Archive | July, 2012

Day out: Olympic Blenheim

31 Jul

I know I just said I was falling down the Olympic rabbit hole and not coming up for air, but this is a PSA that must be shared.  If you are living  in driving range of Blenheim Palace (Day Out: Blenheim Palace) they are doing something so cool for the London 2012 Olympics: the Olympic Outdoor Cinema in the Garden.

When my kids made faces one morning at my original plans for the day (“What are we doing today, Mommy?”  “Watching the Olympics.”  “BUT MOM, WE’VE BEEN WATCHING THE OLYMPICS NON-STOP FOR THREE DAYS!”) — I knew I needed to shake things up.  So I suggested a trip to Blenheim, one of my and their favorite places.  The new visitors centre and “Oxford Pantry” is now open, and beautiful:

We walked parts of the gardens we hadn’t seen together before:

There was a small burst of rain as we wandered the water gardens, which left behind some droplets in the rose garden:
Oh, how about another rose, you know I can’t resist a rosy close-up:
The sun perked up as we passed a temple to Artemis — where Winston Churchill proposed to his wife.
The cascade makes a gorgeous roaring sound:
Oh, the weather was glorious!
I could have run up and down this hill yelling “SUN! SUN!  SUN!”  But I kept it together.  For the sake of the children.
The Secret Garden was a fun treat.
This is where my hidden plan started to come in to play — our train ride to the pleasure gardens, where the kids knew we would find a playground and I knew we would find:
THE OLYMPIC JUMBOTRON!  To the left?  A Champagne Bar.  Yeah, that’s right.
It was the best of everything.  In between sports action, we could take breaks and:
See the butterflies in the Butterfly House.  And:
Explore the Bygone Days exhibit — this is the potting shed.  And:
A wooden I, Robot?  I dunno, but it looks very cool.  And:
Run through the playground and maze. With all the activities around, we were able to hang out on the lawn and watch plenty of Olympic sports all day — I even found a cider I like!
It tasted like apples, had a light fizziness, and there was no undertone of sadness and betrayal.  Yes.
Other families came and went during the day.  The grill (slightly off photo to the left) served up fantastic burgers (really!), and the garden cafe served tea and cakes (note teacup in lower left corner).  Other families brought blankets and complicated picnics — or plastic bags filled with foods from the Woodstock Co-op — or just hung out on the lawn like us.
The outdoor “cinema” is open while the Olympics are on, and while the gardens close at 6pm the cinema remains open until 10pm.  Entry is free if you have a yearly member pass, or for a relatively low entry fee (which is reduced for entry after 5pm).  The food is not cheap — about 7 pounds for a cheeseburger — but it is good and freshly prepared.  If we go back (I hope we will!) we’ll bring a picnic and a big blanket and expect to while away another day with a perfect mix of kid-friendly and Olympic-addict activities.

Olympic fever

30 Jul

I have some days out to tell you about, some ongoing cultural adjustment commentary (we’ve been here ten months!  I just realized that this morning!), but right now I don’t care about anything but THE OLYMPICS!

For the next two weeks, I’ve warned the kids, we aren’t watching anything but the Olympics.  Unless Spongebob is competing in the 400m relay or Johnny Test plans to go for the high jump, we won’t be checking in with them.  Every year I think I’ll just dip in to the Olympics and watch a bit here and there, and every year I become an instant and full-on Olympic coverage junkie.  As soon as we started watching the opening ceremony, it was all over.  We watched the torch progress through the UK — even saw it come through our own town with our very own eyes — and there it is now, a gorgeous burning flower over London.  How could I possibly let myself miss any of the sport?  And the BBC has coverage of every sport — every sport — even 48k women’s weight lifting!  Even complete coverage of air rifle shooting, possibly the most boring sport in the world!  All the judo!  All the fencing!  All the sports, all the heats, all the competitors that I never got to see when I was victim to US broadcast coverage!  All the everything!

Being an American living in another country, seeing the American athletes walk into Olympic Stadium hit me a little harder than usual.  All those cheerful, bold, confident faces calling out “USA!” and “Love you mom” — so American!  USA in the house!  Whoo-hooo!

