Monday, 25 July 2016

Laura the Explorer: A visit to Nunhead Cemetery

 A new series in which I explore parts of London (and other spots), giving my camera a good workout while I'm there, and flex my writing muscles when I get back to my desk. First up, Nunhead Cemetery. Well, it's practically in my back garden - it'd be rude not to.

One of the Magnificent Seven cemeteries, Nunhead Cemetery isn't a modern graveyard by any stretch of the imagination, and therein lies its charm. Expectations of tarmac paths and manicured lawns are soon washed away by winding gravel walkways and overgrown greenery.

Mother Nature rules here, and she wants everyone to know it. She dictates the gentle meandering of the paths -- paths that are really more like living tunnels, thanks to the near-complete canopy of trees overhead, leaning in towards the centre to form an arboreal guard of honour to anyone who has the privilege to walk through.

Mother Nature dictates where human footsteps can - and cannot -go
Entering at the Limesford Road entrance, I realised straight away how wild the cemetery was, and opted for what seemed to be the central path straight through the cemetery. I'm not one for believing in superstitions or ghost stories, but a cemetery isn't top of my list of places to get lost, thanks very much.

I strolled so far without encountering a single other soul, I was begin to believe I had actually travelled back in time to the 19th century. There was nothing around to date the scene, no point of temporal reference. Not an electric light, nor a pylon. Even the dates and names on most of the gravestones were mostly illegible, erased by the years and the elements.

By this point, a Victorian chap in a top hat wouldn't have been a shocking thing to find round the next bend.

The only sound was birdsong, plenty of it, and the occasional airplane overhead. Once or twice, the crunching footsteps of a fellow living being on a gravel footpath nearby jolted me back into my surroundings. The trees formed a curtain between us, so although they were only a few feet away, I couldn't actually see them. Still, their presence was reassuring.

There's an air of Jurassic Park to the place, and it's hard to tell what's been there longer - or which is holding the other up -the decrepit, gnarled trees or the greening, mossy graves.

Among the wonky, aged headstones, a more modern sight appears. It seems to be a war memorial area, the gravestones all lined with military precision, as the soldiers they represent would have been in real life, and so much cleaner than the other masonry.

Closer inspection reveals an even sadder sight; to the right of the war memorial headstones is a carved stone commemorating a local group of Scouts who drowned off the Isle of Sheppey in 1912. Nine of them, all named, and all aged 11-14 when they perished.

I wander on, deep and thought, and arrive at the what was once the central chapel of the cemetery. It's now a ruin, but on a Sunday morning, it's a bustling meeting point for families dog walkers, joggers. A meeting point for life. Suddenly the kids whizzing through the cemetery on scooters, the people throwing balls for their dogs and the joggers plugged into their headphones seem...insensitive. They're all using it as a regular park, when really, it's not a regular park at all.

Further snaking though woodland paths reveals the main entrance - I must have arrived via the tradesmens' entrance. A quick glance at the map board points out a viewpoint on the western perimeter of the cemetery. I love a view, me, and it's certainly a good enough reason to follow the path that skirts the western edge of the cemetery.

Round here, it's a bit livelier again, with dog walkers and ramblers going about their business. It's clear that no-one's brushed up on their cemetery greeting etiquette that morning. In a very British way, passing people half mumble at each other, not entirely sure whether to say hello or not. It's odd, really: we're clearly not here as mourners, me with my camera, them with their dogs. Indeed, mourners for the residents of this particularly cemetery are probably now the mourned themselves, so distance are some of the fading dates on the gravestones.

At the bottom of what transpires to be a steepish incline, the path is thick with mud in patches, even on a hot day in July. The sun never reaches these corners, kept out by the thick canopy of leaves, and that itself is a chilling thought.

Continue with the uphill amble, past a wild pond, and soon you'll be rewarded, not just with a bench -- which, to be fair, would be reward enough itself at this point in the battle against gravity, like the inexperienced hill climber's equivalent to shimmering in the desert -- but with this corker of a view:

I can only guess that this is one of the protected sightlines of St Paul's; you can't see it here, but out of shot, the trees had been so as to frame this view. This alone is worth the trip to Nunhead Cemetery, climbing the hill, waiting until a group of hikers had finished using the bench so that I could sit down and take it all in properly. And to think -- it's practically in my back garden.

Where in London should I visit next in this series? Suggestions in the comments below please.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Is this the best crazy golf course in the UK?

