Christmas at Kew

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Festive traditions, be they familial or for one’s own enjoyment tend to have an established causal factor, derived from certain common practises and often nostalgic subjective reasonings. A comforting odour of baking, the vivid contrasting temperatures of a cold frosty night to the warmth and tranquility within. The dark nights and bright lights that signify the onset of the festive period, from the dignified to the vivid and bold. Beyond the materialistic, there has emerged in recent years a resurgence and growth in the festive experience, events and exhibits that are designed to elicit our emotive state which of course take place throughout the year, but in the best tradition of the season often designed to evoke the more positive and fulfilling sense of mind and soul. These events, focusing entirely upon London for the moment, in the past few years have taken the form of live orchestral festive films often with suites of music exclusively to the showings, from Love Actually to Home Alone, the growth of the Bavarian Christmas Markets and of course the Christmas at Kew event that has grown in popularity and scope since its inception in 2012 with each subsequent year adding to the spectacle and attraction.

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I’ll concede from the start, I still have a certain fondness for bright lights and at least from an artistic view-point exhibits such as these that combine design and attraction. Emerging from the darkness onto the exhibit trail, depending upon your entrance point, you are greeted with the spectacular, a light exhibit designed around the settings prominent focus point, flowers and nature towering above you and honestly, inspiring in their scope and beauty. As with the best exhibits that attempt to entertain the visual is accompanied by an assortment of Christmas music, thankfully relatively restrained and classically based as opposed to the garish repetitive songs so familiar and underwhelming. These were a returning feature from last years exhibit but certainly no less impressive a visual display to witness and enjoy, I adore the contrasting lights and colours to the dark nights sky, in honesty this exhibit would not work in the light, they require and demand the dark black sky to contrast the colours so vividly. And it works with the bold reds and intricate pattern of the wired petals above.

The ‘finale’ of the trail depending on your orientation around the gardens takes place projected against the Palm House with a combined light shower and musical medley as well as an impressive projected holographic display that encapsulates the entire width of the structure.  On previous occasion these tracks were an assortment of festive hits and associated musical soundtracks such as the suite from Home Alone. This year it was a mix of Frozen’s ‘Let it Go’ and Love Actually, an audio treat accompanied by some amazing lights as shown. The exhibit itself lasts approximately 10 minutes but continues in a loop and honestly, both last year and on this occasion it was one of the highlights if not my own personal favourite part of the night, basking in the amazing lights, the festive music and general Christmas spirit so prevalent at the event. There is something perhaps a little self-indulgent about events such as these, enjoying the base, positivity and exuberance of it all, but equally this isn’t designed as a materialist or commercial venture although certainly provisions are there for you to enjoy. Beyond the entrance fee you can simply walk around and enjoy the gardens and light exhibits for what they are.

Throughout the experience the Gardens makes use of one of their prime assets, the many tree’s of various type that make up the vast expanse of Kew but each selectively and individually purpose to add to the occasion. A few that I noticed are shown, the fir trees of course selected for their connection to the festive period and adorned and decorated in various baubles and decorations one would come to expect. The glittering lights around the stripped bare tree’s elicit a certain, cold and frosty experience and honestly the temperature on occasion would make this easy to believe. But equally the choice of projected lights into the tree’s themselves were an inspiring spectacle, I loved the use of red light against the empty branches and trunks of the trees creating an almost ethereal look against the dark night sky. I would probably say the predominant majority of the display was devoted to the use of lights and sounds as opposed to the more traditional Christmas tree bauble but regardless, a lovely selection of visual treats.

As impressive was the water features, the Garden’s themselves feature a number of ponds and areas and as such the trail takes you across one such area as you move towards the end of the trail. I was curious as to what Kew would present this year and was pleased with the choice and the exhibit on show, a series of lit up small boats that changed color sequentially creating a variety of colors and effects, this perhaps one of the more refined and subdued in contrast to the rainbow coloured pattern that cycles through. But in truth just an amazing site to see and equally as impressive the reflective appearance off the water’s surface. Perhaps on an unsettled night where the water was disturbed the effect would have been less so but on this night the water was almost motionless creating this almost glass like appearance as the boats sat atop and presented their light exhibit. Amazing to see.

One of the new attractions for this year that was an interesting experience was the hanging light exhibit that I was a little surprised was open and accessible to the public to pass through and experience the various light patterns and effects as they cycled through. understandably given the somewhat confined space it did require a little patience to get through to the other side, and certainly the option of passing by could arguably have been advertised a little more as certainly there were those who chose to avoid and bypass the area but for those with attrition and willing to wait it was a hugely successful experience, one I hope they return and expand upon next year and going forward. A great deal of the more impactful exhibits at Kew are closed off out of necessity, that would lose their impact with a large crowd passing through, would certainly lose some of the mystique and spectacle. This would have lost some of the charm, but would have remained a visual spectacle to see, to be able to pass through just added another element to the piece that I thoroughly enjoyed despite the crowds in attendance ever pushing you forward.

There was almost a British sense of appreciation to the exhibit as the crowds and queue waited patiently for ‘their moment’, their time to enter the exhibit and experience the various lights hanging down. In its simplicity it’s fairly basic with a sequential light pattern moving through the cuboid structure varying in intensity and style however as with some of the best works of art that simplicity worked to its strength and this was certainly evident from the sheer delight and happiness of the crowds as they stood in wonder enjoying the moment, some digitally capturing the moment for themselves, for their audiences and platforms, others just lost in the moment looking up into the light. For myself, staring upwards almost felt like being lost in the stars in the bath of light around you. There was a genuine sense of, remorse I would guess at leaving and moving on. This level of interactivity was a genuine treat to behold, not for the light, not for the imagery but for the simple sensation of momentarily losing yourself within the art, within the light and letting the experience overwhelm your senses. Just for a moment.

The conclusion of the event, for us at least given where we entered the Gardens was the Cathedral light exhibit, a tunnel of light that given the wonderment of the previous exhibit was relatively more serene and relaxed with fewer people passing through, certainly where we entered and stood taking in the visual experience. Having experienced this last year, or at least a piece very similar it was an exhibit I was looking forward to quite simply for the serenity and like the piece before, the effect upon the patron as they entered and took in the beauty and purity of the artistry. Unlike the various colours and shades previously, this work consisted of pure white lights shining and contrasting beautifully against the dark night sky. The length is neither to short or over stays its welcome and when leaving the tunnel you emerge into the night sky with the welcome smell of toasted marshmallows and mulled wine depending on your preference. In parts there are marshalls’ present who stand ready to usher the large crowds in attendance through the event and whilst this is required it does somewhat lessen the ‘experience’. Thankfully, here they were less imposing allowing you to just simply bathe in the light and just enjoy the sensation of your senses screaming you are outside on a cold dark December’s night but your eyes and spirit swimming in the bright light.

Christmas at Kew, is without a measure of doubt, for me an artistic display that shines in every sense of the word and provides a very enjoyable and memorable festive exhibit that appeals to your best nature when you stop to allow the work around you to pull  you in. Certainly, there are elements as with any endeavour that do detract, the necessity this year to sell light sticks and swords presenting almost a hazard as children swing them about to emulate their experience but they are a necessary addition I would imagine. The various refreshment stands selling traditional treats to ensure those walking around remain warm and well catered for. For me, as a tradition this continues to grow with boldness, with creativity, stripping away the commercialisation of the lights of Oxford Street for example and presenting an experience that when you allow appeals to the best aspects of the season, light, positivity, optimism. Yes, commercial elements have crept in but a necessary function to ensure it remains viable to Kew to present on the scale it does. Continuing towards the end of the month, should the opportunity present itself definitely an experience I would recommend.

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…Walking the Thames Path: The Thames Barrier to Old Royal Naval College

In 2015 I began my personal challenge to fulfil a sense of discovery and exploration by walking the Thames Path,  its namesake being England’s longest river whose impact upon the denizens of this fair city can be traced from neolithic times to its current role as a means of transport and entertainment to residents and visitors alike. The Thames Path walking route, running a length of 180 miles whose origin is found at The Thames Barrier encompasses the urban and rural environment alike, intersecting the nation’s capital and beyond into the very heartland of the countries green and pleasant land.

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Every journey has its beginning, whether realised in the moment or discovered along the chosen path. With the Thames Path, fortunately there is a fairly definitive official starting point with a plaque and sign announcing your journey is about to commence. How your journey begins of course depends entirely on your preference and predication, with access and transport varying on reliability and accessibility from point to point. At the origins of the Thames Path your choices are somewhat limited to either arriving by car or by bus departing from the Greenwich Peninsula and the 02 entertainment venue. Residing in North West London my decision lay with the tube to Greenwich than relying on the mercies of the bus network to reach my first destination. There is perhaps an expected romanticism or glorification of your journeys beginning, the trumpeting fanfare to signify the onset of a quest of exploration and discovery, the reality is a somewhat forgettable urban bus stop with no great sign or indication of the prominence or location of the Thames Barrier and in turn the Thames Path being present.

