Thursday, 21 August 2008

London Revisited

Date of Trip: 13 Aug

Since the last trip to London, I've purposed to return to St Paul's one day.

Arriving early in London, Jacq, Kevin and me took the tube straight to Tower Hill and wander around the vicinity of the Tower Bridge. The last time I cross this famed landmark was 12 years ago. It was also summer then and the sun was glaring and hot. Then, I was on a Hop-on-hop-off double decker bus amidst the crawling traffic, still too young to appreciate these English things. Now that I've walked across it, maybe next time I should visit the gallery on top of the tower.

While the weather forecast presented a rather grim day of heavy showers, the weather has been kind if not sunny, perfect for comfortable long outdoor walks. Making our way from the Tower Bridge to Tate Modern, quite a few interesting sights greeted us. Having stayed in the hostel nearby during my last visit, the area is not new to me. But this contraption that seemed straight out of a children's fantasy is still fascinating to look at.

This highly reflective walkway reminded me a lot of Aberdeen.

We passed many other attractions on our walk parallel to the Thames. There is the unassuming London Bridge, Southwark Cathedral by the railway track, Borough Market which is London's oldest food market, the Clink Prison Museum with an iron instrument of horror dangling above the dark narrow alleyway and Shakespeare's Globe to name a few.

Interestingly, Tate Modern and St Paul's sits directly across the river on opposite bank with the Millennium Bridge between them. Bypassing the Tate, I head for St Paul's, hoping to catch the Super Tour. As we neared the impressive ecclesiastical structure, cattle and donkeys (meaning worse than cats and dogs) begun to pelt from on high. We hastily retreated into the doorway, inscribed with the verse,

'This is none other than the house of God, this is the gate of heaven.'

Apt indeed for a place so wonderfully made. More so, for even now many may find His presence there should they seek. Breathtaking as the interior of the Cathedral is, we are forbidden to take photographs. I did saw someone painting with watercolors at the South Transept facing the magnificent dome, second only to St Peter's in Vatican City. Maybe I should do that some day. I'm sure both the sweeping grandeur of building as well as the many minute and intricate details make excellent painting subjects.

One of the highlights of visiting St Paul's is the Galleries. Ascending the 528 steps leading to the Golden Gallery is not for the faint hearted. Initially, the refurbished steps are wide and spiraling, until a far narrower one leads into the Whispering Gallery (257 steps up and 20 meters from the Cathedral Floor). Waking along the perimeter on uneven floor with paintings and sculptures of Saints and Prophets above and beneath you was quite an experience. If I was traveling alone and have the time to spare, perhaps sitting there and contemplating the things of Faith and the life of our forebear would be most edifying. Although it was said that a whisper spoken against one wall of the Gallery can be heard 32 meters away on the other side of the Dome, we didn't quite put it to the test.

From the Whispering Gallery overlooking the altar and pulpit, the way to the Stone Gallery (376 steps up and 53 meters from the floor) was more challenging and narrower. Once we reached the gallery, the awesome panoramic view of London greeted us.

I like how the street seems to curve like an S from this height. However, I felt the imposing fences an unwelcome boundary, caging us in from an unbroken view of the rich city. Thankfully, this was not an issue with the Golden Gallery.

The dome of St Paul's is actually a dome within a cone within a dome. The inner dome being that of the sanctuary's painted ceiling, the cone supporting the heavy Ball and Lantern and the outer dome visible from outside. The way from the Stone Gallery to the Golden Gallery (85 meters and 528 steps up) was the most demanding yet, far more than that which I encountered in Oxford. Indeed, we have to thread the narrow, steep and winding walkway between the outer dome and the cone before finally reaching pure heaven. There, howling winds threatening to send you flying and the unobstructed view of an important settlement for more than 2 millennia welcomed you. This is London.

The London Eye and Westminster is visible near the horizon.

This direction is the cathedral's main entrance, facing Fleet Street.

Here we have Tate Modern, right across the bridge. The towering chimney looked no more than a match stick from this height. Now, this reminded me of Neil Armstrong's statement, 'I put up my thumb and it blotted out the planet Earth.' I suppose even our blue planet is a mere speck if you are far and high enough.

The Tower Bridge can be seen in the top left corner. London Bridge is in this picture as well, although harder to spot, being hidden among the buildings. (It is not the 2 more visible bridges in front.)

I would love to make the climb again on a fairer day when the sky is blue. How much more impressive would it be then? By the time we descended back to the cathedral floor, we were sweating and ravenously hungry. With the Super Tour starting in minutes, we endured the hunger for another hour and half, contenting ourselves with savoring the juicy histories and stories behind the cathedral at least twice razed to the ground before this incarnation whose dome survived the blitz by grace of God and the relentless efforts of the Cathedral Watch.

