Wednesday, 5 October 2016

5 things I learnt from my day as a zookeeper

Anytime I return to London Zoo for press events, it's like my worlds are colliding. I worked at the zoo for a few years before starting at Londonist so I know my way around the place pretty well, and still have plenty of friends who work there. When I was recently offered the chance to try the Zookeeper For A Day programme, I was pretty excited to get up close to some of the animals. Here are five things I learnt:

There's all sorts of oddness going on in bactrian camels' mouths. For a start, they're rocking some sort of weird split lip. Plus, their tongues physically can't extend outside their mouths. No wonder they've got the hump.

Giraffes are freakishly strong. I've fed giraffes before, but there's a difference between allowing one to gently lick some pellets out of the palm of your hand, and going full on warfare with one of the gentle giants over a particularly leafy branch. Their necks are strong enough to disembowel a lion, so when you've got one end of a branch and they give the other end a tug, you're best off just letting go.

Colobus monkeys are extremely human-like. One of our activities was to feed the troop of colobus monkeys through the wire of their fence. Seven of us took on the troop of 15 or so of them, poking pieces of fruit though the wire into waiting mouths, making sure everyone got fed. The first thing I noticed was their human-like fingernails, as they held out their hands for food. It reminded me a bit of this. Then, one of them, politely but firmly, reached out and poked me on the shoulder, as if to say "excuse me, don't forget about me please". He got the biggest bit of food.

There's a secret basement below the Casson Pavilion (the building better known as the old elephant house, a place that most people will mention when sharing their memories of visiting the zoo as a child). Alright, so the basement isn't strictly 'secret', it just fascinates me because in my 5 years of working a the zoo, I never knew it existed. There's no reason I would have done - it's used as a food preparation area by the keepers. But once you get inside, it's fascinating, like a time warp. Vintage zoo posters line the walls, and the building's rich history as the elephant house is maintained.

The people of the zoo are just as fascinating as the animals. One keeper who I spoke to began his career when, aged 13, he used to visit the zoo on Sundays. Being short-staffed, the zookeepers let him get involved in cleaning up after the elephants. The rest, as they say, is history. He must be in his 50s now, so it was clearly a few Sunday afternoons well spent. (The zoo press team would probably like me to point out that health & safety rules - and a lack of elephants - mean that you can't do this now, so don't try. Also, the zoo is now sufficiently staffed that it doesn't have to rely on unpaid child labour.)

Read my full article about my day as a zookeeper here.

Monday, 26 September 2016

Travel tales: The knitted trees of Armacao de Pera

One of my favourite things about going to new place, whether it’s a bustling city or a rural village, is noticing the small, day-to-day details of a place.

Maybe it’s the writer in me, always sniffing out my next story, or maybe it’s my inner photographer, camera always poised to get the next shot, but I get a buzz from spotting the things that most people miss. It was this nosiness curiosity that got me fascinated with the poetry of Punta Umbria, the Fuertaventura-isms and, most recently, the knitted trees of Armacao de Pera.

Armacao de Pera is a small town on the Algarve, relying on the tourism and fishing industries. A wide, pedestrianised promenade runs the length of the town, the sandy beach on one side, the tourist shops on the other. A maze of back streets gives way to the ‘real’ town, home mainly to whitewashed holiday flats owned by Portuguese families. At roughly the central point of the promenade, set back slightly in a square on its own is a church. It’s not a big church, but it’s a beautiful one, whitewashed, with ornate blue tiles forming an arch over the door. So fixating is the church that most people don’t notice the trees to the left of it – or more specifically, what’s on the trees.

Each tree has its own knitted or crocheted sleeve, each sleeve about 2ft long, wrapped around the entirety of the trunk at adult eye height. Each knitted sleeve is different, not only in colour, but in style of knitting, so that you can imagine a group of locals sitting in a circle knitting them -- an arboreal army of trees, dressed in mismatching uniforms by the Portuguese WI. The sun and sea air have faded the wool so it’s impossible to tell whether the trees have been encased in their woolly clutches for months or for years.

The reason for the knitted sleeves? Art, presumably, or perhaps a tourist board initiative to tempt tourists into Instagramming the heck out of #armacaodepera. What can I say? It works.
The trees in nearby Loule are similarly adorned.
Just a few hundred feet up the promenade from the church is a terrace overlooking the beach, obscured for the most part by an ice cream parlour, but there for those curious enough to find it. Six benches skirt the edge of the terrace, each one encased in a woolly design. Tourists look nervous about sitting down while locals don’t think twice about it, looking as if they’ve been doing it for years. And maybe they have. Maybe guerrilla knitting is a way of life in Armacao de Pera.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

In Pictures: Armacao de Pera

Normally my trusty camera is at its busiest on city breaks, but my memory card has a healthy (obsessive?) 1000+ photos to show for my recent beach holiday in Armacao de Pera, a small town to the west of Albufeira on the Algarve. These are just a few of my favourite snaps from the trip.
Follow me on Instagram for plenty more travel snaps (including a sunbathing dog...)

