unique travel experiences

Month: November 2015

Pretending you’re the Prime Minister

You’ve seen him dozens of times in the House of Commons, leaning on his despatch box, and you can get pretty close to standing there too! This all arose when we were invited to the Houses of Parliament by Exeter University’s chancellor Floella Benjamin. And on Guy Fawkes night!!

Meeting Floella Benjamin in the Cholmondeley Room

Meeting Floella Benjamin in The Cholmondeley Room

Where am I talking about? The Houses of Parliament (the ‘House of Commons’ and House of Lords’) sit inside the Palace of Westminster building, which itself sits alongside the River Thames in London. Its exterior having been photographed millions of times together with “Big Ben” on its northern flank.

So what’s it like to actually go there? Well whether it be for an organised charity event like ours, via an invite from your MP, or on a “paid for” tour you arrive at the opposite end to Big Ben at the ‘Black Rod’s Garden entrance’ and then 20 yards further along enter the building itself. 4-5 security guards welcome you as you proceed through one of two x-ray machines. All very procedural – just like an airport – but friendly nonetheless. On this occasion we headed diagionally across a courtyard towards The Cholmondeley Room and onto the terrace overlooking The River Thames. You can also attend Parliament if you write to your MP. Check out these posts to find out more about attending Prime Minister’s Questions and separately visiting the top of Big Ben!

The imposing architecture at Black Rod's Garden Entrance

The imposing architecture at the ‘Black Rod’s Garden Entrance’

On this romantically-lit terrace you are able to look straight down into the murky water of The Thames and then back over towards the London Eye which looms behind Westminster Bridge – a view not normally accessable by the public. Even though you’re right in the centre of London you feel safe and secure, protected by the river from all the hustle and bustle just minutes away.

The first part of our tour warmed up by visting The Central Lobby, an octangonal shaped area equidistant between the House of Lords and House of Common. As you might guess from its name it’s in the centre of the Palace of Westminster.

The Central Lobby Palace of Westminster

The Central Lobby Palace of Westminster. Photo © Jorge Royan /

Next stop The House of Lords. This room has a grandiose interior with armorial bearings running beneath the side of the galleries and gets far less exposure in the media than the more televised ‘House of Commons’. You can’t simply “walk about” so our guide spoke to us just a few metres inside the entrance. The red benches are very striking.

House of Lords in the Palace oif Westminster

House of Lords in the Palace of Westminster. Photo:

Back through the The Central Lobby you see The Members’ Lobby which is adjacent to the House of Commons. It’s not the biggest of areas and suffered bomb damage during WW2. Look up at the missing parts of the arch which was allowed to remain incomplete to serve as a reminder. The lobby also contains pigeon holes with the MPs’ names on. Remember the name of your MP before you get there. I forgot mine. The foreboding statue of Churchill has a worn left foot due to MPs rubbing it as they walk past. Also worth noticing is the “human” damage to one of the doors leading into the Commons Chamber, just beneath the grille due to the ‘Gentlemen Usher of the Black Rod’ knocking it with his rod over the years the traditional three times.

Members' Lobby Palace of Westminster

Members’ Lobby Palace of Westminster. Photo:

Much like the Centre Court at Wimbledon the inside of the House of Commons is much smaller than when you see it on the TV. You see where the speaker sits on a raised armchair and by looking up, the public gallery, now behind security glass. Keep looking up and you appreciate the sheer amount of wood on show, a view you don’t see in the media as they tend to look “down” onto the MPs instead. We stood on the opposition’s benches to listen to our guide’s talk but asked to stand on the other side so we could experience being “in power” too. A few of us even walked behind David Cameron’s despatch box so we could stand in the same spot as the the most powerful man in the UK!

The House of Commons. Photo: BBC website

The House of Commons. Photo: BBC website

As the tour comes to an end you wander around the compatitively cool and empty feeling Westminster Hall which is where deceased monarchs traditionally “lie-in-state” …  before being commemorated by tablets on the floor. The most recent is that of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, who died on 30 March 2002 so check that out before you leave.