Walking through a residential green space away from the bus stop you begin to hear and see the signs that indicate the presence of a waterway eventually arriving at the guest centre for visitors to this attraction. Situated besides the iconic Thames Barrier, the tidal defense system protecting the residents of London, that has been in operation since 1984 the entrance way is a somewhat forgettable, almost oppressive tunnel way that alerts those passing through to the dangers of the water way and the function of the barrier in closing off this tunnel way in times of need. Thankfully on a clear and beautiful day we were fortunate to begin our journey on that possibility of flooding and threat from extreme conditions was not present and we could pass forward. Emerging on the opposite side once you have followed the path around a series of steps and passages you arrive with some beautiful shots of the Barrier that looks glorious on a clear day. Admittedly the gulls do tend to congregate here but remain on the banks of the river allowing you to marvel at the water way and reflections on the surface.

The first stretch of the Thames Path beyond the barrier is a fairly straight path that cuts into Woolwich and remains along the banks of the river. From experience, certainly there are stretches that for development and geographical reasons require a slight diversion into the urban environment, thankfully as your journey progresses you are treated to some beautiful views of the waterway. The legacy of the River’s history of being a trading port and destination is consistently present as it’s the Nations predication as a naval power and dependence on the water way. In contrast to the large structures of the Barrier and the development on the North bank of the river, there is a beautiful view to welcome visitors of the small pleasure boats and craft beached on the banks of the River as you walk towards Greenwich. You almost come to expect a promenade or a sustainable beach with children playing merrily beside the Thames. But this is still very much a location being transformed from an old industrial site to one welcoming to tourist, visitor and resident alike.

As the Barrier begins to subside to the East you begin to get your first view of this areas next and newest landmark, one of the Rivers more visually impressive crossing points the Emirates Cable Car that is visually imposing on the skyline as you walk along the Path and pass beneath. Having crossed the River by the cable car two years previously, I can certainly attest to the visual wonderment you experience seeing the river and area from this unique perspective. Certainly it is a hugely contrasting view you obtain from the traditional bridge viewpoints. The pillars rise high into the sky as you pass beneath them and you do feel somewhat humbled by the scale of the development on show here. Perhaps my one, observation of the area would be the sense of the imbalance of wealth and construction evident. Certainly Greenwich and the Docklands area have a substantial amount of capital invested as evidenced by the grand flats and properties on show. In contrast, even just a short distance away that level of wealth hasn’t moved this far down the river to the same extent with a substantial level of remnants in place on the waterway from old jetties to basic wharfs, certainly there is the scope and demand for further development to take place to bring a level of equilibrium from both sides of the river. There are a number of contrasting views here that remind you of the eclectic nature of this environment which has seen a resurgence in redevelopment, restoration and preservation in a short space and time.

Your first major destination along the Thames Path is of course the entertainment venue constructed and purposed at the turn of the millenium as the nations exhibit of its dominance and prosperity of culture. Now, eighteen years later resides the 02 centre, home and venue to a dedicated arena with an abundance of restaurants and attractions within. Here lies your first option to deviate away from the main path depending on your stamina and determination to follow the walkway itself. My own personal preference was to follow the Path around the curve of the river and so we walked the perimeter of the 02 centre. Visually perhaps not the most appealing of views with no great appeal on the opposite bank and the general view of the Dome obstructed by fencing, construction work on the non public facing area before emerging into views of the barren ground just beyond. Certainly whilst there is a polished aesthetic finish to the centre and the hotels and transport hub in the immediate vicinity, there remains a great deal of undeveloped land open for construction to take place just a stones throw away. Of course emerging around the turn in the river gives your first glance of the Docklands area and the immense wealth and power that resides from the cities financial district.

Should you have chosen to deviate from the main path you would have emerged directly opposite Mudchute in the Docklands with views of the sky scrapers and towers rising up into the skyline. The completionist within me does have a preference to follow the Thames Path as closely as possible. Beyond the developed waterways and embankment area for the passenger ferries that serve the complex you come across industrial areas and warehouses, the first section of the Thames Path that forces deviation into the urban sprawl giving you your first taste of the wharf’s and quays that serve a different aspect and purpose for the waterway. On a clear day, walking between the vast stock piles of chalk and clay can be quite dry on the throat, the path winding between the various construction yards before emerging onto the Blackwall Lane briefly before winding its way back towards the river out of necessity. The main path itself on our walk had been closed for development and construction with restricted diversionary signs but relying somewhat on self navigation and in today’s world a reliable phone and tracking system to get you back on track. Thankfully our tenure in the suburbs of South London was only a short one and in due course having wandered through a new housing development we were back on the banks of the Thames with our first view of the Old Royal Navy College to the West and the Docklands opposite.

The last mile of the path towards the Old Royal Naval College gives the view to the imposing white stone structure beyond and the conclusion of the first stretch of the Thames Path,  the slight poverty and urban spread of the industrial parks and barren land giving way to the opulence and wealth around the Navy College. As we reached nearer towards the end the Path does cease close to the boarding peer for the passenger ferries requiring you to divert along College Way. In contrast to some of the derelict building sites it was quite interesting to see these old restored buildings now repurposed and occupied once more by those with a little money to spend. The main path does not begin again until you pass the college and the historical Cutty Sark tea clipper ship and boarding peers for the passenger ferry’s. Having visited the college this year to attend the conservation work of the painted hall there is a great deal to see in Greenwich depending upon your preference. It also marks a natural conclusion point with a wide abundance of transport options to facilitate passage back to the capital.

As a stretch and view of London this short, small section of the Thames Path between the barrier and the college gives witness to a broad section and history of London’s growth and prosperity. From the historical naval prominence at Greenwich, the wealth and power of the city in the Docklands, the ingenuity of the tidal defences and the grandeur and commercialization of the 02 that spans the period from the enlightenment in the 17th century to the modern day. Beyond the grandeur and spectacle visible you also have witness to the contrasting wealth of this small area of London, the relative poverty of some in Woolwich to the more expensive and prestigious properties on the Greenwich estate. By walking even this small stretch of the Thames you begin to understand even from just a visual base perspective the compact nature of this city and island nation, certainly expanded and seen beyond as we walked from The Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich all the way to Tower Bridge.

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…and the Glastonbury Frost Fayre

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Four months ago I decided to share a few thoughts about this wonderful, historic town that now has a certain, welcome familiarity on my return, from its unique and individual atmosphere on my travels I am yet to find another such place that shares even a modicum of the spirit and personality of the individuals and community that calls this town their own. Last year I was fortunate and blessed to attend the Glastonbury carnival, not normally a type of event I feel immediately comfortable or at ease attending but in truth, there is very little reason to feel hesitation or apprehension when the floats passed by outside my parents front windows. Should I have desired I was in the position to watch the passing carnival from the comfort and warmth of the living room as the eclectic, vibrant and bright floats passed by. Whilst an attraction in and of themselves the true cause and purpose of my visit both last year and on this occasion was the celebration of Thanksgiving, a holiday I celebrate in part to my American roots. Coincidentally, this year as part of the annual tradition, Thanksgiving weekend happened to fall on the Frost Fayre weekend which of course meant an opportunity to visit and attend one of the more diverse and unique Christmas themed festive markets I have had the good fortune to attend.

During the day, the high street was extremely busy with little room to move or progress. Personally, I don’t especially enjoy these confined spaces and crowds as they provide very little time to peruse and enjoy the occasion although I’ll accept this is a personal predication and one not necessarily shared. But it did give an opportunity to just enjoy the atmosphere of the town, the characters that are becoming known, the festivities of the day and certainly an abundance of music and performance whether officially sanctioned or spontaneously played. Managing to get to the bottom of the high street through the deep crowds I was witness to festive Morris Dancers, one of those practises as a resident of London you don’t often see outside of a specific occasion celebrating heritage. I didn’t entirely understand the purpose or the narrative of the performance, everyone seemed happy and eager to perform, the Christmas onesie as a dancing costume just felt at home with this town. But with one dance concluded I decided to return later after the sun had gone down.

 

I have a weakness for bright lights and darkness having enjoyed a few great evenings in London with my camera at the Lumiere festival at the start of the year and the recent Beyond the Deepening Shadows exhibit that demonstrated and used the power of natural torch-light against the dark sky to create a haunting and moving effect. In contrast, there is a welcoming and almost joyous celebration of light and energy you find at Christmas with the windows specially designed and created to advertise the goods and products of the shops within. Last Christmas Eve after the shops had closed and a great many people had returned to their homes I took a walk down Glastonbury High Street to just enjoy the peaceful tranquility of the town and look at the beautiful windows. This year, thankfully I didn’t have to wait as long to enjoy that same festive spirit. I adore the windows of Ying Yang who always create such a great display. Equally the perhaps slightly more commercial but beautifully festive displays at the Imaginarium store who I can attest, have as vast and great a store within as the windows suggest.

