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Go Bananas At Ally Pally

alexandra palace
 

GO BANANAS AT ALLY PALLY

Perched on a hill between Muswell Hill and Wood Green in North London is the imposing Alexandra Palace, affectionately known as Ally Pally. It was built in in the late 1860s-early 1870s by the Lucas Brothers, who also built the famous and beautiful Royal Albert Hall in London at around the same time. The Great Hall and West Hall are today typically used for exhibitions, music concerts, and conferences. There are also activities such as skateboarding and boating for visitors.

Alexandra Palace, Alexandra Palace Way, London N22 7AY

READ MAHRUKH MCDONALD'S STORY

It was a hot day as we walked up the hill, stopping off on the sloping lawns to take in the view of the London skyline. Families had taken advantage of the beautiful sunny Sunday with picnics spread out on mats and kids running around playing.

Alexandra Palace was never a palace in the true sense of the word but a massive recreational centre designed solely for the enjoyment of the people – opera, musicals, plays, and all kinds of entertainment. It opened in 1873 but just 16 days later was gutted by a tremendous fire. However, it was quickly rebuilt and re-opened two years later.

In Victorian times, audiences were thrilled by actors seeming to appear and disappear into thin air and leap to incredible heights made possible by the under-stage machinery and traps. The theatre remains frozen in time, hidden away for more than 80 years, with much of the original décor and stage machinery still in place. Since 2016, a lot of work has been underway to bring the theatre back to life while retaining its original character. Excitingly, it is now open to visitors and not to be missed!

It’s a little forlorn through years of neglect, but Alexandra Palace is still an impressive building with an incredible alternative history. In the First World War, it was used as a refugee camp then an internment camp. Then, in 1936, the BBC leased the east wing to use as a production and transmission centre. It remained in residence for 50 years, but as other studios developed in and around London, the Ally Pally studios became outdated and eventually closed in the 1982, especially after the second massive fire in 1980 left a large portion of the building derelict. This wing also housed a Victorian theatre and, amazingly, both the studios and the theatre survived the fire. Today, it is the only surviving early TV studio in the world and is still used to exhibit historical television equipment.

alexandra palace

There are numerous events and shows taking place daily at Ally Pally, as well as activities like the indoor ice rink, outdoor skateboard park, boating lake, and the ‘Go Ape’ adventure park. At £36 per adult (£28 for children under 16), Go Ape isn’t cheap, but everyone inside seemed to be having so much fun that we bought tickets. We were in for challenging, blood-pumping action tackling high rope obstacles including Tarzan swings, a fun 79m-long zip line, and a 46ft sheer drop called the Plummet.

Kids are catered for in a separate Tree Top Junior specially designed for mini Tarzans aged between 6 and 10 years. They’re safely harnessed and taken around a practice run to ensure safety and comfort first. It is high, but the children loved it and staff were on hand to provide encouragement and support for not-quite-so brave.

There is also a 10-hole Pitch and Putt course open in the warm months and a picturesque lake where you can hire boats or ride in brightly coloured flamingo pedaloes. The indoor skating rink is open year-round, as is the Phoenix pub for drinks and food.

Our visit coincided with a Sunday morning Farmers’ Market at the bottom of Muswell Hill, and we walked through it, breathing in the aromas of fresh bread and home-made cakes and pastries. We ate at a French-Caribbean stall – a delicious Bokit’la, a pitta-style pocket bread stuffed with aubergine or salt fish, lettuce, avocado – so if you don’t want to eat at one of Ally Pally’s dining options you can always make a day out of it and grab a bite from one of the market’s offerings. With history, entertainment, and views, Ally Pally really has it all.

Feature photograph by John Bointon [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo 2 by neiljs [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

 
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Witness a Criminal Case at the most famous courtroom in the world, The Old Bailey

old bailey
 

WITNESS A CRIMINAL CASE AT THE MOST FAMOUS COURTROOM IN THE WORLD

There has been a criminal court on the site of the Old Bailey since the 16th Century and a jail for over 1,000 years. Various fires and attacks have seen the court rebuilt time and time again; the famous domed Old Bailey as we now know it opened in 1907. Anyone can watch the proceedings of a court case from the public galleries without any bookings or fees.

