London Aquarium – Sea Dragons

 

I’d heard Sea Life London Aquarium has a new exhibit of sea dragons so it seemed like a good time to return. The picture I’d seen was amazing (see below) yet I understood why their recent survey found that 96% of children asked thought a sea dragon wasn’t real.

Sea Dragon - SEA LIFE London Aquarium
A sea dragon most definitely is real and can be up to 45 cm but the ones to be seen here are about 10 cm. The new ‘Sea Dragon Kingdom’ has weedy sea dragons, alligator pipefish and yellow seahorses. But back to them soon. What was it like visiting London Aquarium on a Sunday morning at the end of a school holiday?

Answer: Busy. I expected it to be busy but I soon realised it was so busy I couldn’t really see anything. I think this was less to do with the end of the school holiday but more to do with toddlers and buggies as under 3 year olds go free so it’s a great age to take them.

In the first section I literally saw nothing but we’d had this problem before as it’s exciting when you arrive so my 8 year old and I went through to see the rays. As visitors can stand on four sides of this tank we did get to see them for a few minutes until my daughter spotted the rock pooling area which she remembered from our last visit. Here, young visitors can touch a starfish and there’s a member of staff to tell you more about them.

And this is what was missing everywhere else. If I got a glimpse of a tank I couldn’t see the information caption or vice versa. There was no-one around to explain more to distract visitors from crowding around every tank. I think there needs to be more distractions to keep younger visitors happy and to allow all visitors to see into the tanks. Distractions could be tables with things you can touch and a member of staff to explain. It could be lift the flap and learn something boards. It could be something more hi-tech with iPads/touch screen technology. But with the only focus in each area being the tanks it means every visitor is trying to get to the same place.

At the penguins there has been an attempt at this type of ‘other distraction’ with a listening activity before going through to see the penguins but when we went through all I saw was a wall of toddlers blocking all of the water and then a second barrier of their parents. I saw the top of a penguin when it came out of the water and dived back in but part of the joy of this area is to see them underwater too.

There are a few activities right at the end of the attraction but that area is always quiet so it would be great to scatter those ideas throughout the trail.

I do realise if you go to an aquarium you expect to see fish and sea creatures but the speed at which we got around the attraction was a real shame as we saw so little. Last time we were there it took us just over an hour which I thought was fast. This time it took 45 minutes – and we then spent 15 minutes in the gift shop. I do think some of that speed was because there’s nowhere to sit and watch the fish, or to have a rest, so if you can’t see it makes sense to just move on.

The staff we did speak to (at the entrance and in the gift shop) were great but there simply weren’t enough within the attraction. I saw one member of staff at the rock pooling and two cleaners. There was the ‘get your photo taken’ team but no staff who visitors could ask about the fish and sea creatures.

And the need for more cleaners than on the visitor team made more sense when a large family sat down opposite the crocodile – literally the first seating I’d seen in the attraction – and proceeded to have a picnic. While dad was shouting, “Who wants a banana and who wants a apple?” and mum was dishing out the food my daughter looked at me in shock as even an 8 year old knows it’s no food and drink at the London Aquarium. As cans of drink were opened and sandwiches appeared we moved on. But other families starting looking at their kids asking if they were hungry and snacks came out of bags and from under buggies. And with no staff in the area who would stop them?

We had some giggles in the gift shop.

We had some giggles in the gift shop.

Another point to remember is how dark it is inside the London Aquarium (so hold on to those little people!) It’s easy to get disorientated and some arrows on the floor would certainly help, especially when coming out of the lifts as the stairs and lifts may not always arrive at the same place.

When we reached the last floor we found a completely empty – and rather smelly – ‘Thames Walk’ section and we were soon in the gift shop feeling strangely disappointed. As we left the gift shop we had to battle our way across a sea of European teenagers and the unpleasant smells of McDonald’s which was particularly grim. And that’s the only way to leave the building.

Based on this experience, London Aquarium doesn’t feel like good value for money with the current set up. The ‘on the door’ prices are: adult: £26.50, Child (4-15): £19.95, and 3 and under go free. You can save 10% by booking online and there’s a free ticket deal with Kellogg’s cereals.

