Saturday, 13 October 2018

Hub by Premier Inn at Edinburgh Haymarket: hotel review

I'll admit, inner city Premier Inns aren't usually the fodder of travel blogs, their writers usually tending more towards the boutique hotel end of the market (a girl can dream, hey?), but I'm sharing my recent* experience of the Hub by Premier Inn at Edinburgh Haymarket because a) it's something I genuinely think is good and more people should know about, and b) I wish a blog post like this had been out there for me to read before I booked.

(*I say 'recent' -  I stayed there in late July and I'm writing this in October. C'est la vie).

Not a bad view from my room

First of all - meet Hub by Premier Inn. It's a new spin-off hotel chain by Premier Inn, located in city centres and aimed more at budget travellers and those for whom a large room is not a priority. The rooms are notably compact, but the low cost and central location are the benefits.

I was vaguely aware of Hub by Premier Inn when I booked my long-planned solo trip to Edinburgh. A friend who stays in London on a regular basis had recommended the Liverpool Street one, and while I didn't set out to book this particular hotel, it was one of the cheaper options available for my travel dates that didn't look like a complete dive, so I booked myself in.

I had a couple of minor concerns before my stay - at such a low cost, I worried that corners would be cut, specifically, whether bath towels and a hairdryer would be provided in the room. I intended to ring and check before my trip, but never got round to it. No need to worry - both were provided.

The chair, with the desk that pulls out

A couple of days before my arrival, I was sent an email allowing me to check in online. The process was very simple, but would probably be even more handy for international visitors who can provide their passport details in advance, saving time when they physically arrive at the hotel. I then received a text message from the hotel as I whizzed through northern England on a train en-route to Edinburgh, providing me with a reference number. I was a bit nervous about the arrival, as I'd read elsewhere that the check-in is on automated machines, rather than a manned reception desk. Technology and I don't have a great track record, and I had visions of not being able to access my room and being forced to sleep on Edinburgh's streets. Again, my fears were unfounded. Three touch screen check-in machines were waiting for me in the hotel reception, but so too was a friendly member of staff who was only too happy to help.

Under-bed storage

It took just a couple of minutes before I had my keycard in hand and directions to my fourth floor room. Both the hallway where the lift is located and the lift itself require keycard access meaning only guests of the hotel can get in - something of a reassurance as a lone female traveller.

The room itself was a lot sleeker than I expected. The cabin-style double bed was very comfy, although having two people sharing may cause problems, as one would have to climb over the other to get out. Storage comes in the form of a hidey hole under the bed, and a small clothes rail, big enough to hang five or so items. A chair sits next to the floor-ceiling window, and the shelf at the end of the bed extends out to create a writing desk - a bonus I didn't expect for the price.

The bathroom is petite but more than adequate, with a choice of two showers in the glass cubicle - a removable, hosepipe shower head or a fixed, large shower head. Both are very powerful but you can't have both running at the same time - believe me, I tried. Again, if you were travelling in a pair, privacy may be an issue, as the windows and door of the bathroom are (partially frosted) glass.

The wardrobe

Technology is king in the rooms themselves too. The heating, air con and lights are all controlled by a touch panel by the head of the bed, as is the do not disturb sign - simply press a button by the bed and a light goes on outside your door. The entertainment choice is impressive too - as well as regular TV channels, the flatscreen offers a decent choice of on-demand films and TV shows. After a full day exploring every day, it was rather luxurious to come back to a soft bed and on-demand films to watch while my feet recovered from all the walking.

Downstairs in the hotel, there's a bar and restaurant open all day, and a tea and coffee table which guests can help themselves to free of charge at any time, plus plenty of water available. Being out and about all day every day, I didn't get a chance to try the restaurant or bar (plus, I would have felt like a bit of a lemon sitting here alone). That said, there was a friendly atmosphere every time I walked through, so if you were a lone traveller looking to meet people, you wouldn't have too much of a problem.

Handy map of Edinburgh on the wall

Location-wise, the hotel is spot on. It's just a five minute walk from the western end of Princes Street, one of Edinburgh's main tourist roads. The castle is a 15 minute walk away, and Edinburgh Haymarket station is 5 minutes out of town, while Waverley is a 15-20 walk back into town. Once I stepped off my train from London, I didn't need to use any other public transport until I was heading back to London three days later.