Returning after dark with a few stores having now decided to close, the crowds had eased although still noticeably busy but thankfully providing a far more enjoyable experience personally. One of the great joys of attending the Bavarian themed Christmas markets that tend to populate more larger urban cities through the country is the attraction of the lights and sounds after dark when a different energy and spirit, or spirit depending on your tastes, permeates the area with a festive cheer. Glastonbury at Christmas is a wonderfully beautiful place with the small tree’s that line the street above the shop doorways, the Frost Fayre added to the mystique and appeal of the town. I enjoyed the same displays now lit up and shining in the night sky, the light of the Christmas windows shining outwards, the simple lights of the tree at the bottom of the high street now lit up officially for the festive period. Living and working in the capital city you become somewhat accustomed to the longer duration of these events, it takes a moment to remember when you have an event such as this there is a normality and expectation it will end and be cleared away within short order.

 

And so my experience of the Frost Fayre came to an end, having experienced the many sites and sounds of a town, known perhaps for its more independent mindset and interpretation of tradition also open and willingly celebrating this festive period. There is a resounding familiarity with the stores and attractions you tend to find at Bavarian Christmas markets and after one or two visits there isn’t a great appeal to return. Whilst there was a certain level of repetition found here, from the German Bratwurst sausage stands to the multiple muffin and cake stands there was also the many herbal and art and craft stands showcasing local talent. Through viewing and looking at the many wares you could hear the different artists and traders informing customers they had come from areas near and far but recognising the importance of this event to draw attention to their trade. And these were the stands that seemed to draw the largest crowds, the authentic and crafted as opposed to the mass commercial stands you tend to find at city based markets.

There is a purpose of course for online shopping and stores and this form of shopping will fundamentally change the high street experience beyond a recoverable measure. Living in London necessitates online shopping orders, deliverable throughout the day with immediate satisfaction and gratification to suit the users needs. But it does strip away the tactile contact and connection that doesn’t exist when browsing a photo on a website. Therein lies the appeal of these craft markets, the connection and connectivity to merchants and traders, willing to put their hands in their pockets and be open for trade to suit the casual browser and dedicated shopper. Add in the festive element of the season and the unique character of Glastonbury and the result was a very enjoyable evening. There is a pride in the independence of these merchants, one that transcends a novelty or curiosity function, the bigger traders and stores have a place within the community outside in the outlet stores and even on the periphery of the town itself. But what I enjoy about this town and place is it’s fiercely protective spirit to ensure it remains and retains its character, resisting the allure of the chain store and requiring the visitor and resident alike to support the merchants.

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Beyond the Deepening Shadow: The Tower Remembers

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This year saw the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, a historic, significant date in history that marked the official end of hostilities of the first world war. Four years ago in 2014 in collaboration with the Royal British Legion, the Tower of London put on display one of its most renowned and well-known exhibitions, the installation across the towers exterior and down into the moat of over three hundred thousand ceramic poppies as a memorial for the fallen soldiers of the great war and indeed all military conflicts since that date. Given the intrinsic link and role the Tower served during the nation’s history in support of the military, and the role it continues to serve this was a remarkable exhibition to witness, the cascade of the blood-red poppies creeping down the exterior wall and into the moat spreading around the lower perimeter.

This year with the centenary date of Armistice day, the Tower chose to commemorate this special occasion with a display of 10,000 lit torches around the moat in addition to an accompanying audio and visual experience to remember the lives of the fallen soldiers who died during the great war. In contrast to the ceramic poppies that impressed a vivid memory and impression of the blood-red fields of Northern France, there was no implicit implication of the meaning and significance of the lit torches. As explained during the briefing for the evening, the purpose and message to take was one very much of your own deductions,  your own thoughts and interpretations. Only to be respectful, to look and observe and to just be present and aware of the significance of the occasion. There’s an easy temptation at these exhibitions to marvel at the wonder on display with little or no regard for the due meaning and importance of what these events actually mean.

The exhibition opened on the 4th of November too much acclaim attracting larger crowds undeterred by the rain and elements on a dark winter’s evening in London.  With a great deal of public focus and media coverage the Tower welcomed ticketed attendees an opportunity to go down into the moat section of the Tower below the street level where the vast proportion of the crowds were stood to see up close the burning torches and to listen and see the audio narrative of the poem being played and the participants below who added another visual element to the exhibition. Whilst this did run for the duration of the week for the significance and importance of the day my personal subjective feeling was to attend on the 11th November, a day of remembrance when the nation put’s aside all the animosity and resentment felt for different reasons to remember something greater than our own petty issues. Certainly in the UK in the last year there has been a great divide, similar to the division in America between the right and left, liberals and conservatives on policies, agendas, even the very concept of being.  In the spirit of what we were asked to remember and reflect on, perhaps that’s what I took and what I continue to take that in moments like these the division can be healed, civility, discourse, humility even can prevail against the allure and temptation of tribalism and vile rhetoric.

Arriving at the Tower with an hour to spare before our entrance gave way to a sea of people surrounding the attraction to gain a view of the torches below. I’m normally reticent of such large crowds although there is a communal atmosphere on occasions such as these when you see both the best and unfortunately on rare occasion the worst of human nature. After watching the lighting ceremony we entered the tower via the traitors gate exit ramp and proceeded through the outer courtyard back to the normal entrance way and down the ramp to the moat. The torches were lit and burning, a beautiful and amazing visual experience and somewhat awe inspiring given their significance and meaning. The red coated Beefeaters were stood at intervals around the Towers exterior with attendees ensuring the torches remained lit and upright. All around a crafted poem in memorial of the fallen played on sound speakers, an almost gregorian chanting melody echoing around the walled off area. Whether by circumstance or a respectful somber tone there was little or no noise from the crowds  above leaving the visitor to observe the view with a respectful tone and atmosphere.

One of the really interesting views presumably designed for its inclusion for the impact to the observer was the spotlight shadow of the Beefeater against the walls perimeter. From a purely artistic and visual perspective this was a really powerful image given the impact and use of light at the exhibit, the contrast between light and dark and here a really creative use of shadow play that is impactful and meaningful now as it was all those years ago.  The addition of the volunteers was a little lost on me admittedly. I’ve never felt comfortable with costumed individuals, the forced participation and impact on your visitation always somewhat jarring. In fairness their part in the overall experience was minimal, I didn’t quite understand what function or purpose they added the symbolism or meaning lost on me but they were easy to avoid should you so wish. I did find the music and poetry used moving, a mixture of spoken word and chanting giving a creative impact on the attendee. I would imagine it was both audible and visible from above but there certainly was a benefit from attending the attraction from below and taking in the sights and sounds.IMG_0883

I’m not entirely sure what message or meaning I personally took away from the experience, certainly I was well aware of the symbolism, the visual memorial and found both the torches and audio poems and music a haunting and moving sensory exhibit. But challenging myself to consider the deeper impact is a tough question to answer in retrospect. Perhaps then as we left the exhibit the answer presented itself in the queues and sea of people attending the Tower of London. Certainly, as with any attraction I’ve been fortunate to attend in recent years from the Lumiere light exhibit at the beginning of the year to the assorted trail hunts that have returned on a regular basis there is always a consistent presence but the sheer scale of attendees on the final evening was incredible witness. Scores of people, five or six deep from the furthest point on Tower Bridge all the way around to the ticket booth on the entrance way. A respectful Police presence, there to guide and marshall but not, visibly, around to such a great degree to distract from the meaning of the night. The significance of the day and in effect the meaning, I suppose of the event to pay respect and give thanks for the ultimate sacrifice all those brave soldiers gave that came to a end 100 years ago, not overshadowed on this occasion.

So, that is what I took from it.  One of those unifying experiences where a city regardless of politics, agendas and disagreements could for one evening put aside tribalism and division and stand side by side staring in wonderment at the torches, aware perhaps of the symbolism, attracted by the light in the darkness. One of those random interactions that occured when we waited to enter the Tower, a family that had travelled up from Portsmouth for the weekend to attend the Armistice day events in the capital, the laying of the wreaths at Whitehall and specifically the event this evening before driving home. For the reason of being there, being present to feel the atmosphere and share that communal spirit. Standing in the moat, on a cold dark November night surrounded by families, veterans, couples, young, old, those of a religious disposition, with atheist beliefs, regardless, the city remembered last night.

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…and his great Yorkshire railway journey

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There is a natural, logical predication to view progression through the prism of modernity and technological construct with the consequential cost being the destruction and loss of our historical legacy. The continual preservation and dedication to ensure the continuance of this fundamental element of our nation’s once, technological prowess and enlightenment of what could be viewed as, arguably a critical juncture both domestically and internationally is a gift bequeathed and for the benefit and prosperity of our Britain’s legacy to the civilized world. Steam travel, whilst evoking certain images and memories of a historical, bygone age served as a catalyst for growth and innovation both domestically and internationally, transforming infrastructure and industry serving as the first, viable and effective form of mass transportation that unified countries and continents, forging new industries and technological progress whilst strengthening political bonds between nation capitals and remote areas. The Beeching report published in 1963 recommended and saw the closure of a significant proportion of Britain’s railway line and infrastructure with the emergence of private vehicle ownership and supposedly cheaper air mass transport as a viable alternative to the cost incurred through the continuance of a network size of its scope. Arguably, with hindsight a somewhat short-term perspective that has seen in the recent environmental climate the need and necessity to return to a cleaner more sustainable form of mass transportation reducing the necessity and need for car ownership to the degree and level that exists today.