You know it's getting serious when you entrust your handbag to a panda while you tee off.
I love a crazy golf course. There's something intrinsically childlike about them, the way they can reduce full-grown adults to over-excited, golf club-wielding maniacs.

Given the recent influx of crazy golf courses in London (crazy golf underground, crazy golf on a roof, crazy golf that's literally rubbish), it seems I'm not the only one. But sometimes it's nice to step away from the hipster haunts of Shoreditch and go back to good, old-fashioned crazy golf -- fibreglass animals and all.

Talk about putting me off my swing
The course at Paradise Wildlife Park in Hertfordshire is just that. A wildlife park may not seem the obvious place for a crazy golf course, but Paradise caters for a young family audience, and it does it very well. Fortunately for us, visiting on a rainy Sunday (a Sunday which also offered the Wimbledon and Euro 2016 finals, the British Grand Prix and some golf or other on the TV), all children were out of the way and we had the course practically to ourselves.

It's an 18 hole course, and a sizable one at that. Thanks to the abundance of greenery, you never know what's around the next corner (expect fibreglass animals - there are always fibreglass animals).

The first hole
The course takes in hills, peaks,  troughs and even a little stream. The stream was a cause for concern - teeny tiny frogs, no bigger than a 1p coin were living in it, oblivious to the dangers of being trampled by human feet or doinked over the head by a golf ball.

You lookin' at me?
Adventurous little chaps, we found ourselves dodging mini frogs - and sadly, a couple of squashed frogs - for the next few hole, as we weaved over bridges and in and out of caves.

It really is a Tardis of a course - how they manage to fit so much into such as small space, I really don't know.

On Safari Golf, Paradise Wildlife Park, Hertfordshire. Crazy golf is £2 per person (+ park admission fee).

Saturday, 16 July 2016

The Guilty One by Lisa Ballantyne: Book Review

The Guilty One by Lisa Ballantyne
(May contain spoilers)

The Guilty One is the story of an eleven year old child who is accused of the murder of his eight year old friend. The plot doesn't focus on him, but on his solicitor, Daniel, a thirty-something Londoner. Except the plot's not really about thirty-something Daniel. To tell you the truth, the book flicks backwards and forwards so much, I couldn't tell you what it's about.

Chapters alternate between the thirty year old Daniel, dealing with this court case and the death of his adopted mother, Minnie, and teenage Daniel, growing up with Minnie. In doing this, it seems Ballantyne intends to highlight the parallels between the lives and experience of Daniel and his client, Sebastian. However, the result is that we never spend enough time at one period or the other of Daniel's life to really grow attached to him as a character.

In the latter half of the book, a large part of it is taken up by the court case. Now, I love a fictional court case, and I've read more than enough Jodi Picoult books to know just how gripping they can be. That's not the case here though. Prior to the court case, the reader isn't given enough information to form their own conclusion as to whether Sebastian is innocent or guilty, and without that belief, there's nothing to hope for.

A weak attempt at a love story also runs as a subplot throughout the novel, but once again, the reader isn't given the chance to grow attached enough to either of the characters to care one way or the other how that works out.

Conclusion: Meh - if it's the only thing around, give it a go, but there are plenty of better books out there.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Ab Fab The Movie: review

**** (4/5)
(Contains mild spoilers)

Sweetie darling, haven't you heard? Patsy and Edi are back with a new Ab Fab film.

Their characters may be growing older disgracefully but Lumley and Saunders don't look as though they've aged a day since the final episode of the final series aired at some point in the noughties. This time, the perma-high duo find themselves in the south of France rather that the streets of London, but the effect is much the same. Sure, the plot has more holes than Edi's string vest, and the green-screening leaves something to be desired, but it's got the Ab Fab charm stamped through it like a stick of rock.

With a film as widely anticipated as this, it's hard not to go in with some expectations, although with early reviews ranging from 1 star t 5 stars, it's hard to know what those expectations should have been. What was widely reported is the sheer deluge of celeb cameos the film has, and those reports certainly weren't exaggerated.

It starts with Jamie Laing from Made In Chelsea eight seconds in, and continues via Emma Bunton, Jon Hamm, Alexa Chung, Christopher Biggins and Jean Paul Gaultier (to name just a tiny proportion of them) before coming to an outrageous halt with Barry Humphries (as Dame Edna Everage).