The tour took us through the cathedral's history and interior. The Quire and High Altar is beautiful. The colorful mosaic on the Quire ceilings depicting biblical scenes, particularly the creation, stand as an interesting contrast with the plain white simplicity of the Nave ceilings. Among the many memorials around the cathedral, most of them are military personals. The memorial for the Duke of Wellington stood as one most lavishly made.

Two irrelevant but funny things about these man of renown's statues. Anatomically, there is no space for their substance between their crouch. I don't suppose we'd draw men with a V shape between their muscular and manly legs. Secondly, the statue for William Turner does resembles Robbie Williams in certain angles. It was a pleasant surprise for me to know that Lord Frederic Leighton's tomb and memorial is here as well.

Of the many tombs and memorials in the dimly lit cathedral crypt (which my friend describe as similar to White House), Florence Nightingale's memorial is among the most well placed. Although hers was dwarfed by the huge stone tombs in the adjacent chambers, what was the honor to be flanked by the actual bodies of two military demigods, Lord Nelson to the west and Duke of Wellington to the East. Great honor for a great woman indeed!

Christopher Wren's tomb, the person behind this wonderful architecture is simple but powerful. There is nothing like the inscription, 'Reader if you seek his monument look around you'.

While I could spend a whole day or week or month just within these hallowed halls, our drumming bellies and the rest of London's sight and sounds beckoned. Originally, we planned to hit another museum in the afternoon, but seeing that we came out of the cathedral late, we opt to just wander the streets of London. Walking leisurely from landmark to landmark without the pressure of visiting a set target was more pleasurable than I expected. Blissfully wandering around almost aimlessly is also a good way to experience such an overwhelmingly eventful city.

Trafalgar Square was especially packed with the Zoolanders doing their rehearsal for the Trafalgar festival. Moving from the crowd, we made our way to Westminster and the Big Ben.

Across the House of Parliament is the Westminster Lion, another one for my lion collection.

A few steps away stood another modern attraction, the London Eye. The giant fairy's wheel does resembles bicycle's wheels.

The price for a ride in these capsules can be steep. I wonder how many of these are in the World. I know at least 3 now, there should be more.

The evening was spent with Chris, a kin I haven't meet before (as far as both of us can recall). He took us to Harrods as all of us were feigning shy and undecided about where to go. While I care little for shopping there, I do see it as a potential place for future visit. To simply just observe the different details and decorations in the variously themed room should keep me busy and happy enough.

After dinner in China Town, we amble from Trafalgar Square to Westminster for the second time in the day until we eventually ran out of time have have to rush for the bus.

Looking at the Big Ben at night, did I hear someone mention Peter Pan? It was a great trip while so much of London remains to be seen. There are still so many museums and galleries waiting to be visited.

It is great to meet you, Chris. Thanks for bringing us around. I suppose the next time we meet might be years away, in Sydney perhaps.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Balloon Fiesta 2008 - Night Glow

This year was the 30th Anniversary of the Balloon Fiesta. Lauded as the best in the country, and one of the best in the region, the organizers were extravagant. The theme of the presentation was party and celebration.

When the long wait is at last over, and you see the glowing shapes rising from the ground, it is hard to describe the exhilaration.

Before you knew it, all the balloons were up and the flame danced to the tune of the party songs. As they each light up in turn, this is one of the most beautiful man made spectacles that I've seen in a while. Even though we are a good distance from the balloons, we can still feel the heat as it lit up. I wonder how warm it will be for the pilots and ground crews along. Words will not describe it. You have to be there among the cheering crowds and unending flashing cameras like glistering stars to appreciate it fully.

Then came something even better, fireworks lit the sky as the balloons deflated.

It was with such loud and colorful display the first night of this years Balloon Fiesta ended. Too bad the unkind weather forced the second Night Glow and much of the Mass Ascent to be canceled. Some of my friend who went on Sunday didn't even manage to catch a glimpse of the floating giants.

It should be great if I get to attend it once more under more favorable weather conditions in the coming year. But for that splendid night, it ended perfectly. As I trekked home in an hour to midnight along with the dispersing crowds, I finally took a picture of the suspension bridge with lights on. Its cool illumination, the mirror reflection in Avon below, complemented by the golden lights of the city street lamps, it is hard to ask for more.

Monday, 11 August 2008

Bristol International Balloon Fiesta 2008

Date of Event: 7 - 10 Aug
Date I attended: 7 Aug

For all the hype and excitement surrounding the event that represents Bristol probably as much as the Suspension Bridge itself, its success hinges on a single factor beyond the control of man despite I'm sure the best efforts of the organizers and participants. The weather these few days have been typically English (unpredictable and extreme and not too lovely most of the time.) I'm really thankful to have went on the first night, considering the long lists of main events, well advertised and anticipated for months to be canceled at the wimp of rain after that.

