Monday, 23 April 2018

A weekend in Leeds, part 1: Abbeys, tea rooms and Monkey Fingers

Leeds City Centre skyline, photo taken from Armouries Museum at Leeds Docks -How to spend a weekend in Leeds, things to do in Leeds

As part of my plan to visit a new place every month this year, I went to visit a uni friend who lives in Leeds. That's cheating a bit as I've been to Leeds before, but only for daytrips when I lived in York, mainly zeroing in on Primark and the Christmas market, student priorities being what they were. Needless to say, I didn't see much of the cultural side of the city, so staying with someone who's lived in Leeds for three years was a handy way of being guided to lesser-known spots.

Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden National Trust near Leeds, Yorkshire -How to spend a weekend in Leeds, things to do in Leeds
Flashbacks to studying Tintern Abbey in sixth form

A large part of my weekend in Leeds wasn't actually spent in Leeds. As soon as I stepped off the train, we headed about an hour north to Fountains Abbey, a National Trust property out in the wilds of Yorkshire. The Abbey itself is a ruin, but a substantial one, and it's on the same site as Studley Royal Water Garden, meaning plenty of ornamental lakes to wander among while we had a long overdue catch up (and a picnic of course, including Hummingbird Bakery cupcakes which I'd lovingly transported all the way from London).

Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden National Trust near Leeds, Yorkshire -How to spend a weekend in Leeds, things to do in Leeds

From here, we darted through the back roads and country lanes over to Harrogate, somewhere I've never been before but always fancied visiting. Does this mean I can count this as two new places visited this weekend? I hope so, as I've got some making up to do for February and March.

Flower beds and townhouses in Harrogate town centre, Yorkshire, in spring -How to spend a weekend in Leeds, things to do in Leeds
Harrogate town centre

By the time we'd taken a convoluted trip around Harrogate's one way system and found somewhere to park, the sun was shining and the flowers were in full bloom. Like all self-respecting tourists, we started out tour of the town at Betty's Tea Rooms, opting for a quick peek in the shop rather than queuing for food.

Queues outside Betty's Tea Rooms in Harrogate town centre, Yorkshire -How to spend a weekend in Leeds, things to do in Leeds

After an hour or so of wandering the streets of Harrogate, and a cheeky milkshake to lift our flagging sugar levels, it was back in the car to Leeds.

Macaron town centre in the window of Betty's tea rooms in Harrogate town centre, Yorkshire -How to spend a weekend in Leeds, things to do in Leeds

Dinner came courtesy of Meat Liquor, sister restaurant of my beloved Meat Mission, where I finally got round to trying the Monkey Fingers - strips of chicken covered in that moreish buffalo sauce. They were decent, but not as crispy as my usual buffalo chicken burger.

Inside Meat Liquor, Leeds -How to spend a weekend in Leeds, things to do in Leeds

I'm the sort of person who firmly believes - to adapt a line from How I Met Your Mother - that nothing good happens after 9pm (except sleep). In this case, Leeds proved me wrong. We found ourselves in a secret jazz bar hidden underneath what looks like a barber shop in one of the city's fancy arcades. As well as feeling clandestine, and quite classy, it also provided me with the cheapest round I ever bought. Between you and me, it's this place... but don't go telling everyone.

Inside The Domino Club hidden jazz bar in Leeds -How to spend a weekend in Leeds, things to do in Leeds

I'll be publishing part 2 of the Leeds Chronicles shortly. In the mean time, keep up with my antics on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Friday, 6 April 2018

Blast off at Skylon's Gravi-tea space themed afternoon tea

Themed London afternoon teas: Gravi-tea space-themed afternoon tea at Skylon, Southbank Centre, London

Calling all wannabe astronauts and afternoon tea addicts (that's a venn diagram with a very niche crossover...). There's a shiny new afternoon tea about to lift off in London and it's all about that space, 'bout that space, no trouble (#sorrynotsorry, but when I have an earworm, I believe in sharing the pain).

Gravi-tea is the punny name given to Skylon's new space-themed offering. It launched in early April 2018 and will be on the menu for the foreseeable future... to infinity and beyond, some might say.

I'm quite often sceptical about themed afternoon teas. If they don't commit to the theme - I mean really commit - they can be a right old letdown. On the other hand, others pull off their theme very well - and Gravi-tea can definitely be counted as a successful mission.