In short, if you're looking for a budget hotel, particularly for a city break, where you don't need that much space and will be out of the room most of the day, I can't recommend Hub by Premier Inn highly enough. The rooms are very comfortable, helped along by soft beds, adjustable heating/air con, and lovely powerful showers. Location is excellent for sightseeing, and the TV entertainment system has plenty to keep you busy if you're staying in the hotel - and all for a really great price. If you're travelling in a couple, I'd think carefully about the layout of the bed and that glass bathroom before booking.

The bathroom

Hub by Premier Inn Edinburgh Haymarket. I stayed 28-31 July 2018 and paid £135.50 for a three night stay. At time of writing, there are 10 Hub by Premier Inn hotels dotted across London and Edinburgh, but I'm really hoping they open more in other UK cities soon - it would certainly help me continue visiting a new place every month into 2019.

Disclaimer: I paid for the stay myself, and Hub by Premier Inn had no idea I would be writing this blog post - it is no way affiliated with the company.

Monday, 8 October 2018

What if the only people influencers are influencing is each other?

I have a blog, but I no longer consider myself a blogger - or rather, I don't like to admit to being a blogger.

'Blogging', it seems, has become a bit of a byword for 'blagging', and that's not OK. It's shocking how many people start a blog purely for the 'freebies' they think they'll be reeling in. I digress a bit - this isn't the main point of this post, so don't leave just yet - but working as a journalist in my day job, I've lost count of the number of PRs who tell me they dread working with bloggers due to the demanding and diva-ish reputation they've earned.

In 9 years of blogging, I've only ever had one 'freebie', back in the days when I didn't really understand how the PR/journo business worked - the blogger business wasn't even a thing back then. And I'm OK with that. It's not why I got into blogging. My blog isn't 'commercial' enough for PRs and that's OK too - I'd be worried if it was, although that's only something I've come to realise recently.

There are a few bloggers who I admire - particularly Emily Clarkson and Hannah Gale for their honest, witty and humorous writing, and for keeping it real. If we're talking vloggers, Louise Pentland has to be top of the list. I still miss updates from Gem Fatale, and I'm sure there were a few other old-school blogs that have fallen by the wayside. But bloggers like these are few and far between these days.

Scrolling through Instagram - because heaven forbid you call yourself a blogger in 2018 if you don't have plates spinning on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and YouTube as well as, y'know, your actual blog - you can spot an 'influencer' a mile off. Many (not all) have the same identikit photos; seated in a beautiful coffee shop, staring wistfully into the middle distance as they cup their skinny latte, or dressed up to the nines, against a psychedelic street art background, that same unnaturally wistful look on their faces.

I've shared my thoughts on Instagram before. Occasionally, someone stands out -- Hello Miss Jordan, for example. She has a unique style, and whether it's something you like or not, it's something she does very well. But again, influencers as talented as her are few and far between.

The irony is, the only people these 'influencers' seem to be influencing are each other. Because really, have you ever seen someone who didn't consider themselves an 'influencer' getting dressed up in a wholly impractical outfit to pose for hundreds of different photos in front of a pretty wall? No. A normal person might stumble across the wall, take a photo, and go about their day. Yet all it takes is one influencer with a decent-sized following to discover a new gram-worthy *eyeroll* cafe, and you can guarantee hundreds of bloggers and Instagrammers will have visited before the week is out. And that's before you stumble across all the comments reading "Where did you get that dress/table/mug? Need to get me one for my photos too". There's a fine line between being inspired by someone else's photos, and completely ripping them off.

Following the Instagram flock isn't something I'm completely innocent of myself - minus the hundreds of poses because that's just not me. I've visited those flowery cafes (for my day job, and out of curiosity), and I've taken those flatlay photos. Actually, I won't lie, I still have a weakness for a flatlay done well.

Why? Because I felt I *should* be doing it as a blogger. I've just unfollowed loads of the bloggers and blogging accounts on social media, because I realised I was being influenced by them, not to buy the latest skincare range or pumpkin spice latter drink, but about how my blog - my little space on the internet - should be.

