Let’s celebrate!


What’s your favourite way to celebrate a birthday?  A cake?  A present?  An outing?


Last week I went to visit Kew Gardens with my husband and son. It was my husband’s birthday and we had arranged to spend the day at Kew, an outing being one of our favourite ways to celebrate.   The two chaps were already in London and I travelled down to meet them .  As the rail network was not working at its best(!), I joined them when Greater Anglia saw fit to deliver me to the capital.


After some lunch, we went first to visit the temporary excitement which is The Hive.  This is a sculpture which was commissioned originally for an exhibition in Milan but is now available to visit in Kew Gardens until 2017, although it seems so popular that I can imagine it staying for longer.


Have you ever thought about the patterns of activity in a bee hive?  No, me neither.  Well, The Hive sculpture is a huge metal framework, which represents the structure of a bee hive.  It’s so big that you can walk about inside it, looking out through the open mesh and up to the sky, through the circular hole at the top. Inside The Hive there are lights attached to many of the metal joints, and the lights are illuminated faintly or strongly based on the activity of real bees in a hive hidden away somewhere at Kew.  There is also a background sound of bee activity and accompanying sympathetic music, based on the same humming and buzzing sounds.


The sights and sounds of The Hive are subtle and you need to concentrate in order to listen and watch for changes.  In the lower part of the sculpture, I wondered if there was a hidden camera filming me as I followed the instructions to ‘pick a thin lolly stick, place it in your mouth, put the other end in a hole in the metal pole in front of you and listen to the pre- recorded sounds of bees, with your fingers in your ears, so that you hear the sounds through your ear bones, not your ear drums’.  I was waiting for the call of “surprise, gotcha!” to come, as I hunched over the metal pole, with a thin wooden stick in my mouth and my fingers in my ears!


Are you good at identifying trees?  Ash, oak, lime?  We played endless games of ‘guess the tree’, as each tree at Kew has a metal identification label attached.  It is impossible to guess them accurately as there are so many special types.   Even the common ones are different versions e.g. large/ small leaves, softer/harder bark, taller/shorter tree.  The whole park is fertile ground for this game and I really enjoyed the tree top walkway where you could get up close to the top branches, leaves, fruits and flowers.  The walkway was substantial, wide and had plenty of room for the many people on it.  But it did have an unnerving tendency to sway – enough said, we didn’t hang about.


Has your conservatory been a bit too hot for comfort in this recent weather?  Then imagine a greenhouse built to house thousands of tropical plants. Hot and humid on purpose.  The Palm House at Kew is full of examples of plants from the tropical rainforest, which thrive in the heat and humidity.   It was a bit hot and sticky but we did see real bananas growing and some huge lily pads in a large pond, which were as big as an enormous paella dish and although flat across the middle, had raised edges which looked a bit like a pie crust.  See photo!



One of the other highlights was the Shirley Sherwood gallery, which you could spend an afternoon in, although we rushed through in under an hour.   It was jam packed with paintings of flowers, shrubs and trees, painted in the 19th century by lucky travellers who went all over the world.  There were flowers from Borneo, shrubs from Sri Lanka and trees from India.  A modern traveller would probably take digital photos and these were the Victorian equivalent.  There was an overwhelming number of accurately depicted plants, all labelled with their botanical names and place of origin.



I was filled with awe at the thought of the intrepid Victorian women, leaving home to journey into unknown jungles and villages.  They took their paper and paint boxes with them, cataloguing all the interesting and exotic flora they found.  There was so much to learn and then show others on their return.  Their painting skill was impressive and so was their get-up-and-go, especially in an age which consistently under-valued women.  I wondered aloud if it might have been exciting to live in Victorian times and discover new areas of the world and their treasures.  But my family were quick to remind me that while a privileged few went jaunting around the world, the vast majority of women were kept at home either sewing while they waited for a suitable husband or cleaning out coal fire grates for a living!


At home later, we had birthday cake to round off a memorable day at Kew Gardens and sang, Happy Birthday to Kyou, Happy Birthday to Kyou!!


Have you ever seen an opera?



Have you ever seen an opera?  I can thoroughly recommend it.  It’s like a good play but with great music too.  The music helps to bring out the emotional highs and lows of each character.  You can sit back and enjoy the scenery and the oh so clever props and costumes.


You may think that it’s highbrow but the plots tend to be more straightforward than many modern plays and still deal with the essential themes of life, such as love, fidelity, hope, despair, selfishness and revenge.  So, it’s not that you won’t be able to follow the plot.  In any case, the programme always has a little precis.


Opera is often sung in the language it was composed in, frequently Italian or German, which again, may make you think it’s too complicated if you are not a fluent linguist.  But in every modern opera house there are supertitles above the stage, which translate the words being sung into English, phrase by phrase.  No problem there then.


Tickets can be rather pricey but if you are prepared to sit further back, to stand or lean for the performance, then a seat can be yours for a mere £20 or so.  So what’s not to like?