Themed London afternoon teas: Gravi-tea space-themed afternoon tea at Skylon, Southbank Centre, London
Afternoon tea modelled by @Robberrazzi, who was Instagramming the whole thing.

First things first, it's a very pretty afternoon tea. Think purple, sparkly, space age. All the beautiful, shiny things. You'll ooh and aah as it comes to your table, and then you'll take all the photos before you finally blast off.

It's served on the traditional three tiers, which is the only right way to serve afternoon tea. They don't quite go as far as serving it on a rocket-shaped tea stand (Skylon: if you're reading this, you can have that idea for free), but it's good to see things done properly.

Starting with the sandwiches, you've got your usual selection of ham and cheese, salmon, chicken, and egg mayo. Sliced into fingers with the crusts off, the portion is generous, the sandwiches themselves surprisingly filling.

Next tier up are the scones. The menu claims a mixture of raisin and plain, but ours are all raisin, which is not a problem at all. The preserves are served in mini Wilkin & Co jars, two marmalades, a raspberry jam and a blackcurrant jam. The cream appears in what can only be described as a mini saucepan, not an object I would readily associate with space, but perhaps there's more to this astronaut malarkey than I thought. Either way it's cute, but I'd advise against pairing marmalade and cream on the same scone - the sweet/bitter combination just doesn't work.

Themed London afternoon teas: Gravi-tea space-themed afternoon tea at Skylon, Southbank Centre, London
The Jupiter Cake, and the mysterious cream saucepans

Wobbling boldly next to the scones is the Jupiter Cake. Now this is the only real flaw in the whole afternoon tea - the menu doesn't tell you what each item is, beyond the space age names. Best described as a milky jelly with a white chocolate ring, it slides down no problem and we're on to the almost-too-pretty-to-eat top tier.

Let's just take another second to admire it before we tuck in:

Themed London afternoon teas: Gravi-tea space-themed afternoon tea at Skylon, Southbank Centre, London

OK, and begin. The Galaxy Macarons (bottom right) are hypnotically pretty, but their citrus orange flavour comes as a real surprise - although not an unpleasant one - underneath that innocent lilac exterior.

We can't quite put our fingers on the flavour of the cream inside those Cosmos Mini Choux buns, deciding on something like passion fruit or mango. Again, it's unexpected but tasty.

The Rocks Of The Universe are by far the richest element of the afternoon tea, dark chocolate shells filled with some sort of a raspberry ganache. They disappear quickly, leaving us wondering whether there really was popping candy inside or if it's all just a trick of the mind.

Themed London afternoon teas: Gravi-tea space-themed afternoon tea at Skylon, Southbank Centre, London
Galaxy Macarons

Last but not least are the Galactic Cupcakes, a taste of good old-fashioned home baking. That perfectly coiffeured icing turns out to be cream cheese icing, which is a risky choice. It makes a change from the sugar overload, but we both agree that we would have preferred buttercream icing instead.

Themed London afternoon teas: Gravi-tea space-themed afternoon tea at Skylon, Southbank Centre, London
Galactic Cupcakes

Once you've eaten your way through the solar system (or if you pause halfway through - afternoon tea is, after all, a marathon not a sprint), take time to have a look round Skylon. I'd heard of it but never quite worked out where it was before. It's right on top of Southbank Centre, with an entrance opposite Las Iguanas, and another inside Southbank Centre itself. It's a rather swish place, all sleek decor and high ceilings, but the absolute highlight is the view it offers over the Thames. I reckon it'd be a rather nice place to head for cocktails on a summer evening - who's in?

Themed London afternoon teas: Gravi-tea space-themed afternoon tea at Skylon, Southbank Centre, London
The Jupiter Cake

Gravi-tea at Skylon, Royal Festival Hall, London, SE1 8XX. It costs £25 per person (very reasonable for afternoon tea round these parts, especially when you consider the view it comes with), and you'll need to book ahead.

Themed London afternoon teas: Gravi-tea space-themed afternoon tea at Skylon, Southbank Centre, London
The gorgeous setting of Skylon. I was too busy stuffing my face to take a photo of the view from the window.

