All Aboard the Centenary Bus!

It feels as though these last couple of weeks has come full circle for me. On Wednesday evening, I went to the Royal Albert Hall to see Prom 36: Vaughan Williams and Alwyn.

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Absolutely brilliant. I booked a ticket only a week before and only because of the recent centenary events (yes, I’m afraid this is another piece on WWI from me – as if you couldn’t get enough stuff on the subject at the moment as it is. You should by now know I’m a little obsessed. Don’t ask me why – someone once said I have a fascination with morbid things.)

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At the moment, I feel like every time I turn on the TV or go to read The Guardian, there’s a new article or programme about the centenary waiting for me, just me, to discover it; it’s like the twelve days of Christmas.

My centenary adventure begins: I went to the Imperial War Museum a couple of weeks ago. I tried to rouse the troops – “It’s had a £4 million refurb, don’t you know?… It really is the best museum… Of course – there’s LOADS of good-looking men there, mostly dead ones in old photos, but you get what you can where you can find it…”.

I also was honest. I said, “I’ll probably look at EVERYTHING.” Thought that would sort the women from the children, and they’d say, “So will we! We’ll power through with you – we’re that interested.”

But they said, “No.” Apart from two friends, and yes, I have more than two.

What can I say? The others missed out. They missed out.

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The WWI gallery housed some of the most spine-tingling artistic pieces I’ve seen, and the World War 1 exhibition, which we queued for, has been modernised really well – with projections and interactive elements aplenty (screw you, Natural Boring History Museum), though I was sorry to see that the Blitz experience had disappeared. Oh well.

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We powered through the various exhibits – the WWII tank known as Willie Pusher, the traumatising Holocaust exhibition, and even the toilets that glare with so much red lighting, I expected poles and dancers to rise out of the floor.

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What dismays me a little now, which I discovered when reading an article yesterday, is that the Chinese voluntary services who fought amongst Britain’s allies, have been literally painted out of history. And though exhibitions and various TV programmes are making their efforts to remember the often forgotten African and Indian soldiers, there’s no acknowledgement of the Chinese – not even at the Imperial War Museum. Only now are they getting their first official memorial.

Another stop on the tour de centenary was the British Library. I mooched along there to pass the time on a Friday evening and, you know, suck up some more black and white shizzle. But I was so amazed at the WWI exhibition they had. Not only did they have original posters from the day, but also actual original handwritten poems and letters – from the likes of Rupert Brooke, Siegfried Sasson and Wilfred Owen. Just amazing! This was everything I’d studied at school. It said not to take pictures, so I did. Apologies for light reflections.

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Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier – original manuscript

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Letter to Rupert Brooke from a friend offering to darn his socks

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Siegfried Sassoon’s accompanying letter to his anti-war declaration…

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…Siegfried Sassoon’s anti-war declaration – for which he was sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital for hysteria

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Letter from Isaac Rosenberg, referencing his poem In the Trenches

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Poem Anthem for Doomed Youth by Wilfred Own – original manuscript with annotations by Siegfried Sassoon

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Vaughan Williams – original manuscript

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WWI letter of condolence

Could hardly sit still the rest of the evening.

Which brings me to my final stop on the magical WWI bus. I’d decided to watch WWI Remembered from Westminster Abbey on Monday the 4th. I thought even I might get bored, but I tell you what – I was enthralled. I guess I should have expected there’d be readings by actors and soldiers of letters, poems and books from 1914, considering the Great War fuelled so much great art and literature – much of which I studied during my A-Levels. A decent balance between men and women’s work as well, as sadly too often, women’s voices are not heard or cared for in this genre, or simply snarled at. And I loved one of the speeches, which I believe was by Hew Strachan, professor at Oxford University, in which he spoke of how we should be wary of hindsight, as it’s all too easy to patronise the past and the decisions made during the war.

But there’s one area of culture I’ve never studied, and that’s classical music – especially the pieces that were performed on this night – the likes of Elgar and Thomas Tallis. So when I heard those opening notes of the organ played by Daniel Cook, and by the violinist Jennifer Pike playing A Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams, I caught my breath.

So emotionally fitting with the ideology of 1914, having been written in that year before Vaughan Williams lied about his age and joined the army.

This piece, based on the poem of the same name by George Meredith, effectively shows how the composer lost his innocence simply because his pieces following that war to end all wars were much more disturbing, and were his dedications to his lost companions, such as the composer George Butterworth.

