Monday, 17 April 2017

Exploring a secret garden near Tonbridge

You can visit the furthest-flung corners of the earth, spend all your money on air fares and hotel stays, and sometimes the best surprises are the closest to home. I spent my Easter Saturday exploring a little-known garden just a couple of miles away from my home in Kent, and got just as much satisfaction out of it.

The place in question is Broadview Gardens at Hadlow College, just outside of Tonbridge. The College itself specialises in animal care, horticulture, agriculture and the like, and is partially an outpost of the University of Greenwich.

On Easter Saturday, the College grounds were all but deserted as we followed the signs to the car park for the tea rooms and gardens. Admission is free, and don't worry if you miss the map board on your way in - the gardens aren't big enough to get (too) lost in.

A word of warning - much of the gardens are spread on grass paths like the one above; something to bear in mind when choosing footwear or bringing prams or wheelchairs. The initial hedge-lined corridors give a feeling of vastness, but once you start popping your head through the gaps, the gardens become more intimate.

One gap in the hedge leads to a man-made pond, surrounded by an unusual colour of tulip. Three benches are dotted around this section of the garden, and fountain equipment hints at some sort of water display, but alas, it wasn't functioning when we visited.

The layout of the garden and high hedges, mean that turning each corner is like discovering a little secret, and stumbling across each bench feels somewhat voyeuristic.

Wandering further leads to the highlight of the garden - the lake. It's a decent-sized body of water, overseen by some trees of impressive heights, and awash with reeds, lily pads and, if you look closely enough, fish. It would be easy to go OTT and wax lyrical about its seclusion and tranquility, but the reality is that you can hear the incessant rumble of traffic on the nearby A26, just beyond the arboreal wall. Still, it's not a bad view, is it?

A few local residents made an appearance while we were overlooking the lake - 13 little ducklings going about their swimming practise, plus a mother duck ferrying them around.

As well as the usual tulips, camellias, rhododendrons and the like, the garden is home to some unusual species of plant, enough to fascinate the casual observer and fixate the keen gardener.

Further exploring reveal another little secret - and one that kids are bound to love - a cave created from the root base of a fallen tree.

Said cave even has its own sign:

Dogs aren't permitted in the gardens, and you'll need to keep an eye on little ones as there are plenty of open ponds and lakes, including this Japanese-style offering complete with raked stones.

As you exit through the garden centre, remember to cast your eyes right for a view of the nearby Hadlow Tower (open to the public on a very limited number of days each ear - check the website for details).

As well as the garden centre, there are tea rooms serving up drinks, cake and light lunches.

Broadview Gardens, Hadlow College, Tonbridge Road, TN11 0AL. Admission is free.

Sunday, 16 April 2017

Bulbs, bikes and bridges: Amsterdam in photos

In Amsterdam, as with everywhere, the cliches exist for a reason. Bikes zoom skillfully in and out of tourist crowds, and there really are tulips on every street corner - at least there were during our spring visit. Take a look: 

The Dutch will squeeze flowers in anywhere there's space.

A typical Amsterdam canal scene on Prinsengracht, with traditional canalside townhouses.

Here's a closer look at one of those houses - notice how wonky some of the windows are. Subsidence is a big problem for property owners in the city.
A wall-mounted box of books, free to take, on Witsenstraat 

I love this pyschedelic canal boat, moored up on Witsenkade

A no-alcohol zone - ironically, just across the canal from the Heineken brewery.

Even the roundabouts are the prettiest I've ever seen. Evidently these ladies think so too.

Canalside views.

I loved this beautiful old-fashioned letterwork above one of the shops in the central district.

A typical Amsterdam view. The greenhouses to the right of the shot are the rear of the floating flower market on Singel.

There really are tulips everywhere in spring.

With pedestrians, bikes, trams and cars, there's so much going on at ground level, it's easy to forget to look up.

This floating display was part of the Tulip Festival. Very clever marketing to put such an Instagrammable display directly in front on the IAmsterdam sign. The building in the background is the impressive Rijksmuseum

Vondelpark is basically a giant sea of tulip in the spring.

My favourite house entrance in the whole city.

No explanation needed.

The city's most Instagrammable shopfront - a florist on Berenstraat.

...and another shop, just a couple of doors down.

The cliched bike-on-a-bridge-over-a-canal shot. If the bike in question is pink, all the better.

Trams, trams, everywhere.

ARTIS (the Amsterdam Royal Zoo) is the most well-kept zoo I've ever visited
See also:
Scribbling Lau is now on Facebook. You can also find me on Twitter and Instagram.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Inside Amsterdam's Flower Market

Travellers to Amsterdam can widely be put into one of two categories based on the type of plant they seek out. There are those who come, usually in spring, in search of the rainbow of tulips the city has to offer. Then there are those who seek grass of an entirely different kind.

