A day out in Windsor

Or: Who wants to queue forever?

“There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds.”

– G. K. CHESTERTON

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Windsor Castle as seen from the train.

In order to escape the Easter weekend’s madness, I decided to cross another tourist sight off of my To-Do-List and spent a day in Windsor, the home of Queen Elizabeth II. Located approximately half an hour train ride outside of London, Windsor is a small town with probably more tourists than residents. Nonetheless, rumour has it that visiting Her Majesty’s home is something you shouldn’t miss when you’re in London – or should you?

The train for Oxford leaves Paddington Station at around half past ten in the morning at a speed that would put every ICE in Germany to shame and I’m not nearly awake enough for that kind of experience, but who’s the British railway service to care about sleepy tourists? Adding to the blurred green-brown-soup beyond the train windows, the train is packed with foreigners. The only indicator that we’ll all be changing trains at Slough together is the occasional “Windsor” that filters through the incomprehensible mix of languages that echo through the train compartment.

Indeed, we arrive at the monorail train station of Windsor exactly 26 minutes later and it’s nothing like what I’ve expected. In Germany, I grew up in a small village with barely more than 5,000 residents and even our train station is busier than Windsor’s. Though maybe not as posh. There’s an old steam locomotive on display, a signpost pointing towards a castle that is hidden behind little cafés and pubs. In all fairness, the first impression is that Windsor is surprisingly down to earth for the home of the British Queen.

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Leaving the train station and a handful of designer stores behind, I stumble up a cobblestone street and need a moment to process that I’m already standing in front of Windsor Castle. Didn’t I just come out of a train station? It’s probably handy for the Queen to live in close proximity to public transport – but it’s not like she uses it, does she? The town layout is nothing what I expected and it throws me off a bit, but before I get to adjust to this strange environment, people start to line up alongside the street. It’s 11.30 a.m. – time for the changing of the guards, apparently. It’s not nearly as spectacular as their colleague’s performance in London, but it satisfies the curious tourists and their need to block everyone’s view with their selfie-sticks.

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A part of the queue (which was twice as long as seen on this picture)

After roughly five minutes, the guards have walked past us and I’m patiently waiting for the crowds to scatter into all kind of directions so that I can finally find the queue for the tickets. Only they stay right there where they are, lining the streets as if waiting for a parade and I’m starting to sense that queuing might be the same as the changing of the guards: very different from London. After a short chat with one of the castle’s staff members, I have been informed that yes, this is in fact the queue for the tickets. Approximate waiting time: little more than an hour. Well, it can’t be helped, I’ll have to endure it. On the upside, it’s neither raining nor is it particularly cold, so the waiting could be far worse. I don’t know if I really queued for an hour, though it felt much longer, to be honest.

Eventually, after having succeeded in Britain’s national sport number one, I am finally standing inside Windsor Castle. Prince Philip greets me through the headphones of my audio guide and I can’t help but admire the beauty that surrounds me. The fantastic thing about British castles is that they seem so simple and plain on the outside, but once you set a foot inside the great halls, the splendour will render you utterly speechless. And Windsor Castle is – much like Edinburgh Castle – no exception to that rule.

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If you’re not much of a history fan and have little to no knowledge of the British kings and queens, the audio guided tour through the castle might be a bit overwhelming and too much at once. Since I have studied this culture for two years now, there was hardly anything that was news to me, but those who are familiar with the Tudor dynasty, the Wars of the Roses, and Henry VIII won’t be disappointed.

The entire interior architecture is based on this time period, playing with the Lancaster and York symbols and referring to the legend of King Arthur and the knights of the roundtable on many occasions. No matter how long you look at the wallpaper, paintings, furniture, and ceilings, you’ll always find something of a deeper historical meaning. And this very architecture, the way of interlacing a country’s history to the very last detail with the present, made me fall in love with Britain in the first place. You can see that this castle wasn’t built to blind you with wealth. It was built with the purpose of displaying centuries of history to a foreign visitor, almost as if it demands every visitor to understand where this nation comes from.