And it turns out I’m not the only who feels this way about The Lark Ascending, as it was voted the nation’s favourite piece of classical music in Classic FM‘s poll – which made me feel a little bit clueless as I never really knew this piece before now. Still, I listened to this song obsessively the other week and couldn’t seem to listen to anything other than classical music. So I decided to go and see something at the Proms, and thought I wonder... And my heart skipped a beat, because I found that The Lark Ascending was playing at the Proms!

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On Wednesday night, I wrung my hands, sweating, throughout the entire 15 minutes and felt like a lark myself, like I do every time I hear it. And I could hear sniffing around me, and it was played so softly at times, that I could almost not hear it – and you can’t hear it on the Radio 3 recording for this reason, but when I was there, I could feel it – feel the waves on my goosebumps. Static and ecstatic. I’m due to hear it again in November when my friend, a professional violinist, will be playing it at a remembrance event.

I should probably invite along the two old ladies who sat next to me at the Proms; they slept through the whole, bloody thing.

David Attenborough: A Fossil of Our Time

A week ago, I sat in an audience waiting for the arrival of a British icon in Chiswick Business Park. The place was packed out, the air fizzing with anticipation – for who? Sir David Attenborough.

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Funny how a man of 87 years could create such an excitement – the only other time I’ve witnessed such a thing was at a guitar show where people queued for an autograph from Jim Marshall, the famous guitar amp creator. It’s strange how a crowd buzzes over such an old person, something that doesn’t often occur in this Western world obsessed with the young. But let’s face it: Jim Marshall is a music legend and therefore automatically eternally cool. David Attenborough on the other hand…works with animals. Okay, maybe he’s done a little bit more than that.

As soon as he bounded in, waving at the audience and bouncing onto the stage to be interviewed, I got it: I understood why people like him rise from the crowd and do great things. It’s his positive energy, his enthusiasm. The chair was stationed so that his back was turned to the side of the audience where I sat, but like a true professional, he directed every answer to the entire audience – actively turning around to speak to us all. And though his voice – instantly recognisable from his career of voice-overs – has its iconic, husky tone, he nevertheless spoke so vibrantly, he barely needed his microphone. I felt like I was having a personal audience with him. And so enthusiastic – as enthusiastic in his mannerisms as Jack Black – gesticulating with his arms like one of the many primates he’s filmed in his life.

His interview took us on a journey back in time. He actually began his career with a degree in natural sciences at Cambridge University. In 1952, he started work at the BBC after applying for a job as a radio talk producer, which he didn’t get, before his CV was noticed by Mary Adams who was head of the Talks department – basically the factual TV department. He became producer for the department, and eventually landed his first role as a presenter when Jack Lester, the then presenter for Zoo Quest an animal collecting programme – became ill and David was made to stand in at short notice. The rest is, of course, history.

His stories of TV in the old days fascinated me the most, as a worker in the industry, and with parents who also once worked at the BBC in the 60s and 70s. When Attenborough first began presenting, everything went out live. There was no technology back then to pre-record anything. The schedule itself was a very interesting concept, as back then not many people had TV sets (until the Queen’s coronation in 1953 when many people rushed to buy televisions just to watch the televised ceremony). He explained that around 6pm, BBC television broadcasting shut down for a couple of hours, for fear that housewives would be so locked into watching it they would forget to put their children to bed!

Attenborough has many titles and awards, and is the only person to have won a BAFTA in black and white, colour, HD and 3D formats (bring on 4K). He was asked what he felt was the biggest change in the industry. His response was when cameras became electronic during the 80s. Before then, cameras (especially  studio cameras) were huge – giant things that need a group of people to wheel them around. But the technological advances in cameras meant they became more stable and reliable, smaller, and easier to manage. To him, this was a major evolution in technology.

His legacy lasts because he plays a part in so many fields – the natural world and TV. What of the future? He believes that his style of nature presenting, what is known as traditional “blue-chip” programming, is on the edge of extinction. Nowadays, nature programmes have more of an adventure feel: the presenters are Indiana Jones-esque, getting into the thick of it – like Attenborough does himself, but there’s more of a hands-on and not to mention wild and dangerous value. Attenborough himself said that animals are relatively easy to read (with their emotions like aggression and calmness readable by any human’s sixth sense), and that he has always found animals to be calm. The scariest creature he has ever faced is a human being wielding a gun.

And the future of the planet?

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We need to stop overpopulating. In his words,

“Either humans need to control the population, or nature will end up doing it for us.”