We fall firmly into the former category - our whole trip to Amsterdam was inspired, several years ago, by a mutual love of tulips - so can offer no tips on the latter. If, like us, you're heading to Amsterdam seeking nothing more sinister than tulips and daffodils, read on.

Dodging the chaos of tram lines, cars, roadworks and the ever-present bicycles where Muntplein meets Singel, under the internationally recognised symbol of the golden McDonald's arches, we ducked into the first shop of Amsterdam's famous Bloemenmarket - or Flower Market.

The shops themselves are a terrace of conjoined greenhouses teetering on the edge of Singel canal, ironically perhaps the ugliest buildings in the whole city when contrasted against the neat gabled townhouses that it's famous for. Once inside, though, it's easy to forget the ugly exterior.

Bunches of statice and other colourful flowers hang from the ceiling of the first shop, drying, their fading pastel hues putting us more in mind of the fields of Tuscany than the narrow streets of Amsterdam. Blooms, real and fake, sit on tables and in buckets on the floor, silk and wooden flowers attempting to trick the casual tourist browser.

And tourists there are many. In fact, almost every customer in the market is a tourist, and they're well catered for; a decent chunk of the shop is given over to what some would affectionately label 'tourist tat' - magnets, postcards, keyrings, shotglasses, novelty clogs and the like. In the same way that London's Camden Market or Barcelona's La Boquria cater primarily to the tourist market, so too does Bloemenmarket.

Wandering along to the next shop in the market, it becomes clear that the decor of the first shop is a ruse to lure tourists in. Here, there are no bunches hanging from the ceiling, no painstakingly decorated arches crying out to be Instagrammed. The overall effect is more clinical garden centre than exotic flower market, the bulk of the stock seeds and bulbs rather than flowers and plants. The subsequent shops are similar - wooden flowers where we had hoped real ones would be, and focus on seeds and bulbs. One or two of the shops specialise in certain items, such as cacti, but other than that, they're much of a muchness.

While the greenhouses sit on one side of the pedestrianised pavement, backing onto the canal, the other side of the path is lined with shops - coffee shops, gift shops, and the intriguing Magic Mushroom Gallery (again, I didn't indulge so can offer no further information on that particular point of interest). If you're starting to flag, head into the cheese shop - one of many identical outlets in the city - for a few samples to see you on your way. You could almost forget that the delights of the Torture Museum lie in wait just the other side of the canal as you lose yourself in a sea of colour and a coma of dairy products.

The Flower Market is a colourful (read: Instagrammable) experience, but don't go expecting a florist shop experience. Half of the flowers you'll see will be wooden rather than real, and focus is more on bulbs and seeds rather than fully-fledged plants and flowers.

If that's your thing, look into taking a trip to the Keukenhof bulb fields outside of the city during the tulip festival. It's something we didn't have time for during our time in Amsterdam, but it looks stunning.

Bloemensingel Flower Market, Amsterdam.

Scribbling Lau is now on Facebook. You can also find me on Twitter and Instagram.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

New brand alert: Button & Wilde

One of the perks of my day job is that I often get sent new products by PR teams, and a package that caught my eye recently was from a company called Button & Wilde, who specialise in bath and body care. Specifically, personalised bath and body care.

I'll be honest, I don't foresee a situation where having my name on my shower gel (because really, what is body wash, if not just a posh name for shower gel?) would put me at an advantage in my day to day life. But the packaging's pretty, so I'll roll with it.

It helps that I have a weird button obsession, and that the button in the logo is flanked by a rather cute hedgehog and a slightly wired-looking squirrel. Is he caffeinated? High? Indignant at the unnecessary 'e' on 'wilde'? Who knows.

Beyond the cute packaging and personalised aspect, the products themselves are of pretty decent quality, the scent sitting quite comfortably between the cheap-night-out and stuff-your-gran-uses ends of the scale. I can't yet vouch for the shower gel body wash, but the body creme is one of the better ones I've used, not requiring too much rubbing in, but not too oily either. Well done squirrelly Joe, you done good.

No word yet on the pricing of Button & Wilde products, but watch this space.

See Button & Wilde website for more information.

Disclaimer: Although I was sent these complimentary products as part of my day job, I only write about products that I genuinely like. That, and the fact that I didn't want to risk the wrath of that particular squirrel.