From tranquil and contemplative fields of greenery, Ashton Court was transformed into a place as busy, noisy and crowded as downtown London. Electronically transmitted noise permeate the normally quiet air, be it the entertaining voices of the MCs broadcast around the launch pad, the tempting calls of the many funfair stalls to try your luck at getting oversize soft toys, or the music of merry-go-round and other amusement rides.

Among the many stalls, these are some of those that I find interesting.

Bananas, lots of them. I think Black Jack is one of the games here.

I quite like this bar converted from a double-decker as well.

Many events ran throughout the day in the launch area. The first one I caught was the Paramania. An exciting show of aerial agility.

It was fun to see him rain confetti through the fan on the multitudes.

Dancing with a ribbon more than a 100 meters long was even better.

After that, there was the demonstration by the Avon Fire and Rescue. You can see the process of the balloon being inflated in the following pictures. It is hard to imagine something as small as the basket growing to the towering size of the fully 'blown up' balloon.

Some rather adorable fire cadets demonstrating their skills here.

One of the event I wanted to see is the Special Shape's launch. Special Shapes are balloon in any unusual shapes and sizes. Lots of people who had been to the previous years are looking forward to see the awe-inspiring Scottish Piper again. Alas, the weather has not been kind enough for the delicate piece to rise even though the owners had prepared for it. However, I'm happy to be able to see a few of the special shapes, especially the Monster.

This house was the first to rise. It floated in loneliness for quite a while before other balloons join it.

There you have a fire extinguisher. Ironic, given that balloons owe it all to fire and heat.

A lineup of them as crowds, easily among the thousands or more sitting around the field shaped like a natural amphitheater and enjoying the sight.

The IKEA balloon.

And my favorite for the year, the

None of them lift off that day, the highest one went was 2 feet off the ground. It is the Black House of Fraser balloon carrying the Facebook Classical Boy Band, Blake. The smaller rainbow colored one is a model balloon. It is 1/50 the volume of the big ones with the carrying capacity of perhaps a kitten. I've seen them come in the guise of a Viking's head, penguin, owl, and magpie, to name a few.

While waiting for most anticipated Night Glow, I wandered around and saw this merry-go-round.

After sunset and the golden lights were lit, the contraption looked instantly more magical and glamorous. Perhaps this was one of the reason why there were more people sitting on the rotating beasties after nightfall.

The wait for the Night Glow seemed like an eternity. For those who are visiting such an event and do plan to wait late into the night, it is very silly not to prepare something for yourself to sit on. Settling down on the grass will only give you an uncomfortable wet bum. Although I have no idea who the band, Blake were, they certainly sound and look very nice. Listening to their performance on the Heaven Hill's stage makes the wait a lot more bearable.

I will leave the most spectacular Night Glow for the next entry. Hours before the scheduled show time, some of the balloon teams has begin to test their burners. The searing light of the fire blasts that soared with the anticipation amongst the gathered crowds, is but a foretaste of what is to come.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Bristol Summer Festivities

Date: 1 - 3 Aug

I bring to you the famous Balloon Festival of Bristol.

Nah, just kidding. The Balloon Festival is next week. Instead, this is the Bristol Harbor Festival. From Queen Square in the Bristol Old City (where I lives) all the way to the S.S. Great Britain, both sides of the river is packed with people, boats, stalls and colorful events.

Although the weather forecast predicted shower and the sky indeed looked gloomy in the morning, the clouds cleared by 11am and the blue sky was particularly gorgeous. Knowing the scarcity of sunshine in the UK, many people sat down on the grass on Queen Square to enjoy drinks and camaraderie (which by nightfall may well have become revelry.)

The first attraction I visited was the Earl of Pembroke, a beautiful historical tall ship that was a frequent participant in marine festivals, used for seamanship training as well as for filming.

The ship was stationed strategically beside Arnolfini. From aboard, many of the demonstration and performance on the water can be seen clearly.

One such performance that I witness while on the Earl is this spectacular display by the Pyronaunt. The historical fireboat normally mooring at the Floating Harbor can be unassuming but having seen it in action, my perception of it will never be the same again. As it spirals and spins gracefully, sending sprays into the spectators on the bank, it is virtually a giant mobile fountain.

I really enjoyed the banter with one of the crews on the Earl. One of the most dangerous thing to operate on the ship is actually called a widowmaker. As the defining feature of square rigged tall ships, going aloft to set and stow sails is one of the duties. With possible gale force wind up there during storms, she did elaborate on the safety measures.

Fancy your hands at the steering wheel? Another safety measures I learn is to always face the steps while descending or ascending it.