Get your fill of afternoon tea on the afternoon tea section of this blog, and follow me on Twitter and Instagram for up to date pictures.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Interesting Things To Do In Kent This Month: April 2018

Due to being otherwise engaged for two weeks at the end of February, I didn't get round to writing a March events round-up - but you were probably snowed in anyway, right? Here's a bumper look at what's going on in Kent in April:

Events and things to do in and around Kent in April 2018
Image: Paper Daisy Events

March-September 2018: Remarkable Characters of Tunbridge Wells

Already underway is this exhibition of 40 photographs of local Tunbridge Wells people. It's the culmination of a project by photographer Mark Wilkinson and writer Anne Wagstaff, telling the story of the real Tunbridge Wells. See the exhibition at Woods restaurant on the Pantiles, where the accompanying book is available to buy.

1-2 April: Festival of Steam and Transport, Chatham Dockyard

Choo choo! Who doesn't love a good old vintage train? Steampunks unite at this weekend festival of classic cars and trains, steam engines, food and drink stalls, live music, a funfair and more, all at the Historic Dockyard in Chatham.

4-29 April

If you're into local history, head to Maidstone Museum which has an exhibition chronicling 100 years of the WI in West Kent - more than just knitting needles and cake sales.

7 April: Street food and craft market, Brighton

A day at the seaside, a street food market and a craft fair all in one, Paper Daisy Events pops up in Brighthelm Gardens with stalls selling items made by independent craftspeople. Plus, there's a live band to accompany all that shopping.

7 April: Heritage Transport Show, Maidstone

If you missed last weekend's steampunk showdown, head to the Kent Showground in Detling for a mass gathering of 800 vehicles.  The South East Bus Festival forms part of the show, bringing 120 buses and coaches of all vintages together, many of which will be offering rides.

7 14 April: Lambing weekend, Bidborough


Following on from a successful pumpkin picking season, Bidborough's Four Winds Farm is holding a lambing weekend, allowing the public to see inside a commercial farm. It's not all about the newborn lambs, as there's a sheep show all about sheep and wool, tea and cake, face painting and more. Let's face it - it's mainly about the newborn lambs though.

12-14 April: Alice in Wonderland, Chiddingstone Castle

Events and things to do in and around Kent in April 2018
Image: Chiddingstone Castle

This one's mainly for kiddies (6-10 years), but I really wish it wasn't. Alice in Wonderland is coming to Chiddingstone Castle for the weekend, and basically having the run of the place with croquet, arts and crafts, singing, dancing, and other activities led by the characters from Lewis Carroll's books.

13-14 April: Bat Walk

If nature's your thing, Knole Park in Sevenoaks is running a series of dusk bat walks. Bring a torch and set off on a guided walk in search of bats - bat detectors will be provided. The walk is followed by hot chocolate and chance to ask the bat expert any questions you have.

18-27 April: Tulip Festival, Hever Castle

Events and things to do in and around Kent in April 2018
Image: Hever Castle

I love tulip season - they're my favourite flower, and so many places have festivals to celebrate them coming into bloom. If you want to cop an eyeful of them, I recommend heading to Hever Castle's tulip festival, because not only do you get the gorgeous flowers, but you get them set against the backdrop of a Tudor castle. Beautiful.

18-29 April: Bluebell Festival, Riverhill Himalayan Gardens

If bluebells are more your bag, Riverhill Himalayan Gardens will be rolling out the blue carpet for the bluebell festival, with walks through the woods, and music and craft events for children.

22 April: Penshurst Brocante

The picturesque village of Penshurst hosts a vintage fair (rescheduled from March due to the snow) with vintage clothing, antiques and jewellery available to buy.

24 April-15 May: Pashley Manor Tulip Festival

More tulips, but as I said, I absolutely love them. Pashley Manor near Wadhurst has been running its tulip festival for a good few years now, and although it's not cheap to get into, it has 40,000 tulips across 112 varieties - one for the real enthusiasts. The gardens are worth exploring beyond the tulips, and there's a cafe and shop on site too. Keep an eye on the news page for updates on when the tulips are coming out.

30 April: Dawn chorus boat trips

Get your sea river legs on, set your alarm and head for Tonbridge. The excellent Tonbridge River Trips run special trips as well as their regular day boat trips. Today there's a dawn chorus trip, a two hour journey with a wildlife expert who will point out local wildlife and tell you a bit more about it. The kicker? It starts at 4.30am.