For every blogger dredging in the likes on Instagram for taking a photo at the exact same spot where ten bloggers took a photo yesterday (there's a certain west London cafe that I'll keep nameless that has bloggers literally queuing up on a daily basis), there's another blogger working away quietly behind the scenes, writing decent, meaningful, good quality blog posts, and taking unique photos.

In writing this post, I've gone and done one of the things I hate most about the blogging 'industry' - blogging about blogging, but I just had to get it off my chest. Because that's what this blog is about - the things that thrill, bug, annoy and please me. You're welcome to stay for the ride.

Monday, 10 September 2018

Literally every thought I've had about BBC's Bodyguard in the last 22.5 hours

***This post was written after episode 4 of BBC's Bodyguard and contains spoilers for episodes 1-4. If you haven's watched them yet and don't want to ruin them, don't read on.***

I'm not normally one for writing - or, really, thinking - about TV, but darn gosh, BBC's Bodyguard has really got to me. I mean really, haven't-been-able-to-think-of-anything-else-since-last-night's-episode got to me.

Is Julia Montague/Keeley Hawes really dead?

The big question on everyone's tweets - did they really kill off one of the two main characters at the end of the third episode (revealing the death in the fourth episode)? My initial thought was no. You don't hire a flawless actress like Keeley Hawes - Mrs Durrells, for goodness sake - for a BBC six parter, only to kill her off halfway through... or do you?

Apparently, Bodyguard writer Jed Mercurio has form for killing off key characters halfway through a series (I've not watched his other shows, so couldn't comment). And you know what? I salute that. TV dramas (plus films, books...) are so predictable these days. Everything sticks to the generic conventions that everything will be alright in the end, so it's refreshing to see that challenged, and the equilibrium thrown off.

If she is dead, the chemistry between Julia and David/Dave that kept the series afloat in the first three episodes will be lacking for the last two, meaning something seriously juicy will have to replace it to keep the audience interested.

Who put a blank bullet in David/Dave's gun?

Literally no idea. Perhaps he did itself in a state of PTSD. Next.

What's in a name?

While we're on the subject of the blank bullets in David/Dave's gun, one theory doing the rounds is that a very-much-still-alive Julia had someone replace the bullets as she knew how upset David/Dave would be on hearing about her 'death'. Personally, I think this is a bit too slushy for a gritty show like this BUT - it's all a bit Shakespearean isn't it, with more than a hint of Romeo & Juliet about it. Julia Montague is very close to a combination of Juliet Capulet and Romeo Montague. Just sayin', folks.

Is Tahir Mahmood guilty? 

Honestly, I don't think he is. He clearly didn't know what was in the briefcase he was handed it by his colleague. Just a scapegoat for a larger plot.

What was in the briefcase?

I don't think there was a bomb in there when Tahir opened it for David/Dave. If the blast did come from the briefcase, someone tampered it between David/Dave confronting Tahir in the corridor, and Tahir walking on stage with it. Who was the woman who walked into the auditorium late? What did Kim see that made her run towards the stage?

What's the deal with Tom Fenton?

Tom Fenton was Julia's PPO until David/Dave takes over the role. We meet him in the first episode, at Julia and David/Dave's first encounter, when the latter suggests to Julia that she might use the underground entrance in future. He's still around in the third episode, as part of the security team in the auditorium shortly before the bomb goes off. and interviewed afterwards. So if he's still working in security, why was he taken off duty at Julia's PPO and replaced with David/Dave?

The other suspicious characters

  • Chanel, the former PA fired in episode one, who tried to sell dirt on Julia to the tabloids, before climbing into a car driven by a man who knew the rooftop shooter.
  • Julia's ex-husband, Roger Penhaligon. He sees her ambition as a threat.
  • Vicky/ Vicky's new boyfriend. Does the boyfriend exist? If so, did he have anything to do with replacing the bullets? Or has she made him up to cover for something else? Definitely something dodgy going on there.
  • Anne Sampson. Power struggle between two leading ladies? Nah, not buying it.
  • The man who linger behind David/Dave in the hospital, when he's waiting for news on Julia. 

Is David/Dave in on it all?

Could it in fact be that David/Dave has been part of an elaborate plan to assassinate Julia Montague all along, working in cahoots with others - perhaps his disgruntled ex-Army pals, perhaps with others in government?