The Old Bailey, London EC4M 7EH, United Kingdom

READ MAHRUKH MCDONALD'S STORY

Stepping into Court One at the Old Bailey, where the walls still echo with some of the most heinous criminal cases, can be an eerie experience. This courtroom has witnessed the country’s more notorious trials, including those of the Kray twins, who instilled terror throughout East London during the 1950s and ’60s; Dr. Crippen, whose wife’s torso was discovered under the basement floor in 1910; Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, convicted in 1981 of the murder of 13 women and attempted murders of seven others; Dennis Nilsen, who murdered at least 12 young men in the 1980s; and Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in the UK, who was convicted of murdering her lover.

Ten minutes before the afternoon session was due to start, we rang the bell at the Newgate Street door and waited for a guard to invite us in for a security check. After going through security – no phones*, cameras, or large bags (including backpacks) are allowed in – we climbed three flights of stairs to a large waiting area with a prominent sign forbidding you from discussing cases in public areas.

Visitors have to stay for a minimum of 30 minutes for each case so as not to cause too much disturbance to the proceedings. That didn’t prove to be a problem for us at all –­ we got so caught up with the case, we ended up spending the entire afternoon there!

Some things have changed at the Old Bailey since the early days. Today, there are laptops and iPads where once there were inkwells and ledgers. Some things haven’t changed – all the court officials, including the judge and barristers, still dress in robes and wigs.

From the old oak public gallery, we had a bird’s eye view of the courtroom, including the accused – a young man accused of armed robbery – seated meekly in the dock. It was a fascinating experience with the barristers presenting their cases, calling witnesses to the stand, and the judge ensuring the legal validity of the claims made. We heard him many times state, “I have to, at all times, remain totally impartial so need to view all relevant information.”

old bailey

The accused had previous convictions that the jury was not allowed to hear, and they were asked to leave the courtroom a few times during the proceedings when this topic needed to be discussed between the legal team and the judge. We in the public gallery were privy to this information, which made it all the more exciting. Unfortunately, the case was not concluded in that session and was held over for another day, which meant we did not find out the fate of the accused.

The public galleries are open on weekdays from 9:55 a.m. to 12.40 p.m. and again from 1:55 p.m. to 3:40 p.m. Visitors are not allowed anywhere else in the building aside from the occasional open days or on paid tours when you can see the famous dome from the inside, but we will definitely return to the Old Bailey to witness another case.

Did You Know? These days, few people these days get to see “dead man’s walk” at the Old Bailey where, for hundreds of years, convicts were led out to be executed outside on the site of the old Newgate Prison. There was once a secret tunnel that ran from the church opposite to the Old Bailey so the chaplain could avoid crowds while visiting the Bailey to give condemned prisoners their last rites.

* We left our phones at the travel agents just a couple of minutes walk down the Old Bailey street for a small fee.

Feature photograph copyright a4stockphotos – stock.adobe.com
Building photograph copyright Alena – stock.adobe.com

 
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A Guide To The Royal Air Force Museum

raf museum london
 

A GUIDE TO THE ROYAL AIR FORCE MUSEUM

If you have a love for aircraft and want to experience the thrills of piloting a jet fighter or experience what it’s like being a Red Arrow pilot, you cannot miss a visit to the Royal Air Force (RAF) Museum in north London. You can see up close aircraft from the World Wars such as the massive Lancaster bomber, the only Beaufighter (also known as the Whispering Death) in the UK, and the German Messerschmitt to more recent supersonic aircraft like the Phantom, the Tornado, and the Lightning. In addition to displaying over 100 magnificent aircraft, the museum also tells the story of the people behind the aircraft.