Saturday, 11 March 2017

Riu Tikida Beach Adagir: hotel review

I'm not normally one for reviewing the large multi-national hotel chains - the glossy photos on the website usually speak for themselves - but our recent stay at the Riu Tikida Beach Hotel was so excellent, I've decided to make an exception.

The building itself is a whitewashed arrangement of neat stacks, two storeys high in some places, four or five storeys high in others. The balconies and verandas hint at a visual cacophony of floral colour in the summer, but in February, we make do with the few bougainvillea plants in bloom.

The entrance, beyond the airport-style scanner, is a mosaic tiled floor - so far, so Moroccan. Reception sits subtly over to the right, the hotel shop to the far left, while the centre opens up into a light-flooded atrium. An impressive black vase, filled variously with lillies and roses of ever-changing colours during our stay, hogs the spotlight on a circular glass table. The floral offerings add a splash of colour to the reception area. It's not drab, but rather stylishly muted, all browns and greys, African hunting lodge meets old English country house.

The hotel lobby is like a museum, with something different to see every time you walk through. Some of the artefacts are immediately obvious - the life-size chimp sculptures, the plethora of deliciously mismatched lampshades and bases, the wealth of inviting sofas and armchairs, stools and settees, all as comfy as each other. Other items take a bit more teasing out like the historic photos of a Natural History Museum - possibly London, possibly elsewhere - tucked away in an impressive display cabinet.

The highlight though, is the library, a mezzanine-level treasure trove lined with leather bound books, overlooking the piano bar and accessed via a rustic metal spiral staircase. Sadly, the staircase is roped off; these are books to be admired from afar rather than read up close.

The exquisite decor continues throughout the hotel. The main dining room is painted a mushroom grey - dull enough not to offend sleepy eyes over the breakfast table, but a classy enough backdrop for the stylish evening meals. The lunchtime restaurant is a treat of a different kind, with focus drawn unfalteringly to the panoramic view of the beach through the floor-to-ceiling glass.

The food is as expected from an all-inclusive hotel. Seafood features heavily, but if you're not a fish fan (don't worry, I'm not) there are plenty of other options including salads, pastas, soups, tagines and meat joints. Being an adults-only hotel, the usual child-friendly chicken nuggets give way to the more grown-up chicken tagines, but even the fussiest of eaters (again, hello) won't starve. The delicious breakfast pastry selection warrants a special mention, as does the evening dessert chef who missed his calling as an architect:

Aside from the decor, what makes this hotel so memorable are the friendly, welcoming and helpful staff. Everyone, from receptionists and bar staff to cleaners and gardeners, asks how your stay is going - lovely, but no chance of getting anywhere in a hurry when you're stopped every 10 seconds. Bar staff have a knack of remembering everyone's favourite tipple from night to night, and practically have it poured for you before you've even taken a seat.

Location-wise, the hotel is disappointingly a 30-minute walk from the centre of Agadir, and a further 15-20 minutes to the marina. Taxis are readily available and inexpensive (make sure you use one of the orange taxis to avoid being ripped off) but if you enjoy a short stroll of an evening, this may not be the hotel for you.

The beach is right across the promenade from the hotel, with a private area and sun loungers available to hotel guests. In theory, it's gorgeous, golden sand. In reality, the hotel beach is situated right next to a river outlet, meaning that heaps of rubbish, plastic, and goodness-knows-what-else ends up on the sand and in the sea.

The hotel pool is lovely though - the larger of the two is heated, but the highlight is the pool furniture. Sunbeds, wider than you'd find at most hotels, are provided with cushions and pillows, not to mention the mattress beds whittled into the terraces of the hotel's gardens.

The only niggle was the fire alarm's persistence at waking everyone at 6.30am for the first four mornings of our stay, despite us, and several other guests reporting it (it was going off across the whole hotel). The staff's disappointingly laissez-faire attitude to getting it fixed tainted an otherwise excellent holiday.

Hotel Riu Tikida Beach, Agadir. We visited off-season (16-27 February 2017).

Scribbling Lau is now on Facebook. You can also find me on Twitter and Instagram.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Holiday Reading Roundup: February 2017

For me, books are a key part of a good old beach holiday -- not just one or two new bestsellers, but any novels I can get my hands on. I don't care how old they are, I spend far longer deciding which books to take on holiday than I do picking my clothes. I've normally cracked my first spine (sorry, purists) before I've even left the tarmac at Gatwick, and spend the next ten days eating my way through the collection, before pouncing on any books whoever I'm travelling with has brought, and hoovering up any English language offerings on the hotel bookshelf. Here are some brief reviews of what I munched my way through in Agadir:

Missing by Susan Lewis *****

Most of Lewis's novels can be described as hard to put down, but getting through a 500-pager in 24 hours is a new one, even for me. The story is a bit of a slow one, with the author introducing the characters separately -- in the style of Jodi Picoult -- before revealing how their lives overlap. It's worth persevering as more and more of the plot is revealed. A missing mother, an unidentified corpse a missing baby and an illegitimate child make for an engrossing read if you enjoy solving mysteries as you go. Highly recommended.