The one to watch out for, though, is Rebel Wilson. Her three minute stint as an air hostess demonstrates a proclivity towards comic timing second only to the great Lumley herself (whose sharp one liners and infinite facial expressions really come into their own).

Comedy wise, the first few scenes don't have the hilarity expected, but the pace soon picks up. Sure, the jokes aren't to everyone's tastes, which I suspect was the source of may of the harsher reviews I've read, but anyone who enjoyed the TV series should find the same light relief in the films. We may not have been rolling around in the aisles (wouldn't want to spill our Bolly our smudge our make up, would we?), but it's a solid conveyor belt of belly laughs.

The one thing that doesn't sit well with die-hard fans of the TV series is some of the unrealistic changes in character, not least the revelation that dim old Bubbles had something vaguely resembling a plan all along.
Edi and Saffy showing something vaguely resembling sentimentality towards each other and new addition to the family, Lola is somewhat unsettling and untrue to the character dynamics we've grown to love all these years. What's more, it adds a sense of finality to proceedings, all but confirming what we all thought we knew -- that this will be the final airing for our Bolly-guzzling buddies.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

An ode to the many faces of the London skyline

London's a tempremental beast, especially first thing in the morning, before the pulse of commuters and tourists, buses and trains starts pumping through her vein-like roads. Before she's had her morning coffee. Before she's put her lippy on.

From our 5th floor flat in Peckham, we're lucky enough to see London in all her facets; on hazy mornings, when the heat hangs over the city. On rainy afternoons, when the downpour creeps steadily across town, drenching one pocket at a time. On summer evenings, when the bright orange ball casts an almost eerie light over the metropolis.

London's not unlike many humans in that sense. Some days, she's an excitable child, bouncing around and raring to start the day before you're ready, laying all of her toys out in front of you at once, teasing you into playing with them.

Other days, she's a moody teenager, reluctant to start the day and having to have the duvet pulled back a bit at a time before she's ready to reveal her face to the world. Then, and only then, will she reveal the features of her skyline, protruding through the mist one layer at a time, so that skyscraper and tower blocks and church steeples appear one by one.

Other days still, she's an old woman, satisfied with her lot in life, happy to kick back and let the rest of the world see what she's got, not quite flaunting it, but not hiding it either.

I've come to love my little view from our fifth floor flat in Peckham, and my camera's certainly had a decent workout since I moved in. I've also developed a weird fascination in the weather, and have been known to go out onto our balcony in nothing but a towel in pursuit of a photo of a rainbow. For more photos of the view (believe me, there are many), follow me on Instagram.

Saturday, 4 June 2016

Born Wild by Tony Fitzjohn: book review

Born Wild by Tony Fitzjohn

Born Wild is about Tony Fitzjohn's life in the African bush, specifically at Kora in Kenya, the wildlife camp where he learnt his trade under the guidance of George Adamson. If that name sounds familiar, it's because George Adamson was one half of the couple whose story was told in the film Born Free.

Born Wild differs from other books on similar topics in that it's not written by a scientist or a conservationist -- not an intentional one anyway. Fitzjohn was born and raised in Cockfosters in London, and without any background in science, ended up working with -- and successfully leading conservation projects to rehabilitate and breed -- lions, leopards and rhino, among others.

It's a brutally honest read, revealing Fitzjohn's brushes with alcoholism and less than perfect relationships, and yet the final chapters read in an almost self-congratulatory tone. Deserved, perhaps, but slightly grating to read.

It's not exactly a no-holds-barred account of George and Joy Adamson's life either -- Fitzjohn's admiration and respect for George is prescient throughout -- but it certainly takes the Hollywood sheen off of the couple portrayed in Born Free.

Anyone with even a passing interest in wildlife conservation -- particularly in Africa in the latter part of the 20th century--will be aware of how much conservation is about the politics as well as the science. If the political side of things is something that interests you, get stuck in. If not, a large part of the book will seem like an incessant amount of name dropping, reading like a who's who in the power rings (both legitimate and corrupt) of Western Africa.

I confess, I found myself skimming over these parts as I was struggling to remember who was who anyway, and I don't feel like doing so reduced my overall enjoyment of the book.  What I would like to have seen more of is the detail of day to day life in Kora camp -- the methods used to raise and release the lions, the living conditions. In reality, very little of the book is set in the camp itself, and it's the poorer for it.