I would have loved to take photos, but sadly it’s strictly forbidden. Also, I won’t bore you with historical facts because you have to stand in the very room where Edward III was born in 1312 in order to marvel at the many, many faces this old hoar castle has seen. If you consider to visit Windsor Castle, I recommend an early train in order to avoid long queues (especially if you’re visiting with children). Since I visited on the Easter weekend, there were special events just for kids where they got to dress up like Elizabeth I or Henry VIII – I’ve listened to the host for a couple of minutes and it was really entertaining and the costumes were amazing!

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Windsor itself is rather unspectacular but after leaving the castle, I was quite thankful for the quiet little streets and the relaxing atmosphere. In terms of budget, Windsor is slightly more expensive than London due the Royal neighbours. While there are cheap restaurants, I don’t recommend dining near the castle – you pay more for the view rather than the food and staring at a huge stone wall gets boring after five minutes – even if it’s a royal stone wall.

Some of you might know that Windsor is not only famous for being the home of Queen Lizzy but also of one of Britain’s most exclusive colleges: Eton. No less than 19 Prime Ministers were educated there and if you’re in town for a royal visit, you might as well walk the short distance to Eton College. Although it is not always open to the public, the exterior alone suggests how posh the students must be who are privileged enough to study here. It’s strange when you think about it – this college was founded by Henry VI in 1440 as a charity project for poor choir boys. Today, parents pay £12,354 per school term, registration, acceptance, and extra fees excluded. That alone tells you everything you need to know about the direction British culture has taken.

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Eton College

My visit to Windsor ends in the most un-royal way possible: with a hamburger and a milkshake. Long live the Queen!

The Music of Bond

A review of the concert at the Royal Albert Hall

As the headline is already giving away, I went to the Royal Albert Hall yesterday and attended a concert of the London Symphony Orchestra performing The Music of Bond. Yes, Mr. James Bond, of course.

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The Royal Albert Hall (view from Albert Memorial, Kensington Gardens)

But before I go into detail about the concert itself, let’s take a quick look at the location. The Royal Albert Hall is located near Kensington Gardens, where William and Kate occasionally reside at Kensington Palace, and opposite the beautiful Albert Memorial. Most of you will probably know that since its construction in the 19th century, the Royal Albert Hall has always been one of the most beautiful and popular concert venues in Europe. In the UK it is still considered to be an honour for a musician to be allowed to play a concert there.

Behind the hall, you’ll find the Royal Academy of Music hiding from view. Until today, the elite university remains one of the most famous and high ranked institutions for musical studies in the world. Sir Elton John and Annie Lennox are only two examples of the many talents who have graduated here.

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The Royal Academy of Music

We arrived at around 6 p.m – far too early for a concert starting at 7.30 p.m., but you never know with public transport in London. And the way from the underground to the venue is rather long for London standards, so it was rather good that we were so early.

At 7.15 p.m., the stewards were ordered to open the doors to the interior venue and we made our way to out seats at the Rausing Circle. The view, I must say, was rather spectacular:

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Pictures can’t do justice to the fantastic atmosphere and the unique location. When the orchestra members took their seats, the lights faded to black, and the first few notes of the James Bond theme song echoed through the hall – it was such a breathtaking moment that I have trouble describing it. The only comparison coming to my mind was the 2015 theatre performance of Hamlet at the Barbican here in London. When the lights went out, the curtain rose, and your eyes set on the first scene, you just hold your breath in anticipation and excitement. And last night was a similar outstanding experience.

Needless to say, the orchestra’s performance was incredible. There was little to no difference between the movie soundtrack and the live experience. I particularly enjoyed the short explanation of the anatomy of a Bond song by the conductor. He described the “perfect Bond theme song” as a landscape painting with different layers. You start with the background, celli and violoncelli, and then continue to add more and more layers until you end with the foreground, the melody.

Fun fact: Did you know that the guitarist, who played the famous Bond motive in the first ever film, earned a salary of £6?

