Category Archives: United Kingdom

Jewelry from prehistoric times to yesterday in this hidden away gallery at the V&A

The Victoria and Albert Museum – A Between the Holidays Treat

I’ve only just discovered the Jewellery Rooms at the Victoria and Albert Museum and I cannot wait to head back there to explore them at leisure. 

The galleries, rooms 91-93, showcase items from the museum’s permanent collection ranging from precious metals to plastic, raffia and rubber and spanning millennia – from prehistory right up to yesterday.

As soon as you enter the first, darkened room, a large, beautifully worked embossed gold collar, alone in its glass case,  casts a warm glow across the entrance to the gallery. Is it from ancient Egypt? A piece from Agammemnon’s treasury? No, this stunning Bronze Age object, made between 800 and 700 BC, is the Shannongrove Gorget, found in an Irish bog in Co. Limerick.

The Shannongrove Gorget, An embossed gold collar made between 800 and 700 BC and found in a Co. Limerick bog.
The Shannongrove Gorget, An embossed gold collar made between 800 and 700 BC and found in a Co. Limerick bog. © Ferne Arfin

If it’s bling you’re after, there’s plenty of that to see. But what really makes these objects so fascinating is the craftsmanship and creative imagination, as well as some of the poignant stories, behind them.

There’s a Fabergé letter opener given by the doomed Tsarina Alexandra to her former English governess and lifelong correspondent, Margaret Jackson, for Christmas. The clear slice of rock crystal, simply adorned with gold and enamel was given to the museum along with a note of Christmas wishes to Miss Jackson dated 1900. The Tsarina,  Queen Victoria’s granddaughter,  was later among the members of the Russian imperial court shot, bayoneted and clubbed to death by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

Another object, the steinkabinett – an 18th century box by  Johann Christian Neuber, the court goldsmith at Dresden – is a kind of pocket natural science museum with 77 stone samples, identified on a paper map kept inside it. The “pearls” are particularly clever. They aren’t pearls at all but flat pieces of rock crystal, the underside carved into domes and then silvered.

Fabergé letter opener in rock crystal, gold and enamels. © The Victoria and Albert Museum
18th century Steinkabinett by Johann Christian Neuber. © Ferne Arfin



These objects and hundreds more are part of the museum’s permanent collection and you can drop by any time to see them, for free – maybe something to do before moving on after dark to see the London Christmas Lights in Piccadilly and Regent Street.

Before you go, you might want to book tickets to the V&A’s current special exhibitions: Opera: Passion, Power and Politics in the new Sainsbury Gallery until February 25 and Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic. on until April 8.

Time to Think About Wimbledon?

Yes I know, it’s a long way away. But if you think you’d like to go to the Wimbledon tennis tournament in 2017 and want to have a chance at good seats without camping overnight in the Wimbledon queue, you have to enter the public ballot for tickets right about now.

Andy Murray, photo by Ian Dick ccl
Andy Murray, photo by Ian Dick ccl

Applications for the ballot are being taken by the All England Lawn Tennis Club (AELTC) now – and until December 15 – from members of the public in Britain. If you are an overseas tennis fan and want to enter the ballot, you’ll have to do it online. Instructions for overseas visitors will be published on the AELTC website on 1 November.

To find out more about how to apply for a chance at Wimbledon tickets through the public ballot as well as other ways to land a seat at the world’s top Grand Slam tennis tournament, click here for full details. 

Strawberry Hill – London’s Little Suburban Castle

When it comes to visiting historic houses, it’s rare to find an empty one as interesting as one that’s full of antique treasures. Strawberry Hill is an exception.

This mini-castle in Twickenham, one of London’s western suburbs, is a true jewel box of a house — but its collections were sold off in the 19th century and it’s completely empty. 

It hardly matters.

Horace Walpole, an 18th century dandy, Member of Parliament, collector, world traveler and writer (his novel The Castle of Otranto was the world’s first Gothic novel) was enamored of Medieval Gothic. So much so that he kickstarted the fashion for neo-Gothic architecture decades before it really took off.

His house, built to show off those now vanished collections, was the first in the style and one of the only examples of it in domestic architecture, inside and out.  And Strawberry Hill’s very emptiness adds to the Gothic romance, the ghostly whispers that follow when you walk from room to room, armed with the guidebook Walpole wrote himself.  Gilt ceilings, gothic windows, stained glass, mirrors and the most amazing fireplaces and chimney pieces are everywhere you look. 

And it’s just a Tube and bus ride from Central London.  Check out the pictures below, then click here for more pictures and to find out more about English eccentric Horace Walpole and how to visit  his fantasy house, Strawberry Hill.

Strawberry Hill House
Pictures of Strawberry Hill often make it look like a substantial mansion. In fact, as castles go, it’s really tiny. It was built from two suburban cottages.

The Long Gallery at Strawberry Hill

All the rooms at Strawberry Hill have gilt details but the Long Gallery, with it’s elaborate ceiling, has more gold than any other room in the house. It was inspired by a chapel ceiling at Westminster Abbey.

The Holbein Chamber
The Holbein Chamber once displayed a collection of copies of Holbein drawings. The chimneypiece was inspired by a tomb in Canterbury Cathedral and the red hat of Cardinal Wolseley (hounded to death by Henry VIII) was once part of this room’s collection.
Walpole's gothic chairs.
The black, gothic style chairs in the Great Parlour were designed by Walpole and his friend, Mr. Bentley. These are copies – the originals are now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Gilt frame at Strawberry Hill
This picture frame combines 18th century Rococco style with very modern technology. It was made by creating 3D photographs from 2D drawings, then printed in plastic as a template from which the gilt plasterwork frame was finally made. It was put together from more than 30 pieces.