As a comparison, London Zoo ‘on the door’ ticket prices are: adult: £27, child (3-15): £19, and 3 and under go free. That’s pretty much the same price and yet I spent over five hours at London Zoo last week and we still didn’t see everything.

Oh, and I haven’t told you what I thought of the sea dragons. Well, I missed them. I did see an information label but couldn’t see anything in the tank. I watched a bit of weed but looking back at the picture that’s not what I saw so I think I did just see a bit of weed. I didn’t realise I was in a ‘Sea Dragon Kingdom’ zone as I saw no signs. I did see a few seahorses though.

Battle of Waterloo Bicentenary

 

This is the 200th anniversary year of the Battle of Waterloo and two London properties connected with the battle and its victorious commander are Wellington Arch and Apsley House – the home of the Dukes of Wellington.

Wellington Arch and Apsley House reopened on Saturday 18 April 2015 and I visited for a preview to see what has changed.

These mounted 'guards' came out for the preview day.

These mounted ‘guards’ came out for the preview day.

At Wellington Arch

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Here, it’s all about the build up to the battle as there’s a new ‘Waterloo 1815 – The Battle for Peace’ exhibition with highlights including the Duke’s handwritten battle orders, his battle sword, and a pair of original ‘Wellington Boots’.

On 18 June 1815, at Waterloo in Belgium, the 1st Duke of Wellington commanded an army of British, Dutch, Belgian and German troops, aided by a Prussian force, against Napoleon Bonaparte’s French Armée du Nord (Army of the North). The Waterloo campaign ended 25 years of war in Europe and in European colonies around the world. Napoleon was defeated and spent the last six years of his life in British custody.

Wellington Arch was built in 1825-27 and is surmounted by the largest bronze statue in Europe, depicting the angel of peace descending on the four-horsed chariot of war.

Top Tip: Mounted cavalry pass through Wellington Arch at 10.40am and 11.40am and you can see them from the balconies.

This was the guard coming off duty from Horse Guard's Parade.

This was the guard coming off duty from Horse Guard’s Parade.

As a lucky bonus we saw The King's Troop Royal Horse Artillery going out to practice for the Queen's Birthday salute as well!

As a lucky bonus we saw The King’s Troop Royal Horse Artillery going out to practice for the Queen’s Birthday salute as well!

At Apsley House

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Here it’s more about the life of the Duke of Wellington – the ‘Iron Duke’.

While the whole place has had a jolly good dust and tidy up, The Waterloo Gallery is the most transformed as it has been laid out to recreate one of the Duke’s annual banquets to commemorate the battle, including a surviving menu plan.

A special welcome at Apsley House.

A special welcome at Apsley House.

Apsley House is still home to the 9th Duke of Wellington today. It was commissioned by Baron Apsley in 1771, and was enlarged in 1828 while the Duke of Wellington was Prime Minister.

You can't take photos inside Apsley House so I got a few snaps for you.

You can’t take photos inside Apsley House so I got a few snaps for you.

A larger than life-size statue of Napoleon in the stairwell.

A larger than life-size statue of Napoleon in the stairwell.

There are new multimedia guides to help you explore Apsley House and I tried the Family Trail with my 8 year old daughter. In each room you get an introduction, try an activity and then choose your favourite object for your own personal treasure chest which you view at the end.

We got to rub away to see what Apsley House used to look like.

We got to rub away to see what Apsley House used to look like.

This was my favourite anagram activity!

This was my favourite anagram activity!

We loved discovering the Duke’s favourite dessert was Parmesan cheese ice cream, and were really impressed how the guide got us looking in more detail and learning more about the Battle of Waterloo with small chunks of information in each room. We would have included the fact that one of the portraits on the landing looks like it’s facing you whether you’re on the left or the right, and that the chandelier in the last room on the trail has mirrors on four sides so you can see the chandelier repeating whichever way you look.

The Duke of Wellington adored his horse. When Copenhagen died he had his hood made into an ink well!

The Duke of Wellington adored his horse. When Copenhagen died he had his hoof made into an ink well!

Top Tip: Apsley House is also known as ‘Number 1 London’ as it was the first address inside the London boundary from the west.