I'm always on the lookout for decent wildlife/animal/conservation non-fiction books, so if you've got any recommendations, please let me know in the comments. Here's a free tip for you: Killing Keiko by Mark Simmons.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Pedler Peckham Rye: restaurant review

Have you ever been to a restaurant where the broccoli is the best part of the meal? That's not to discredit our recent trip to Pedler in any way -- the food was all exceptional -- but when you roll out of a restaurant, stomach completely full, and it's the broccoli you're talking about, that's worth a mention, no?

Set on Peckham Rye, Pedler specialises in smaller sharing dishes - not quite small enough that I'd call it tapas, but three to four dishes plus a couple of sides is plenty for two people. Actually, it's more than plenty, and leaves no room for dessert. Bad move.

We cracked on with the bread basket to start with, which in hindsight we could have done without, but it came with Marmite butter, which had me intrigued from the off. 

By the time I got round to photographing the broccoli, most of it had already gone. Sorry about that.
That'd barely touched the sides before our other dishes started arriving as and when they were ready: spicy meatballs, frizzle chicken, beef dripping chips and the now-famous tempura broccoli. To be honest, we'd only ordered the broccoli in a half-hearted nod to our health -- and because the menu said it would be purple, and I'm easily intrigued (remembered the Marmite butter).

We kicked off with a cocktail - yes, that's an actual flower on top.
Purple the broccoli was not, but we'd forgotten it was meant to be, because it was so darn delicious. Crunchy, crispy, and completely bereft of that healthy taste that usually taints broccoli, we'd almost guzzled it completely before remembering that we had other dishes that required our attention.

The fizzle chicken and spicy meatballs are the ultimate comfort food - meaty, cheesy, saucy, nicely spicy. Definitely decent, but our hearts were with the broccoli at this point.

So Pedler's great but the, er, cosy atmosphere means it's not the place for a first date, or a private conversation. 

While we're on that, a note to all restaurants: a three inch gap does not two separate tables make. It's a trend I've been noticing for a while and I'm not a fan. I get that squeezing as many people in as possible is key for your profits, but having to ask the person on the next table to stand up just so that I can get out to the toilet makes me feel like I'm on an aeroplane. And we all know how popular aeroplane food is. 

The menu changes daily at Pedler, as they use all fresh ingredients. If the broccoli's not on the menu when you get there, bad luck. Console yourself with a cocktail or two.

Pedler, 58 Peckham Rye, SE15 4JR

Apologies for the awful photos you see before you. Low-lighting rules at Pedler - great for creating an atmosphere, not so helpful for those of us trying to photograph the offerings. That, and I was too busy stuffing my face with food to focus on my focus.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

How to cheat at Venice

Bridges, canals, and a cheeky ride on a gondola. Throw in a slice of pizza and a scoop of ice cream and that's about the size of most people's weekend breaks in Venice. But what many don't realise is just how much that oh-so-coveted gondola ride costs. They start at 80Euros -- extra if you want the gondola man (gondolier, I believe is the correct term, but please don't make me say it out loud) to sing. Naturally, longer rides cost more money. Having your eyes actually open incurs an extra charge, and if you want access to oxygen whilst you ride, take out a second mortgage right now.

A gondola ride is something that's been on my to-do-list forever (did I mention how much I'd always wanted to go to Venice?), but other things are also important to me. Things like not having to swim back to the airport because I can't afford the waterbus ticket, and being able to afford food for the fortnight between now and payday. Little things like that.

Long story short, the gondola ride was out of my budget, and so my dreams of being serenaded by an Italian sunk to the bottom of the canal like a dropped oar heading to a watery grave.

But alas! What's this on the horizon? A Traghetto? But it looks exactly like a gondola. That, my friend, is what it is, but without the hefty price tag.

Traghettos are effectively river buses, designed to ferry people across the Grand Canal. The Canal itself only has three bridges crossing it, which are pretty spread out, so for two euros, it's often easier to hop on  a Traghetto. Fair enough, the crossing only lasts for 30 seconds or so, and you'll be sharing it with a few strangers (it is a form of public transport after all), but it may well be the best two euros you spend in Venice.

People boarding the Traghetto

Saturday, 21 May 2016

Venice: expectations vs. reality

Venice has been "my place" since I was 8 years old, by which I mean that if anyone asked me where I wanted to go more than anywhere in the world, the answer was always Venice (if anyone reading this is thinking of whisking me away anywhere, Cuba, Marrakech and Namibia are next on the list, thanks very much).