RAF Museum, Grahame Park Way, London NW9 5LL

WORDS BY MAHRUKH MCDONALD

Aviation History Timeline Wall & Support Vehicles

Located in Hangar 1, the wall is about 50 metres long and illustrates key events in world aviation from before World War I, when the Wright brothers completed the first ever flight in a powered aircraft, up to the modern age of flight.

In addition to aircraft, Hangar 1 also displays support vehicles such as ambulances and helicopters used in the World Wars. Don’t miss the Enigma machine that was invented by a German and used by British codebreakers to decipher German code during World War II. It is said to have curtailed the war by two years!

RAF During World War I

The exhibit is located in Hangar 2 and brings moving and inspiring stories to life. It includes many personal artefacts including medals, letters, and uniforms, as well as the finest collection of First World War aircraft.

World War II Aircraft

The collection of aircraft used during World War II is so enormous it needs not one but three hangars to contain it – Hangars 3, 4, and 5 are home to British, American, French, and German aircraft. This is where you will find the Messerschmitt, the Spitfire, Hurricane, Beaufighter, and many more.

Flight Simulators

raf museum

Hangar 1 offers a range of unique hands-on experiences, including interactive displays. You can design your own laser guiding bombing mission and even have a go at designing your own airplane and then seeing if it would actually fly. Very popular with kids!

The Gnat flight simulator is in Hangar 1, and you can also try on an RAF uniform. Take the pilot’s seat in the state of the art, full motion aircraft cockpit. A huge, 200-degree spherical screen provides you with an authentic experience. You are in full control of take-off and landing. The simulator experience will cost you £6.

There are also various rides in Hangars 3, 4, and 5. Enjoy a breath-taking flight with the Red Arrows; fly in the Eurofighter Typhoon, Europe's most advanced aircraft; or take part in in a Barnstorming to experience daredevil stunts and tricks in the pioneering days of aviation from the 1920s and ’30s. Cost is £3 for a four-minute ride.

4D Theatre

The newest addition to the museum, the 4D theatre offers exciting experiences of the greatest advances of navigational technology. Fly with the Red Arrows or participate in a World War I dogfight with the Red Barons; race through death defying ravines at supersonic speeds or enjoy a film of a World War II bombing mission in the B7. The rides open at 10.30 a.m. with the last ride at 4.30pm and cost £5 each or £16 for a family of four.

Spitfire MkXVI

raf museum spitfire

Take the pilot’s seat in a real Spitfire Mk XVI to discover what it is like to fly this iconic plane. You can take photos inside the cockpit, but be aware that the Spitfire’s cockpit is very small so a small camera with a wrist strap or a camera zipped into your pocket would be ideal. Only flat shoes allowed in the cockpit. It opens at 11 a.m., and the last session is at 4.30 p.m. Make your way to the Historic Hangars to book your time slot. There is a charge of £10.

Relax

Stop off for a hot drink and pastries in The Sunderland Café in Hangar 1, sitting under the wings of the enormous Short Sunderland Flying Boat. Or you can enjoy hot and cold food and drinks at the Claude’s Café in the 1931 heritage building. The third café, The Wessex Café, is located opposite the Royal Wessex Helicopter in Hangar 3.

If the weather is good, borrow a parachute rug or bean bag and enjoy a picnic outside on the lawn next to the themed playground or indoors in Hangar 3. There is a great shop too where you can pick up some interesting memorabilia of your visit to this museum.

raf museum

If you think your kids may be bored, think again. Kids love this museum. They may even describe it as the coolest museum they have been to! In how many museums do you hear children saying, “This is amazing”, and “Can we come here again”? It has fun things for kids of all ages, including miniature planes for under 5s: DH9A, Spitfire, Gnat and Sea King. Allow a minimum of three to four hours to enjoy your visit to this incredible museum. It really is a fun and educational day out for the whole family.