Special Events

There’s lots planned for this anniversary year including an evening with the 9th Duke of Wellington talking about his famous ancestor on Tuesday 5 May. There’s also a Waterloo Weekend on 11-12 July, 18-19 July, and 25-26 July. And for the August Bank Holiday there’s a Regency Weekend on 29-30 August.

In With The Lemurs

 

ZSL London Zoo is constantly updating the animal enclosures and now chooses ‘walk through’ exhibits over caged animals as often as possible. Obviously, this is better for the animals as they have more space to roam and it’s great for visitors as we get to go in with the animals and see them up close.

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The latest walk through exhibit is In with the Lemurs which opened on 28 March 2015. There’s a troop of 15 ring-tail lemurs and one black and white ruffed lemur (called Storm). The walk through has been designed to imitate the Madagascan shrub forest so the primates can climb and leap over your head.

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Meet Storm. He was hanging out inside when I visited.

There’s also an indoor area that’s a replica timber mill highlighting the effect the industry has on the lemurs’ wild habitat.

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This gives you more of an idea how close you can get to the lemurs.

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Lemurs love sunbathing!

It’s not a huge space but it is large enough to see the lemurs frolicking and they do seem happy and content.

We had a great day out at ZSL London Zoo and stayed for over 5 hours but still didn’t see everything. We did spend quite a bit of time looking into tanks and enclosures wondering if there were animals in there or not which is another reason these walk through exhibits are so good as you know the animals are there. Rainforest Life is nearby and always worth the time, as is Butterfly Paradise which we visited twice.

I’ve updated the London Zoo visitor pages on the About.com London Travel site to include all you need to know to plan a great day out.

Zippos Circus – OMG 2015

 

One of my favourite Easter traditions is seeing Zippos Circus on Blackheath. Every year there are new acts and every time I sit there with my mouth wide open in shock at what these performers can do. It’s great that in a world now dominated by screen-based entertainment for kids that we can still watch a show that makes the whole family happy.

Rastelli Clowns - Zippos Circus 'Unchained' _. (1)

The 2015 show is called ‘OMG!’ and is a two hour spectacle with plenty of laughs from The Rastellis – a classic clown troupe from Italy who use music and comedy antics to entertain. The trumpet playing attached to oversized clown trousers had us crying with laughter.

My first ‘OMG’ moment was when Salvatore did tricks with a diabolo that look like it was going to reach the top of the new circus tent. That would have been spectacular enough but he then used a diabolo that was on fire!

There’s acrobatics from The Zulu Warriors who throw each other around as if picking up feathers, and the Globe of Terror, with South American Lucius Troupe, riding motorbikes inside a sphere cage is scary but hard to look away.

Zippos Circus - Lucius team, Globe of Terror (1)

See a short video of the Globe of Terror on my Facebook Page.

Zippos Circus does have some animals but don’t get concerned about lions and tigers as we’re talking about horses and – my favourite – legendary Ringmaster Norman Barrett MBE and his talented budgies. Honestly, I love that act and look forward to it every year.

budgies

The equestrian acts were beautiful to watch and there was a part of the show was “prancing ponies” and the Frozen song “Let it Go!” which made the four year old with us very happy.

Odka is a woman who can fold and contort her body to fit inside a bottle – which is bonkers enough – but this year she can also fire a bow and arrow with her toes!

It’s a truly international show with the pick of the best circus performers from around the world. Duo Galaxy are from Germany and have a ‘Wheel of Death’ act that made me scared to watch but also scared to look away. Seriously impressive stuff.

See a quick video of Duo Galaxy on my Facebook Page.

Zippos Circus tours the UK from March to October each year so check www.zippos.co.uk for dates near you. Ticket prices start from £7 child, £9 adult.

Brown Pebble

 

The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology is a fascinating place crammed full of exhibits. It’s a university museum so not very big but has some notable highlights.

The last time I had visited was for the Nu’Shabtis Liberation exhibition, also know as Little Blue Men, and I returned recently to bring my daughter. We spent an enjoyable couple of hours looking at the many glass cabinets as well as sketching and making notes.