Even the absurd Olympic mascots have grown on me, and I have my very own Mandeville to sit with me and watch the games.  Sorry if I don’t get to very many posts in the next few weeks — if you miss me, I’ll be here, watching every bit of olympic sport I can squeeze in to the day and giving the cheer for “USA!” and for competitors from all nations giving their all in the spirit of peaceful competition with mutual understanding, friendship, solidarity, and fair play.  Hope a piece of that Olympic spirit is filling you as well.  Go team — go every team — go go go!


Day out: Bristol Zoo

25 Jul

We’ve been looking forward to visiting the Bristol Zoo, and when we had a chance to check it out with a group of friends on a sunny day, we were not disappointed.

I should mention — well, I will mention, whether I should or not — that as a proud DC native, I can assure you that no Zoo on earth is a good as the Smithsonian National Zoo.  I think my very first membership in anything was in FONZ.  If only the whole thing weren’t on a damn hill, it would be perfect.  I’m also fond of the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, not so much for its zoo qualities — although I really like the Maryland wilderness trail — but because I’ve been taking my kids there since they were babies, and it’s part of their history.  Plus, we got to feed the giraffes.  Never underestimate the loyalty a zoo inspires when you get to feed the giraffes.  What I’m trying to say is: I have zoo standards.  Or zoo baggage.  Whatever.

The entry to the Bristol Zoo is unprepossessing, giving little hint of the size of the zoo:

Oh, did I mention we went on the first day of nation-wide school break?  Yeah, it was crowded.

Entry in to the zoo is not cheap — again, I wonder how families in England go anywhere or do anything in this country — a membership to the zoo for a family of five is well over $200.  Just the day tickets, thank you very much.  After getting a ticket, you’re conveniently dumped into the gift shop, which you must fight your way through to find the zoo itself.

And, you know, the dinosaurs.

The animals were fairly active the day of our visit, although you can’t tell by looking at the lion:

The lion enclosure looked sadly small to me.

I’m starting to feel these animal art statues are being overdone.  It was cool when I saw the Cows on Parade in Chicago in 1999.  Thirteen years and hundreds of fiberglass animals in dozens of cities later … meh.

But, did I mention the Dinosaurs?  These rocked.  The roared, or moved, one even farted.

This one farted.  Really.  Compressed air blew out her rear.  I don’t know who was more enthralled, the kids or I.

There’s a nicely dark Twilight House at the Zoo.  No sparkling vampires, but lots of jumping rats, glow-in-the-dark cats (really), snakes, and a wall of naked mole rats.  I’m not sure why this sign appealed to me so much.  I think “We are the Naked Mole Rats” would make a nice t-shirt.  I could wear it while watching the mama dino fart.

It’s been one of those days.

Ever had a fruit bat encounter?  I think this dude wanted out.  Their wings are amazing.  Gives all sorts of new context to the oft-used descriptor “leathery bat wings”.  I could totally rock some leathery bat wings, I think, along with my mole rat shirt.  My son helpfully informed me, as we walked in to this enclosure: “Don’t worry, if these were vampire bats, we’d all be dead, but these just suck fruit, not blood.”  “Fruitsucker” would also make a nice t-shirt.

Your dinosaur is not impressed.

However, your trout has lots to say about the aquarium.

This lemur is hanging out in the lemur enclosure, which one may walk through.  The zoo guides told us he was new to the lemur group at the zoo, and none of the lady lemurs liked him, so he was pouting and ignoring everyone.  Such a guy.

African Penguins at the seal and penguin enclosure.

The sign is funny when you know “bits” is colloquially used as a reference for genitalia.  Ha!  Ha! Until you read the part about seals dying, and then you feel like a jerk.

The African fur seal enclosure was very cool.  It’s multi-level, so you see the seals from above, at water level, and then walk below the tank through a clear-roofed tunnel.

There seemed to be a good amount of room for the seals to swim, with interesting underwater corners and various depths.

I know, I don’t do photos of my kids, but look — she’s touching a seal through the glass.  Awwwwww.  This was probably my favorite area in the Bristol Zoo.

Oh, and did I mention the dinosaurs?  This one just caught a bloody fish.  And I wondered why my five year old had trouble going to sleep that evening.