All photographs by Mahrukh McDonald except feature photograph by Steve Cadman [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Flickr

 
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The London Silver Vaults Are A Sparkling Underground Secret

 

london silver vaults chancery lane

THE LONDON SILVER VAULTS ARE A SPARKLING UNDERGROUND SECRET

The London Silver Vaults is an underground silver market that opened in 1876 as the Chancery Lane Safe Deposit. The building it is located in, on Chancery Lane, was damaged during World War II. It was rebuilt and opened in its present format in 1953.  The Vaults houses 30 shops selling everything from jewellery to pocket watches to cutlery.

The London Silver Vaults, 53-64 Chancery Lane, London WC2A 1QS. Phone: 020 7242 3844

READ MAHRUKH MCDONALD'S STORY

Deep down in the very depths of central London lies a secret even many locals are unaware of. The address is 53-64 Chancery Lane. Enter through the unassuming doorway with “The London Silver Vaults” inscribed over it, go down two flights of stairs, and you will be in the catacombs that were built in 1876 as strong rooms for London’s rich and famous. It now houses the world’s largest collection of fine silver ranging from small items (cuff links, spoons, card holders, or even a champagne swizzle stick) to grander pieces such as bowls, pots, and urns to even larger items like a full-sized silver armchair! It has been suggested you put on your sunglasses when entering this sparkling underground world!

You will find items dating from the 16th Century to contemporary pieces. Prices range from around £25 to over £100,000. But you don’t have to buy anything – many visitors just go to have a look at this amazing underground silver market.

Most of the 30 shops here are family run and have been handed down through generations, many in their third generation. And they aren’t all silver shops. Anthony Green specialises in antique pocket watches. The shop has a clock that was built not far away in Clerkenwell 300 years ago that still works perfectly. There is even a pocket watch with a loud chime for each quarter hour!

There are jewellery shops selling bespoke silver jewellery quite unlike the standard pieces you find in high street shops.

You can spend as much time as you like but allow at least an hour, especially if you want to chat to the friendly shopkeepers. They’re happy to share stories of famous customers and tell you what they bought too.

 
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The Birth of British Rhythm and Blues At Eel Pie Island

eel pie island twickenham
 

THE BIRTH OF BRITISH RHYTHM AND BLUES AT EEL PIE ISLAND

Eel Pie Island is a small island on the River Thames in Twickenham, Middlesex, 20 minutes from the centre of London. It is a residential island today, but in the 1960s, a dilapidated hotel on the Island was part of a music revolution that would change popular music forever.

Eel Pie Island, Twickenham, UK.

READ MAHRUKH MCDONALD'S STORY

Eel Pie Island – the name itself draws you to it! In the 1830s, it was known by the mundane name of Twickenham Ait and was renowned as a resort for visitors and boat parties, some brought by pleasure steamers in the days when there wasn’t a bridge. Tea gardens lined the front of the island, and the eel pies served here were famous. It led to the renaming of the island – and of the pub located on it from Island Hotel to Eel Pie Island Hotel.

It’s not just the name or its fame for serving great eel pies that have made this tiny island famous. It is music! Just as The Cavern Club in Liverpool is renowned for The Beatles music scene, the Eel Pie Island Hotel is famous for The Rolling Stones, Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, David Bowie (then David Wood), Pink Floyd, The Who, and many, many more who, between 1962 and ’67, fused the gritty sound of R&B with the electric sound of Rock ‘n’ Roll to define the shape of popular music.

But Eel Pie Island has been used as a music venue well before the 1960s. In Nicholas Nickleby, Charles Dickens mentioned the hotel as a place where one could "dance to the music of a locomotive band". In the 1920s, it was a local tea dance venue. In 1956, it was a popular jazz venue. Arthur Chisnall set up the Eel Pie Club at the Island Hotel in the late ’50s, and in the early ’60s, it rapidly became “the” place to hear rhythm and blues bands. Youngsters flocked to the island every weekend. They paid the toll (around 2d) to cross the bridge, bought tickets (about 3 shillings 6d), and had their wrists stamped. The ink colour was varied from week to week to stop people from gaining entry again by not washing their wrist for a week.