We then went looking for the most amusing object names and while there are plenty funnier than these I have to say I like these ones.

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Bourdon Place Statues

 

It is always worth walking down a back street in central London as you never know what you will find. On Bourdon Place in Mayfair, W1, there are three bronze statues called ‘Three Figures’ by sculptor Neal French.

Bourdon Place Statues, Mayfair W1

The figures represent Terence Donovan, the photographer, on a photo shoot with the model Twiggy, plus a shopper who walks by and seeing the photo shoot.

Bourdon Place Statues, Mayfair W1

Photographer Terence Donovan (1936-1996) worked in the area from 1978 to 1996, according to a green plaque on the wall where his studio was on Bourdon Street. The artist of these sculptures has noted “A passing shopper stumbles upon Terence Donovan photographing the model Twiggy near to his studio in 1960s Mayfair” but I’m guessing there’s a mix up here. Donovan is well known for photographing the ‘swinging sixties’ in London, and he did seem to prefer taking photos out on the street, but he moved to 30 Bourdon Street when he branched out into film production.

Bourdon Place Statues, Mayfair W1

Anyway, let’s not pick on the artist as I like these statues. They were commissioned by Grosvenor Estates when they were redeveloping Fifty Grosvenor Hill as offices in this London conservation area. They managed to keep the ‘mews’ character of the area while creating five floors of modern open-plan offices inside. This sensitive redevelopment project also included more trees and this public art.

Bourdon Place Statues, Mayfair W1

Twiggy unveiled the trio of bronze figures in May 2012 and, I feel, they are well worth seeking out.

Bourdon Place Statues, Mayfair W1

Directions: The nearest tube stations are Bond Street and Green Park.

From Bond Street station, turn off Oxford Street onto Davies Street and Bourdon Street is 5 minutes down on the left. Bourdon Place is on the left.

From Green Park station, turn off Piccadilly onto Berkeley Street, and continue past Berkeley Square onto Davies Street. Bourdon Street is on the right. Bourdon Place is on the left.

A Bear Called Paddington

 

“Have a marmalade croissant!” was how I was welcomed to the Museum of London one day this week. It’s not always like that but I was there to see the new Paddington Bear exhibition. After I enjoyed the wonderfully sticky pastry I was able to reminisce about happy childhood memories of Paddington Bear and his London adventures.

Paddington Bears around the world. L-R: Germany, UK, USA, Japan.  Image © Museum of London

Paddington Bears around the world. L-R: Germany, UK, USA, Japan. Image © Museum of London

How It All Started…

On Christmas Eve in 1956, Michael Bond (Paddington’s creator) bought his wife a small toy bear from a London department store and named him after the London railway station he travelled into each day from his Berkshire home. He started writing stories and adventures for the bear and A Bear Called Paddington was published in 1958, a couple of months after his daughter Karen was born.

A First Edition of this book is on display at the Museum of London for the free exhibition celebrating the loveable bear from ‘Darkest Peru’.

Curator Hilary Young prepares a signed first edition of the first ever Paddington story called A Bear Called Paddington. Image credit: Matt Alexander/PA Wire

Curator Hilary Young prepares a signed first edition of the first ever Paddington story called A Bear Called Paddington. Image credit: Matt Alexander/PA Wire

There are some film props from the new Paddington movie out later this month but the rest of the display has come from the Bond family archives and has never been displayed before.

Paddington’s evolution is shown with Michael Bond’s typewriter that he used when he started writing about Paddington full-time and original sketches by Peggy Fortnum.

Paddington with Karen Jankel. Image © Museum of London.

Paddington with Karen Jankel (Michael Bond’s daughter). Image © Museum of London.

There are cardboard cut-outs and the Paddington puppet from the 1970s BBC TV animation series and and an original Paddington bear toy when merchandise became important.

An original plush toy Paddington by Gabrielle Designs (1980). Image © Museum of London.

An original plush toy Paddington by Gabrielle Designs (1980). Image © Museum of London.

I had one of these toys and remember how wonderful it was that a toy could stand up because he was wearing wellies. It seems the wellies were added to make children like me happy as Paddington was originally barefoot. Wellington boot manufacturers hoping to cash in on the new movie will be disappointed as the filmmakers have chosen to be true to the original style of bear and he doesn’t wear any footwear in the movie.