Walking towards S.S. Great Britain and looking towards the Amphitheater, many ships mooring there can be see. The waterway was particularly busy with ferries and boats giving tours and cruises. Some who are more athletic opted to engage with more physical water locomotions.

Everywhere you turn, you will not fail to see boats and ships. It was quite a grand view, more ships than usual by perhaps at least twice. As they rest side by side neatly by the dock, many of the owners can be seen sitting outside enjoying the true summer sun.

While flowers and decorative and nationalistic flags are common decorations, here is a cute one I saw. Say hello to the waving dolls.

The (replica of) Matthew, the ship sailed by John Cabot to Newfoundland close to 510 years prior has moved closer to the Floating Harbor and further from the S.S. Great Britain during the festival.

The golden brown ship is smaller than the Earl, but the stout historical ship is no less impressive than her giant metallic counterparts nearby.

The normal place where the Matthew is moored was taken by the military HMS Gay Archer, also opened to visitors.

Along the path between the two, there are 'singing sailors', nautical souvenirs on sale, as well as people dressing up in period costume, particularly noteworthy is the actor of Mr. Isambard Kingdom Brunnel himself.

I enjoyed the detail tour given by the veteran aboard the Archer, as we are shown around from the weaponries to the cabins and engines.

This photo is thanks to a fellow visitor I met. This projectile will require at least 2 person to man, as the side I'm on, controls the flat rotation, while the opposite side adjusts the arc's angle.

On the opposite bank of the Matthew, by the At Bristol Discovery Center, many performances are held. There is this man in rabbit suit handing balloons in many shapes and sizes. I've seen those looking like rabbit ears as well as big extravagant turbans.

A few steps from the rabbit-balloon-shaper, you have the circus performance. What do you think of these outrageous costumes? I would see the practicality of them on a hot day like yesterday. (It is only hot when the wind isn't blowing. If you stand by the water's edge, the wind can still chill and numb your hands and face.)

As I haven't spend much time on this side of the bank, I've only manage to see the performance by the Black Eagles (A group of 4 acrobats) and the one by the young Maddy (below).

On this side of the bank, there is also the Kaskelot, a tall ship similar to the Earl and the Dance Village, with performances ranging from more contemporary ones to more traditional ones as well.

One of the other thing that I enjoyed very much about this event is dogs. Many visitors brought their dogs along. There are small Chihuahua in handbags and then there are sausage-like Dachshund, huskies etc. I finally manage to pet a brown Alsation. I think this is as close as I will get to petting a wolf. I doubt a stranger wolf will even allow me to get this near. However, Newfoundland was the breed that stole the show.

These massive water dog (with webbed paws) are employed as lifedogs, working alongside lifeguards. A demonstration was done to show the dog's prowess in the water. A single dog is strong enough to tow the boat you see in the photo above just by itself.

In terms of size, I will describe these chronic droolers as close to St Bernard. These friendly giants are in fact very playful and energetic when they are not spread flat on the floor loafing.

Very lovely dogs. This one is a puppy, still possible to carry on our shoulders. In a few more months, it will outgrow a bear cub.

After resting for a few hours back in the flat, I went back to the venue which is a brief 3 minutes walk away. By nightfall, the various stalls around Queen Square took on a different atmosphere reminiscent of the Pasar Malam (night markets) in Malaysia. Enna, my Japanese companion yesterday night was in the foreground.

Closer to the riverside, what is normally a gray street is now a psychedelic theme park. From adrenaline pumping rides to miniature fairy's wheel, Merry-go-round, conventional theme park challenges with humongous soft toys as rewards etc. Alas, this carnival will only last the night.

By the time I reach Bush House, the quayside was packed with people anticipating the fireworks displays. Here is the Earl, looking quite different in the dark.

The musical firework performance is great. It went on fro quite a while and are very beautiful. I wasn't at too convenient a vantage point to take pictures.

This is not the first time I've seen spectacular fireworks. However, this is the nearest I stood to witness it. The colorful fire rays are shot just across the river from us. There is something special to witness its full glory and hear its deafening bangs in this distant. Tinted smokes, glittering dust and the flash of grand explosion will always capture the excitement of festivities and send you blood running.

After the fireworks, the crowds begin to disperse, or rather move towards the pubs' directions. The lights on the performance stages as well as those on many boats are dimmed. Yet there are those who stayed on their decorated floating homes to celebrate the fine evening.

Finally, as we leave the harbor front, I saw Mr Mario coming out from Watershed. So even the red and blue plumber was here! Besides him, many party goes and festival attendees dressed up as well, most of them as pirates. I had seen Caesar with a roman woman and his legion once.

A good day and fine experience of an English summer, something decidedly Bristol in an annual event that has been held for decades.