The hotel was already in a dilapidated condition when it became a jazz hangout in the early 1900s. Part of the dance floor in front of the stage had actually rotted away in the R&B music years. The dilapidated condition of the stage added to the excitement of the venue, as did the highly sprung dance floor. You could not stand still even if you wanted to!

eel pie island twickenham

Before the first bridge was built in 1957, bands had to haul their equipment over the river on a chain barge. There was an instance when the barge sank, and with it, all the music equipment was lost, and the main band had to borrow the music equipment of their support band.

Eel Pie Island was a popular venue for youngsters from West London, but people travelled from all over London to this vibrant venue. Many parents banned their teenagers from the island. Many of them would have preferred their kids enjoy The Beatles’ music instead of the bands playing at The Eel Pie Island Hotel. After all, The Beatles wore suits!

The Eel Pie Club was forced to close down for safety reasons by the council in 1967. For a couple of years, it was used as a venue for well-known bands like Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, but by the end of the ’60s it completely closed down. It went into rapid decline with communes making it their home, and even the Hell’s Angels moved in. In 1971, the hotel burned to the ground.

eel pie island twickenham

Now, the island is home to residents. There are artist studios and boatyards. Phil Collins is the President of the Richmond Yacht Club on the island. This is where he, as a boy, learnt to play the drums. At a very young age, he played in a band on a set of tin drums bought from Woolworths.

You walk across the narrow bridge to Eel Pie Island, and you are in a different world, far removed from the hustle and bustle of London. The main road on the island is a pathway, no cars allowed – there is no way for them to come over and there is no road to drive on. The undergrowth is dense, and cottages line the road, some visible from the path, others tucked away. The most striking of these is called the Love Shack, a weatherboard cottage, bright blue with a white picket fence. Half a mannequin, her legs sticking out from the ground, adorns the entrance. On another cottage, a sign, “Any person omitting to shut and fasten this gate after using it is liable to a penalty of forty shillings”. The island retains some of its quirkiness.

All photographs by Mahrukh McDonald except feature photography by Iridescenti [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5 ], from Wikimedia Commons

 
Kingston-Upon-Thames-Guide-band

12 Hours In Kingston Upon Thames

kingston upon thames
 

12 HOURS IN AND AROUND KINGSTON UPON THAMES

WORDS BY MAHRUKH MCDONALD

More than 1,000 years ago, Kingston was where England began. Seven Anglo-Saxon kings, including the first King of England, were crowned here from the years 900 to 978. Today, Kingston upon Thames is the main town in the Royal Borough of Kingston in south west London. It’s just 10 miles from the centre of London (a 25-minute train ride from Waterloo) and next door to one of the best palaces in England – Hampton Court.

10:00 a.m.

When you exit Kingston station, cross the road and turn left. Within a few minutes you’ll reach Old London Road, where you cannot miss the modern art installation called “Out Of Order” by David Mach. It consists of 12 tumbling full size red telephone boxes, the first one upright with the rest tilted to various degrees until the final one is almost flat on the ground – like dominoes. This is where your tour of Kingston will begin.

kingston upon thames

A few yards beyond the telephone boxes is Kingston Antiques on Old London Road. It is a treasure trove packed full of antique clothing, jewellery, furniture, and just about anything anyone can imagine. If you haven’t had breakfast, stop off at the little Polish Café on the upper level that serves a selection of food from sandwiches, salads, full English breakfast to Polish dishes like Pieroggi (Polish ravioli with meat or sauerkraut and mushrooms or potato and cheese).

Just around the corner from the Out Of Order art is an interesting bit of history about a dog called Nipper. A Kingston artist painted the famous HMV logo on which his dog, Nipper, appears.  He was named Nipper because he would "nip" the backs of people’s legs! The celebrity dog is buried in a narrow street that has been renamed Nipper Alley in commemoration. You can easily miss it, because the only sign is up on the wall at the start of the alley. Look out for the Kings Tun, a Wetherspoons pub, and you’ll find Nipper Alley adjacent to it.

kingston upon thames

11.00 a.m.