The four plaques in the centre of Westminster Hall

We were part of an organised event but there are various ways of visiting. Although remember to visit the shop first as that closes at 8pm and your tour might finish a bit later than that.

10 types of photos to take at Madame Tussauds

London’s Madame Tussauds is a museum along Marylebone Road full of life-size wax figures of famous celebrities, along with hordes of tourists taking photos of the “celebs” but often with the waxworks facing in the wrong direction. Let me explain. When a “real” human person is having their photo taken they tend to look directly down the camera lens. Something that many people choose not to replicate when taking photo of their preferred celebrity. Now this isn’t easy. A waxwork figure can’t look at the camera for you so it’s a case of having to position yourself up and down, left and right until the celeb appears to be looking right at the camera on your camera phone.

So what types of photos can you take?

  • The “solo close-up” photo
    One of our best close-ups was of Bruce Willis. Having seen him in person Bruce Willis looked pretty realistic – so much so you think he might move as part of a “prank” TV show. But then if you’re not in the photo too it might as well be Bruce Willis, or a magazine photo of Bruce Willis. Either way this waxwork looked pretty spot on! Yippee ki-yay!

    The Bruce Willis waxwork was particularly lifelike

    The Bruce Willis waxwork was particularly lifelike

  • The “close up with you in it too” photo
    A few steps away from Bruce was fellow Hollywood legend Whoopi Goldberg from her ‘Sister Act’ days. Now out of all the photos this one was one of our best as it looks like she’s looking right down the camera lens and we were actually in it too … which is important.

    Whoopi Goldberg smiling for the camera

    Whoopi Goldberg and I could make a habit of this

  • The “height measurement” photo
    Now we always hear that a lot of celebrities are a bit on the small size. Kylie is 5’ 0”, Michael J Fox is 5’ 5” and Tom Cruise is 5’ 7”. Now that’s my height so I had a ‘face-to-face’ stand-off with him (we couldn’t go ‘back-to-back’ as he had a pillar behind him). I called this one a draw.

    Checking out if I'm taller than Tom Cruise

    Checking out if I’m taller than Tom Cruise. It was a draw!

  • The “iconic setting” photo
    Now for some exhibits you don’t have to be too worried about “lining anything up”. That’s because the scene of the photo is the lasting imagery. The ET backdrop is one of those and if we’d taken the photo a little bit lower we could have got less of the floor in and more of the moon. Nothing a bit of cropping can’t sort out though. It’s also important to make sure you don’t get other people “in shot” as that kind of ruins things.

    Taking ET for a spin in my BMX

    Taking ET for a spin on my BMX

  • The “it would have been nice to have chatted to them in a bar” photo
    Now some characters sadly become more popular if they’ve met their end just a few weeks earlier. That’s why having a “chat” with Robin Williams allowed me to momentarily think “what if” and how great it would have been to have actually met him in the flesh.

    Having a chat with Robin Williams

    Having a “chat” with Robin Williams

  • The “famous pose” photo
    Now you can be spoilt for choice here, especially in the sport section where sports stars tend to have a distinctive pose, a memorable stance while competing or an iconic pose from winning a particular event. From Usain Bolt’s pointing to the sky, Mo Farah’s “Mobot” to Johnny Wilkinson preparing to kick a penalty.

    Usain Bolt striking a pose!

    Striking a pose with Usain Bolt!

  • The “inappropriate” photo
    Now if Johan Lomu is going to stand there focussing on his outstretched hand, or if Alfred Hitchcock is going to have his hands reaching in front of him as if he’s testing the ripeness of watermelons then somebody is going to place their boobs in the way while looking shocked at the same time! Or alternatively you could look down a female celebrity’s top.

    Jonah Lomu being inappropriate!

    Jonah Lomu being inappropriate!

  • The “you have just met them on set” photo
    Samuel L Jackson was casually standing in a stairwell which made for a more candid/believable photo as he didn’t have a particularly striking background and wasn’t illuminated by any spotlights. You could almost pass this one off as real … almost.

    Meeting Samuel L Jackson backstage

    “Meeting” Samuel L Jackson backstage

  • The “part of the movie scene” photo
    Every once in a while Madame Tussauds have an exhibition and while we were there it was Star Wars’ turn. What could be better than chilling out with Han Solo in the Mos Eisley Cantina?

