Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Since London is such a vast city, there are many parts that I haven’t explored yet or rarely visit.

But 2020 – because of Covid-19, being furloughed and then unemployed – has meant that I have a lot of free time on my hands to explore more of London. One area that I returned to recently is Hampstead Heath, an amazing 790 acres of ancient parkland within the capital – only a 15-minute Tube ride from the city center or an hour bike ride if you live in southwest London like I do.

View of Hampstead Pergola in London
Autumnal view of the Hampstead Pergola in North London.

Hampstead Pergola and Hill Garden

One part of the Heath that I wanted to explore was the Hampstead Pergola and Hill Garden, which is located on the far western side of the park. If you cycle here like I did, there is a pretty steady incline starting on Frognal Road and Lower Terrace. I guess I didn’t notice the name of Windmill Hill before I approached the West Heath section.

The Hampstead Pergola – a fabulous 800-foot-long, wisteria-clad pergola – is Instagram famous in the spring but looks just as lovely in the autumn. Long tendrils of wisteria vines reach out as you walk through a tunnel lined with thick wisteria branches. The pergola and its hill-top gardens make you feel as if you are in Tuscany rather than London.

If only there were vineyards as well! But I did find ripe grapes.

Peek through the pergola and you’ll see part of the original Neo-Georgian mansion here, Inverforth House (now privately-owned flats), owned by the Edwardian soap magnate Lord Lever from 1904-1925.

There is plenty to photograph in the gardens in autumn – vibrant, crimson berries, autumn-colored Japanese maple leaves and other golden foliage. In fact, during my afternoon visit in late October, I often had to wait or step aside to take the photos I wanted because there were too many people.

And gorgeous shades of red and pinks in the gardens.


This would be the perfect location for engagement or wedding photos!

Kenwood House and Prospect Hill

At the top of Hampstead Heath is the Kenwood House, a 17th-century manor house operated by the English Heritage. Unfortunately, I didn’t go inside the house because tickets can only be purchased in advance. However, I did enjoy the viewpoint from here at Prospect Hill looking out over the panoramic skyline of London.

If you have time, take a 20-minute stroll through the Heath to enjoy another viewpoint from Parliament Hill.

Highgate Cemetery

Another site on my Hampstead bucket list was the Highgate Cemetery, where Karl Marx, English novelist George Eliot and the Dickens family are all buried. Unfortunately, due to Covid restrictions, the cemetery, dating back to 1839, was closed so all I could do was peak through the gates.

I guess this historic cemetery will have to wait for another visit.

The Highgate area has a long history…the village of Highgate was established at the top of a 426-foot hill on the edge of the Bishop of London’s estate. The Bishop erected a tollgate here around 1354, when the name of Highgate name was first recorded. After 1380, when a new road from the City of London via Holloway was established, many travellers took the new North Road past the “highgate.” 

Ornate entrance for Highgate Cemetery in North London
Another fancy gate for the private community of Holly estate near the Highgate Cemetery.


Waterlow Park

Since the cemetery was closed, I popped in next door to Waterlow Park, a quiet, 12-hectacre park featuring numerous trees and two duck ponds. During the late 1800s, Sir Sydney Waterlow, Mayor of London, purchased this land and surrounding grounds and then gifted them be used as a park to the London County Council in 1889. If you’re up this far north, you might as well stroll through this tranquil park too.

Hopefully, my photos have convinced you to explore another part of London. I think it’s always fun to get off the main tourist path and see what else is out there – even in your own city!

How to reach Hampstead Heath

The closest station to Hampstead Park is the Overground stations of Hampstead Heath or Gospel Oak. The Heath also is easily accessible to Hampstead Tube Station on the Northern Line and you can walk through Hampstead Village on the way to the Heath.

You might even see some of London's mounted police officers at Hampstead Heath.
Also the trails here can get a bit muddy for cycling.

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Friday, November 13, 2020

Day Trip from London

A few weekends ago we had a rental car and went looking for autumnal colors in the Kent countryside.

Our destination was literally picked after perusing a map and hubby selected a large green area called the High Weald, an Area of Natural Beauty. This expansive, wooded area covers land within the counties of Kent, Surrey and Sussex in southeast England. We narrowed our choice down further and decided to explore the trails within the Bedgebury National Pinetum.

If any place was going to have autumnal colors, it had better be an English forest.

Upon arrival, the car park was chock-a-block, but once we got away from the main visitor’s center, we were able to practice better social-distancing away from people.