© STUDIOCANAL

© STUDIOCANAL

Paddington’s Picnic Weekend

If you need any more encouragement to see this lovely exhibition, on Saturday 29 and Sunday 30 November 2014, 12-4pm, there is an indoor family festival with crafts, storytelling and plenty of marmalade sandwiches.

Fan mail letter from Australia addressed to 'Paddington Bear, 32 Windsor Gardens, London' eventually found its way to author, Michael Bond. Image © Museum of London.

Fan mail letter from Australia addressed to ‘Paddington Bear, 32 Windsor Gardens, London’ eventually found its way to author, Michael Bond. Image © Museum of London.

Sherlock Paddington Connection

The timing of this exhibition is because of a new Paddington film which is released on 28 November 2014. And that also explains the 50 Paddington bear statues all over London too. The Museum of London have cleverly tied in their Sherlock Holmes exhibition by getting the Paddington Bear statue designed by Benedict Cumberbatch.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s Paddington Trail bear at the Museum of Museum. Image © Museum of London.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s Paddington Trail bear at the Museum of Museum. Image © Museum of London.

A Bear Called Paddington Exhibition Info

Dates: 14 November 2014 – 4 January 2015
More info: Museum of London website
Admission: Completely free.

Lord Mayor’s Show 2014

 

The Lord Mayor’s Show is an annual event in November that, for some reason, I’d never attended before. I was even given the chance to be in the Parade a few years ago and turned it down. Yeah, that was daft as it is truly wonderful. Today, I’ve changed my mind about this London tradition and will be going every year from now on.

Alan Yarrow Elected New Lord Mayor of London.

HISTORY

The first Lord Mayor’s Show was in 1215. Today it’s about history and tradition as well as recognising what The City of London is today.

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TIMING

The Parade is the biggest part of the day. It is about three miles long and takes about an hour to pass you if you stay in one place to watch. It has a different route on the way back.

10.45am: Lord Mayor travels from Guildhall to Mansion House
11am: Procession leaves Mansion House
12.40pm: Lord Mayor arrives at the Royal Courts of Justice

1.15pm: Procession sets off from Victoria Embankment (near Temple)
2.40pm: Lord Mayor arrives back at Mansion House

5.15-5.30pm: Fireworks (from a barge on The Thames between Blackfriar’s Bridge and Waterloo Bridge)

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MY BEST TIPS

I took my daughter so didn’t want to be stuck in big crowds but what’s great about this Parade is that there were sections where it was 10 people deep and around the corner we could stand at the front. Plus, behind those deep crowds there was actually no problem walking around so you could almost visit The City and avoid the event which surprised me.

I also thought TfL might shut some of the tube stations along the route if it got too crowded in the area so we went to Barbican tube station which is about a 10-15 minute walk away from St Paul’s Cathedral. It turned out St Paul’s station was open all day but by going to Barbican we got to see the back of the Parade with absolutely no crowds. We chatted to some of the marching bands and then walked down to the Museum of London roundabout.

The high walkways to the Museum were great viewing spots so I’d recommend going there at 10am and seeing the Museum for a while and then watch the Parade from around 11am. We walked through at around 11-11.30am and saw loads.

MoL

Next, walk up to St Paul’s Cathedral (the Parade turns down Gresham Street) and you can watch the Parade on the cathedral steps and then go inside and explore as it’s free admission – just for this day. We looked around for half an hour or so and then took a seat under the dome for the 1pm Peter and the Wolf performance. We saw Alistair McGowan narrating the story (apparently the Grandfather sounds like Doctor Who/Peter Capaldi) accompanied by the cathedral organ and a percussionist. And, yes, it was magical.

StPauls

After the performance, at about 1.30pm, head back outside and walk towards the Museum of London. Stop at Gresham Street (on the right) as the Parade will come down this street and turn either left or right (towards their parking spot to end).

Now, this was the perfect viewing spot as there was no-one there! Seriously, we watched for a good 10 minutes before others stopped to join us waving.