    Chilling out with Hans Solo on the set of Star Wars

    Chilling out with Han Solo on the set of Star Wars

  • The “childhood dream” photo
    Finally there’s the “money shot” photo where you can capture a classic movie scene that you’ve seen countless times in films on the TV. So the chance to sit in the driver’s seat of the Millennium Falcon muttering the immortal Han Solo line of “Chewie, get us out of here!” and then going into hyperdrive … before standing up to let the next visitor have a go!

    Chewie and I at the controls of the Millennium Falcon

    Chewie and I at the controls of the Millennium Falcon

More information of course at 🙂

Where’s the hottest recorded place on Earth?

And that’s the “hottest” place recorded according to the ‘WMO World Archive of Weather and Climate Extremes’ … so let’s get the confusion out of the way to start with!

The hottest official recorded temperature is now credited to ‘Death Valley’ in the USA and not ‘Tripoli in Libya’. More specifically ‘Greenland Ranch, near Furnace Creek in Death Valley, California’ which hit 56.7°C (134°F) on July 13, 1913 and not the 58°C (136.4°F) that was recorded at ‘El Azizia (approximately 40 km south-southwest of Tripoli) Libya’ on 13 September 1922.

Check out the World Meteorological Organization for more “techie” information.

So when our tour guide Alex had mentioned where we were heading that day – the “hottest place in the world … Death Valley” I too recounted my GCSE geography lessons that taught me that it was actually somewhere in Libya that held that title! We were too remote for our bus’s Wi-Fi to connect to Wikipedia so it was only once we’d been handed copies of the local ‘Death Valley National Park Visitor Guide’ we could understand why the record had been changed.

Greenland Ranch weather station in about 1921

The oldest known picture of the Greenland Ranch weather station at in Death Valley taken at the latest in 1921. Image Credit: American Meteorological Society

So why the contention? Well in February 2011, a WMO Commission of Climatology (CCl) special international panel of meteorological experts began conducting an investigation into the Libyan record and identified five major concerns with it:

  1. Potential problems with the type of thermometer which had been used
  2. The record temperature was taken by a potentially inexperienced observer just two days into his new role
  3. Unlikely conditions for such high temperatures at the observation site (it was on a hill and near the coast)
  4. Poor correspondence to other weather stations nearby
  5. No subsequently high temperature values ever recorded at the site.

They therefore concluded in January 2012 that Death Valley now had the record and invalidated the 90-year-old Libyan record for the world’s highest temperature.

The old Greenland Ranch weather station is no more but the original location lies on the eastern side of the road opposite the Furnace Creek Resort if you ever wanted to try to find the exact location yourself! Although it too was repositioned 2 or 3 times over the years due to measuring improvements and highway building and nobody at the visitor centre knew its exact original location either!

Furnace Creek Resort sign

The sign at Furnace Creek Resort. Image Credit:

The current weather station is at the Furnace Creek Visitor Centre 700-800m up the road and moved there on April 1st 1961 but I’m guessing it would have been about 136.4°F degrees here too – and you never know – maybe even hotter! In fact on June 30th 2013 it reached 129°F degrees (54 °C) but that’s as close as it’s ever got to the 1913 record!

The Furnace Creek weather station today

The Furnace Creek weather station today

But why so warm there? Death Valley lies at 36°N so even at the height of summer it never has the sun directly overhead (23.5°N). However it’s the depth and shape that instead influences its high summer temperatures. The valley itself is 86m below sea level and is walled by steep mountain ranges. Sunlight is allowed to heat the sparsely covered desert surface and the radiated heat becomes trapped within the valley. Even the pockets of sinking, recycled air are only marginally cooler than the surrounding hot air. As they descend they are compressed and heated up even more by the low elevation air pressure.

So that’s the geography lesson over and one with, and either way when we were there it was a mere 40°C (104°F) according to the digital thermometer at the visitor centre but that was plenty warm enough for me! 🙂

Death Valley temperatures throughout the year

Death Valley temperatures throughout the year – with the June maximum entry now being 1°C higher


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