Monday, 21 November 2016

The UK's best winter lights and lantern festivals 2016-2017

Lumiere London 2016. Photo: Laura Reynolds
In January 2016, London was lifted briefly out of its post-Christmas, freezing weather, no money slump by Lumiere London. Lumiere London was a light festival on a huge scale, taking over the city for a few days, closing streets to traffic and sending Instagram into a veritable frenzy. Everyone was talking about it. I can say without a doubt that it's my favourite event ever to come to London (and dealing in London events is my bread and butter), and I now get quite excited every time I hear about another light festival.

Sadly, it doesn't look like Lumiere is coming back to London this year, but there are plenty of other light and lantern festivals taking place in London and across the UK. Some are family-friendly, others lean more towards the romantic spectrum, so choose your companions carefully. Can't make it along to any of these? Follow the venues on Instagram to get the best of the pretty lights without battling the cold weather.

Magical Lantern Festival at Chiswick House

The previous Magical Lantern Festival at Chiswick House. Photo: Magical Lantern Festival
For its second outing at Chiswick House in south-west London, The Magical Lantern Festival takes on a Silk Road theme. Lanterns will represent themes from the route the Silk Road trade route took between Europe and China. The other entertainment on offer at the festival is rather eclectic, ranging from fun fair rides and a synthetic ice rink to virtual reality games to play.

Oddest of all, bearing in mind the festival takes place in January and February, is the Santa's Grotto. Makes sense that the guy in red would be less busy at this time of year, but surely that's just asking to have overexcited kids on your hands for 11 months?

The Magical Lantern Festival, Chiswick House. Adult tickets £16-50-£20. 19 January-26 February 2017.

The Festival of Light, Longleat Safari Park

Photo: Longleat
Beatrix Potter fans are in for a right treat as the author's animal characters are brought to life in light form, among more than 2,500 lanterns. There's also a Beatrix Potter exhibition in the Great Hall.

Longleat's famous pride of lions is also immortalised in light, as are some of its other residents, including elephants and gorillas. It's all part of the safari park's 50th anniversary celebrations.

The Festival of Light, Longleat Safari Park. Various ticket prices, 11 November 2016-2 January 2017.

Tunnel of Light, Norwich

Photo: Norwich BID
You only need to head as far north as Norwich to experience the Northern Lights this winter -- sort of.

A 45m long tunnel of light, made of more than 50,000 LEDs will be set on Hay Hill, as part of the City's Christmas celebrations, in what it's claiming is a UK first.

Tunnel of Light, Norwich, 17 November 2016-5 January 2017.

GLOW, Eastbury Manor

For two nights only, National Trust property Eastbury Manor House in Barking is taken over by local organisation Studio3arts. The house and grounds will be illuminated with events including a fire garden and fire sculptures, illuminations in patterns representing the building's Tudor heritage, sound installations and a model solar system. If ever there was a time to head for the end of the District line, this is it.

GLOW, Eastbury Manor, Barking. Adult tickets £5, 25-26 November 2016

Winter Lights Festival, Canary Wharf

Photo: Canary Wharf
Move over suits and briefcases, it's playtime in Canary Wharf. In what is probably the most interactive event on this list (and free -- yippee!), Winter Lights Festival is back.

30 light installations will be dotted among the east London skyscrapers, with work by artists from four continents. Visitors to last year's event could hook up their smartphones to control some of the lights in what appeared to be a 21st century form of witchcraft. Expect similar this year.

Winter Lights Festival, Canary Wharf. Free, 16-27 January 2017.

Dulwich Winterlights, Dulwich Picture Gallery
Photo: Dulwich Picture Gallery
The world's first purpose-built picture gallery steps elegantly into the 21st century with a pre-Christmas illumiation festival. The 19th century building and impressive grounds will be lit up and decked with lanterns by the same people behind Christmas at Kew (see below). As you follow the trail, enjoy the accompanying music, which include live roaming choirs.

Dulwich Winterlights at Dulwich Picture Gallery. Adult tickets £12, 6-18 December 2016.

Enchanted Woodland at Syon Park

Photo: Steve Newton/Enchanted Woodland
South-west London's Syon House is a sleepy place most of the year, but it comes alive for a few weekends before Christmas when it transforms into the family-friendly Enchanted Woodland.

A colourful, illuminated mile-long trail through the trees and around the lake is enough to enchant adults and kids alike -- and it's worth keeping your eyes open for little touches like fairy doors in the trees. Booking in advance is a must, but even then be prepared to queue to get in.

Enchanted Woodland at Syon House. Adult tickets £9, 18 November-4 December 2016.

Christmas at Kew, Kew Gardens

Christmas at Kew 2014. Photo: Laura Reynolds
Inevitably, gardens lose their appeal in winter, but those clever people at Kew have found a way to keep the visitor numbers up; Christmas at Kew.

The light trail winds around a corner of the sizeable garden, taking in the dancing fountains in the lake, a Five Gold Rings themed fire garden, a light tunnel and much more. There's also a Victorian funfair, food and drinks stalls and more.  In short, it's an Instagram addict's heaven.

Christmas at Kew, Kew Gardens. Adult ticket £16-£20, 23 November 2016-2 January 2017.

 Magical Lantern Festival, Leeds and Birmingham

The people behind the Magical Lantern Festival at Chiswick House (above) are also lighting up Leeds -- Roundhay Park to be precise -- and Birmingham's Botanical Garden.