Ongoing, every Sunday: Afternoon tea

Events and things to do in and around Kent in April 2018
Image: Cafe 1809

Cafe 1809, the Hildenborough cafe owned by Dame Kelly Holmes, has launched afternoon and cream teas every Sunday. The first one took place on Mother's Day, and they're now running every Sunday for the forseeable future. I haven't tried it yet, but given I've now dedicated a whole section of this blog to afternoon tea, it's definitely on the list.

Plus: Tonbridge Library is now due to reopen in April after a long refurb (no further details at present), and I live in hope that Verdigris, the wine and cocktail bar replacing Graze in Tonbridge High Street, may open this month. Keep an eye on the Twitter account for updates.

About these listings: These are just a selection of the more interesting and unusual events taking place in and around Kent this month. I select events for inclusion based on what I find interesting myself, as I hope these will interest you too. I'm based in West Kent, so geographically they're centred around this area - although I do chuck the occasional further-afield event in if I think it sounds interesting enough to warrant it. Got a suggestion for a inclusion in future event listings? Contact me.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

The whole picture: March 2018

Catch up with my January round-up. There was no February round-up as I was busy sunning myself in Cuba. #Sorrynotsorry.

What I've done in March

My first March adventure came in the form of snorkelling in the Atlantic, just off the coast of Varadero. We took a catamaran out to a reef where many fish gather, and spent a jolly hour splashing about in top of the waves. Suffice to say I've now added 'fish-botherer' to the hobbies and skills section of my CV. Next stop: scuba diving.

The end of the holiday was doubly painful because not only was I saying goodbye to sunshine for the foreseeable future, I was coming back to face the challenge of racing up a skyscraper. Six days after I packed my bikini away, I took part in Vertical Rush in Tower 42. I've never understood the phrase "my lungs are burning" until that day, and altough I only ran up eight or so floors, I got to the top in 14 minutes and 10 seconds. There's still time to donate to my fundraising page, if you're so inclined - oh, and here's a video of me doing it.

The view over Lewes from... a hill, somewhere

After speeding up a skyscraper, a light walk up a Sussex hill seemed like a doddle, so I took on the hills that I've been eyeing up outside my nan's house for years, walking from Ringmer to Lewes via cows, wind turbines and golf courses - ending in a pub, naturally.

Where I've been in March

Cuba, obviously. I've been banging on about it for weeks. But I've been back for three weeks now, and have managed to squeeze a few other bits and pieces in.

I was desperate to see the V&A's Winnie the Pooh exhibition (which ties in with this afternoon tea), and it didn't disappoint. Seeing the process of both the writing and the illustrations explained really brings home how clever AA Milne and EH Shepard's books are - and of course, there are plenty of cute touches, including a chance to have your photo taken on a replica of the Poohsticks Bridge. Side note: if you're into Winnie the Pooh, watch the film Goodbye Christopher Robin. I watched it on the plane, and while it's cute, it also gives a lot of the backstory to the characters, some of which is darker than you might expect.

I was back in South Kensington a couple of weeks later for the press launch of the Natural History Museum's annual Sensational Butterflies exhibition. Press calls with professional photographers are always fraught to the point of violence as everyone grapples for that perfect shot, and as a twenty-something woman in an industry saturated with middle-aged men, their disdain and patronising attitude towards me is always obvious. At first it intimidated me, but now I just get my shot and get out, leaving them to their macho mind games.

Last but not least of my activities this month was a trip to the press launch of Swingers, a crazy golf course that's opened in the old BHS on Oxford Street (top tip: don't Google 'Swingers' - you won't find what you're looking for - or perhaps you will... - and it'll ruin your Google ads for life). I've racked up a few fair London crazy golf courses through my job, this one being the most sophisticated by far. You've still got your street food and your bars in there, but it feels like the more grown-up sibling of the like of Junkyard Golf. Oh, and the holes here are a lot harder...

What I've eaten in March

You didn't think I'd let a month go by without an afternoon tea, did you? Celebrating the birthday of a very good friend, we combined our two favourite things and headed for afternoon tea in a bookshop. Full review here.