Clarence Street is the main shopping precinct and is a pedestrian-only street. Often, especially on weekends, you can enjoy fabulous street performances ranging from music, magic, and acrobats. The Bentalls Centre is a landmark shopping centre that was founded in 1867. Between 1935 and 1976, it was UK’s largest department store outside of London. It is now home to many high street shops like Gap, Monsoon, Boots etc. tastefully set out on a number of floors. Bentalls still exists at the far end, and the façade has been retained and is heritage listed.

After exiting the Bentalls Centre, walk down Church Street to All Saints Church which has beautiful stained-glass windows and a café inside the church. If you’re lucky, you could be enjoying tea and cake during a cello and piano recital. This was the site of the coronation of the very first king of England. When the church was built the Coronation Stone was moved to behind the Guildhall building.

kingston upon thames

12.30 p.m.

The heart of Kingston is its bustling market square, which dates back to 1242. From 1603, livestock was sold in the market square on Saturdays, but it was moved to another location in 1625 after the local chemist complained about unwanted visitors – sheep! – entering his shop.

The Market Square, with the brilliant gold statue of Queen Anne atop the Market House building and beautiful Tudor architecture, is home to a variety of shops and several market stalls, including the artisan Oliver’s Bakery (don’t miss the “Naughty Chocolate Brownie”) and many food stalls offering authentic, inexpensive foods from around the world.

kingston upon thames

There are often a long queue at the famous Phoreal Vietnamese food stall. The menu is limited, but everything on it is delicious. The Pho is particularly good, as is the roast pork. Namu is another favourite offering shoppers authentic Japanese gyozo, katsu, tempura, and curries, or perhaps the enticing spicy aromas may attract you to the Exotic Tangine that serves authentic Moroccan dishes. The food at the stalls represent excellent value for the quality and is very popular with hungry shoppers and day trippers.

On a hot afternoon, stop off for a welcome drink at the Druid’s Head pub in the square. Located in a beautiful 16th century building, it offers traditional pub food and a wide range of beers and other drinks.

2.30 p.m.

Just a five-minute stroll from the market square, busy cafés line the Thames along the Riverside Walk. Outside dining is popular in good weather with restaurants offering a wide variety of cuisines, including English (Bill’s), Thai (Busaba Eathai), Argentinian (CAU Steak Restaurant), Italian (Al Forno Restaurant) or the Riverside Vegetaria for vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free dishes.

kingston upon thames

Even if you have already filled your stomach with street food in Market Square, the Riverside Walk is a wonderful place to while away your time in a stunning location, watching ducks and swans float by and rowers competing against each other while enjoying a desert, drink, or ice cream at one of the Riverside restaurants.

4.00 p.m.

Walk under the arch of the bridge to the huge department store building of John Lewis and by the mosaic outside you will come across one of Kingston’s hidden gems. Look through the large glass window panes to see a 650-year-old chalk and flint-barrel vaulted cellar of the old Rose and Crown Inn that stood at this spot. Right next to it are the remains of two stone pillars that supported a flimsy wooden bridge built in 1219, only one of two bridges across the River Thames until 1729 when Putney Bridge was built.  The bridge fell victim to destruction during the War of the Roses in the 1400s.

kingston upon thames

Another 5-minute walk along the river, you come to Turks Pier where you can take a leisurely paddle boat river cruise between Richmond, Kingston, and Hampton Court, taking in the beautiful scenery along the way. You can also stop off and see Hampton Court. However, Hampton Court is massive and really requires a separate visit to see it properly.

6.30 p.m.

