beautiful glass ornaments and (then) real candles make it magical. It is also the first time children take part in the celebrations, so there are toys galore in this room set.

Christmas in 1870, by Jayne Lloyd
Christmas in 1870, photo by Jayne Lloyd

It’s all a huge contrast to the cool cocktail party of the l930s, laid out with frightfully smart canapés and special cocktail sticks to stir your gin sling! In contrast, the 1965 room has fashionable Scandinavian-style furniture. Here are tasteful garlands and a smart table decoration of holly and ultra thin red candles in a blue bowl. The children wanted the new – and expensive  – plastic toys, but are given a wooden train set and jigsaws instead. Christmas Past is a fascinating festive stroll through domestic history.
Geffrye Museum’ London, (in the former Ironmongers’ Company almshouses), Kingsland Road, London E2; tel: (020) 7739 9893; www.geffrye-museum.org.uk

Portsmouth Dockyard

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard celebrates the 10th birthday of Victorian Festival of Christmas

This year it’s the 10th year that Portsmouth Historic Dockyard is staging its Victorian Christmas festival, with a host of Victorian characters and entertainment and a huge Christmas market.

Portsmouth Dockyard
Step back in time to enjoy Christmas in Victorian times, with a Victorian Father Christmas – decked out in a traditional green outfit in his grotto on HMS Warrior (which dates from 1860).

This year there’s also an exhibition with Father Christmas models and toys on display in Portsmouth, Hampshire.

In the Victorian Street, there’ll be music and actors, traditional funfair rides and a nativity farm (with animals).
In Fagin’s Tavern you can enjoy a drink and a sing-a-long, then head for Actions Stations which is transformed into Theatre Victoriana.

Queen Victoria pays a visit in her beautiful horse drawn carriage, accompanied by her faithful servant John Brown and the Fort Cumberland Guard. And there’s even a Victorian schoolroom where you’d better be on your best behaviour for the strict teacher, Mr Bumbury.
Each day, there’s a parade of all the festival characters leading to a carol concert alongside HMS Victory.


Entrance tickets also include admission to the attractions of Portsmouth Historic Dockyard; HMS Victory, Royal Naval Museum, HMS Warrior 1860, Mary Rose Museum and Action Stations. Tel: (023) 9283 9766; www.historicdockyard.co.uk.


Guide to Christmas Shopping in Britain

If you’re dreaming of a traditional white Christmas, of fairy lights, festive atmosphere and seasonal shopping, here’s our guide on what to buy and where to go Read More »


Derek Forss photography courses

Britain photographer Derek Forss will be running his popular photography courses throughout 2010. So if you fancy capturing some of Britain’s best landscapes, from the Lake District to the Yorkshire Dales, book your place now… Read More »


Places to stay along the River Thames (and fine dining, too)

If you were inspired by our feature on The Rural River Thames and would like to explore this beautiful part of the world for yourself, why not plan a holiday staying at several places along the river, or use one hotel as a base?

The Thames flows through some of the country’s most charming countryside on its way from its source in the Cotswolds through to Greater London. At 210 miles, it’s the second-longest river in the UK (the River Severn beats it at 220 miles) but the best known. Mention the Thames and images of central London usually spring to mind. However, by the time the river reaches Teddington Lock at the edge of London, it has travelled 147 miles through the heart of England and three Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (the Cotswolds, Chilterns and Surrey Hills). It passes meadows and riverside inns, historic properties such as Windsor Castle and Cliveden, the site of the signing of the Magna Carta at Runnymede, the River and Rowing Museum, award-winning restaurants and river locks. And flows by one of the world’s most venerable universities (where punting is the favourite mode of river transport), at Oxford. For further ideas on how to get the most out of exploring the river, go to www.visitthames.co.uk.

The Trout at Tadpole Bridge
 The Trout at Tadpole Bridge

First on our journey from source to capital is a 17th-century Cotswold inn right on the banks of the Thames, not far from the village of Bampton (home of the Bampton Classical Opera). The Trout at Tadpole Bridge (4-star) has just been named AA pub of the Year 2009/10. It’s a freehouse with six, well-equipped bedrooms, and river berths for up to six boats. The bar, with its log fires and stuffed trout on the wall, offers local real ales and a good list of wines by the glass and the restaurant is candlelit in the evenings. For a daytime treat, you can go out in a punt or hire a boat and take along a picnic hamper. Local sausages are a theme here: enjoy them at breakfast while watching boats glide by or try different flavours at the Thursday Sausage Club. The Trout at Tadpole Bridge, tel: (01367) 870382.