I've had to go cold turkey - pun intended - on my buffalo chicken addiction for a few months since it got out of hand, but I returned for one of Meat Mission's bundles of deliciousness after completing that skyscraper challenge. It's dangerous to know that it's so close to me office, I can head over there, order a burger to take away, and be back sitting at my desk within 34 minutes. The temptation is strong every single day.

What's coming up

My plans for April so far consist of a weekend in Leeds with a uni friend, and possibly a trip to Columbia Road Flower Market. Foodwise, there's an American diner I plan to try out, and I'm reviewing a couple of restaurants and an afternoon tea or two for work - perk of the job.

You may also notice a couple of minor changes on this blog. There's now a whole section dedicated to afternoon tea, another about UK travel, and one specifically about South East England. If you've got any suggestions for what I should cover in these areas, get in touch.

Follow me on InstagramTwitter and Facebook to keep up to date with next month's antics as they happen.

See also - what I got up to in:

Saturday, 24 March 2018

Callejon de Hamel: Havana's street art hotspot

Visiting Callejon de Hamel, Havana
Looking down Callejon de Hamel, from west to east. So far, almost a normal Havana street.

Our time in Havana was pretty limited - two days - which wasn't enough time to squeeze in everything we wanted to do in the city centre, let alone head out to Fusterlandia, an arty neighbourhood in the suburbs. We still managed to get our dose of street art though, at Callejon de Hamel, a short back street that's been decked out with... well, everything the locals can get their hands on.

Visiting Callejon de Hamel, Havana
When bathtubs become art

It's not that Callejon de Hamel isn't well-known - it appears in most decent guidebooks - but it's a bit out of town, meaning that fewer tourists get to it. I guess the London equivalent would be God's Own Junkyard - plenty of people know about it, but just being there feels a bit... edgy.  We took a taxi from Parque Central (right near El Capitolio) and it only cost us 10 CUCs.

Visiting Callejon de Hamel, Havana

Our taxi driver drops us at the western end of the street, and for a while we have the place to ourselves. Like any other Havana back street, the paint on the walls is peeling, the road is riddled with potholes, and dusts blows all over the place.

Visiting Callejon de Hamel, Havana

A grandmother and grandaughter sit together on a bench, eyeing us up. On second glance, the bench is actually half of a bathtub. More bathtubs are embedded in the painted, pebbledash walls, poems written on their bases. Two young boys kick a football about, and off in the distance, a dog gives a hearty bark.

Visiting Callejon de Hamel, Havana

Think Gaudi meets Dali in a salvage yard, and you're in the right mindset. We venture further into what must once have been a bleak alleyway, now resembling an eclectic junkyard. A decorative metal cross towers 20ft above, its style reminiscent of the rooftop decorations of Casa Batllo, the metal much more sinister than Barcelona's playful stone. Naturally, the Cuban flag flutters nearby.

Visiting Callejon de Hamel, Havana

Halfway down the alleyway, a large porch covers the road, sheltering a group of men tinkering under the bonnet of a classic car. The scene is so stereotypically Cuban, it's hard to believe the whole thing isn't just one elaborate prank. But it drives home the realisation that despite its spot on the tourist map, this is a street where people live.  Metal fences and gates in the high, colourful walls separate camera-wielding tourists from people's yard and living rooms. One nondescript gate swings open to reveal a bar, dark as a cave and populated entirely by locals.

Visiting Callejon de Hamel, Havana

A bicycle - or at least something that is the sum of the parts of a bicycle, but couldn't exactly be described as a whole one - is suspended above the street, roughly halfway down. To the left, bottles of Beefeater gin have been cemented into the walls, and to the right, someone's used a toilet as a flowerpot. It's all done without explanation and without ceremony. It's just the way things are around here.

Visiting Callejon de Hamel, Havana

 There's something very Cuban about using everyday objects - bicycles, bottles, baths (and, yes, bogs) - in this way. The people here are used to recycling, not for environmental reasons, but because so many everyday objects are so hard to get hold of, that they've developed a unique ingenuity in repurposing objects in a way most people wouldn't even think of. And yet, like the rest of Havana, the street is unexpectedly green, plants squeezed in everywhere there's space.