What a coincidence that he, a serving security police officer,  happened to be on that train in the first episode, the one in which he talked a suicide bomber out of detonating a bomb, thus landing the job as the Home Secretary's PPO? Could that have been an elaborate ploy to land him the job? Does he know Nadia after all? Was his relationship with Julia all an act on his part, an attempt to win her trust? The more I think about it, the more I believe this - after all, the show is named for this character. Who was he on the phone too shortly before the bomb went off? Gah, so many questions.

So, my current thoughts: Julia is dead. David/Dave is involved, somehow, along with a couple of the other characters. I NEED to talk about this - tweet me if you have thoughts/opinions/theories.

Thursday, 2 August 2018

The whole picture: July 2018

Catch up with my June round-up.

I know I say this almost every month, but July's been a busy one - so much so that I'm writing this post at 5pm on 31 July on a train hurtling between Edinburgh and London in a desperate bid to publish it on time. In reality, I'm going to get home and crawl into bed, leaving all thoughts of blogging (and unpacking) behind. Whenever you're reading this, here's what I got up to in July 2018.

What I've done in July

Like most of Instagram, I found myself knee-deep in lavender in July. I first visited Castle Farm last summer, when I'd just moved back to Kent, but this time I was filming a short film for work. They've added a 'lavender bench' this year, no doubt to please the Instagram hoards. and I was filming the day after This Morning had been there - although our video went out first (#scoop).

As I'm writing this, I can't believe it's only a couple of weeks since Emma and I went on a huge shopping trip at Lakeside, followed by lunch at TGI Fridays. It still surprises me when people say they've never been there - not in a judgemental way, because there are plenty of restaurants I have no interest in but, like, what did you do with you childhood? The shakes aren't quite as good as they used to be (remember when they were thick enough to render straws ineffective?), but it's still my go-to for a decent serving of comfort food.

The trip was a combination of (late) birthday day out and oh-my-goodness-we-have-nothing-to-wear-let's-go-nuts, and turned out to be an expensive one, not because of what I bought, but because my car broke down in spectacular fashion on the way home. Still working on getting that fixed...

I had myself a little adventure closer to home in July in the form of a bat trip. Tonbridge River Trips run occasional bat-watching tours, taking a boat out on the River Medway at dusk with a wildlife expert on board. Spending my Monday night with a boatload of strangers in the pitch black was slightly surreal, but if you're looking for something unusual to do in Tonbridge, it's worth doing.

Where I've been in July

I'm so glad I wrote my 2018 to-do list at the start of this year, as it's gone a long way to keeping me motivated. For about four years, I've been planning a solo trip to Edinburgh but keep finding excuses to put it off. This month, I finally made it to the Scottish capital, ticking a bucketload of things off the to-do list in just three days, including climbing Arthur's Seat (may I take a moment to tootle my own trumpet about the fact that I scaled a flippin' volcano... solo?!?), visiting the castle and, the reason for my trip, seeing the pandas at Edinburgh Zoo. More blog posts about the trip to follow, but I will say three things:

1) Pandas are cute
2) Edinburgh is HILLY
3) If you go to Edinburgh in late July, but leave before the Festival actually starts, people think you're really weird.

My trip to Edinburgh followed very closely behind a long weekend in Cambridge with family, which contributed to my aim to visit a new place each month. Cambridge is a beautiful city, but we found there wasn't as much to do in the city centre as we'd hoped. Worth visiting, but perhaps for a day trip rather than a whole weekend.

Back in London, the pagoda at Kew reopened to the public this month, and I was sent along to cover it. The stairs are a challenge, but it's worth the climb to the top for those views in all directions of London. Further skyline views came in the form of a launch party for the new bar and restaurant at the top of the Gherkin - that's another London skyscraper ticked off the list.

What I've eaten in July

Just the two afternoon teas this month (sorry lads, haven't had time to review them on this blog yet, but follow the links for my reviews elsewhere). The Franklin Hotel very kindly invited me to try its Frida Kahlo themed afternoon tea, tying in with the current exhibition at the V&A. The octopus sandwiches are an acquired taste, but beyond that, the chef has done an excellent job of marrying a traditional English afternoon tea with Mexican flavours.