The host of the evening was Bond girl Fiona Fullerton, who starred in A View to a Kill (1985) alongside Roger Moore. She narrated the musical journey through decades of James Bond music and told funny anecdotes from the set when she was shooting A View to a Kill. She and the orchestra were joined by two amazing vocalists, Simon Bowman and Alison Jiear, who were so amazing that I had goosebumps – several times. Among other songs, they performed Skyfall and Writing’s on the Wall and there truly are no words to describe their incredible voices. Especially Mr. Bowman’s interpretation of Writing’s on the Wall had me on the edge of my seat even though I don’t like the original song. Somehow, he managed to take our breath away and Mrs. Jiear’s version of Skyfall was so true to the original that if one closed one’s eyes, one was easily fooled into thinking that it was Adele and not someone else singing the song.

I wouldn’t call myself a Bond fan and I have never watched a 007-film other than those starring Daniel Craig in the title role. That might be shocking to some, but it just doesn’t appeal to me. The music, however, is truly a masterpiece and after last night’s concert, I think that especially the older songs don’t receive the recognition they undoubtedly deserve. This night has opened my eyes to a music genre of its own, and it managed to change my view on James Bond in some ways – I’d highly recommend this concert to anyone, no matter if they are just a casual viewer or a die-hard Bond fan. The combination of a wonderful venue, fantastic vocalists, and interesting trivia turn this evening into a perfect night out.

A walk through: Notting Hill

“I live in Notting Hill. You live in Beverly Hills. Everyone in the world knows who you are, my mother has trouble remembering my name.”

– William in Notting Hill (1999)

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Despite the heavy rain and occasional thunderstorms promised by Friday’s weather forecast, last Saturday turned out to be a beautiful and sunny spring day in London. And since my legs are still miraculously attached to my hips (despite the sore muscles), it’s time to head out and enjoy the fantastic weather in one of my favourite places in town: Notting Hill.

Undoubtedly, Notting Hill has always been one of the liveliest and most exuberant boroughs in London, but since the release of the film Notting Hill in 1999, it has become hopelessly overcrowded. Nonetheless, if you have never walked down Portobello Road on a busy Saturday morning, you have certainly missed out on something.

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After exiting the tube station at Ladbroke Grove, we head down the street carrying the same name. Eventually, we turn to our right into Westbourne Park Road until we reach the infamous Portobello Road. On Saturdays, many merchants and salesmen have vintage jewellery, accessories, and delicacies on display. But while admiring the broad range of possible souvenirs, make sure to keep an eye on your bag or rucksack since this is, like all crowded places in London, a popular spot with pickpockets. And all street art fans should look out for an artwork protected behind glass by the infamous Banksy.

We continue our walk down Portobello Road. Glancing into the shop windows to your right and left reveals a whole new world of fashion, food, and accessories. I still refuse to believe that there are actual occasions where these kind of shoe designs would be an appropriate choice, but then again, this is London and I’ve already walked past a woman in her pajamas and a bathrobe, carrying grocery bags at two o’clock in the afternoon.

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An old photograph from 2015 when the streets weren’t as crowded as they are now.

The Portobello Garden Arcade lies now behind us and I encourage you to take a closer look at the houses alongside the street. Just like Camden, Notting Hill is also famous for its many street art paintings and, of course, the colourful houses. Following the Empire Windrush in 1948, many Caribbean immigrants settled down in Notting Hill and integrated their vibrant colours and culture into the grey and dusty city life of post-war London. To this day, the residents of this borough are still celebrating the Notting Hill Carnival every year at the end of August. Sadly, I’ve never experienced it myself, but if you’ve got the chance to go and see it – please do so, it is highly recommended by Londoners!

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Famous sight: The colourful houses of Notting Hill

 By now, we have reached a rather innocent looking white façade and only the switched off neon lights – marking the building as the “Electric cinema” – imply that there might be a whole different world hidden behind the insignificant windows. And what a different world it is for this is not just a cinema. On the inside, there are red velvet arm chairs instead of uncomfortable cinema seats and small lanterns illuminate the theatre in an atmosphere that beams you right into the 1960s Hollywood glamour. If you’re not keen on booking tickets right this instant, maybe this trailer might convince you to do otherwise?

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Anyway, today is far too beautiful a day for it to be spent in a cinema, so we walk even further down (or rather up) Portobello Road an arrive at Alice’s. This little antiques shop has seen clients such as Taylor Swift and it’s (sadly) no longer and insider among London lovers. In this little shop, you’ll find old telephones, magnifying glasses, globes, etc.