There’s a cool reptile house at the zoo, although I must admit that it was so hot on the day we went I was happy to run ahead with the can’t-sit-still members of the troupe.  But I liked this nearly-glowing iguana.

And did I mention … ?

This one must have come straight from starring in a bad sci-fi movie.

In the butterfly house we saw not only butterflies, but their eggs and leeeetle tiny caterpillars

and great big caterpillars

And of course:

There are many more animals than I was able to photograph well — including some spectacular gorillas and a variety of birds and fish.  There’s a stage at the zoo with regular keeper/animal encounters, a cafe and ice cream stands, a picnic area if you want to bring your own food, a small play-splash area that was super crowded, an adventure playground, an activity centre, and decent bathrooms.  If you are feeling really adventurous, you can hook into a harness and climb above the zoo in ZooRopia.   The Zoo seems to get very crowded on summer days, so if you’re going for a visit, time your arrival near Zoo opening if you want to get a parking space — the small lots fill up quickly.  If you do get a spot, three pounds to park for the day is not a bad deal.

That’s it!  All and all, a fun day out.  Not tops on my list of world-wide zoos, but a solid day of interesting-things-to-see for the kids, some education, room to blow off some energy, and a really engaging seal enclosure, in my opinion.  And, you know, farting dinosaurs.  What more do you need?

Day out: Hidcote

24 Jul

When England is dark and rainy it is very dark and rainy.  But as an expat friend has pointed out, when the weather in England is good it is sooooooooo good.  This weekend brought one of those glorious days, and we spent it getting high on sunshine and flowers at The National Trust’s Hidcote Manor Gardens.  I could tell you about the history of the place, the American connection, the thoughtful husbandry and elegant garden planning.  But I walked through the garden as through a flowered fantasy: sniffing, touching, delighting, bespelled.  And that’s how my photos came out as well.  Enjoy a dream dazzled walk with me:

Elements of the  gardens reminded me of the Rococo Gardens, which we visited at the end of autumn last year.  What a revelation to see the Cotswold in bloom.

(What do you think of this gallery format?  Is it annoying to click on the thumbnails to see the full image?  Does the gallery feature work for your browser?  I had so many photos today, I thought I’d try a new way to share them.  I’d like any feedback about the format.)

Big things, small things

22 Jul

I do like size contrasts.  Things that are big and small.  I really can’t explain it.

Here’s a miniature doorway to a church in Bourton-on-the-Water, model village edition:

Here’s the same door, full-sized:

The small entry:

The large entry:

I want to shrink down and run through the small spaces.  Then inflate and dash through the universe, super-sized.

Day out: Downton Abbey

19 Jul

Highclere Castle is the location for the fictional Downton Abbey.  If you like the show, then you know what I mean to say is:


Um, ahum, ahem, ha, ha-ha, I mean, isn’t it lovely?

No photography is allowed inside the castle, presenting a bit of a challenge to my usual posting style.  Here we are walking up from the (free) carpark to the house entrance.  We visited on a day filled with rain and grey skies, giving the exterior of the house a bit of an oppressive atmosphere and cutting short our walk of the extensive gardens.

Inside, visitors can walk the house on self-guided tours using either the free handouts or the for-sale guidebook (which is beautifully photographed).  Docents are available throughout the house for questions, and some rooms have information placards noting which characters from Downton Abbey have used which room.

Oh, the atmosphere …  Where’s my golden retriever?

I visited with my three children on a weekday while husband was at work — it is summer vacation, finally!   This might sound like a recipe for disaster, but we’ve got a routine down.  I prep them with information about whatever we are going to see before we go, giving them some ideas about things to look for when we get there; I time the visit to when they are feeling fresh but not tired out; I make sure they eat and drink; build in some chances to blow off steam; and I bribe the heck out of them with promises of a visit to the inevitable gift shop.  Tip for Highclere:  how many wyverns can you find in the house?