In September of this year I had the opportunity to ride and experience one of the countries heritage railway lines, one of the routes closed during following the Beeching report in 1966 before reopening as the North York Moors Railway in 1973 and continuing to serve as functional tourist route and line for locals and commuters between the village of Pickering and the coastal town of Whitby. Pickering serves as the lines southern most terminus, one of the last bastions of certain civil trappings one finds before venturing further onto the moors and being able to embrace the escapism of the rural environment beyond. The station serves as an adequate and educational reminder of the lines lineage and history, itself used for various television and film appearances based on its faithful reproduction of the era of steam travel it continues to enshrine and preserve. The minutia of the detail on display from the platform WH Smith hut serving a variety of refreshments in its traditional aesthetic appearance to the waiting rooms and tea rooms providing warmer refreshments. Thankfully, for the consumer at least a more modern-day alternative is available with a Costa franchise a stones throw from the railway station. The platform is open and available to walk along and visit without the necessity to purchase a platform pass in contrast to its London alternatives allowing those of a curious disposition or eager visitor and enthusiast to witness and record the preserved locomotives travelling into Pickering station to pick up their passengers for the day’s adventure ahead.

The ride through the North York Moors is a stunning view of this often rugged and challenging terrain allowing a perspective and chance to reflect not afforded those driving by car. Certain trappings of civility found aboard their modern counterparts you find neither missing or wanted to a great degree, refreshments provided as a source of income that serve to remind of a more civilised form of transportation. After departing from Pickering, our first destination after passing through the smaller stop of Levisham was the station at Goathland, itself notable like Pickering for its use both on the small screen and more recently in the first of the Harry Potter films serving as Hogwarts train station in the Philosophers Stone. The town of Goathland is a charming and welcoming retreat from the Moors with certain structures and buildings still present from its role as the fictional Aidensfield in the series Heartbeat. Walking up the main street gives witness to the garage, hotel, pubs and tea rooms that provide sustenance to its many visitors in addition to many trinkets and gifts of both its past and media appearances with a growing range of gifts around the Harry Potter franchise. Reaching the top of the station road you very much come to realise how remote a village Goathland is with sheep walking freely without abandon along the verges and the road itself.

On a late Autumnal day walking up towards the church to the south of St Mary’s provides a number of beautiful views of the Moors, the contrast of the dark grey storm filled skies to the green and yellow hued grass was amazing. Reaching the end of the walkable pavement at the church’s entrance found an end to the trek at Goathland and to turn around and return to await the next train. Certainly given the gaps between trains that run along this track there is chance to remain in the village itself and enjoy a meal or cup of tea however we found certainly there was time and provision to explore beyond the row of shops, if not much more given the access and availability of walk ways, and still have a chance to explore some of the shops offering an assortment of goods and gifts. Arriving back at Goathland and having a few minutes before the train arrived afforded a chance to walk the length of the platform capturing some of the historical signalling and platform architecture and equipment that has been preserved and maintained for its authenticity. One of the most, amazing and inspiring views I found at this station was a contrasting shot between the Moors beyond and the brickwork and lighting of a work station light. From this perspective you almost have a sense of how great a challenge those who forged this line faced when they cut through the terrain towards Whitby.

Arriving at the once Northern Terminus of this line before passenger service continued onto the coastal town of Whitby we decided to end our outward voyage here and spend some time exploring the historical preservation sheds that are home to the engines being restored to their former condition and state. One of the attractions of riding on a heritage line is the afforded opportunity ride to experience historical infrastructure be they the platform exteriors or the very coaching and trains that provide the transportation along the line. Given the length of service the NYMR now operates a number of locomotives on the line affording a time table that is convenient and accessible to those visiting but it requires the dedication and effort of enthusiasts and skilled labourers to ensure its continuance. With modern train services and living in the capital you are presented the illusion of normality and conformity, a service running to schedule with stock as modern and efficient as they can be. On a heritage coach the seats may be a little stiff, the windows occasionally not opening fully or the lights not working when you pass through the tunnel. All, subjectively, a welcome reminder of this grandiose age of transport but also that you are experiencing an operating service on rolling stock that has been restored and preserved from many decades prior.  It was with great intrigue and interest that led us down to the engine sheds where the preservation teams were at work restoring one of the locomotives presumably to operating state. I have no great technological or engineering awareness or capability, as to the time scale of this preservation work is unknown, whether it will be accomplished I would imagine is down to time and resources of which neither are guaranteed.

Returning to Grosmont station afforded a brief walk around the village although like Goathland beyond a series of small shops and restaurants there wasn’t a great deal to find or see. The greatest attraction was the station itself and the engineering sheds that are a joy to rail enthusiasts and curious tourists from London. The rail network in the capital and I would imagine throughout the country as a whole work tirelessly to provide an integrated and operable service but one that beyond the service provided is disconnected and isolated as much as possible from the user in a similar fashion to air travel. Perhaps then that is where the source of frustration arises from, the disconnect, we don’t understand how it works, why it works only that it should work and when it doesn’t there is great anger born of confusion and ignorance. The preservation sheds in Grosmont certainly serve to provide a sense of connection and understanding to the work required to ensure the service continues to operate. In no way did I come away with any understanding to how the trains operate, only I guess an appreciation of the effort to ensure they do continue for prosperity sake. The journey from Grosmont to Pickering brings you back into the depths of the Moor’s, the gentler terrain near to the coast growing in stature and height before bringing you back to the terminus station and your journeys conclusion. There is a romanticism to steam travel, the smell of the smoke, the sound of the train whistle and momentum of travel as you are pulled along in contrast to the almost sterile environment of its modern counterpart. The rail network was the first, viable means of mass transportation that opened up villages like Pickering to the more developed coastal towns transport links. Perhaps then as the country looks for solutions to the environmental challenge that it faces in the 21st century it could do far worse than look to a little inspiration from the Far East and the efficient, quick and reliable networks of Asia in creating an integrated service for the nations growth. The rail network was abandoned to a large degree for the advancement of the road network, to look at a viable and cleaner alternative in co-ordination with an energy policy less reliant on fossil fuels seems as logical direction for transport policy as any.

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…and the Christmas Lunches of 2018

For a number of years now, I have maintained a certain predication and exuberance for the Christmas lunches, the delicacies and delights awaiting those of a certain festive disposition that announce the approach of the Festive season. Inevitably, their arrival is of a divisive nature, both celebrated and critiqued in equal measure for their quality, in part but almost entirely around the timeliness of their materialization and entrance. As one who was born in the festive period, the seasonal spirit and festivities certainly elicit pure and joyful emotions on my part, and unashamedly, when I enjoy my first Christmas sandwich it does evoke a sense of positivity and optimism for the months ahead. Admittedly, there isn’t a consistency in their standard or quality, from the elegant to the atrocious, and without a doubt none compare for a second to the perfection of the home made left over sandwich with the trimmings from a Christmas dinner. That is my subjective opinion of course but one I’ll hold true.

But of course thee intention over the next couple of months is to sample, enjoy and provide some thoughts around the various Christmas lunches available to purchase on the UK high street as the festive season commences and the countdown to Christmas begins in earnest. I do endeavor annually to broaden my horizons beyond the usual assortment but certainly there is a level of familiarity of repetition that arises as the various establishments return with their classic and tried and tested offerings. The price differential isn’t great, regardless of your intention ultimately you are attempting to attract a certain clientele with a restricted disposable income but there is enough differentiation from the festive Greggs bake to the Marks and Spencers Sandwich. So as I continue to find and enjoy a new Christmas lunch meal I will share my thoughts on each, even try to go for a photo or two with updates as and when they are released. Will any Festive Food achieve the ‘fabled’ 4 Holly’s and a Bush? Feel free to share and enjoy.

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Turkey Feast Sandwich £3.50

I begin with a conceit, an admission that whilst this indeed is a good sandwich, it’s not necessarily an exclusively festive treat. Nor, in my own personal opinion should that fact detract from the merits of the Turkey Feast but it does raise the question of whether an all-inclusive sandwich should hold such high esteem. On its own merits a good, quality sandwich with the various tastes and textures of Christmas encapsulated between two slices of bread. Indeed, the bread itself was one of the weakest elements of the sandwich, whether it was from my own particular purchase or by design, it was remarkably dry and certainly would have benefited from the trope of the moist maker to soften the experience on the palate. In contrast the contents was plentiful, not scrimping on the various elements like in cheaper sandwiches but subjectively, I have come to expect a certain level of stuffing and content within my sandwich from Marks and they duly delivered on that regard.

