Remember, remember the fifth of November…

No, it’s not my Birthday –  this is actually the line of a rhyme that all children in Britain know well.  But why should we remember November 5th? I hear you ask.  Well, it’s actually a very important date that could have changed British history and the cityscape of London as we know it today…

Palace of Westminster - Parliament
Palace of Westminster – Houses of Parliament

Renowned in Britain, “Guy Fawkes night” or, as it’s sometimes known, “bonfire night” falls on November fifth each year – it was on this cold and misty November day back in 1605 that Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators attempted to blow up British parliament by planting kegs of gunpowder in the cellars of Westminster Palace. It was a plot to “destabilise” the protestant government of King James by the English Roman Catholics following his savage verbal attack on them previous year.

Fortunately, the plot was foiled; Guy Fawkes was discovered guarding the hoard of explosives which, had they been successfully detonated, could have destroyed much of the Palace of Westminster which was later extended to include Big Ben itself.  Following the failed plot, bonfires were lit across London on the 5th November to celebrate the fact that the King was safe and an effigy of Guy Fawkes was usually thrown on top for good measure.

Bonfire night in England
Bonfire night in England

This slightly grisly tradition endures today; in early November you will often see children asking for a “penny for the Guy” as they assemble their own effigies of old clothes stuffed with newspaper or straw to be thrown on to the local bonfire.   Fortunately however, in recent decades the celebration has become more of a social event with families coming together to attend the huge bonfires of their local community and to enjoy the spectacular organized fireworks displays which accompany  them.

Tradition is something the British do well and to this day when the Queen enters Parliament on her once yearly “State Opening of Parliament” her Guards will search the cellars of the Palace of Westminster just in case there’s a keg of gunpowder down there.  So if you’re here in England in late Autumn, remember the fifth of November and pop down to a bonfire near you!

Andy Murray – Wimbledon Champion!

Few of us thought we would see the day; and once it arrived few of us felt we would survive it!  In a breathtakingly dramatic final, yesterday Scotland‘s Andy Murray clinched championship point to become Britain’s first male Wimbledon single champion in 77 years – and Britain couldn’t be prouder!

Wimbledon Logo
Wimbledon Logo

I blogged last year about our annual obsession with tennis during the Championships and this year was no different.  After seeing Andy Murray reach Wimbledon final in 2012 only to lose in straight sets to the ever dominant and seven-time champion Roger Federer, Brits were holding their breath yesterday when we had a second chance to see a Brit once again lift the trophy in London.  And the feat was to be no easier this year as he faced world number one from Serbia, Novak Djokovic.  The win was, on paper, a straight-forward victory with a 6-4, 7-5, 6-4 straight sets score-line; not a tie-break or fifth set in sight!  However in reality it was a tight tussle with Murray twice having to come back from a break down once in each of the second and third sets.

Andy Murray - Wimbledon
Andy Murray with Wimbledon Trophy

However, it was in the final game that the drama really unfolded; for the last few weeks we have cooked in one of our warmest Summers in a long while, but yesterday, in London‘s blistering heat, Andy Murray made us sweat for a whole new reason.  Coming out to serve for the match Murray made it to 40-0 and held three consecutive championship points only for the Serbian player, with a combination of bravery, skill and a hint of luck, to edge his way back in to the game.  Equalling at deuce all of a sudden what had seemed like a certain victory now hung once more in the balance.  The tension was tangible in the stadium, on Henman Hill and on sofas up and down the country from the highest of the Scottish Highlands to the tip of Cornwall in England as Djokovic enjoyed three break points before Murray steadied the ship and his nerves finally clinching the victory on his fourth match point.

As Murray roared in celebration so did the British public.  More than 20 million people in Britain, almost a third of the population, tuned in to watch the final –  a sign of just what this historic win meant to the nation!  Well done Andy Murray!

Keep Calm and Carry On!

Walk in to any tourist gift-shop in London and you’re faced with a deluge of merchandise all with one slogan (or at least variations of it) – Keep Calm and Carry On!  Parodied time and again by individuals, groups, comics and entire industries, where did this slogan come from and how did it become so entwined with all things British? And are we (and our tourists) fed up with it yet? Well, to find out, simply keep calm and carry on reading…

Keep Calm Merchandise
Keep Calm Merchandise

Keep Calm and Carry On.  This simple slogan actually first appeared on a poster that was created by the British government in 1939.  Facing imminent war with Germany, it was one of three such images which, printed against a red background below the King’s crown, were designed to stir nationalist pride, strengthen the public’s resolve and maintain morale in the event of invasion.  More than 2.5 million of them were published ready for distribution across Britain but (thankfully) all remained in storage throughout the war.

Keep Calm and Book
Our Contribution!