Highclere was actually great for the kids — the interiors are beautiful and eye-catching in a way that appealed to them and — best of all — the Egyptian exhibit in the basement had some interactive elements and a very cool artifacts from the fifth Earl’s explorations in Egypt with Howard Carter.  (Let’s call him an Egyptologist, not a tomb robber.  Benefits of an earldom.)  Reading the story of the Mummy’s Curse and the Earl’s death in the dark basement of the Castle, surrounded by statuary and gloom, was especially fun.

Walking around the grounds after our tour of the house, we watched sheep being herded by dogs and a car.  Throughout our walk, we heard a constant din of ‘mwaaaaa-aa-aaaaa-aa–aaaaaaa bwaaa-maaaa-aaaaaa-aaaaa-aaaa”.  It was kind of hilarious.

Highclere is only open to the public during limited seasons, and can get pretty crowded.  There’s a lot to see — even aside from the Downton Abbey connection.  The house is a beautifully preserved window into a changing era in English aristocracy.  And there are charming family portraits all over the house, which humanizes some of the spaces which might otherwise feel like a museum.

We booked tickets online several weeks in advance.  Tickets to the house are timed for either the morning or the afternoon, giving you a three hour window to explore the public areas of the house.  The Egyptian exhibit and the Gardens are available all day, and the tea room serves a nice cuppa and cake, which you can eat seated outside or under cover.  And that inevitable gift shop has some inexpensive items perfect for satisfying children who have behaved all day and want their just reward.

You know what, here’s a good article about visiting Highclere, just read this:

As for me:  History, blah blah, sure, but: SQUEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!

Week out: Cotswold

14 Jul

When family came to visit over the holidays, we may have pushed the touring a little too hard (i.e.: Non-sequitor).  With family visiting this summer, in the first week of summer vacation, we still wanted to tie up our area in a pretty bow and give it to them, but we didn’t want to be completely exhausted after their week here.  So this is what we did.

First up, checking out the lavender fields (Day out: Cotswold Lavender)

Then a trip up Broadway Tower for a spectacular view of the Cotswolds (note to self: write a day out post for Broadway Tower!)

And a stroll around Broadway for a late lunch and some window shopping. (You know you’re in England when … )

(If we ever have a full sunny day, wouldn’t it be awesome to take this hamper out for a spin?)

That was day one.

Day two, hit the road for the drive to Avebury.  (Day out: Avebury)

Livestock in the fields on this trip — much added excitement for the kids.  I still don’t know if these are sheep, or goats.

We added on a visit to the restored Avebury Mansion and the Saxon-era Parish Church of St. James on this trip.  (Note to self: add or update Avebury post with new coolness.)  This crazy head is from the snooker room in the Mansion, where son played snooker and I listened to an amazing old Victrola.

That was day two.

Day three started with a visit to Tewkesbury Abbey. (Day out: Tewkesbury)

This time I walked around the barriers blocking off part of the quire and visited the burial marker for Edward Plantagenet, the only Prince of Wales ever killed in battle.  And took a moment to shake my fist at the sun symbol of Edward IV soaring overhead.  It’s a long story.

Then a quick walk outside through Tewkesbury, noting the difference in the wooden Tudor construction seen there from all our warm Cotswold stone villages, and then letting the kids run lose in the new exercise area:

It’s a whole gym — outside!

Although there are plenty of good places to eat in Tewkesbury, we zoomed off to Bourton-on-the-Water, because it is my favorite village ever. (Note to self: I need to write a Bourton-on-the-Water day out post.)

We once again ate at The Croft, shown here in miniature village form — we also visited the miniature village, walked along the River Windrush, had ice cream … you get the idea.

That was day three.

Day four, I must admit it, we were starting to get a little tired.  Some of the group took a ride on the Gloucestershire-Warwickshire Railway, while the rest of us enjoyed a quiet stroll along the Promenade, more window shopping, and lunch.

Ahhhh, day four.

Day five — our last full day — and what could be better than a trip to Bath. (I haven’t written “Day out: Bath”?!  What is wrong with me??!)  First, the Roman Baths:

A break for lunch, and then the Abbey (I Spy)

Of course, no visit to Bath would be complete without a Lunn Bun.  Or two.

Don’t judge me.

Although it rained a bit every day, we were only drenched once — a pretty good average for England this summer.  If you had five days in the Cotswold, what would you see?