I don't know where my fascination with the watery city came from - probably a TV programme or film, but the romance of the place has always intrigued me. Whatever it was, after 16 years of hankering after the colourful buildings and winding waterways of Venice, it's safe to say I had a few firm ideas in my head of what I expected the city to be like. But how true did they turn out to be?

1. Beautiful architecture. That goes without saying (in all your hours of scrolling through Pinterest and double-tapping on Instagram, have you ever seen a bad photo of Venice?). Palatial style buildings sitting alongside historic clock towers and sweeping domes.

The truth: Venice is beautiful, in many ways. Some buildings ooze regal splendour, while the quieter parts of town absolutely rock the shabby chic vibe. A Venetian we met on the plane (that's another story for another day) had told us of a few "modern" buildings around the city. Turns out "modern" is a subjective term -- if you're looking for 21st century glass and metal boxes, Venice isn't the place for you, my friend.

2. Lots of independent shops, cafes and bars. Realistically I know that this is the 21st century, Venice is a European tourist hotspot, and therefore there's probably a MacDonald's or Burger King on every corner, but can't a girl dream of cute little cafes and family-run pizzerias?

The truth: You can wander miles down the back streets of Venice without coming across a single recognisable shop: just tiny, individual shops selling Murano glass, Venetian masks, macarons and, er, yacht paint (yes, really). But seek and ye shall find - the central area to the east of the Rialto Bridge has Mac, Sephora, Pandora, Disney Store, Intimissi and other chains, while the area around St Mark's Square addresses the higher end of the market with Gucci, Dior and friends. Strata Nova in the north of the island is home to the likes of Lush. Oh, and this recogisable chap:
To be fair though, Venice seems a lot less commercialised than most other European cities.

3. It's expensive. It's the first thing anyone tells you when they hear you're going to Venice - usually while pursing their lips and whistling through their teeth. That's regardless of whether they've even visited Venice themselves - they all know someone who knows someone who's been ripped off by astronomical service charges in a restaurant or a gondola man whose price was just that bit too steep.

The truth: Venice *can* be expensive, but no more so than any other city. If you're going to chow down on oysters and sup champagne in St Mark's Square, you probably will spit it all back out in shock when the bill arrives. But by wandering away from the main tourist centres, you can easily get dinner and a drink for 12-14Euros. Two things to watch out for in restaurants are service charges and cover charges - if they're not clear up front, check before you order.

Transport on the other hand can be pricey, with a single ticket on the Vaporetto (waterbus) costing 7Euros. 

Gondola men - waiting to rip you off?
4. It's smelly and crowded. By this time you're probably wondering why I ever wanted to visit Venice at all, what with the pong of the canals in the height of summer, and the narrow alleyways so crowded there's barely a chance to whip out your selfie stick.

The truth: The occasional whiff of sewage wafted up our nostrils, but nothing too offensive. I can't speak for the situation in high summer though. As for the crowds, they tend to gather around St Mark's Square the Rialto Bridge so as long as you avoid those, you'll be fine. If you are heading to St Mark's Square, go early in the day - 10am is perfectly pleasant, 3pm is a heaving mess.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Is this the best landing view from any airport in the world?

I was kicking myself as we came into land at Venice Marco Polo Airport last week. Not because I'd forgotten anything, or because I'm a particularly nervous flyer, but because I didn't have my camera to hand when this corker of a view appeared in the tiny oval of the aeroplane window:

Photo by the lovely Emma Cleaver who was clever enough to whip her camera out in time.
Yes. that is the whole of the island of Venice, plus a few outlying islands, stretched out in front of you. Yes, it was stunning, and yes, it got me really, really excited to land and get down there exploring.

It also got me thinking -- is this one of the best airport landing views in the world? It's certainly got to be up there as one of the best city views -- by the very virtue of being a city, planes vary rarely fly in so close to them -- although I hear planes from London City Airport often get a little too close for comfort.

Luckily I was a little more prepared on the way back, camera hung round my neck, finger twitching minutes before we'd even reached the runway for take-off. The positioning of the airport means that after take off, planes have to double back on themselves and circle over Venice to get enough height to get over the Alps, creating a perfect photo opportunity. I didn't manage to capture the whole of Venice (thanks, wing), but this little beauty is the island of Burano, best known for its colourful houses:

Know of any better take-off or landing views? Let me know in the comments - I'd love to hear about them.