A bit further east, the Swan at the Globe is playing on its Shakespeare connections with a Midsummer Night's Dream pop-up. By day, you can eat afternoon tea in Titania's Tea Garden overlooking the Thames, and by night it transforms into some sort of gin-ladled debauchery. The room is beautifully
A post shared by Laura Reynolds (@scribbling_lau) on

This being 2018 London, that wasn't even the most floral part of my month. I ate the most delicious pancakes among fake flowers and a giant purple teddy bear at Drunch, a cafe-restaurant just off Oxford Street. I walked past it a few months ago, coincidentally just after it had been refurbished, and knew the floral frontage would make it popular. I finally got in there to film this month, and haven't been able to stop thinking about those pancakes since.

It's starting to sound like I spent the whole month eating (and I haven't even mentioned the restaurants I ate up in Edinburgh and Cambridge), but there's more. Dinner in the Sky was a thrilling experience, dining up above London on a table suspended from a crane. The food was delicious, but the organisation of the event was appalling, rendering it unworthy of the steep ticket price in my opinion. On a happier note, Claw in Carnaby is dishing up delicious comfort food in Carnaby, and I had a bit of a fangirl moment when I dined with famous party chef Dominique Ansel at his eponymous Belgravia bakery.

What's next?

Again, I know I say this every month, but I'm really hoping August is a quiet one. After the travel and the expense of July, I could do with a bit of downtime. My diary is currently looking beautifully empty for the month... see you this time next month to find out if it stays that way.

See also - what I got up to in:

  • June 2018 (Flower picking, zoo lates and more buffalo chicken)
  • May 2018 (Doughnut-making, Chester, and seaside trips)
  • April 2018 (Abbeys, doughnuts and pizza)
  • March 2018 (Skyscrapers, scuba diving and Winnie the Pooh)
  • January 2018 (Fondue, freakshakes and light festivals)
  • December 2017 (Lions, lanterns and buffalo chicken)
  • November 2017 (Christmas at Kew and the BT Tower)
  • October 2017 (Lake District, Harry Potter cocktails and Alice in Wonderland)
  • September 2017 (Doughnuts, dolphins and Bulgaria)
  • August 2017 (Canal boats, zipwires and tiger shoes)
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Friday, 29 June 2018

The whole picture: June 2018

Catch up with my May round-up.

Zoo Nights 2018 at ZSL London Zoo
Making friends at London Zoo
I am LOVING the weather at the moment. I always thought I was more of an autumn kinda gal, but I'm dreading the days getting shorter and the nights getting darker this year. Turns out summer is the one. The long evenings, combined with working from home a lot more, are really working for me - I've had the most relaxed, productive, healthy few weeks that I've had for a long time. Here's hoping summer sticks around for a while...

What I've done in June

June opened with a trip to BlogCon, a blogging conference held on the London/Essex border. It's the first time I've been to something like that, so I was a bit nervous - no need though, everyone was lovely. I managed to pick up some tips on using Pinterest, and have been trying to get to grips with it for my blog. You'll find me here, so please give me a follow and forgive me any Pinterest faux pas I may make - this old woman's struggling to get her head round the new-fangled social networks the blogging kidz are using these days. Another highlight of BlogCon was basking in the Instagram wisdom of @hellomissjordan - I *may* be working on a not-entirely-serious blog post off the back of that, so watch this space.

I finally managed to get a copy of Emma Gannon's new book, The Multi-Hyphen Method. I've only just started reading it, but having seen her speak at two recent Waterstones events, I have high hopes. I'm seriously in need of new book recommendations from similar cool women - think Dolly Alderton and Daisy Buchanan. Any tips, send them my way.

Blooming Green pick your own flowers farm in Linton near Maidstone in Kent

Don't you love it when a plan comes together? For two or three years, I've wanted to go to a flower picking day at Blooming Green, a PYO flower farm in Kent, but they always fall on a Friday which just isn't doable for a #BloggerWhoWorks. This year at work, we've started dabbling our toes in the waters outside London, so I seized the opportunity, and headed down there to film. You can see the video here, but while I was there, I took a few snaps for my own Instagram account. Whatdya think of my attempt at floristry?