The Swan at Streatley
The Swan at Streatley

Head east of Oxford now, to the Swan at Streatley, made famous as the spot where Jerome K Jerome’s exhausted Three Men in a Boat finished their journey. This four-star hotel alongside the river has 45 bedrooms, many enjoying the stunning river views, and the Venus Spa with mineral pool, gym and a range of beauty treatments. You can also make the most of the views in the two-rosette restaurant under the care of head chef Andrew West-Letford, or sitting out on the Riverside Terrace. During the summer months, the Thames is the scene  of many regattas, including the famous Henley Regatta each June. The Swan is a great base for regatta fans and the Goring and Streatley Regatta, each July, is just a stroll away. The Swan at Streatley, tel: (01491) 878800.

Danesfield House
Danesfield House

Heading downstream, past the town of Henley to the outskirts of Marlow, just into Buckinghamshire, and you’ll find the picturesque country house hotel, Danesfield House (4-star), set in a 65-acre estate beside the Thames. Danesfield also has a spa where you can pamper yourself or work out in the gym to justify indulging yourself at the Oak Room restaurant – which boasts four AA rosettes – or in the brasserie-style Orangery. In summer months you can also eat outside on the terrace. Danesfield House, tel: (01628) 891010.

Macdonald Compleat Angler
Macdonald Compleat Angler

Along into Marlow, facing the suspension bridge is The Compleat Angler, a Macdonald hotel. This four-star hotel is named after angling author Izaak Walton’s greatest work, and the 64 stylish bedrooms (40 of them with river views) are all named after fly-fishing terms. Already home to a two-rosette restaurant, the Compleat Angler has just welcomed the arrival (this October) of its own Aubergine restaurant, where Michelin-starred chef William Drabble is bringing all the quality French cuisine of his restaurant in Chelsea out to the Marlow riverside. It’s another dining gem for this already rather spoilt-for-choice part of the country (in the town you’ll also find the Hand & Flowers restaurant with rooms (5-star), with Michelin-starred Tom Kerridge at the helm). The Compleat Angler, tel: 0844 879 9128.

Riverbank Cottage
Riverbank Cottage

Just around the bend in the river is Cookham, home of the Riverbank Cottage (4-star). This Grade II listed building, designed in 191 by architect George Walton, is a riverside Bed and Breakfast (4-star) with just two double guest rooms with panoramic views of the Thames valley. Bedroom have French doors opening onto Juliette balconies so guests can make the most of the location. Riverbank Cottage is a great base for enjoying the excellent walks on the Thames Path – www.visitthames.co.uk has information on several walks, including one from Marlow to Cookham which takes you past the wooded slopes of Winter Hill, after which one of the B&B’s bedrooms is named. Make time to visit the Stanley Spencer gallery in the village to learn more about the famous British artist (1891-1959). Riverbank Cottage, tel: (01628) 530662.

Sir Christopher Wren's House
Sir Christopher Wren’s House

Continue downriver, past Bray – another fine dining destination with Restaurant of the Year 2009, The Fat Duck, and Michel Roux’s famous Waterside Inn – and on to Windsor, with its royal castle towering over the Thames. Here at Eton Bridge, sheltering beneath the castle ramparts is the Sir Christopher Wren’s House Hotel and Spa (4-star). The main house was once the home of the famous architect – his father was the Dean of Windsor which probably led him to build a family home here. It opened as a hotel in the 1920s. Nowadays bedrooms vary from historic rooms that date back to the 17th-century through to contemporary suites with the latest high tech indulgences. Sixteen have river views and three of these have private balconies, where you can enjoy breakfast by the water. Strok’s Restaurant, also with views, has been awarded two AA rosettes. Sir Christopher Wren’s House, tel: (01753) 861354.

Onward to Runnymede, the famous meadow by the Thames, now cared for by the National Trust, where King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215, whereby the monarch became bound by law. Nearby is the Runnymede-on-thames hotel, which brings you bang up to date, a large modern four-star hotel, with excellent facilities, a spa and lovely riverside views for bar and restaurants. New developments will add another restaurant, an open-air swimming pool and tennis courts in the orchard for next summer. In the meantime, why not hire the hotel’s electric riverboat, the Runnymede, for up to six passengers, to pootle around on the river, perhaps heading down towards Shepperton to eat at a riverside pub, or back upstream to take in the views of Windsor Castle. Runnymede-on-thames hotel, tel: (01784) 220980.


Take home your own ‘Old Master’ painting

If you want to bring the style of the Old Master painters into your home but can’t quite spare a few millionpounds at the moment, don’t miss the selling exhibition from 1 to 5 December at The Air Gallery in Dover Street, London W1.

The Magpie, after Monet
The Magpie, after Monet

If you want to bring the style of the Old Master painters into your home but can’t quite spare a few million pounds at the moment, don’t miss the selling exhibition from 1 to 5 December at The Air Gallery in Dover Street, London W1. Entitled “Run Out of Monet?”, the show is organised by Richardson Paintings, with some 35 versions of oil paintings by the likes of Sargent, Monet, Emms, Wardle, De Laszlo, Stubbs, Raeburn, Oudry, Van Dyck, Nattier and Pissarro on show. Prices start at £535 for a 20×24 inch canvas, and you can choose your style of frame, from modern to traditional, so the painting will complement any interior design style.