Last week we went to an opera experience which was memorable on all fronts.  We arrived early and this is what we found.  Picnic hamper; check.  Table laid with white cloth; check.  Beautiful landscaped gardens with lake and bridge; check.  Husband, brother-in-law and his wife; check.  We had gathered to celebrate the birthdays of the two brothers, conveniently only 10 days apart.  The gardens were filling up with chaps dressed in black tie and women in fancy dresses long and short.  Glyndebourne has a reputation for being a very individual, quintessentially English venue for opera.  And it lives up to its reputation.


What do you think we did first having found our allotted table in the grounds?  We found a cup of tea that’s what!  How much more English can you get?  Although my American sister-in-law did have coffee…  We raided the picnic hamper for plates and cutlery and cut into the birthday cake I had brought along.  We sat in the sunshine, watching the procession of different dresses and evening wear parade through the gardens.  There were all sorts, from a short velvet dress, a halter neck long dress with a train, loose dresses,  fitted dresses or even trousers, with a jacket, wrap or stole for extra warmth.  The men rang the changes from a straight dinner suit by wearing a kilt, adding a cummerbund, white jacket or coloured bow tie.  In view of the warm weather there were quite a few panama type hats in circulation too.


The tradition at Glyndebourne is to have one long interval between the acts and give everyone time to eat at one of the restaurants or picnic in the grounds.  You can buy their picnic or take your own.  It’s all super-organised, there’s lots of information on line to help you plan what to do.  Now I love going to the opera but you do usually have to eat really early beforehand and then you’re a bit hungry again afterwards.  So an opera which stops especially so that you can have some supper, is right up my street.


We had ordered a picnic and after the first act, it was waiting for us in a cool bag beside our table on the lawn.  We toasted the birthday chaps and then enjoyed our quiche and salad.     The description was more flowery than that but you get what I mean.  We were so lucky to have good weather and it was magical to eat outside in such beautiful surroundings as the sun went down.  Mmmm, I had been wondering what else I might like.  But the picnic providers had already anticipated my every need and provided coffee and a chocolate before we went back in to enjoy the second half.


Which opera did we see?  It was The Barber of Seville by Rossini, full of misunderstandings  which are resolved, so that the course of love runs true, in time-honoured fashion.  The cast and splendid orchestra were top quality.  The scenery was carefully chosen to evoke southern Spain and Rossini’s music was lively and demanded my attention from the first to the last note.


If you decide to try out an opera, not all come with picnic facilities.   But don’t let that put you off.  I dare you to try one.





Warning, spoiler alert!

IMG_1565She was lowered down from the ceiling, all skirt ruffles and tights, feet gently pedalling, “they usually clap at this point” she said wryly and we, the obedient and entranced audience applauded with gusto.


An actress with the unlikely name of Meow Meow, was playing the roles of Titania and Hippolyta at The Globe on Saturday, when we went to see a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I suspect that for a Shakespeare purist the production might have been rather shocking with its racy modern interpretation. However, for a keen but not very knowledgeable member of the audience such as myself, the production was a joy.  It was about 20 minutes too long (isn’t everything?) but other than that, it was highly entertaining.


There were some parts traditionally played by women which were played by men and vice versa.  Peter Quince became Rita Quince, who played the part as a sort of keen girl guide leader, ready with her clipboard and very hearty in her instructions.  She was part of the crew on stage as the audience settled in.   She announced information about no mobile phones, no filming and no sitting (for the groundlings standing around the foot of the stage).  She morphed easily into Rita Quince and the gender swap was painless and easy to reconcile.


The second change from the traditional cast, was that Helena became Helenus, a gay young man who falls in love and is in turned loved.  This piece of original casting, with a man instead of a woman, as Hermia’s friend, made it much simpler to understand the plot.  Helenus and his loves were easy to follow and easy to separate from the heterosexual partners in the mix.  You know Shakespeare, always game for a French farce of people mistaking others for someone else, kissing the wrong person and ending up with the wrong partner.  No question of course, that this is always remedied in the end and we can breathe a collective sigh of relief as the correct pairings end up together.


Puck although traditionally a male role, was played by a young woman, Katy Owen and she was full of zest and energy.  Her interaction with the audience and in particular the groundlings was a joy to watch.  With each speech she turned to all four corners of the auditorium and caught the eye of every member of the audience.  Then, in amongst those standing (three hours in total, stronger souls than me!) she addressed individuals, grinning from ear to ear as she tempted them to join in her mischief-making, gently poking fun at us all.  Her drive and vitality made the role her own; her childish jokes made us laugh and her pointed sense of humour kept us on our toes.


Aside from the gender-bending roles, one of the other remarkable elements were the nods to modern life, included at every occasion, which brought the text to life and made us remember our own contemporary context.  The young people were referred to as ‘Hoxton hipsters’ on several occasions; when an ‘almanac’ had to be consulted for phases of the moon, a mobile phone was produced and then put away ‘you know the rules, no phones’. There was a Bollywood style dance sequence and another based on Beyonce’s Put a Ring on it, as well as other references to modern music, which went straight over my head. The music itself, played from the balcony was full of original settings of the familiar Shakespearean text and gave the cast an extra dimension to their acting, singing and dancing throughout the piece.


This exuberant production of The Dream meant that I wasn’t sitting trying to work out what the text meant, as I could see it acted out clearly in front of me. It took out the hard work and offered me the play on a plate and I appreciated their efforts and the play all the more for that.