Visiting Callejon de Hamel, Havana

As we near the end of the road, it becomes clear we've used the back entrance. Hoards of tourists, many with guides, are pouring in from the eastern end of the street. Vintage cars, now used to ferry tourists, cluster here. It turns out to be the more formal entrance, a stone arch reading 'Callejon de Hamel' bridging it. Just one look isn't enough, so we wander back down the street for a second - and later, a third - look. It really is a case of not being able to take everything in, and I certainly won't regale you with tales of everything I saw. Have a scroll through these photos instead.

Visiting Callejon de Hamel, Havana

From Callejon de Hamel, it's a 20 minute walk to the famous Hotel Nacional on the Malecon, where a cold drink and fantastic building await (plus, you'll be able to get a taxi back to wherever you're headed next, in our case, back to our hotel for a well earned rest).

Visiting Callejon de Hamel, Havana
Bathtubs have been reused for all sorts of things

Visiting Callejon de Hamel, Havana

Visiting Callejon de Hamel, Havana
Gin, glorious gin

Visiting Callejon de Hamel, Havana

Visiting Callejon de Hamel, Havana

Visiting Callejon de Hamel, Havana

Visiting Callejon de Hamel, Havana
They'll repurpose anything and everything

Visiting Callejon de Hamel, Havana
The main entrance to Callejon de Hamel, at the eastern end of the street.

Callejon de Hamel, Hamel e/ Aramburu y Hospital, Centro Habana. Entry is free.

Monday, 19 March 2018

Afternoon tea in Europe's largest bookshop

 Books, cakes, and a friend who makes you laugh so much, you accidentally blow out the candle on your table. Some days you just feel like you're winning at life, y'know? I've known Amy all my life, and in 27 years, our friendship has gone from being based on slides and swings, to bars and cocktails, to books and afternoon tea, so I knew I'd hit on something when I was looking for something to do for her birthday and came across this.

Lots of people know about 5th View, the bar-restaurant on the top floor of the deliciously gargantuan Waterstones on Piccadilly in London, but not many people know about the afternoon tea. Which is a shame really, because afternoon tea in a bookshop is a fantastically appealing idea, no?

Prebooking was a wise move - on a snowy Saturday afternoon, every table is taken. We're shown to ours (mental note: request a table next to the windows next time) and left with the menu. When our waitress returns a few minutes later to take our drinks order, briskness is the vibe, suggesting this place prioritises high turnover over customer service. It's the third time I've been to 5th View, at varying times of day and days of the week, and every time, I've found the staff to be brisk and standoffish.

The menu's bizarre combination of offerings feels like a microcosm of London itself - as we tuck into a three tier afternoon tea, the table to our left are wolfing down burgers and chips, while those to our right indulge solely in an iced bottle of champagne. Each to their own, eh? 

This jack-of-all-trades approach results in an afternoon tea that doesn't benefit from the care and attention that others do. There are only four teas to choose from, although they're happy to let us choose a hot chocolate instead.

The sandwiches are a weak start. They've come straight out of the fridge, leaving the bread dry and a little tasteless, the fridge temperature cucumber too chilly to bite into. That said, the best part of the meal sits alongside the sandwiches - a Yorkshire pudding with chorizo and cheese. Now I'm all for afternoon teas that involve Yorkshire puddings, and this one is no exception, because what could be better than meat and cheese and Yorkies in a single bite?

After those sandwiches, it's a welcome surprise o find the scones are warm. Cream and jam sit alongside the huge, fluffy blobs in individual pots (cream first, before you ask). Normally, I prefer afternoon teas which offer you two or three smaller scones of different flavours to try, but given the bargaintastic cost of this tea, these scones are more than sufficient.

Naturally, the meal finishes with a cake tier; the menu rather unhelpfully states "homemade cakes". A little detective work reveals we're facing a slice of lemon drizzle, a chunk of chocolate brownie and a macaron each. Thankfully, the first two are not as arid as their dry, crumbly appearance would have you believe, the brownie toeing the line perfectly between sweet and sickly.

At £29.95 for two (plus service added on automatically, which is a bugbear of mine), this is a good value afternoon tea, and given that we only booked a couple of days in advance, is a good option for last-minute London plans. The bookshop location adds an extra twist, and if you go on a clear day, the views over the London skyline are decent too. Don't go expecting amazing service though.

Afternoon tea at 5th View, Waterstones, 203-206 Piccadilly, W1J 9HA.