How does Attenborough propose we curb overpopulation? He said that people like him are part of the problem – old people are living longer these days. But more than that, the countries where overpopulation is a problem are the countries where women are not educated and have little control over their own bodies. If we educate women in these countries, it’s likely that the population levels will fall, as women in countries that encourage them to be educated and have more control over their bodies are less likely to have so many children.

His interest in nature began as a child, when he collected fossils and specimens. Just as this inspiration has carried on well into adulthood, where he is still so fascinated by breaking open a fossil, like an ancient tomb, and being the first human to set eyes on a creature that hasn’t been seen since it became fossilized millions of years ago, so we too will continue to look upon the museum of his life and career in awe. So many of us in Britain have grown up with David Attenborough. He’s so warm and friendly on television, he’s like an old family friend. No doubt that one day the country will inevitably be in mourning over him, but he will be cherished and continue to live on as a fossil of our time. Such is life.

The Eiger: a Short Mountaineering History

 

The Eiger.

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A mountain in the Swiss Alps with a north face (Nordwand in German) so deadly, the Germans nicknamed it mordwand – the death wall. The death wall, where at least 64 climbers have died whilst attempting to scale it since 1935. In 1935, Karl Mehringer and Max Sedlmeyer from Bavaria had attempted to climb it, but after spending many days climbing, they disappeared, and were discovered much later, frozen on what became known as Death Bivouac.

This year, however, marks the 75th anniversary of the first successful ascent of the Eiger’s north face in 1938. During the 30s, the race was on to scale this face, and different nations took part, with one of the biggest pushes from the German side, eager to prove themselves superior to all others. Even in those early days, experienced as the climbers were, their equipment was somewhat primitive. Though they used climbing gear, it was mainly hand-made and insufficient, such as hand-twisted  hemp rope, home-hammered pitons , and woolly mittens.

Back then, mountaineering, or alpinism as it’s known more specifically concerning climbing in the Alps, was highly specialised, because the stakes were so much higher. Not only was the technology not what it is today, but a lot of the paths that mountaineers take today were pinpointed by the earliest climbers.

So why is the northface of the Eiger still so gruelling and deadly?

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You only have to watch the 2008 German film North Face (Nordwand) to learn the reason: there is the danger of avalanches and falling rocks, and not only that but the weather is so changeable it still catches out people even to this day – leaving them stranded in severe snow storms. This is what happens to the main characters in the film, who are in fact not just characters, but were real men. And yes, as you watch the film, you keep thinking: This is based on a true story?!

Spoiler Alert! Do not read further if you wish to watch the film.

Meet Andreas Hinterstoisser – German mountaineer who was a highly esteemed, technical climber, famous for his pendulum manoeuvre that enabled him and his partner to traverse impassable faces.

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The famous Hinterstoisser Traverse on the Eiger’s north face was in fact named after him. This is his climbing partner, Toni Kurz, skilled in planning and forward thinking.

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Both Germans decided to attempt the Eiger’s north face in July 1936, alongside two Austrians Edi Rainer and Willy Angerer.

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Only the previous year, the two Germans, Karl Mehringer and Max Sedlmeyer, had made their fatal attempt at climbing the Eiger’s north face. A year later, this latest group of climbers were very much aware of the dangers, and when they set off from camp at the base of the north face, several other climbers who had also been waiting for a weather window had already left camp for home, deciding the chances too great against them. The four Germans and Austrians began the climb, with Hinterstoisser creating his famous traverse across an icy rock face using the pendulum technique. Though this was the only way across the face, they decided to remove the rope from there, thinking they would only need to abseil back down in a different direction.

But they ran into trouble. The weather changed and became hostile, and Angerer was hit by a falling rock, leaving them unable to continue. They decided to return back down the Eiger. Yet as they lowered themselves down, they once again had to attempt the icy rock face, but with the rope gone, it was up to Hinterstoisser to attempt his pendulum manoeuvre once again.

He tried for hours to cross back again, but eventually had to admit defeat, leaving the group to descend on a trickier route. But, as they climbed down, they were suddenly struck by an avalanche and Hinterstoisser, who was apparently disconnected, fell from the mountainside and died. Following this, Angerer also fell, hitting the wall and dying. The force caused Rainer, who was securing both Angerer and Kurz, to become pulled against the wall where he died of asphyxiation.

Though the film depicts these events in a slightly different fashion, it pretty much reflects the morbid events. After this, Kurz was left alone, with two unresponsive climbers still attached to him – one above and one below.

There was, however, a train – Jungfraubahn – that passed into a tunnel into the Eiger and connected with viewing stations further up the mountain.