A traditional Christmas sandwich should have the multitude of flavors and textures one would come to expect from putting these elements together. There were indeed a number of textures experienced, the chewiness and saltiness of the bacon, the crisp onion pieces and the sensation of the stuffing within for example. The one disappointment is the inevitable realization of consuming processed or prepared meats in contrast to the sensation of real sliced turkey. The stuffing in addition have the flavor and texture of an instant mix, appreciated for its inclusion but lacking the punch and impact of the multitude of flavors found in a prepared stuffing by hand. Overall and for what it was, the Turkey Feast is a welcome inclusion in the Festive Meals family, setting a good bench mark to measure against. Including a multitude of flavors and textures but lacking somewhat in the overall quality of the ingredient.

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Turkey & Pigs in Blankets £3.20

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Having experienced disappointment in the technicalities and definition of what makes a pig in blanket as such, and with the very items sitting beside the actual sandwich as ever I came away with disappointment that once more a company struggled with the very simple concept of wrapping bacon around a sausage and serving it within two slices of bread. Perhaps a touch critical for what is a festive lunch it just seems impossible to find. I would arguably except were the ingredients difficult to prepare but it seems the simplest thing, wrap a sausage up and cut along the x-axis creating a cut of bacon and pork. As such, unfortunately they were unable to provide, the turkey once more was processed or sliced formed turkey, passable but failing in comparison to the chunks of Turkey meat found in the Greggs festive toastie. Mass production of sandwiches is understandably costly and challenging, a decent fresh ingredients treat would cost more. Is there a market for such items is questionable however processed formed meat tastes like formed meat, lacking the flavour and seasoning of meat cut from the carcass. A cheap sausage and bacon slice is clear compared to more costly but better ingredients.

Now sage bread, I was curious as to how this would taste, pork and sage stuffing is a classical combination of flavours so I was optimistic it would work. Whether it was my personal taste or the sandwich I ate the flavour of pork and turkey with sage had a strange herby aftertaste. Not unpleasant but certainly noticeable and distracting from the overall experience. Overall I had high hopes for this sandwich, the Turkey Feast was a solid first entry and whilst in comparison to the Greggs toasty it paled it had good substance to it, the Pigs in Blanket sandwich was a let down. The pigs, as ever weren’t in their blankets, the Turkey meat processed and the bread to herby. Not great.

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Christmas Turkey Wrap £3.50

A more grown up selection and taste in contrast to the traditional turkey feast Christmas sandwich, I’m normally a little reticent to choose a large chain store wrap for the sole reason the pastry wrap to filling ratio is a little uneven on all occasions I consume them. In contrast to a deli wrap which tends to be bursting with filling, store wraps always come across a little anemic. On this occasion, history repeated itself and despite a promising filling as shown by the time you reach the end the content has thinned out and you are left with a far greater ratio of doughy wrap which isn’t the most pleasant thing to eat. As for the content, this is a more traditional Christmas recipe with a broader range of the fillings you would come to associate including the oft maligned and controversial brussels sprouts in the form of a slaw which gives a more grown up taste to the wrap in contrast to the turkey feast sandwich.

The meat quality of the content is consistent with their sandwich range, the largely processed meat slices as ever in stark contrast to the cuts of real turkey from other chains. The stuffing has the consistency of prepared content, the bacon soft and chewy but lacking a little in seasoning. The real punches of flavour come from the cranberry sauce and the brussels sprout slaw giving a more grown up flavour as alluded to initially. With a softer finish from the doughy wrap, this gives a welcoming contrast to the chewy meat, the crunch of the greens and the pop of the fruit in the cranberries and the herby taste of the slaw. Quite quickly once you’ve enjoyed the filling and meat towards the opening of the wrap you do realise quickly for presentation sake it has been pushed towards the front, the last bits a mixture of dough, sauce and slaw not a great combination. A good overall wrap that gives a different flavour combination than other sandwich I’ve enjoyed but with a certain predictability I just wish it came with a little more content.

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Turkey, Bacon and Stuffing Sandwich and Handcrafted Chocolate Log £3.39 Meal Deal

I’ll openly concede my slight, apprehension to Boots sandwiches, and indeed their general food and snacks, having found them historically to be somewhat lacking in substance and flavor in the pursuit of a reduced calorie count and cost. In my endeavors to find that all-encompassing Festive Sandwich my journey brought me to their Turkey, Bacon and Stuffing Sandwich with a Festive chocolate log side snack. Unlike with my offering from Mark’s I found the bread in this to be noticeably softer, a welcome concession as I tend to find dry or thick cut sandwiches somewhat off-putting. The meat within was generally passable although as before, the turkey meat was screaming for some additional flavor or texture, a somewhat bland experience. The stuffing was passable and with my sandwich at least, there was a good sauce to meat ratio resulting in a nice, moist Christmas themed sandwich to enjoy but one where the addition of a less processed meat would have greatly added to the flavor and finish.

The chocolate log in comparison was perhaps best described as a reduced calorie treat in the best, festive tradition of Christmas snacks. Judging the treat on its aesthetic appearance, you could succumb to the allure and individual nature of the log, with a scattering of icing sugar over the flake piece impressed into the icing. Visually, it a welcoming snack however the overall flavor and texture was lacking, or perhaps underwhelming of your expectations. The finish, somewhat claggy and chewy, a strange sensation for what could presumably be a simple chocolate brownie treat. The icing on top was functionary but perhaps could have done with a touch more cocoa or sweetness. As a whole, the two items served and complemented each other well, the slight, tartness of the sauce and bacon matched by the slight sweetness of the Chocolate log. Both perhaps missing a degree of seasoning and flavor but in the pursuit of a healthier nation and from a shop, dedicated primarily to health and well-being serving their function in providing a Christmas treat to those with a predication towards a clean living.

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Pigs Under Blankets Sandwich and Festive Flapjack £3.39 Meal Deal

Certainly, some factor are harder to consider and judge, this unfortunately, was relatively easier to ascribe the main critical fault, a significant lack of flavor and seasoning. Quite simply, how Boots managed to take two relatively strong seasoned meats and serve a somewhat bland, uninspired Christmas sandwich is beyond me. As with its other offering the bread was soft and it provided a good meat to bread and sauce ratio, always an important factor for consideration. Beyond that however, was just a substantial lack of flavor, remarkable considering the key motivation and inclusion is presumably salty bacon. I do understand and appreciate the necessity for controlled calorie management and arguably such a flavor combination in the required, seasoning levels I would find enjoyable could be found from a more dedicated supplier but taking this sandwich on its own merits in comparison to its more healthy counterpart was lacking, in texture and favor and would have benefited greatly from a dash of seasoning.

The fruity flapjack I consumed with this sandwich was remarkably moist, certainly in contrast to more traditional flapjacks which are packed with oats and more dry ingredients the inclusion of the fruits and supposedly the recipe choice seemed to have bled through to the final product. In regards to consistency it holds its shape and form, somewhat remarkable given the density of the product but doesn’t necessarily have the chew of a traditional flapjack one would come to expect. As with the chocolate log a greater detail has been given to the finish with a gold dusting along the surface making you aware of the residue on your finger tips when you have finished the product. It had a nice, flavor, if lacking somewhat in the rich fruits associated with Christmas in terms of berries but seemingly, as with the Chocolate Log the reduction in butter and other binding materials in the pursuit of a healthier alternative to a traditional flapjacks comes at the expense of taste. Overall, both items come across as a welcome secondary addition to the Boots festive menu offering an alternative experience and taste to their main offering but both, suffering from the same, subjective short coming being a noticeable reduction in seasoning and flavor.

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Ultimate Christmas Toastie £3.95

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A bold claim to make in this competitive, festive lunch menu. I’m open and willing to accept perhaps there is an ultimate Christmas Sandwich available today, however I’m reticent to suggest the Costa Toastie is such an item. This is the first heated Christmas item I’ve enjoyed this year, effectively a Turkey Feast sandwich consisting of turkey, bacon, stuffing and cranberry sauce with the addition of melted cheese on top. Perhaps lacking the cleaner, clean crisp aesthetic of the traditional sandwich associated with a melted cheese finish there is certainly substance to this toastie even if the level of meat present within does pale compared to the Marks and Spencer’s Turkey Feast sandwich. Benefiting from being warmed up does create a slight connection to a normal turkey dinner in contrast to the cold meats of a normal sandwich. However, my enthusiasm was tempered slightly by the texture of the cheese which does solidify fairly quickly when cooling and unfortunately does leave a somewhat chewy almost stodgy sensation when consuming. There in lies some of the issues I’ve had with the sandwiches consumed so far, the lack of variety in texture. There are clear distinctions in a traditional Christmas meal, the crack of the roast potatoes giving into the fluffy interior, the mix of soft and hard ingredients in stuffing, the chew of the meat. All of which are noticeably absent.

The meat in the Costa toastie I will commend for being the closest if not using actual cooked meat that has the texture and consistency of turkey pieces and real soft cooked bacon. There is a clear distinction in taste between formed turkey meat and the recognisable flavour of real turkey pieces. I would say this was the latter and a welcome flavour. I couldn’t visually recognise cranberry sauce in the sandwich but there was the sweetness and taste of cranberry in the toastie also the more tart and herb flavour of seasoning although again missing the texture. The cheese used on the top of the toasted sandwich didn’t have a great deal of taste to remember, lacking the punch of a strong cheddar or the creaminess of a European variety. Given the wide variety of cheeses available now with an assortment of additions included I would have accepted paying a little more for a unique cheese blend on top. Although honestly I don’t associate cheese necessarily with Christmas and would have indeed welcomed no cheese being on the sandwich. So a sandwich that has its merits, the use of real meats standing in contrast to cold sandwiches, a nice mixture of sweet and savoury flavours as a result with greater taste and seasoning. But in contrast cheese quickly solidifying and having a strange sensation on the texture and somewhat lacking in meat. Enjoyable, yes but not the ultimate christmas toastie.