It wasn’t until the year 2000 that the poster was rediscovered by a bookseller from Northumberland in the North of England who framed an original copy of the poster and hung it in his bookshop.  It was not long before he was inundated with requests to purchase it and decided to print copies for sale.  Soon after, it seems, the craze swept England and it wasn’t long before the slogan was appearing on all manner of merchandise including mugs, t-shirts, aprons, mouse mats to name just a few.  And it was then that the parodying began and variations of the slogan first started to appear.  Many agree that the simple and most original remain the best including: Now Panic and Freak Out, Keep Calm and Have a Beer, and one of our favourites, the Yoda-inspired – Calm You Shall Keep and Carry On You Must.  At one stage Amazon listed more than 440 thousand items with “Keep Calm and” in the title…!

There’s no doubt that there is something very British about the slogan and indeed the humour of its parodies; namely the classic juxtaposition of a charming understated tone, set against the seriousness and drama of war.  But have we had enough of it yet?  Well, I guess only the demand for the items will decide!  In the meantime, sorry but we couldn’t resist our own contribution – Keep Calm and Book your Britain Vacation!

Happy Birthday Tube You!

Some of us may take it for granted, some people complain about it as they make their daily commute, but it should be remembered that the London Underground is the oldest subway in the World and last week celebrated its 150th Birthday!

London Underground or "Tube" Train
London Underground or “Tube” Train

Amazingly, the London Underground’s first steam engine chugged through the tunnels between Paddington and Farringdon way back on January 10th 1863. However, within days of this maiden journey, the single line was carrying tens of thousands of people each day and had become one of the busiest routes in England.  Built to ease congestion on the busy London streets above ground, the tracks were originally laid by digging long trenches, constructing the tunnels and then refilling the ground above.  Over the years the construction became more sophisticated, with the famous English engineer Isambard Brunel assisting in developing much deeper tunnels and extending the network across London.  The trains themselves followed suit, modernising from steam engines to electrified lines by the late 1800s.  Previously run as separate entities, and giving us the interesting line names (such as Bakerloo, Jubilee and Metropolitan) that are still so familiar to us today, by the 1930s the lines were all brought together under one publicly owned management system and the London Underground or “Tube” as we know it today began to take shape.

Roundel Logo of London Underground
Roundel Logo of London Underground

A century and half after the first journey, today the tube boasts 270 serviced stations, around 400 miles of track and up to 3.5 million journeys made every single day!  Whilst many choose to complain of high-prices, overcrowding and old-fashioned trains, it is undeniable that the London Underground is not only an essential part of the city but has also become an iconic part of the fabric of London and an attraction in itself.  The roundel logo (the red circle with the horizontal blue bar across its centre) and the schematic tube map (whose basic layout remains almost the same as its original design in 1931) have both become famous symbols of the city.  And the tube stations and their unique names have featured in art works, literature and music across the years.

London Underground Map
London Underground Map

Throughout 2013, the London Underground’s anniversary will be celebrated with the release of a special two-pound coin by the Royal Mint and new honorary stamps issued by the Royal Mail so if you’re over here on your travels, don’t forget to look out for them.

Love it or hate it the underground is an idea that has caught on; today there are around 160 subway systems in cities across the globe all following the trend that was set by London more than 150 years ago.  With its role in city life more important than ever and with extensive investment planned for the coming years, who knows what the tube could look like in another 150 years time?

Great Expectations of the Dickens Museum!

Whilst mulling over the purchase of some Christmas presents this week I was first told that “procrastination is the thief of time” and then, when I opted for a cheap item, that I was a “Scrooge”!  I was slightly insulted by the comments but then realised that they were actually both quotes from Dickens novels.  Like Shakespeare, Dickens’ works and characters seem to have pervaded our lives and language, much of the time without us realising.  That’s when I added a visit to the newly reopened Charles Dickens Museum in London to my Christmas list.

Dickens Museum Library, London
Dickens Museum Library, London

In 2012 England celebrated the 200th anniversary of his birth and what better a finale of this bicentenary than the re-opening of the Charles Dickens Museum on Monday after its massive £3.1 million investment.  Located in the writer’s former family home in Bloomsbury central London, the museum has been welcoming visitors since 1925, but was struggling to keep up with the through flow.  Following this lottery funded investment the Victorian town house located at 48 Doughty Street has been completely restored to its former glory whilst the neighbouring house has also undergone extensive conversion to house a brand new visitor centre, learning centre and cafe.  The aim is to secure the sites for future generations and provide a visitor experience for the 21st century.

Westminster Abbey, London
Westminster Abbey, London

And it seems to be achieving its aims; the upgraded museum now offers visitors the opportunity to step back in time and walk around the immaculate Grade II listed building  which is completely furnished and decorated as Dickens himself would have known it.  The location where he penned some of his most famous works, including Oliver Twist and Nicholas Nickleby, the house is bustling with memorabilia including a range of documents, photographs, manuscripts and the writing desk which he designed himself.  Guests can also experience the family kitchen, drawing room and the newly opened attic room which now houses a range of personal materials detailing his troubled childhood.  And once you’re finished at the museum you may want to pop over to Westminster Abbey to visit his final resting place in the Poets Corner.

So this Christmas, after I have revisited the familiar story of “A Christmas Carol” once again, it will be with great expectation that I open my Christmas presents in the hope that someone will have given me an admission ticket for the museum.  And if they haven’t?  Bah humbug!