The Bedgebury National Pinetum contains more than 12,000 trees and has several walking and mountain-biking trails and even a bike rental shop. The pinetum is the name used to describe an arboretum (tree collection) that consists mainly of conifers. Bedgebury is a partnership between the Forestry Commission and the Royal Botanic Kew Gardens, which we’ve visited many times, and is one of a handful of international botanical gardens that focuses specifically on pine trees.

The forest provides a beautiful setting for peaceful walks and a chance to escape the city. But don’t forget to wear your hiking boots because the trails get awfully muddy. We saw several dogs wearing mud up to their bellies that were happily running ahead of their owners on the trails.

The pinetum’s history actually dates back about 400 years when the previous owners, the Beresford family, planted English Oaks in the local forests. The Beresford family also was responsible for a large part of the landscaping, including Marshal’s Lake, and introduced exotic trees such as the Lawson Cypress. Unfortunately, I’m not sure where these oaks or cypress trees were located as the map wasn’t that detailed.

Still, we had a pleasant enough day and spent about two hours walking amongst the trees. Of course, I was busy taking photographs as we went along.

Like most of our UK walks or long bike rides, we ended up at a pub afterwards. We nearly missed the sign advertising a local brewery, Cellar Head Brewing Company, just down the road from the forest. What luck!

This family-owned microbrewery even uses local hops to make their beers. Kent has been growing hops for hundreds of years and you still see remnants of the hop houses as you drive around the countryside. It’s thought that the cultivation of hops was probably first introduced from Flanders (Belguim) to England in the Maidstone area of Kent at the end of the 15th century but production reached its peak during the 19th century.

View of the High Weald from the Cellar Head Brewing Company in Kent.
If you’re out in Kent, definitely check out the local pinetum and the brewery.

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Friday, October 30, 2020

With Halloween just around the corner, I am reminded of one of the spookier experiences from our travels in Europe.

In 2016, we had just moved to London and some friends wanted to meet in Paris for the weekend. Someone suggested seeing the Catacombs of Paris as a different activity to do. Now, this would not normally be my cup of tea as I get freaked out easily, but we agreed to go as a group.

The Catacombs are indeed creepy. Perhaps even morbid, but also oddly interesting.

Skulls in the Catacombs of Paris
Long row of bones Catacombs of Paris
The Catacombs of Paris were “created” at the end of the 18th century because, basically, the city had run out of room to bury its dead in the local cemeteries. In fact, in 1780, after a bad rainstorm, rotting corpses washed out into the street from the Les Innocents, the city’s oldest and largest cemetery. Can you imagine?

I shudder to think of anyone who lived even close to this cemetery in the 18th century! The city must have reeked of decomposing bodies!

So King Louis XVI issued an order to move the city’s dead. The first evacuations were made in 1785 to 1787 and started with the Les Innocents cemetery. The bones and skeletons were transported at night to the former Tombe-Issoire quarries under the plain of Montrouge, which at the time, was located outside the capital. The quarries date back to the 14th century and much of the limestone extracted from here was used to build Paris before the 18th century.

Tunnel view Catacombs of Paris

As you pass into the ossuary, you walk under a doorway with the haunting inscription above: 
Arrête, c'est ici l'empire de la mort!” (Stop! This is the empire of death!)

Did you know there are at least 320km/200 miles of tunnels from the old quarries under the City of Light?

And only a small portion, covering 1.5 km/about 1 mile, of the Catacombs is officially open to the public.

Map of the Catacombs of Paris
History plaque in Catacombs of Paris

Between the late 18th and mid-19th centuries, the bones of more than 6 million Parisians were transferred to the Catacombs. In April 1786, the site was consecrated as the “Paris Municipal Ossuary” – an ossuary is a place where human skeletons are stored. But the name “Les Catacombes de Paris” was introduced in reference to the Roman catacombs, and the name stuck.

In 1809, the Catacombs were opened to the public by appointment and became a tourist attraction. At first, the bones had just been dumped haphazardly into the old tunnels, but eventually, the city’s inspector was charged with organizing the bones.

Today, you’ll find the walls of the Catacombs lined with tibias and femurs punctuated with old skulls. This sight is enough to make anyone feel a bit creeped out.

Bones deposited 1787 Catacombs Paris
Line of skulls 1804 Catacombs of Paris

Bones deposited 1859 Catacombs Paris

More skulls and bones in Catacombs of Paris

Every now and then, you’ll see a blank niche in the aging wall, and you have to wonder if someone didn’t take a “souvenir” from the Catacombs.

Have you been to the Catacombs of Paris? Or would you go?

Huge display of bones in Catacombs of Paris
Layers of skulls and bones Catacombs of Paris

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Creepy skulls Catacombs of Paris

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