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The railwayman realised that Kurz wasn’t far from one of the tunnel’s viewing windows, and on hearing him shouting out, decided upon a rescue attempt. Yet, the worsening weather left the rescue team unable to help for another night, leaving Kurz huddled against the mountainside. He was now with one gloveless hand and had lost all feeling in it and his arm. The next day, the rescue attempt continued – Kurz having survived the night – and they urged him to cut himself free from Rainer and Angerer, who were by now unresponsive. The idea was to lower his rope for the team to attach their own rope to that would enable Kurz to lower himself down to their level. But Kurz’s rope was too short, so he had to unravel it to make it longer, using just one hand and his teeth. It took him five exhausting hours.

At this point, the rescue team realised they still didn’t have a rope long enough. Their 60m rope had slipped out from beneath one of the member’s backpacks and fallen down the mountainside, and it was too late to retrieve it. Instead, they tied two ropes together and attached it to Kurz’s. Kurz, now close to death, slowly lowered himself down. He became stuck just metres from the rescuers, hanging in the air, when the knot in the rope wouldn’t pass through his harness. The guides were so close to him, they could just touch about reach him if one stood on the other’s shoulders, but he still needed to be lowered further. Kurz attempted to pull himself up so that, with less weight, the knot would pass through the gear. But he just couldn’t do it.  Eventually he gave up, saying, “Ich kann nicht mehr,”. He died, dangling helplessly, his body to be cut down a few days later.

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For more information on this, see here.

A tragic story, considering the first mountaineers – another group of Austrian/Germans (Anderl HeckmairLudwig VörgHeinrich Harrer and Fritz Kasparek) – to successfully climb the north face did so just two years later. As time went on, the Eiger’s north face became more easily navigated by its climbers, from Alison Hargreaves climbing it in 1988 whilst six months pregnant (who sadly died in 1995 on K2), to 2008, when Ueli Steck climbed the face completely unaided.

Having watched North Face after returning from a break in Chamonix just two weeks ago, I am now fascinated by the world of mountaineering. To me, a mountain is like a domineering, living, moving being, that I can’t seem to stop staring at – my eyes forever travelling upwards. No wonder people want to climb them – to be part of a mountain and to conquer it, like breaking a horse. I wish I had the guts to take up mountaineering myself, but for me, hiking and cable cars are enough of an adrenalin rush for the time being! Pictures will never fully represent the experience of being somewhere like this until you go there, but I thought I’d end with some anyway. Chamonix – Mont Blanc and the Aiguille du Midi.

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Mountaineer after Climbing Aiguille du Midi

International Women’s Day: Hypatia

I first came across Hypatia in the 2009 film Agora.

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Based in Roman-ruled Egypt, the film centers around the raging disputes between the main religions of the day –  Judaism and Christianity, and ends with the death of Hypatia, a Greek philosopher. Essentially, it is suggesting that ancient religions allowed no place for philosophy or science and in fact divide us as people, though this concept may have been made stronger for the sake of the film plot.

Hypatia sprang to my mind as someone to write about, because for a start, women were not really regarded as equals in Ancient Greece or Rome. Hypatia lived in the later stages of the ancient world, around 350-370 AD. But as an aristocrat of her day, money allowed her to thrive in a man’s world.

She was a mathematician (the first known woman mathematician) and philosopher, and as the head of the Platonist school at Alexandria, she taught many male students on these subjects – based on law rather than nature – making her a woman apart from her time. One scene in the film that has stuck in my mind (probably out of shock value), that apparently did happen in real life, is when one of her suitors makes a pass at her (suggested as Orestes in the film though this is not historically true), and she gives him her menstruation rags, saying there is nothing attractive about carnal knowledge. As to the rest of the film, it’s probably fair to say that history has been somewhat distorted.

Essentially, her eventual death resulted from rising tensions between the Christians and Jews. Or rather, the situation was used to get rid of her. Orestes was the governor of Alexandria at this time, and Cyril was the Bishop of Alexandria, and both became more furious with each other’s actions. Although Hypatia was widely held highly and with virtue by most men, it was because Orestes came to her for council that Cyril cited her – an untrustworthy pagan- as the reason for his and Orestes’ inability to get along, which amounted to the wider conflicts between Christians and Jews in the city. Really, he was jealous of her – jealous that people came to her for her wisdom, and that a woman could hold such a power as wisdom.

One report by Socrates Scholasticus states that after Cyril spread these rumours, she was kidnapped by a mob of Christians, stripped naked in a church, and attacked with roof tiles, before her body was torn limb from limb. Another report says that her body was dragged naked through the city. Along with many others, she was made a scapegoat for the conflicts, and it was because she was such a strong female figure, that she was seen as much of a threat as the other men.