On our first night we were tired but keen to explore, so we went across the road to the beach, just in time for sunset. As families packed up and left the beach for the day, this fisherman was just setting up ready to do some night fishing.

At the eastern end of Armacao de Pera is the fisherman's village. Boats sit on the beach waiting to be taken out, shadowed by a row of wooden fisherman's huts. 

Nothing says 'holiday' quite like a combination of camper vans and palm trees. One day we stumbled across a vintage car rally in the centre of town.

Sunset over the western end of Armacao de Pera.

Those palm trees again, this time at dusk.

The whitewashed church at the old fort put me in mind of a Greek island - like something you might see in Mamma Mia!

The devil's in the detail - in this case, the detail of the pair of scissors repurposed as a a door handle. Upcycling at its finest.

The Algarve coastline is absoutely stunning - just a short walk along the clifftop from Armacao de Pera are a wealth of hidden beaches and bays, coves and caves. A geologist's dream.

The church in the centre of Armacao de Pera is very ornate - and very busy on a Sunday.

Anywhere that had road signs as ornate as this is A-OK by me.

I can only assume this building on one of the back streets is a school or children's centre of some sort. Not sure about the dodgy looking fella on the right.

One of the fisherman's boats waiting to be taken out to sea.

Peak season may have ended, but the beach was still heaving by 10am every morning. 

You could be looking down over Durdle Door in Dorset, were it not for the bright sunshine, blue(ish) sea and golden sand.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

The top 5 zipwires in the world

Photo: Gatorland Orlando

I had my first zipwire experience when I was about 5, coming face to face with the zipline in Tonbridge Park, and it's not something I've forgotten. We were there first thing in the morning so there were no other kids around (yes!) and we got down to business. As I sailed from one dock to the other, my bum no more than 2ft off the ground, feet kicking the air with excitement, I really felt like I was flying...until I hit the ground.

I wasn't the sort of kid who cried, so when I cried, you knew something was wrong. My friend Holly knew this, and went tearing across the park to where our mums were sitting. My mum also knew this, which is why she came over in such a panic.

"What's wrong? Where does it hurt?"

"I broke my hairclip" I wailed, holding up the many parts of my brand new, multi-coloured, flowery hairclip as evidence.

Clearly it's not a trauma I've forgotten (I was fine, by the way), but I feel it's time to move on to bigger and better things (sorry Tonbridge Park) with a look at some of the best zipwires in the world.

The brand new one

I went to Niagara Falls when I was a child of about seven years old on a family holiday. I'm sure it was a great experience, but as  a seven year old, a load of water pouring over a cliff just isn't that impressive. We did the Maid of the Mist boat tour - I might even still have the poncho somewhere - but my resounding memory of that day is my dad spilling his lemonade in a cafe once we were back on dry (American) land.

Although it may not have been a life-changing experience, I've never felt the need to go back to Niagara Falls as an adult. Until now. Until the announcement of the new Mistrider Zipline, a 200ft zipwire over the Niagara Falls Gorge, reaching up to 40 miles an hour as you whizz through the spray. Now THAT is how you get me to go back to a place.

Mistrider Zipline, Niagara Falls, US/ Canada border.

The time-travelling one

Photo: Limite Zero
On the sleepy Guadiana River, which forms a watery border between southern Spain and Portugal, is Limite Zero. It's a 720m zip line, reaching speeds of 70km an hour - but because of the time difference between the two countries, you also travel through time.

A ferry ride back across the river is included in the ticket, which is jolly decent of them.

Limite Zero, Sanlucar de Guadiana Huelva in Spain and Algarve, Portugal.

The 2km long one

Photo: Zip 2000
While most visitors to South Africa's Sun City pay attention to the wildlife in the nearby Pilanesberg National Park, it's worth paying attention to what Sun City itself has to offer -- including what claims to be one of the world's longest zipslides.

I even went to Pilanesberg in 2012, and didn't even know it existed at the time -- that trip may have panned out differently if I had.

Zip 2000, Sun City, South Africa

The one with the hungry alligators beneath

If flying 65ft above captive alligators and crocodiles is your thing, you're in luck. Gatorland theme park and zoo in Florida lets you do just that on the Screamin' Gator Zip Line. It's what the crocs like to call 'breakfast in bed'.

Screamin' Gator Zip Line, Gatorland, Orlando, Florida

The one in the UK

Photo: Eden Project

Cornwall's Eden Project is home to plants galore, some groundbreaking horticultural science, and probably the best zipwire in the UK (although I'm happy to be proven wrong on that one -- let me know of other contenders in the comments below). Either way, it claims to England's longest and fastest, zooming straight over those famous biomes.

Zip wire, Eden Project, Cornwall.

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.