The Bones Of You by Debbie Howells ****

One to read if you enjoyed The Lovely Bones or Gone Girl. An 18 year old girl, Rosie, goes missing, and the novel follows the fallout of her disappearance, both with her close family and more widely, in the village she lives in. As well as the usual list of suspects -- a controlling father, a clandestine boyfriend -- the narrative is interspersed with chapters from Rosie's own point of view, adding another dimension to the usual mystery. Happily, the plot isn't immediately predictable, but unfortunately it's also lacking in the sort of gasp-out-loud plot twist that I've come to love in this sort of novel. Still well worth a read though.

The Kashmir Shawl by Rosie Thomas ****

I'll be honest, I wasn't looking forward to reading this one -- historical fiction isn't usually my idea of a good holiday read. The story flicks between modern-day Wales and 1940s India, bonding generations of the same family through the eponymous Kashmir shawl. Initially, the shawl is a tedious device linking two seemingly distant groups of people, but as the narrative develops, my desperation to know the full story of the shawl increased. Initially, I found the 1940s based chapters dull, wishing the author would stay in the present day, but by halfway through, I wanted the reverse. A fascinating level of research must have gone into writing this book, and yet it isn't culturally different enough to be too dull or too challenging. Takes a while to get into, but worth persevering.

The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty *****

Based on the lives of three Australian women, the protagonists of The Husband's Secret seem separate until it becomes clear how their lives are linked -- and then a secret is revealed, linking them even further. It's good fun trying to predict what'll happen. The plot is an unpredictable one, and all the more satisfying for it. The author manages to offer an ending that satisfies the reader, despite it not being the ending you find yourself hoping for. The novel's downfall is the dilemma faced by one character over whether or not to reveal the big secret -- I was left feeling indifferent regarding the choice she faced, the narrative lacking the urgency required to make it a real nail-biter.

What's Left Of Me by Kat Zhang ***

I'm not sure if this one is intended as YA fiction but it certainly feels that way. It also falls into the science fiction genre, something I usually avoid. The opening few pages reminded me of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves but the truth here is revealed at the beginning instead of halfway through. Despite my initial reservations, I soon found myself clinging to the enjoyable if predictable story. The ending leaves a few loose ends and a lot to be desired but the concept of Hybrids will stay with you long after you've forgotten the story. It'd lend itself well to a film, with a similar audience to Twilight or the Hunger Games.

By The Time You Read This by Lola Jaye ***

This one is a sweet, touching story about a girl whose father died when she was five. Approaching her 13th birthday, an aunt gives her a book, The Manual, that he wrote for her before he died. It contains a chapter to be read each birthday between the ages of 13 and 30, plus a miscellaneous section offering general life advice. Through the book, we watch her grow up, through family issues, relationships, jobs, travelling and more. As is necessary with a story spanning nearly two decades, time is elastic, but at times the narrative dragged, and at other points it skipped over sections that I felt warranted more detail. A cross between a coming-of-age tale and a self-help tome, it's a lovely read, as much about death as it is about life.

A Boy Called Hope by Lara Williamson **

Best described as an easy read, A Boy Called Hope has its moments, but for the most part it's a bland, predictable story. It has some sweet parts and a couple of chuckle out loud moments, but what was missing for me was any sort of affinity with the main character, an 11 year old boy trying to get back in touch with his own father. It passed a couple of hours, but I wouldn't recommend putting it to the top of your must-read list.

Lizzie Jordan's Secret Life by Chris Manby **

Bland and cringeworthy are the two words that come to mind with this one. The story begins with a pair of college sweethearts who break up but stay penpals when they find themselves living on different continents. Six years later, they're reunited, putting the web of lies they've told each other in the intervening years in jeopardy. The one thing going for this novel is that the ending isn't the one you'd expect -- even if the rest of the story is. It feels like the character of Lizzie is intended as one the reader can identify with, but she becomes such a slapstick caricature that I found myself repulsed by her rather than enjoying her. One best avoided, in my humble opinion.

What are your top reading recommendations (holiday or otherwise)? Let me know in the comments - I'm desperate for some new reads.

Scribbling Lau is now on Facebook. You can also find me on Twitter and Instagram.