Until 2015, there was a great bakery, Gail’s bakery, located here on Portobello Road which was selling the best scones I’ve ever eaten. Therefore, I was very disappointed to find another bakery in its place when I visited Notting Hill last Saturday. If you’re just as hungry as I am by now, I recommend waiting for lunch until you’re back in the city centre. Since its cometlike rise to London’s hippest borough, life in Notting Hill has become rather expensive and even a small cup of ice cream is at 4.40. IMG_2304

Before you leave trendy Notting Hill and enter the borough of posh Kensington, there’s one thing you shouldn’t miss: the blue door. Those who have seen Notting Hill, the film I mentioned at the start of our little tour, will probably wonder if William’s house with the blue door exists. Yes, it does. It’s carefully hidden in between little shops and all kind of trashy goods, so well that I’ve walked past it three times until I eventually realised that it’s indeed the same door as in the film.

And now here we stand, at the end of Portobello Road in the very heart of Notting Hill on a wonderful sunny afternoon in spring. And we didn’t run into any movie star and didn’t dump our drinks on their shirt. Tough luck, but that’s the way the cookie crumbles.

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The St. Patrick’s Day Parade

“A Sunday well spent, brings a week of content.”

– ENGLISH SAYING

 As a student of British Studies, you learn quite a lot about English history. In fact, there’s an entire Mount Everest of things you learn about British history and culture, but believe it or not – St. Patrick’s Day never comes up even once! One should think that Ireland’s culture should be mentioned to a certain extent, but no. Therefore, it came as a rather pleasant surprise that I got to go to the St. Patrick’s Day Parade today, the culmination of three days of non-stop partying in London.

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 While St. Patrick’s Day is usually celebrated in Ireland on March 17th, London expands the celebration to three entire days. While there’s an ongoing Irish festival with food, music, and comedy at Trafalgar Square, the highlight takes always place on the last of the three-day-insanity: The St. Patrick’s Day Parade. It starts at 12:00 pm sharp near Hyde Park Corner, then proceeds towards Piccadilly Circus, and ends in Whitehall near Trafalgar Square after roughly 1,5 hours of music, dancing, and cheering.

The parade is just as multicultural as London itself. Of course, the majority of the participating acts are from Ireland or Irish communities and associations in London, but there were also a few Mexican and Bolivian groups integrated, adding to the cheerful atmosphere with traditional dances and music.

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Green Park is probably one of the best spots to watch the groups pass by, since the masses of spectators are thinning out alongside the street and there’s no agglomeration like at Piccadilly Circus or Trafalgar Square. If you’re standing next to a group of dressed up people with massive costumes, expect to be caught on photographs by professional photographers working for news agencies and there’s even a tiny chance you might make an involuntarily appearance on TV. And even the weather was feeling generous today – it rained for a total of five minutes before the sun returned. But since this is London and the weather in London in spring is everything but predictable, better bring a raincoat (please don’t annoy other spectators with umbrellas) and sunglasses.

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One of my personal highlights were the bagpipers. Since my trip to Scotland, I love that kind of music and it created a very ceremonial atmosphere. Then again, I’ve never seen Irish tap dancing live before and that was also very impressive. At first, I didn’t know what to expect and I overheard two German girls wondering if this woul be similar to our German carnival. To my massive relief, it was much more dignified than that. I find it curious that  nations that love alcohol as much as Britain and Ireland do manage to keep their public celebrations completely seperate from their drinking culture and in my opinion, that’s something Germans should do as well. At this parade, nobody was drunk or even carried a bottle or chalice of beer and the ambience was much more cheerful and jovial than at any German carnival parade I’ve ever been to. The music, the dancing, and the getting together were enough to create a feeling of unity and I admire that. Moreover, I thought it was a wonderful idea to include the police and the fire brigade into the celebrations and not portray them as those who dull the atmosphere.

To summarise, it was indeed a Sunday well spent, so if the British are right, this week should bring nothing but joy and I’m very much looking forward to it, since tomorrow is my first day at work.