Tip: while you're in Leeds, it's also worth checking out the Leeds Christmas Market.

Magical Lantern Festival Leeds. Adult ticket £12.50-£14. 25 November 2016-2 January 2017.
Magical Lantern Festival Birmingham. Adult ticket £12.50-£14. 25 November 2016-2 January 2017.

Lumiere Durham 2017

While they may not be gracing London with their much-missed presence this year, there's a rumour that Artichoke  Arts are bringing Lumiere Durham back in 2017. At time of writing, the link on the website isn't working, but it's something for light fans in the north of England to keep an eye on.

What have I missed? Add any other events to the comments below or tweet me @scribbling_lau and I'll add them to the list.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Travel tales: The Sunday surfers of Armacao de Pera

Way above our heads, the old church bells rumbled into life, demanding attention like a petulant child. The din drowned out the crashing of the waves, shaking the small town from its Sunday lie-in, and the effect it had was quite a spectacle.

Knowing that the heat of the burning Portuguese sun would render any exploration impossible by 11am, we’d headed out straight after breakfast to acquaint ourselves with the town of Armação de Pera, situated just west of Albufeira on the Algarve, and our home for the next ten days.

Strolling down the pedestrianised promenade, the glistening blue waters of the Atlantic were already tempting at this early hour, and the sandy town beach already full of sunbathers. On the other side of the promenade, an eclectic mix of tourist shops fought for the attentions of passers by, their Mickey Mouse towels, beach footballs and picture postcards hanging from every nook. Shop owners switched seamlessly into the native language of each and every passing tourist in a bid to sell their wares.

Rounding a corner as the promenade juts out into the sea, the landscape changed. The beach view was blocked by a colonial-style, raspberry pink house, different to any other building in town and almost grand enough to be called a mansion, teetering alone on the cliffs. Its foreboding perimeter walls and intriguing gated entrance distracted us so much that we barely noticed what stood behind us.

A church, petite but unapologetically beautiful. Entirely whitewashed with a tiled roof and stained glass windows, it wouldn’t have looked out of place on a small Greek island, serving a parish of five, yet here it was in a town square, slap bang in the middle of the Algarve. The tall, slim bell tower cast a shadow over the dogs sleeping in the square, but the most eye-catching part of the building was the pointed arch around the door, livened up with blue flowers which, closer inspection revealed, were each delicately handmade from crepe paper.

And then it happened. The church bells sprung into life, announcing the arrival of 10am and almost instantly people appeared from all corners of the petite square, making a beeline for the door of the church, as if they’d been lying in wait.

The intricate arch was immediately swarmed with parishioners. The cacophony as they greeted each other in Portuguese was astonishing, their conversations expertly timed to finish just as they reached the wooden church door, allowing them to enter the building in a respectful silence. Sunglasses and eccentric sunhats were removed at the entrance, giving the impression of a town on pause from sunbathing for as long as the service would take.

They poured in from the town centre, many with shopping bags from the local market, bananas and carrots peeping out of the top. Some came loaded up with umbrellas and surfboards, treating the church trip as a minor pit stop on the way down to the beach.

Behind us, they came from the beach, many still wet and with sand stuck to them as they climbed the rickety stone steps, no time to think about appearances. Mothers clucked around with towels in an attempt to make children look respectable. Some wielded picnic baskets, their culinary contents too valuable to be left unattended on the beach for this brief encounter with God. Others came completely empty handed, as if they’d dropped everything when the bells beckoned.

We were in awe. How were this many people fitting into such a small church? How were there even this many residents in Armação de Pera, a small fisherman’s town which relies heavily on the tourist industry? From our vantage point – we had been rendered immobile both from a desire to watch the spectacle, and from fear of being trampled – we could see that it was standing room only at the back of the church, and yet still they came. Finally, the wooden doors of the church were drawn shut from the inside, and the square was still again, left in the hands of tourists once more. 

See also: 

Thursday, 10 November 2016

In photos: A weekend in Marrakech

From a photography point of view, Marrakech is an incredibly frustrating place. It's colourful, vibrant, worthy of photographic excellence, and yet it's impossible to stand still for even a second to focus or align your shot.

Pedestrians, motorbikes, mopeds, carts, donkeys and more all battle relentlessly for space in the alleyways, some no more than 4ft or 5ft wide. If that's not enough to keep you moving, any slowing of the pace results in locals gathering round you to offer you (incorrect) directions, or attempting to lead you into their shop to show you their wares. You catch on pretty quick that stopping is not an option.

Nevertheless, here are some of the photos I took on my recent trip to Marrakech:
Inside the Bahia Palace

Outside a spice shop - even the containers are beautifully decorated.

Beautiful architecture + shabby chic paint + eye-catching tiles + motorbike = Marrakech
Street art in the Souks

A babouche shop in the Souks

A man making wool felt by hand in the dyers market.

The dyers market, an area that most tourists overlook entirely.

Skeins of freshly dyed wool hung out to dry.

The pigments and dyes used to colour the wool.

Wares for sale.

A closer look at some of the signs for sale.

A Moroccan Banksy?

Dentists are surprisingly common, especially considering the number of people who seem to lack teeth altogether.

Colourful street art on an otherwise dull street.

Looking down on an alleyway from the roof of our Riad gives an idea of how narrow some of the thoroughfares are.

The view towards Bahia Palace from our roof terrace.
A lantern stall in the main square, Jmaa al Fna, at night.

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.