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Pigs Tucked Under Blankets Panini £3.95

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One of the nicer discoveries, and a different take on the pigs in blankets sandwich available at present from Costa. On prior occasion I would have dismissed this chain to an extent but certainly they have become one of the fore runners for my favourite festive food chain serving up a variety of highly quality produce, not necessarily the cheapest available but certainly some of the best in terms of ingredients and selection. This take on the sandwich is served as a toasted panini giving it a slight advantage over the more mass produced cold served offering. It benefits as with the turkey feast sandwich from using high quality meat cuts, the sausages taste like a nicer variety of pork offering, the bacon again of a higher standard with a good selection of green’s and cheese to go with it topped off with a sweet sauce with in, possibly cranberry to temper the saltiness of the two varieties of pork. I still question the inclusion of a cheese to hold and bind the ingredients to this level, acceptable perhaps in other varieties of toasted sandwich and paninis but not what I would associate directly with a Christmas sandwich or even a festive offering. It feels, and taste like an inclusion of necessity to bind the sandwich together and break up the slightly rough texture prevalent in the sausage and bacon meat.

Toasted panini tend to be quite a dry thick dough to consume requiring a soft center to counteract the sensation and to make the meal more enjoyable. Warm, melted cheese certainly does that but also tempers some of the saltiness from the pork sausage and bacon. The inclusion of greens was nice as a token vegetable option but didn’t add a great deal of flavour or depth to this sandwich that wasn’t already there from the nicer ingredients. Certainly in comparison to its cold sandwich counterparts I would probably rate this fairly highly, cold sausage meat and bacon is always a stranger sensation to enjoy compared to their cooked state and certainly the cooked meat is more relaxed and easier to digest. I enjoyed the slight hit of cranberry, a nice little sweetness however felt it could have done with a dash more. The level of ingredients if satisfactory but where I feel Costa could improve to make this a truly great sandwich is to add, just a little bit more. I’ve yet to feel satisfied, not greedy, but just satisfied with the level of ingredients within. A very nice, festive panini, just a little bit more would have made it perfect.

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Pigs & Blankets Mac & Cheese £3.99

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Subjectively, I found this product somewhat deceitful. Not for any great transgression but solely because I do have a fondness for pigs in blankets, the slightly sweet pork meat wrapped in the salty cured bacon. The contrast in sensation as you bite through the slightly crispy, chewy bacon before arriving at the soft sausage interior. Sadly, none of these sensations were present although to be fair certainly the taste and seasoning as a whole was of a good quality. One issue I’ve always had with Mac and Cheese in general is how bland the cheese tastes, I have a strong penchant for a good strong cheddar in my cheese and find the selection tends to veer towards the gooey and bland. On this occasion Costa have made the right decision and the result is a good strong taste with a variety of herbs to balance the flavour. Arguable the portion size is fairly small, you certainly don’t come away feeling bloated or full from this but then portion control is a real issue to be addressed and the calorie content of this dish probably does require some moderation so in that regard I won’t critique it to harshly.

Ordinarily a sufficient snack in itself but to give a festive take on this iconic American dish is the inclusion of Pigs in or on this occasion And Blankets, a side dish at the Christmas table that has become a staple Christmas Sandwich option to the more filling Turkey Feast option. Unfortunately I do have to critique the dish here, the sausages in fairness as small chipolata style sausages however the pork is seemingly pancetta, not so much a blanket more a quilt square. Together the flavours do work with the tart cheese flavour to create a delicious flavour of salty cheese goodness. I just wish they had been the traditional small pigs in blankets instead of separated or deconstructed. One issue I’ve experienced with Christmas food so far is the general quality of the meat which tends to be formed produce, Costa product to date have generally used real cuts of meat in their food, on this occasion it works well to contrast the macaroni and cheese sauce. Delicious, if slightly deceiving in its description.

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Sticky Toffee and Ginger cake £2.55

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I do enjoy greatly a nice, oozing slice of sticky toffee cake, the soaked base almost dripping the caramilized sugar onto the plate is a delicious indulgence. I was optimistic for this cake given a bad pudding is a hard thing to accomplish however, I did come away from this somewhat lacking in gratification. This mixes the opulence and sweetness of the toffee into the ginger cake mixture however on the cake I consumed, the ginger had been added fairly heavy handedly to the point there was almost an acrid after taste when finishing the pudding. I do enjoy ginger as a seasoning and addition, as a concept adding the ginger as a countenance to the toffee could and should work but arguably to a lesser degree. This cake certainly has more of a nostalgic appeal of the familiar with the end result somewhat lacking.

Not a particularly attractive cake to review or appeal to, the salted caramel drizzle across the top was a nice contrasting taste to enjoy however the icing wasn’t that pleasant but didn’t leave to great an after taste. One of the hazards when using such a powerful flavour like ginger is the chance it will over powder any other more delicate tones running through the dessert. On this occasion where possibly it was the slice I ate or the entire cake recipe the ginger was quite over powering and tarnished what would otherwise have been a slice of sticky heaven. A few nice garnishes such as the icing star on top although given the level of sugar already baked into the cake this was an almost unwelcome hit of additional sugar.

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Vegan and Gluten Free Mince Meat Tart £2.20

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I’ll unashamedly hold my mothers mince-pie up as the defining and best mince-pie I consume on an annual basis, a fantastic blend of crisp pastry, quality mince meat and a nice sugary glaze. I’m a harsh critic on cheap pies and will hold them with disdain in quick order. It was with somewhat delight that I found the mince tart available from Costa a very enjoyable item. Labelled as vegan and gluten-free I wasn’t holding out great hope as to the texture and flavor I would experience, looking neither different or notable from other store brought mince pies. Aesthetically the mince tart does looking appealing although the purist in me finds a certain level of disdain for the open finish and going for the tart finish as opposed to the closed casing of the pie. I’m open to this being a subjective fault and coming down to personal preference, but there is something intriguing and appealing of taking a pie and discovering the inside as you bit down within, the crisp resistance of the pastry casing giving into the soft, rich mince meat flavors inside.

This mince tart was very tasty and an enjoyable treat. A common issue I have with commercial shop brought mince pies is the quality of the mince meat used which tends to have an almost overtly sweet sickly finish and leaves a nasty after taste on your palette. Often a single ready-made mince-pie is more than enough but this is often due to poor ingredients used, a good mince meat in addition to well cooked pastry make a welcome treat and this was definitely of the better made ones I’ve experienced. The pastry has a good snap to them, a good crisp finish that I was surprised to find but certainly had a good taste in itself. The mince meat nice, whether because they’ve used a source or supply beyond the normal mass-produced ingredients usually found it had a noticeably nicer finish and taste. The pastry star situated atop the mince meat almost creates the pie texture sensation, I personally wish it was the traditional finish of the pie instead of the pastry. But definitely a really good mince meat pastry, not sickly sweet, a great texture in the pastry quality, recommended.

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Black Forest Hot Chocolate £3.35

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I have no great predication or desire towards coffee, the multitude of options and choice lost on me in contrast to the welcoming and soothing effect of a good cup of tea or in this circumstance a well made hot chocolate. The Black Forest Chocolate on my first experience a couple of years back I found to be overtly sweet, perhaps an over eager barista had included too much syrup in my serving, regardless it was an almost unpleasant experience and one it took me a year or so before I could try it again to resolve that unanswered question on its quality and finish. Thankfully on my second occasion and now this year it is a welcomed treat that by necessity because of the sugar tax perhaps or a change to the syrup concentration has a less sweet finish resulting in a more moderated finish.

In comparison to the gateaux of its inspiration, itself a balance between the tartness of the maraschino cherries and the sweetness of the cream and chocolate, as a recipe and finish an already sweetened drink would always struggle to replicate the desired flavor one would hope to experience when consuming this drink. I long and desire for a well, complemented drink or beverage that matches with an elegance and perfection that sensation of consuming a sweet beverages with a tartness on my palette from the hints of the cherry. The inclusion of the dried, cherry flakes scattered on the surface, in addition to the syrup within goes someway to replicating, or perhaps approximating the flavors found within its namesake treat, the flake pieces themselves lost somewhat when experienced in a closed cup but more noticeable in a sit down serving. With certain restrictions or penalties on sugar levels within food or beverages there is a natural predication to reduce that found in part due to cost as well as for health and societal repercussions.  Perhaps the unintended consequence therefore being the necessity to no longer overwhelm the patron with a punch of sweetness but this more grown up affair of marrying the two natural sensations on the taste buds and leaving a more enjoyable experience.