After docking back at Turks Pier, walk towards Kingston Bridge (also called Horse Fair) down Riverside Walk till you get to Charter Quay. Just a short walk along this inlet till you come to the historic Clattern Bridge, the oldest surviving bridge in London built around 1175.

kingston upon thames

Opposite Clattern Bridge is a semi-circular building, the Guildhall. To the right of this building you will see the Coronation Stone, an ancient stone block believed to have been the site of the coronation of the first kings of England. It rests on a plinth with the names of seven kings inscribed around it. When the All Saints Church was built in 1120, the stone was moved to its current location but there are plans to move the stone back to its original place in or next to the All Saints Church.

7.00 p.m.

Right next to Clattern Bridge is the famous Rose Theatre where you can catch a show. Shows usually start at 7.30 p.m. giving you time to enjoy a light refreshment at the theatre before the show.

rose theatre kingston university south london

9.30 p.m.

There are many eateries right next to the Rose Theatre or you can choose to enjoy a meal at one of the Riverside restaurants. Kingston has many other excellent restaurants and pubs, some of which have live music. If you are not ready to return home yet, you can go clubbing at the Pryzm on Clarence Street, the Hippodrome on St. James Road, or the Bacchus Late Bar.

All photographs by Mahrukh McDonald except feature photograph copyright gb27photo - stock.adobe.com

 
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Meet The Laughing Cavalier At Hertford House

wallace collection hertford house
 

MEET THE LAUGHING CAVALIER AT HERTFORD HOUSE

Hertford House is home to the Wallace Collection, a fabulous art collection that belonged to the 4th Marquess of Hertford and his illegitimate son Richard Wallace. It houses Frans Hals’s Laughing Cavalier along with other priceless paintings, intricate furniture, and elaborate helmets. Entry to the museum is free.

The Wallace Collection, Hertford House, Manchester Square, London W1U 3BN. Phone: 020 7563 9500

READ MAHRUKH MCDONALD'S STORY

George Montagu, the 4th Duke of Manchester had Hertford House built in the late 18th century because the area was good for duck shooting. Today, it’s right in the centre of London, so there’s not a duck in sight!

Tucked away in the corner of Manchester Square, Hertford House is a mansion that is home to the fabulous Wallace Collection. The collection started when the 4th Marquess of Hertford used the building to house his growing art collection. His illegitimate son, Richard Wallace (after whom the collection is named), added to it by bringing his substantial art collection from his Paris home.

In 1897, Richard’s wife, Lady Wallace, bequeathed the Wallace Collection to the nation. It has been open to the public as a museum since 1900 (although it took breaks during both World Wars).

The impressive grand marble staircase that greets you when you enter the building has an intricate cast iron, gilt brass, and lacquer balustrade. The staircase appears to be part of the original building construction, but on closer inspection of the design at the base of the balustrade you will see horns of plenty overflowing with coins and banknotes, showing that it once belonged in a bank in France. It was bought by Richard Wallace in 1871 and installed in Hertford House three years later.

The Great Gallery is the jewel of the Wallace Collection – a massive room full of priceless paintings by famous grand masters. The most famous is Frans Hals’s Laughing Cavalier (1624). Nobody knows who the Laughing Cavalier was and, in fact, he is not even laughing but does have a bit of a smile. Wherever you go in the room, the Laughing Cavalier’s eyes will follow you.

The Wallace Collection_002

As you walk through the rooms among the intricately made furniture, you can literally breathe the atmosphere of opulence and luxury. One of the most imposing pieces of furniture is a wardrobe made by Andre-Charles Boulle – who was the most important cabinet maker for Louis XIV – in 1715.

The armoury section contains elaborate helmets worn by the nobility as well as helmets worn by common soldiers who could not afford to buy fancy armour and had to make them out of whatever material they could find. This type of armour is rare, because after the battle was over soldiers usually melted them down to make more useful items such as cooking pots.

The museum is free, and you can walk around it at your own pace, but if you have a couple of hours, the free guided tour by volunteer historians is highly recommended. When you’re done, retreat to the stunning glass-covered courtyard that is a glamorous location for a café/restaurant with tables set among trees and sculptures.

Feature photograph by Musicartgeek [CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons
Large Drawing room photograph by M.chohan [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons