Saturday, 14 October 2017

The beauty of Knole Park in autumn

The wonderful thing about the National Trust is that whatever time of year it is, and whatever mood you're in, there's somewhere to visit, be it strolling though lush, green gardens in Spring, or taking shelter in sweeping country houses in winter. For me, autumn is all about Knole, a deer park and former archbishop's palace in Sevenoaks, Kent.

As the temperature drops and the leaves turn, Knole becomes Kent's answer to London's Richmond Park. Deer roam the medieval parkland, their antlers silhouetted against the misty hills, their hooves crunching across the orange leaves. You'll know where the deer are - just follow the crowds.

The house itself watches over it all nonchalantly, safe in the knowledge that sooner or later, all visitors stop focusing on the deer, and pay all their attention to its own splendour. It's hard not to - it was built to impress. The palatial front gives way to a tidy courtyard, a overlooked by a Gatehouse and a clock tower, iced with a well-kept lawn and finished off with a couple of sculptures.

Through the clock tower gate is another, smaller courtyard, which, bizarrely, put me in mind of Marrakech's Bahia Palace. I don't know why - there's far less marble and far more mounted deer antlers here. At this point, you can visit the 'Showrooms' - rooms full of rare furniture and impressive artworks. At the time of our visit, some of the Showrooms were closed for renovations (details of which were shown in a recent Channel 5 programme.

It'd been years since I've been to Knole (around 2007, confused French exchange student in tow) and there's a new addition. The Gatehouse is now open to the public - or at least, to members of the public willing to climb the three-story spiral, stone staircase. The tower was lived in by a reluctant heir to Knole until 1940. The first floor bedroom and second floor music room are open to visitors, but of course the main event here is that view from the roof:

Sevenoaks isn't known for its skyscrapers, but you will catch a glimpse of Sevenoaks School's rugby posts in the near distance. Other than that, it's all about those parkland views, another reason why autumn is the best time to visit, when the trees exhibit their full spectrum of colours.

It's free to walk in the deer park, and enter the Courtyard, Conservation Studio and Orangery. You'll have to pay to enter the Showrooms and Gatehouse, but the money will no doubt go back into the current conservation project going on in the Showrooms.

Knole House and Park, Sevenoaks, Kent, TN15 0RP

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

The St Pancras Renaissance Hotel now serves Harry Potter cocktails

...and my gosh, they're delicious.

It's not just butterbeer - sorry, Butterscotch Brew - either. The Booking Office bar in St Pancras has launched a whole Mystic Elixirs and Potions cocktail menu, coinciding perfectly with the opening of the new Harry Potter exhibition at the British Library next door.

The menu itself makes no direct mention of Harry Potter - hence Butterscotch Brew rather than butterbeer - no doubt for copyright reasons, but it does offer up some truly good cocktails.

The Butterscotch Brew was my fave - a hot, creamy and sweet cocktail that tastes of winter. One sip and you'll be imagining roaring fires and cosy knitwear. I'm surprised I liked it actually, because it contains rum which I'm really not keen on. A non-alcoholic version is available, but where's the fun in that?

Those who like playing with their food will be tempted by the Camouflage Coupette - pour the liquid onto the candy floss and watch it dissolve, then get the gummy worm involved. It's a potent concoction, not least because it contains absinthe, but the turquoise blue colouring makes it easy on the eyes.

When the absinthe gets involved, you're going to want something to soak it up. We had the 'mini' fish and chips from the bar snacks menu, and found the portion sizes to be not far of that of a main meal. The chips are devilishly crispy - I'd go as far as to say the best I've ever had.

The bar itself is wonderfully charming, all huge high-vaulted windows, exposed brickwork and low-level lighting, a real remnant of the golden age of rail travel. Perhaps I'm growing up, but I can see the appeal of paying more for a cocktail in luxurious surroundings like this, rather than sticking to the cheap, hectic and sticky bars we usually end up at.

The staff at The Booking Office are great, more than happy to chat to you about the drinks and offer recommendations. Our bar tender Geoffrey ended up telling us the story of the afterparty of the first night of the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child play, which was held in that very bar, with the likes of J.K. Rowling in attendance.

Top tip: grab yourself a seat at the bar to watch the cocktail wizards at work. Top up on bar snacks (trust me - line your stomach before indulging in the absinthe) and work your way through the whole cocktail menu. Finish off with a Minty Toad For The Road (basically, the most Instagrammable After Eight you'll ever eat).

Mystic Elixirs and Potions at The Booking Office, St Pancras Renaissance Hotel. Menu available until February 2018. See my full review on Londonist.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Afternoon tea review: Alice Tea Party in Wonderland at Taj 51, London

Yep, that's right, two afternoon teas in a week. Not even sorry (read: will definitely be sorry when I have no trousers that fit me for work tomorrow). This time, we've fallen down the rabbit hole to Alice's Tea Party in Wonderland at the Taj 51 Buckingham Gate. This isn't the Alice themed afternoon tea which most people have heard about - that one is over at the Sanderson Hotel. I've not yet tried it, so if anyone fancies treating me...

Taj 51 is a fancy hotel in St James's, just a 5 minute stroll from Buckingham Palace. After having a poke around the exotic courtyard, our prompt arrival saw us being shown into the rather fancy lounge to wait until our 3pm booking. We'd skipped lunch in anticipation, so by the time we were called, a few minutes later than expected, the complimentary apples on the reception desk were looking all too tempting.

The Kona restaurant is an intimate affair, split into three smaller rooms with five tables apiece, people enjoying a mixture of the Alice tea, the Sherlock tea, and the hotel's regular afternoon tea. There are just two sittings a day, so everyone took their seats at the same time, adding to the 'tea party' effect.

Our table was wonderfully decorated, with giant playing cards thrown haphazardly over it, a pearl necklace draped though the sugar bowl, and the mad hatter's hat perched whimsically on the windowsill next to us. We took a seat, and waited. And waited while all of the other tables were served their food... and waited while one table received their second course before we even had our first.

Finally, 40 minutes after our afternoon tea was due to start, our sandwiches arrived, and it was looking like the wait hadn't been worth it. They were served up on a regular plate - not the tiered cake stand expected of afternoon tea. They were cut into rectangles rather than triangles, not a deal breaker, it just looked a bit like the chef couldn't be bothered with the niceties of afternoon tea. The coronation chicken sandwiches were straight-out-the-fridge cold, rendering them dry, but tasty nonetheless. The ham and cheese and tuna mayo offerings were an improvement - warmer, but still dry bread - and the cream cheese and cucumber was disappointingly bland, lacking both the crunch of the cucumber and the creaminess of the cheese. So far, so disappointing.

Things improved enormously with the prompter arrival of our next course, the coveted cake stand, complete with scones, cakes, jellies and all manner of other sugary goodness. Unlike the sandwiches, the Alice theme positively shone out of these offerings. Highlight was the clock face macaron, probably the most photogenic food item I've ever eaten, although the bubblegum flavour didn't quite hit the mark - strawberry or raspberry would have done quite nicely instead.

The 'eat me' and 'drink me' signs were a nice touch, although the yoghurty type substance was an odd addition to afternoon tea, and one we could have lived without.

Finally admitting defeat halfway through the second tier, and not having even given separate the Victoria sponge cake a second glance, we asked for the rest to be packed up and taken home, which the staff were more than happy to do for us. Our goodies were returned to us in Tupperware boxes, which, on closer inspection, were missing our untouched watermelon jelly chocolate cups.

When we asked for them back, the waiter said he'd return to the kitchen 'to see if they were still available' - we'd paid for them so we'd flippin' well hope so! A few minutes' later he returned, second Tupperware box in hand. Makes you wonder how many people leave with only half of what they've paid for.

The staff were all very friendly and more than happy to help, but as a whole, the afternoon tea felt rather badly executed. A slow and disappointing start blossomed into a rather enjoyable (and oh-so Instagrammable) afternoon tea, although from the reviews I've read, you might be better sticking to the original Alice tea at the Sanderson.

Alice's Tea Party in Wonderland at Taj 51. There's also a Sherlock-themed tea available in the same restaurant.

 See also:

Friday, 6 October 2017

Travel tales: dolphins in the Black Sea

Riding the trusty fishing boat over the blue waters, jellyfish floating past below like ghosts of the sea, the whole set-up felt more like Greek Island hopping than catching a local boat down the coast of Bulgaria. Our destination? The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Nessebar, 15km or so down the coast from our hotel in Elenite.

The captain's mate did little to quell our island-hopping fantasies, bearing more than a passing resemblance to Captain Birdseye; the slight paunch, the jaunty red neckerchief, the weather-beaten, silver-sprinkled face. All that was missing from the seafaring cliche was the sailor's hat (and perhaps a smarter pair of trousers).

As we got out into the deep, inkier waters of the Black Sea, the teeming resorts of Sunny Beach and Sveti Vlas mere toy towns on the distant cliffs, Captain Birdseye began gesturing pointedly at me - or more specifically, at the camera hung around my neck, there as always like an extra limb. A stream of excited Bulgarian tumbled out of his mouth as he pointed repeatedly between me and the front of the small boat, leaving me in little doubt that myself and my camera were being summoned.

Using the closest thing I had to sealegs, I wobbled my way to the front, clinging to the railing, unsure why I'd been singled out among the 10 or so passengers on board. I assumed Captain Birdseye was showing me that I could take better photos of Nessebar up ahead, so I stayed put for a couple of minutes, snapping away - mainly in a bid to placate him than out of any real urge to take photos of the vast and misty sea, before heading back to my seat after a polite amount of time had passed.

But my bum had barely met the plastic before he was in front of me again, gesturing; diving, swimming - the man was a charades hero - before we made out the word 'dolphin' in his broken stream of Bulgarian-English. He was trying to tell us that there were dolphins up ahead. By this time the whole boat, no doubt drawn in by the convoluted game of charades, was paying attention. Cue a stampede to the front of the boat to try to get a glimpse of the dolphins.

But there was nothing there. A small boat broke the flat horizon a couple of miles ahead, but other than that, there was nothing between us and the distant shore of Nessebar. We had misunderstood his gesturing.

Then I saw it. What it was exactly, I couldn't have told you, but a black shape briefly broke the surface next to the other boat - a fishing boat, as it transpired, whose very purpose lured the dolphins towards it.

As the inky gulf between us and them dissipated, more and more dolphins leapt out of the water, disappearing and porpoising over and over, as if performing for us. Our captain killed the boat's engine and we idled through their territory, carried only by the the wind and the tide as they played around us, surrounding the boat on all sides, swimming right alongside the boat for metres at a time.

Taking photos of them was tricky, never knowing where they were going to surface next, but we all snapped away hopefully. I managed to catch a few shots of black blobs that may or may not be fins and tails. But this one was about the experience - all the better for having been spontaneous - rather than the Instagram shot.

Once we'd made our way through the dolphins' territory and left them safely behind, our captain powered up the engine again, speeding us towards Nessebar. We kept our eyes peeled the rest of the way, but the Black Sea offered up little more than the occasional jellyfish. On our return from Nessebar a few hours later, we craned our necks left and right, hoping to catch another glimpse of a tale or a fin, but the fishing boat was long gone, taking the dolphins with it.

One of my favourite things about travelling is the spontaneous events like this, things that all the maps and guidebooks in the world couldn't help you find. See also:

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Thursday, 5 October 2017

Why I'm taking a lot more notice of Lush recently

Photo: Lush UK Facebook page
Lush has never featured heavily in my life. It's always there in the background, a great go to for Christmas and birthday gifts, making its presence known in shopping centres and high streets around the country by that unmistakable smell. But beyond the psychedelic gift boxes and sassily named bath bombs, I'd never looked into their other ranges, never bought anything there for myself.

That's all about to change.

A couple of things have made me sit up and take note of Lush recently.

Firstly, they encourage customers to recycle the black plastic pots that many of their liquid products come in.

This is something I've been hoping to see introduced for a while (in the vein of Irn Bru) in the likes of high street stores like Boots and Superdrug, but I understand that the logistics would be a nightmare (imagine sorting through the packaging of so many different brands to return it to the right supplier).

A post shared by LUSH UK (@lush) on

But for every five black pots that you return to a Lush store, you'll be given a free face mask. The pots themselves are returned to Lush HQ, cleaned, melted down and remoulded into pots. I'd love to see the likes of Body Shop following this lead (it's worth noting that Body Shop's ethical standards are already above and beyond most high streets stores thanks to their anti-animal testing ethics).

Thanks to Dainty Alice blog for flagging this one up. I'd expected Lush to make a big to-do about it on their website and social media - and rightly so - but this doesn't seem to be the case.

Secondly, Lush is going naked. It's been luring customers in with a slow strip-tease for a while, but this Christmas, 80% of its products will be sans clothing, sans packaging and au naturel. What's so special about this?
The solid version of the Snow Fairy conditioner for Christmas 2017

It doesn't just apply to the solid products like bath bombs and soaps. Conditioners, body scrubs and shower gels are all getting the naked treatment, being sold without any packaging at all.

Wait, what?

Isn't that going to get messy? Nope, the wizards at Lush have whipped up solid versions of these products, which require no packaging. It works like this:

"Solid, naked products like body butters are formulated with little to no water and are therefore often innately self-preserving - just like our Christmas range. By replacing the water content with ingredients that remain solid at room temperature, like Fair Trade cocoa butter, bacteria growth is inhibited and stays that way. Eureka.​"
Add to this the Lush's long standing Against Animal Testing policy and pledge towards ethical buying, and that omnipresent smell may have just lured itself a new loyal customer.

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Afternoon tea review: Tea Terrace, Guildford

Another weekend, another afternoon tea. This time we're five floors above Guildford High Street, tucked away inside House of Fraser's Tea Terrace.

It describes itself as a "very English tearoom",  all chintzy vintage crockery, literary quotes scrawled elegantly on the walls, and tempting cakes under huge glass domes. There's an air of Alice in Wonderland to it as well, some of the chairs larger than others, all brightly coloured - organised chaos, really.

Having navigated Guildford's one-way system (twice, for reasons that I won't go into here), any sort of tea and cake would be welcome at this point, but we're here for the afternoon tea. That alone involves four choices (Traditional/Celebration/Indulgence/Gluten-Free), and indeed choices within choices. Unlike other afternoon teas, you can pick and choose your elements here - ideal for fussy eaters like me.

Each person can pick two from a list of eight sandwich fillings, and two from a choice of five scones (both savoury and sweet). There's nothing groundbreaking in the sandwich choices (cucumber, egg mayo, salmon, tuna mayo, cheese and chutney, etc.) but the scones offer a couple of unusual choices - in October, the apple and cinnamon seems like an apt choice, but I can't guarantee it'd have the same appeal on a less autumnal day.

With the important business of ordering out of the way, there's time to take a recce of the venue. There's an outdoor decked area running down one side of the building, with what looks like a pond, but on a miserable weekend, it's not an appealing option. Instead, we stay in the airy, conservatory-esque restaurant, watching the rain and mist roll over the hills surrounding Guildford as we tuck into our lunch.

As is always best, we'll start at the very beginning; our sandwiches. The cheddar cheese and chutney is a pleasant surprise, the chutney sweeter than anticipated - even with the sweetest of teeth, you'd struggle to eat more than a couple of dainty triangle sandwiches of it. Our other choice, the egg mayo was rather uninspiring in itself, but provided a much needed foil to dull the intensity of the chutney.

Up a layer we hop, to the scones. Being one for sitting firmly on the fence, I'd gone for one savoury and one sweet; a cheddar cheese and herb, and a cranberry and white chocolate. Beginning with the cheese one (I'm not a complete heathen), things are looking good, and a dollop of butter sent the warm cheesiness down a treat. Ample cream and jam were provided for my sweet option, but to be honest, I could have lived without the cranberries (afternoon tea chefs take note: you cannot beat a warm choc chip scone).

 Finally, we get to the literal and metaphorical pinnacle of the whole afternoon tea rigmarole; the cake. I'm sorry to say that The Tea Terrace let itself down a bit here. Quantity-wise, things were impressive, with three generous slices of loaf cake each; lemon, apple cake and carrot cake. But three tiers and a mug of hot chocolate in, it's not quantity you're after, and I couldn't help feeling that things would be improved by replacing the three slices of loaf cake with one slice of the more appealing cakes available individually at the counter.

Would I go back to the Tea Terrace? Yes I would - it's a nice place to go for a special occasion, that doesn't cost too much, and doesn't need to be planned or booked too far in advance. The food we had was mostly of a very good standard, the portion sizes were generous, and the staff efficient, friendly and attentive.

A word of warning: this place gets busy at weekends, and doesn't take bookings. We arrived around 12.30 on a Sunday and were seated straight away, on one of the last available tables. By the time we left a couple of hours later, there were about eight groups waiting for tables. It's not only afternoon tea and cakes; all manner of sandwiches, paninis and main meals were arriving at tables around us, looking quite tempting.

The Tea Terrace, House of Fraser Guildford (and two London venues).
See also: Afternoon tea review: B'n'T Brunch Afternoon Tea at Le Meridien Piccadilly.

Saturday, 30 September 2017

The whole picture: September 2017

Miss my August round-up? Catch up here.
There are NO good pictures of me from holiday, so you'll have to make do with this.

What I've done in September

The middle two weeks of this month were taken up by a beach holiday on the coast of Bulgaria - lots of chill time, a pile of books and regular dips in the sea. Absolute highlight was spotting some dolphins in the sea, but more on that in future blog posts.

The rest of the month has been dedicated to catching up with friends and catching up with work.

What I've eaten in September

A long overdue catch-up with a friend took me to The Green Room, a bar-restaurant by the National Theatre, situated just behind it on South Bank. We only intended to go for drinks, but the food smelt so good, we ended up indulging. Some of the best buffalo chicken wings I've found in London.

Twice, doughnuts turned up at the office (#lovemyjob), courtesy of Doughnut Time, an Aussie doughnut brand that's coming to London soon. Yes, that is a doughnut with a Ferrero Rocher on top.

We also received a delivery of Halloween cupcakes from FlavourTown, and I now have all the skills envy, because just looked how well decorated they are:

Sadly one of our interns left this month. Not-sadly, this involved a farewell lunch at Red's True BBQ in Shoreditch. I continued my odyssey into London's buffalo chicken (it's an obsession, OK guys?!?), but was disappointed with the dirty buffalo chicken burger - it lacked the kick that any self respecting buffalo chicken has. What wasn't disappointing was the choice of sauces to dip my fries in:

I rounded off the month with post work cocktails with some friends on Friday night. We try to meet for cocktails once a month, drinking our way round the bars of London, but it was four months between meet-ups this time. Must try harder.

Last, but by no means least, those absolute wizards at Bailey's have come up with a salted caramel version, and I'm pleased to confirm that it's every bit as wonderous as it sounds. Thank goodness for Duty Free, eh?

Things I've loved in September

I've been trying SO hard to stay out of shops, so my main purchases this month were my holiday souvenirs (photo above). The toucan clutch bag and embroidered top both came from a little boutique shop near our hotel, and the giraffe picture was from a street stall in Nessebar. It combines two of my favourite things - animals and words - so I couldn't resist. The bottle is rose liqeur, something I developed a penchant for while in Bulgaria, and the rucksack is the perfect size for work.

I did, however, manage to wangle a bargain on home turf, one which I'm extremely proud of; two pairs of boots in New Look for just £14. £14! All the boots and shoes on the sale were buy one, get one free, so I bought myself a knee high tan pair for £14, and got a £10 pair of black suede ankle boots for free.

What's coming up?

Plans for October currently involve afternoon tea, a couple of Halloween events and a trip to the Lake District. I'll no doubt be making a trip to Doughnut Time (above) when it opens in Shaftesbury Avenue, and I've discovered that FlavourTown (also above) do Lucky Charms cupcakes, so I'll be searching me out one of those like a bloodhound on a scent trail. The search is on for a new flat, which should also keep me busy.

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

Sunday, 10 September 2017

The many beach huts of Walton on the Naze

I've always been an autumn girl; knitwear appearing in the shops, leaves turning their most beautiful shades, misty mornings. But this year, spring and summer have turned my head a little, with their blue skies and psychedelic blooms.

So here, in an attempt to revive the dying embers of the British summer, are some photos I took back in July. The beach promenade between Frinton-on-Sea and Walton on the Naze is lined with beach huts -- the whole 3.5km of it. We walked there and back, and must have passed 1000 beach huts in doing so, all different colours and styles. Lap up this photogenic slice of the British seaside...