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Turkey and Trimmings Sandwich £2.50

A Tesco sandwich, be they a festive treat or a normal workday lunch have to their credit a consistency in their presentation and quality. Of no great surprise is the decision to go with processed, formed meat, there certainly isn’t the flavour and texture of real sliced turkey with all the flavours and seasoning from the cooked meat. As such, to balance this the cost is one of the cheaper festive offerings but certainly not the worst in terms of quality. There is a nice supply of turkey slices and a generous amount of bacon included. There is no danger in confusing the average British sandwich for one of the gourmet deli offerings from New York but a sufficient amount to make you feel valued and satisfied in your purchase. In addition there is what I presume is a simulation of stuffing although again like their competitors this is of the powered variety and doesn’t taste anything like what you found find inside your roast bird at Christmas.

The inclusion of cranberry sauce was a nice touch, it adds a certain sweetness that is lacking somewhat in these turkey sandwiches. As a meat very easily it can become quite dry to consume, even the freshest slices and those found on a boxing day tend not hold a great deal of moisture but you always have the option to balance this off with a variety of condiments. In a pre packed sandwich, layers of turkey meat and bacon can be quite a dry experience so I do enjoy a good splash of cranberry and thankfully this was ever-present. My only issue I tend to have with Tesco sandwiches is the duration they are shelved and when the bread can be quite dry especially when they go for a granary bread. Thankfully on this occasion the bread was soft which made the overall experience a pleasant and satisfying. Quality wise, I was never expecting high quality meats or homemade stuffing and it didn’t disappoint. It was a nice sandwich, nothing more, nothing less.

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Tiffin Snowflakes £1.58

There tends to be a choice between presentation and quality of the final product, some of the tastiest Christmas lunch items, besides the festive packaging no more indicative of the holiday season than their peers. With these festive treats and desserts the various chains have a chance to indulge in the opulence of the food, the sweetness from the chocolate never knowingly going to deliver a disappointing experience but certainly a memorable one is another consideration. For these small, sweet bites the portion size is spot on, yes they could be a little bigger or in a greater portion size but consistent with a fine truffle or chocolate selection you find in stores. The finish of course is its main attraction, formed in the traditional snowflake shape and given a dusting of silver food paint to create a snow esque finish atop the milk chocolate shell.

Best served chilled to give the chocolate a little more thickness there is a satisfying chew when biting into the tiffin, especially given the extra layer from the chocolate form snow flake on top of the dessert. The chocolate is lovely and rich without being to sweet, a stark contrast to the almost sickly sweet snowy road bites from Greggs. Its amazing Tesco are able to provide a bite of this size and for this price that manages to balance the sweetness without overloading you with sugar. The fruit content is naturally sweet served in just the right quantity without overloading you with conflicting tastes, the crunch of the biscuit pieces balancing between the chew of the chocolate and fruit, a lovely sensation in your mouth. If I have to find fault perhaps the slightly messy effect from the silver dusting on the surface once you’ve held them even momentarily, and of course the ‘happy’ criticism once you’ve finished them you do have the lingering wish to enjoy just another. A great little treat, worthy of the finest name and served in the right moderation and portion size.

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Turkey, bacon and Cranberry Roll £1.00

There is a familiarity and comfort from the humble sausage roll, a savoury snack that has confused those on distant shores to its composition and delivery.  I had certain hopes and expectations this was only had a festive element to that experience but unfortunately, for me at least it just didn’t deliver in any appreciable way. It has the texture and consistency of a normal sausage roll if not slightly more dense compared to the usual pork meat used. You do have the sense you are consuming a higher meat ratio than normally used and certainly the addition of the cranberries creates a different textural experience compared to other festive snaps. From the conflicting crispy and soggy pastry, the thick chewy meat and the slight pop of the cranberries there are tones of a well crafted snack.

Unfortunately, and whether this was just the roll I ate or by design there just isn’t a great deal of taste of any flavour. The danger with making a turkey based product is as a meat there isn’t a great deal of flavour that naturally occurs in contrast to the saltiness of pork for example. A dense, thick wedge of turkey doesn’t have a huge level of flavour creating the sensation of eating a dense wedge of meat. The bacon does add a hint of saltiness but is largely subdued by the turkey. The cranberries likewise give a hint of tartness but cannot on their own merits overcome the strength of the meats which unfortunately because of the reduction in the pork meat just leaves a feeling of a very, very bland snack. In the absence of stuffing or an additional sauce within, a very unsatisfactory snack.

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Festive bake £1.50

There is a level of redemption from the unpleasant, tasteless experience that was the festive roll and that is the festive bake. Not known for their traditional baking practise or service, Greggs still manage to produce a consistently appetising pastry slice throughout the year which given your personal preference does act as an enjoyable treat. The festive bake in the winter months has the same flavours and taste on a consistent regular basis. Perhaps lacking somewhat in a variance of texture it does still have the crunch, depending on the baking time of the golden pastry before giving into the sauce within and the variety of meats included. My criticism of the festive bake is in contrast to the other regular bakes they do sometimes feeling lacking somewhat in content within, the sauce is a little less, the meat lacking. Whether this is a subjective criticism or just generally a reduced level of content I do always find a higher pastry to content ratio.

As for flavour, a key fault I had with the festive roll in contrast to this there is a great level of flavour for better or worse. The inclusion of the herby stuffing is present, every mouth always a hint of herb nestled somewhere within the ingredients. The meat is there, not to the same quality or texture of Costa in its festive toastie but there is a cheaper more instant snack so I wasn’t expecting great things. A variety of meats, turkey and bacon swimming in a gravy although perhaps this could have done with a little more flavour. There is a hint of sweetness from cranberries but this is lost in the gravy included. My issue with other festive food has always been the lack of texture and in contrast, despite its relatively cheap price this is present. You don’t feel you come away having consumed an especially healthy snack, the meat having the flavour and consistency of a fast food chain but it is a familiar treat.

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Snowy Road £1.00

A festive treat is a time of opulence and overindulgence, a sweet sensation to consume that is never overwhelming or too much. In these four small bites, I just wasn’t filled with the festive cheer. A variation of rocky road pieces opting for a white chocolate finish in contrast to the traditional milk chocolate it uses the same approach of packing in a great deal of ingredients to create that uneven and opulent texture. The white chocolate finish does induce certain recognition of a snowy road so much as it has a white uneven finish but taken on their merits alone it just wasn’t a nice experience for one very simple reason, a huge overabundance in sweetness.

The clever thing about a rocky road bite traditionally is the variance in flavours and textures when eating a morsel or slice of cake whichever is your fancy. The crunch of the biscuit crumb, the thickness of the chocolate, the soft marshmallow within. On occasion the pop of the cherry pieces and the tart hit of fruit on your palate contrasting beautifully with the sweet chocolate taste. Here, for whatever reason it was just an overwhelming level of sugar and sweetness, no long-lasting memories or pleasure obtained besides a feeling you have eaten a week’s worth of sugar in a morsel of food without any of the residual feelings of satisfaction. The way it is priced and sold would suggest a personal snack, perhaps they are designed for sharing however as a treat for one, it was too much sugar, to little flavour, and not a great way to finish a festive lunch.

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Christmas Lunch Baguette £4.25

My main contention with sandwiches I’ve eaten during this festive period has been primarily based on two factors, the quality of the meat and the levels of sauce included to negate the dryness of the meat. Turkey, by and large is a very bland meat that overcooked can leave a dry sensation when consuming. This is often negated by the inclusion of sauces during the main Christmas meal, cranberry sauce or even a nice thick gravy for example but in a mass produced sandwich where cost limitations prohibit this to some degree what I’ve tend to experience certainly with more processed meats is the inclusion of water and other substances you find injected or included in mass produced processed meats. Thankfully, certain stores and chains have opted for higher quality meats and products, and to me relief Pret has emerged as a contender for one of the better almost more traditional Christmas sandwich option with its Christmas Lunch baguette, a great ratio of meat and greenery contrasted with an ample supply of various sauces resulting in a delicious, complex taste sensation with a variety of nuanced textures and flavours on your tongue.

The issue I’ve held with other baguettes is the ratio of bread to meat that tends to be a little unbalanced. On this occasion this was not the case, the baguette wasn’t to thick so your overall sensation of biting through, and the initial crunch was short lived giving into the meat within. The turkey didn’t necessarily have the same quality as that found in the Costa toastie but it was still a decent enough meat. The stuffing was plentiful and formed into actual stuffing balls. I’ve still yet to find proper, hand made stuffing consisting of a variety of ingredients and textures but in the absence of real stuffing this was a good, herb alternative. The addition and use of cranberry and orange sauce as well as a mayonnaise base worked really well giving a creamy yet savoury flavour that contrasted with the herb of the stuffing and the slight saltiness of the meat. And then the addition of the spinach leaves giving a slightly different flavour contrast. Overall, given the range of ingredients and some of the misfortune from other sandwiches there was the chance this was going to be to much with no real texture change or flavours to distinguish from. Thankfully, this was one of the better Christmas sandwiches I’ve eaten during this festive period and easily sets the marker for other chains and brands to compete with.