During the exhibition, London-based Michael Alford, will be in residence at the gallery, painting Berthe Morisot with a Bouquet of Violets, after Edouard Manet (1872) for visitors to view and discuss. This painting will be sold with the proceeds being donated to the charity Crisis.

Seascape, after Henry Redmore
`Seascape,after Henry Redmore

“This is the first time we have exhibited in a West End gallery,” explains Oliver Richardson of Richardson Paintings. “It is marvellous opportunity to show people the differing styles of paintings we undertake. We are very careful to ensure that our paintings cannot be mistaken for fakes or forgeries; they are very fine versions celebrating the originals, which can therefore be enjoyed by more people. After all, most of the world’s greatest artists throughout time have learnt by copying their previous master painters’ works.”

 View of Windsor Castle, after George Vicat Cole
 View of Windsor Castle, after George Vicat Cole

If you have a favourite painting, you can commission a version for yourself, or perhaps why not commission a painting a marvellous present for a loved one? No painting is replicated more than twice and all must be out of copyright (70 years or more old).

Air Gallery, 32 Dover Street, London W1S; tel: (01491) 629549. Open: Tues-Fri 10am-6pm. Further information on The Air Gallery and its exhibitions, www.airgallery.co.uk.

Bike Tours in London

“Fun, informative and environmentally friendly” – just some of the words used to describe a Fat Tire Bike Tour. Book now and see the city’s sights in style and comfort on a California ‘beach cruiser’ bike

Photo courtesy of Fat Tire Bike Tours


Visitors to the capital and Londoners alike are raving about bike tour company Fat Tire Bike Tours which runs English-speaking guided tours here as well as in Paris, Barcelona and Berlin.

The London Day Bike Tour runs daily at 11am from Queensway tube station and once you’ve collected your bike (red and blue California ‘beach cruisers’ with names such as Victoria Beckham and Charles I) it’s off through Hyde Park, stopping every 10 or 15 minutes to hear fascinating facts (all guides are great and extremely knowledgeable but Matt comes highly recommended) and take photos at the various attractions you pass. 

Through Royal Parks (Fat Tire is the only company to have a license to go through four of them) and past royal residences (Kensington Palace and Buckingham Palace) it’s then along The Mall (bike horns honking in delight) where you park up and walk into Trafalgar Square for lunch. Afternoon attractions include the Cabinet War Rooms, the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. Although you don’t get to go inside any of these buildings you’re having too much fun out in the fresh air to worry.

Photo courtesy of Fat Tire Bike Tours
The tour costs £20 (£18 students, £14 children) and lasts roughly four hours. It is suitable for all ages and abilities and for a new view of the capital is an absolute must-do.

Also, hot off the press is the new Southbank Tour which starts from just outside Waterloo underground station (exit 2) and makes its way along the River Thames past sights such as Tate Modern, Shakespeare’s Globe, HMS Belfast and Tower Bridge. Return travel on a Thames Clipper river boat is also included. 

The tour, with group sizes of 8-10 people, runs every Friday at 10.30am and takes roughly five hours. Booking is essential and for a bargain, book a tour during the remaining months of 2009 when you’ll only pay £20 (this will increase to £35 in 2010). 

For details of both tours and to book tel: 07882 338779 or visit: www.fattirebiketours.com/london.

Happy Birthday Phantom!

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s award-winning musical, The Phantom of the Opera, celebrates its 23rd anniversary today. If you haven’t already, go see it now before the sequel, Love Never Dies opens next March…

It’s hard to believe that 23 years ago today (9 October 1986) Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman took to the stage for the first time in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera. Fast forward to 2009 and this musical masterpiece, based on the French novel by Gaston Leroux, is one of the most successful and long-running shows in the West End. Its title song and numbers such as Music of the Night and All I Ask of You are forever etched in the public memory; it has been seen by more than 100 million people; translated into 15 languages; performed in more than 25 different countries and has won 50 awards worldwide.

Needless to say then that Lloyd Webber will be hoping to match this success with his long-awaited sequel Love Never Dies which has its world premiere at London’s Adelphi Theatre on 9 March 2010 (it will premiere on Broadway on 11 November 2010).
The story is set ten years after we last saw the Phantom and he has relocated from his lair in the Paris Opera House to now haunt the fairground of Coney Island, USA. Despite the time that has passed he still pines for Christine, now married and a mother, and longs to hear her sing once more…

The show will star Ramin Karimloo as The Phantom (a role he is currently playing at Her Majesty’s) and Sierra Boggess will make her West End debut as Christine. Boggess was spotted by Lloyd Webber while playing Christine in Phantom – The Las Vegas Spectacular

The Phantom of the Opera, Haymarket, London SW1Y 4QL. To book tickets visit: www.thephantomoftheopera.com. Love Never Dies (from 9 March 2010) to book tickets visit: www.loveneverdies.com.

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