Plan a visit to Strawberry Hill.

Read traveler reviews and find a place to stay near Strawberry Hill. 


The Mary Rose Unveiled in Portsmouth

Henry VIII’s lost flagship, The Mary Rose, has finally been revealed at the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth.  More than 50 years after her rediscovery in the Solent and after 34 years of undersea archaeology and preservation,  the wraps are finally off. Visitors to the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard, can finally breathe the same air as this 500 year old ship.

Watch the moment of her unveiling and then find out more about The Mary Rose and how you can visit her.

Another Chelsea Morning – With Apologies to Joni Mitchell

Woke up, it was a Chelsea morning and the first thing that I saw…

…was a pair of well dressed ladies in red and pink silk and chiffon day dresses worn with stilletto heels and architecturally impossible hats.  Helped by a gent in full formal morning suit, tails and dove grey vest, they are moving folding chairs, a portable lawn marquee and a box with his top hat from a blue Maserati Ghibli to a Porsche Cayenne hatchback.

They disappear around a corner.

Next comes a supermarket delivery van, double parking as normal to drop off someone’s groceries.                                                                               And behind it, a Kensington & Chelsea Enforcement vehicle – aka a big, flatbed tow truck. The driver of the tow truck must be hung over because he thinks he can pass the double parked delivery van with its big, sticky-out wing mirror.

Something’s gotta give.

Re-enter the well dressed party of three, bearing square, blue chiller bags from Carluccio’s Al Fresco and heading for the Porsche Cayenne.

Just in time to see it taken out – as well as the Maserati and the sticky-out wing mirror -by the K&C tow truck. So much for their Closing Day at Royal Ascot outing. Might as well comfort yourselves with the champagne now.

And, from the likely insurance bill, so much for the tow truck driver’s job too.

Just another Chelsea morning, folks.

Read guest reviews and find a boutique hotel in Kensington and Chelsea on TripAdvisor.



A Café for Windsor Castle at Last!

Windsor Undercroft
The 14th-century Undercroft at Windsor Castle will be developed into a visitor cafe as part of the £37 million Future Programme developments at Windsor Castle and the Palace of Holyrood House. Royal Collection Trust / (c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016

April 5, 2016 – The Royal Collection Trust, the charity that makes the UK’s Royal Palaces available to the public, has just announced it will spend £37 million in the next two years on improvements to Windsor Castle and the Palace of Holyrood House in Edinburgh. The plan, rather unimaginatively to be known as  Future Programme, will:

  • add more welcoming entrances and learning centers to the palaces,
  • open up previously unseen and private areas of Windsor Castle,
  • create themed pathways through the castle and palace, offering visitors more choice and
  • create the first ever café for visitors in Windsor Castle….Hallellujah!

If I seem overly excited about the prospect of a café in the stony Undercroft of the castle, pictured above, it’s because it is about time this long overdue and much needed facility was added.

Starve, Die of Thirst or Just Leave

Windsor Castle is huge and fascinating; the sort of place most people can easily spend a whole day visiting. Unfortunately, it has never had any place to take a break, to relax, to look over your  brochures or your pictures and to fuel up for your next foray into a gallery, exhibition or series of fabulous rooms.

The most the Queen ever offered members of the public was the chance to buy a bottle of water and, in winter, to stand outdoors on the windy castle hill to drink it.  The alternative was to leave the castle at lunch time, try to find something besides a Big Mac in the unpromising retail precincts of Windsor town, and then return to the castle to continue your visit – permitted with your ticket but inconvenient and unrewarding.  So the prospect of a casual café by 2018 is very encouraging.

Appropriately, the Undercroft, where the new cafe will be located, was used for centuries as the refectory where the royal household staff took meals. We hope there will also be some space for families and groups to bring their own packed lunches.

Works Getting Underway

Designs for Future Programme are getting underway now and construction is set to begin in 2017 with completion planned for 2018. Windsor Castle and Holyrood  will both remain open to the public as normal during the works. Financing for the £37 million project is coming from admissions to the castles, palaces and houses in The Royal Collection as well as associated retail sales.

Book a Windsor, Bath and Stonehenge Tour with Rail Europe

Find out More About Visiting Windsor at United Kingdom Travel:

Windsor Castle under a moody sky.
Photo by Craig ccl


Riverside museum

The Riverside – A Big Splash on the Glasgow Waterfront

My latest article on United Kingdom Travel

Glasgow’s Riverside Museum of Transport and Travel is wonderful. It’s tremendously entertaining even if you always thought that walking around a museum looking things on wheels and rails wasn’t your cup of tea.

Believe me, I know. I have dutifully slogged after enthusiastic pals in transport museums hoping they’d soon tire of marveling at double decker buses so the ordeal would be over.

The Riverside has nothing whatsoever in common with those experiences.

It is simply sensational.

It begins with the building

Award-winning, Iraqi-born British architect Zaha Hadid met the museum’s requirement for a column-free, flexible display space with a deceptively simple structure (actually one of the most complex structures built in the UK when the museum opened in 2010). It flows between the city and Glasgow waterfront on the River Clyde like a giant wave….READ MORE

Photo by Ferne Arfin