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Christmas Tiffin £1.60

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Turkey Feast Panini £4.25

A fairly substantial panini, quite similar in content and style as the Costa version of the same sandwich. A panini given its structure and substance does require a high level of filling or alternatively a thinner crust or else you arrive feeling and with the overwhelming sensation of having consumer a substantial amount of bread and dough in contrast to the desired memory of delicious festive meats and sauces. The meat consistency and texture is in keeping with the Costa offerings a lot more real tasting both in taste and quality, with both the benefits and flaws associated. The bacon for example in my panini had the consistency and texture of a real piece of bacon with a slight crispiness on the end where it hung out but softer in the inside where it was protected by the thickness of the dough. Compared to the seemingly uniform finish of bacon pieces in other sandwiches, its a small tell when you consume a bacon sandwich on a quality hand cooked finish compared to a batch cooked piece.

The turkey meat within felt natural and whole, not the greatest quality perhaps but lacking that smooth strange feel of a formed process piece of meat found in other Christmas sandwiches. The inclusion of the sausage again with its imperfections but greater taste was a nice inclusion within. The cranberry sauce gives a interesting contrast and my main issue I’ve experienced with other festive sandwiches, the lack of texture certainly isn’t an issue with the crunch of the panini acting nicely to the softness of the meat, the chew of the sausage and the sauce within. Sadly, its main fault is found in the cheese used to melt and bind the panini together. The cheese is quite simply, overwhelming in its inclusion and more importantly its taste. Whatever contrasting flavours that would have occurred are lost in the pool of cheese, drowned out and ultimately leaving a panini where you come away with the almost bland taste of cheese and meat compared to the rich various flavours of Christmas you would hope for. Great textures, disappointing flavours.

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…in America: Visiting the 9/11 Memorial

110 stories fell on top of me today,
I didn’t think the pain would ever go away.

When it finally did I realized where I was at,
Sitting at the gates of Heaven was exactly where I sat.

Excerpt from 110 Stories by Sasha Taylor

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There is held, a fundamental reverence, that radiates and encapsulates the memorial to the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001. A dignity and gravitas, humbling and inspiring as you become aware to the scope and sense of remembrance, the importance of that act and the determination to preserve the memory of those lost on that day. The eloquent design constructed in the footprints of the Twin Towers serves to enshrine and preserve the memory of the fallen for prosperity, names of the victims and agencies engraved around the fountain’s perimeter. One of the greatest testaments and purposes a memorial of this nature can do is to preserve and educate those in attendance to remember, not specifically the events so enshrined in our memories, but for prosperity of the fallen to ensure their memory lives on.

On this occasion when I attended I noticed a series of roses and flowers upon the names of one killed in the terrorist attack. A simple motion and act I attributed to a family in remembrance of their loved one, even the random kindness of a stranger in a humble gesture  so associated by the citizens of New York in reverence. What I came to realise, which subjectively, could be missed entirely given the scope and grandeur, in its purest form, of the memorial in its size and stature were simple placards and statements situated around the fountains perimeter pertaining to the activities of the 9/11 memorial foundation who upon the victim’s birthday lay a flower in remembrance. A small gesture but one that continues to serve and add a sense of humanity to but a name engraved and enshrined. There are many facets of the memorial designed to elicit a sense of awe and perspective of the location, such a small but crucial intervention to maintain the preservation of memory genuinely had a moving influence on me during my visit.

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New York rose up from the events of that day and continues to function, and remember with a defiance and determination akin to the American spirit. Like many cities that have suffered at the hands of terrorism and extremism in recent years, there is a temptation to almost, eulogize and preserve those events in time immemorial however the city by necessity and character continues to function as a beacon of American defiance both to its peril and credit. Looking out beyond the periphery of the memorial park you see and witness the financial district continuing to operate and grow, buildings once overshadowed perhaps now standing so openly in the light and shining with a purity on a clear day in a white hued radiance, by intention or consequence this purity in the aesthetic and design serves as a fitting memorial to the buildings that fell that day.

The memorial itself was designed and constructed in the foundations of the towers, a conscious and purposeful choice to preserve a site with a tranquility, almost a naturalisation of the urban environment eliciting a base connection and sensation as you bask in the view before you. Walking around the north and south fountains, having pause to reflect beneath one of the tree’s, you do find a measure of stillness and peace not befitting the buildings immediately surrounding the memorial site. The cascade of the water into the fountain below, the degree and quantity of the effect certainly has an effect on the auditory senses. At no point, irrespective of the number in attendance on the day was the magnitude and effect of the memorial fountain lessened. Indeed looking out and across the open gap of the foundations of the towers gives a remarkable sense of perspective as you truly understand the size and scope of the buildings that once stood here.

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One World Trade Center rises up into the Manhattan skyline, the tallest building in America designed by David Childs, the architect behind the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. Certainly there is a stark contrast between the tranquility and stillness of the memorial fountains and gardens and the newly erected skyscraper that rises up and stands as a symbol of defiance to those that challenged the American principles and society. But there in lies the duality and conflicting nature of this city you become aware of. You can sit and contemplate the events that transpired, be in awe and inspired by the views before you but equally the city has been through a restorative process that has decided upon and moved to a position that finds solace and restitution in providing an area of respectful respite before the new testament of American ingenuity and drive. As opposed to the historical towers that stood as a reflection of the design and practise utilised, the new One World Trade Center complex reflects a current trend in architectural design of minimising the visible impact on the skyline and using large reflective contours and surfaces to create a more reflective and transparent effect as opposed to the grey steel finish of the original Twin Towers.

Whilst the magnitude and impact upon the American culture and mindset continues to reverberate, in truth and facing the somewhat subjective realisation, these events so enshrined upon us as a critical juncture in our recent history conceivably is now but a memory or historical event to a whole generation of individuals both foreign and domestic who visit the memorial fountains. Four years ago, on my first visit to the site I was struck with a deep reverence which I perceived was shared by those around me as they bore witness to the fountains and the meaning and purpose they served. On my most recent return, that solemnity that once permeated the location has transformed to a degree to one of wonder or perhaps even incredulity at the notion of the events that transpired. The realisation that in another generation these fountains will serve perhaps as a functionary serenity in the financial district as an overwhelming functionary purpose is one the residents of this city will perhaps, come to face.

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The periphery of the site serves to remind you, should that be required, of the motivation and vigilance continually required to ensure these events do not transpire again. Roads and access ways once accessible now fenced off with an armed police presence ever watchful, ever vigilant for those that would threaten attendees to the memorial site. Certainly, viewed as a critical juncture in our societal expectations of the security services both abroad and domestically there is a necessity for this vigilance and preservation of values. Arguably, perhaps, as a reactionary function the removal of certain liberties and freedoms was perhaps one of the more egregious consequences but personally, subjectively, there was no imposing deterrent or atmosphere within the memorial location. understandably, given the sensitivity of the location I would perhaps even has accepted or suspected certain checks would take place, now a common place occurrence at public gatherings and events in my own capital city. But this memorial and the function it serves needs to, normalise our perceptions not be held in a constant state of concern and fear.

Beyond the entrance way to the shopping center located in the newly reopened subway station as I was leaving the memorial I came across an interesting assortment of street artwork and design from the contemporary artist Todd Gray. Using a colourful, cartoon style whose meaning was perhaps lost on me it did serve to humanize, to add a small element of personification of the living environment to an otherwise pristine and purposeful design. It’s quite easy when visiting a site of this magnitude and important to a city that it didn’t belong to the city as an ever-present being. The towers belonged to the people of New York and seeing and enjoying these street art you had a sense, to a degree that the people of the city were reclaiming a part of what was theirs. In the end perhaps when the legacy and grandeur of the memorial fountains have subsided, this effort to reclaim the area on behalf of the residents of the city will return it once more to the citizens of Manhattan and New York.

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Four years ago when I visited the 9/11 memorial on the first occasion I arrived for certain, personal cathartic reasons and the magnitude, splendour and dignity of the fountains in the footprints of the towers was an overwhelming and powerful experience. On this occasion I was perhaps able to just, embrace and experience the peace and stillness of the location, certainly respectful of the location but one where I could pause and reflect on the city and its growth and restoration since those events in 2001. The presence of the emergency services from my perception at least, has been withdrawn to a degree you are ever aware of their presence but allowed to reflect and contemplate on your own regard and agenda. The small signs and notices detailing the work of the memorial trust serving as an educative and informative tool for visitors from over seas such as I to come away with a new appreciation and respect for the work they undertake.

Certainly whilst reverence and solemnity is requested and to a degree maintained with the presence of both the foundation members and armed police ever watchful, ever ready you do come away at this point in time with the abundance of tourists and a new generation to whom the attacks are now a preserved chapter in their history to learn from that wounds have and continue to heal.Whatever the reasoning or rationale behind the events that transpired those years ago, the memorial is a fitting, powerful tribute. One whose necessity we can only pray serves its purpose to remind us of the human cost experienced and requirement to learn and enshrine that lesson for prosperity sake.

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