You do need to be prepared to wave and smile to every float and sometimes you’ll be rewarded with sweets but you’ll always get a smile.

We watched for an hour and had so much fun! Those in the Parade were not willing to show they were getting tired and still made sure everyone watching was having a good time.

There are lots of charity floats in the Parade so I was surprised at the lack of collecting money as we’d brought lots of coins ready to give out but only saw one to give to. It was mostly lots of high fives for the kids and dancing to the music.

You could spend a few hours warming up in the Museum of London or St Paul’s Cathedral and then watch the fireworks but we chose to go home.

Would I go again? Too right, I would! I’m a bit embarrassed I hadn’t gone before. From now on I hope to see this every year.

Official Website: http://lordmayorsshow.london

PHOTOS, LOTS OF PHOTOS

And here’s the bit you’ve been waiting for:

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Segways!

Segways!

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kilts

The Battle Bus

The Battle Bus

butchers

Inflatable meat!

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Look at the pipe he's smoking.

Look at the pipe he’s smoking.

One of the biggest sections was from Pimlico Plumbers who also brought Santa.

One of the biggest sections was from Pimlico Plumbers who also brought Santa.

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Seeing the Household Cavalry

 

Last weekend I visited Wellington Arch and Apsley House – two English Heritage properties at Hyde Park Corner, London.

Wellington Arch

Wellington Arch

There’s not a lot to see at Wellington Arch – there’s a small exhibition about the building and a special temporary exhibition (currently about WWI) – but time your visit well and you’ll get a great view of the Household Cavalry on their way to Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace. At 10.30am daily the Household Calvary reach Hyde Park Corner from their barracks in Knightsbridge.

Household Cavalry1There’s a balcony on Wellington Arch so you can get this great ‘high up’ view of the ‘soldiers and horses’ passing.

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They go through Wellington Arch so the fun thing to do is to run to the other side to see them continuing on their way towards Horse Guards Parade.

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Next we went to Apsley House, the home of the first Duke of Wellington.

Apsley House

Apsley House

We were exploring the building when staff called us over to the window to see the Household Cavalry returning to their barracks.

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From the Waterloo Gallery we had a great view as they headed towards that tall tower block in the distance.

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I do love seeing these free daily ceremonial events in London, don’t you?

Anarchy & Beauty: William Morris & His Legacy

 

William Morris (1834-96) is known for many things. He was a gifted poet, architect, painter, writer and textile designer. He wanted everyone to have access to beauty as he felt beauty could transform lives.

William Morris by Frederick Hollyer, 1884    Filename: NPG_889_1328_WilliamMorrisb.jpg    Copyright: National Portrait Gallery, London

William Morris by Frederick Hollyer, 1884
Copyright: National Portrait Gallery, London

Morris, and his legacy, is the subject of the latest exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. It explores the ‘art for the people’ movement and at least half of the exhibition is about his legacy as he died in 1896 and it features designers up to 1960.

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The exhibition has 70 portraits and 70 objects – unusual for the venue. On display is the only oil painting he did of his wife, Jane Burden, and he felt he couldn’t make paintings move as he could with words. Do note he was considered as good a poet as Tennyson or Browning.

La Belle Iseult by William Morris, 1858    Filename: NPG_889_1329_LaBelleIseultb.jpg    Copyright: Tate 2014

La Belle Iseult by William Morris, 1858
Copyright: Tate 2014

This satchel is a good example of the everyday functional design that he admired.

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And this is Morris’s own gold-tooled hardbound copy of Karl Marx’s Le Capital as he strongly believed you should “Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”.

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At the preview for this exhibition I saw odd socks art critic again and ‘photo complainer’ who wanted to take photos inside Buckingham Palace in rooms where it wasn’t allowed and today wanted to not be photographed taking a photograph.

This is a one room exhibition and for that reason I think the £14 admission is quite steep. Also, because I know the collection at the William Morris Gallery well and know I can see many of the exhibits for free again when they return. My recommendation would be to go to the National Portrait Gallery for the Late Shift on every Thursday and Friday when there’s a nice atmosphere at the gallery and your admission ticket to this exhibition comes with a 2 for 1 drinks offer.

Full details on the National Portrait Gallery website.