Hampton Court Palace in Pictures

The other weekend I took a trip with my partner and housemate to Hampton Court Palace, which is just down the road from where I live. Here are my pictures and thoughts on the day. I’m not going to call it an online tour: that might put you off reading. Having read a number of books and seen programmes on the Tudors and the history of this period since the last time I visited a few years ago, I spent most of the time informing my companions about the history of the place. I’m sure they enjoyed listening as much as I enjoyed talking. I’m sure they did. In fact, sometimes they enjoyed what I said so much I had to say it again.

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The first thing you tend to notice about the Palace is its colossal number of chimneys. Chimneys were a sign of wealth in the old, old days. Chimneys = fires = wood for burning = a wealthy houseowner who could either afford a lot of wood or had a vast amount of land to grow and fell trees for firewood. The design of the chimneys derives from the original design back when the palace belonged to Thomas Wolsey, before it became Henry VIII’s. Thomas Wolsey is more widely known as Cardinal Wolsey – Henry VIII’s advisor whom he held close to him. That is until Wolsey failed to secure Henry’s divorce from his first wife Catherine of Aragon, and was arrested. He died before Henry had a chance to kill him.

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Anyway, the above picture shows the area outside the main entrance. I said to my housemates I reckoned there was once water here, like some sort of moat, as you can see the change in the brickwork colour. Sure enough, during last week, I saw an old news story from the 4th January, literally the day before I went to visit, reporting that this moat had been flooded for the first time in ten years – which would explain the green tinge of the brickwork.

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Felt like a right historian, I did.

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The Tudor kitchens. You can still have parties and weddings here. The Tudor diet consisted of 75% meat.

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Notice the “GR” meaning George Rex, denoting that the mailbox was cast during the time of George (VI?).

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The Great Hall – England’s last great medieval hall, decorated with tapestries featuring The Story of Abraham. Tapestries were a prominent wall decoration in medieval times. Wolsey had more than 600 tapestries himself, and would have the tapestries displayed in his rooms changed every week.

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Henry VIII was a great sportsman in his youth. He was great at jousting, games such as real tennis, and of course, hunting, which is why most of the London parks contain freely roaming deer.

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This, of course, is Henry VIII. Not the most famous of portraits, which involves him wearing a massive cloak and, er, codpiece to emphasize his manliness, yet near enough the same. His wide stance also suggests a tough guy, as well as his curved calves, which many of his contemporaries praised, as strong, muscular calves were beheld as an element of beauty on a man in those days. Why the massive codpiece? Despite having had six wives, many of their offspring died, and only one male heir survived him. Yet not for long – Edward VI died at 15 years old. The codpiece is more or less Henry saying, “I am capable of having a strong male heir – honest!”

It is widely suggested that the many babies Henry fathered died at such young ages, or were stillborn, because he had syphilis. He had other syphilitic symptoms – an ulcerated knee, and his extremely unpredictable behaviour as he aged. Yet, in no written documents does it say that he had syphilis, and medics in those days were very familiar with the illness and its symptoms. Instead, his behaviour and apparent tyranny may be attributed to a head injury following a jousting accident in 1536, that left him out cold for two hours. In the same accident, an old wound on his knee was reopened, leading him to suffer immense pain from it for the rest of his life, as ulcers repeatedly appeared on it. It is said that you could tell when Henry was coming towards the room you were in, as you could actually smell the wound. This knee, combined with possible gout and diabetes would also explain his obesity.

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Heading into the other part of Hampton Court Palace – the world of William III and Mary II.

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In William and Mary’s private bedroom, they had a remote locking system; using a pulley, they were able to lock the doors without leaving the comfort of their own bed – note the wire attached to the top of the lock. Almost like the modern day app system Wemo which allows you to do things like switch off your lamp remotely from your phone. Kind of reminds me of that awful old-school film about the computer called Electric Dreams

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It’s crazy how many beds and closets the king had – the closet having developed from a small room for the king to retreat to, to a much larger room or rooms. Interesting to note, when we were walking round, a visitor asked an attendant where Henry VIII’s bedroom was. He obviously hadn’t been paying attention. She said they didn’t exist anymore as William had effectively rebuilt over some of Henry’s old rooms including his bedroom, which is why some of the palace is completely red brick with floral carvings … and the other parts look like this:

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For William, I guess he liked the palace, yet wanted something more fashionable for the times. Which is why Hampton Court Palace, the home of two halves, is such a fascinating place to visit.