Where I've been in June

June was broken up nicely with a trip to Clacton on Father's Day weekend. We headed out to Tiptree on the Saturday to visit the Jam Factory, and I converted my dad into an afternoon tea fan.

Back in London, I found myself exploring a secret Morocccan garden, hidden away behind a chocolate shop in the rather pretty streets of Belgravia. It reminded me of why I started this blog, and why I got into journalism; to share the secret places I find on my travels.

Sumatran tiger at ZSL London Zoo

It's June, which means it's that time of year again - Zoo Nights at London Zoo. The zoo has always been a favourite place of mine, and I especially love seeing it at dusk, when some of the animals are more lively. Plus, the street food stalls serve up some pretty tasty nosh.

What I've eaten in June

Just two afternoon teas this month, which is pretty restrained by my standards. The first was the misleadingly named Tea Total afternoon tea at the W London (wouldn't recommend - full review here). The second was that more traditional affair at the Tiptree Tearooms in Essex.

Buffalo chicken burger at Boondocks, Old Street, London

My hunt for London's best buffalo chicken continued at Boondocks, a deep American south restaurant in Old Street. It's the first time a buffalo chicken burger has *almost* got the better of me, the buffalo sauce so vinegary I was almost crying. Not saying I didn't like it though. Might have to go back for another taste.

What's coming up in July

SUCH a busy month coming up, with weekend trips to Winchester, Cambridge and Edinburgh planned, as well as few other bits and pieces. If you've got any recommendations for things to see, do and eat in Cambridge or Edinburgh, let me know. As always, you can keep up with my adventures on Instagram and Twitter - it doesn't look like I'll have much time for blogging in July.

See also - what I got up to in:

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Wednesday, 27 June 2018

A secret Moroccan garden, hidden behind a London chocolate shop

In blogging, it's easy to lose sight of why you started at all, getting caught up in the nuances of SEO and social media, the pageviews and follower numbers instead. For me though, I started blogging as a way to share my discoveries with people: hidden cafes, little-known beaches and secret gardens. If people actually read it - well, that's just a bonus.

Somewhere I went recently reminded me of my love for finding - and sharing - secret spots. That place is a Moroccan courtyard garden, tucked away behind a chocolate shop in the fancy streets of Belgravia in west London.

Motcomb Street is typical of Belgravia, with boutique shops and pavement cafes hiding a quaint mews street. Rococo Chocolates is one of these shops. Stepping inside feels a little bit like stepping into a shop run by Willy Wonka's older, more sophisticated sister. A curved, gleaming counter of fresh chocolates tempts the well-heeled clientele, while towards the back, a coffee counter reveals that the shop doubles up as a cafe. I'd be willing to bet that the majority of visitors don't even bother peeking out of the window into the back yard below. I they did, they been unable to resist slinking down the carpeted staircase and outside for a closer look.

Four small round metal tables are dotted around the petite patio area, each sporting a Moroccan-style mosaic table top. The majority of the floor is also paved with Moroccan tiles - it's amazing this place hasn't gained more notoriety among London Instagrammers to be honest, but on a Monday morning in early June, I've got the garden to myself. The high, concrete walls which separate it from Rococo's neighbours only add to the seclusion, but the plentiful greenery and items of Moroccan decor tips the garden over the line from intimidating to enchanting.

Blue and beige wall tiles put me in mind of Marrakech's Les Jardines Majorelles, although the recurring blue theme could just as easily be a nod to Rococo's own livery. The wall is mounted with a parade of mirrors, an extra layer of charm.  Get yourself a hot chocolate, or one of Rococo's inventively-flavoured ice creams, kick back, and enjoy the tranquility of it all.

Rococo Chocolates, Motcomb Street. Belgravia, SW1X 8JU. I visited for work to film, which is why I didn't get a chance to take many photos, but you can see the video here.

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Monday, 25 June 2018

Afternoon tea at Tiptree Tea Room and Jam Factory in Tiptree, Essex

Afternoon tea at Tiptree Tea Rooms, Jam Factory and Museum, Essex
Someone couldn't wait to get stuck in 
When it comes to afternoon tea, there's a lot to be said for opting for the traditional over the fantastical. For every themed afternoon tea that's brilliantly executed, there are 10 queuing up behind it to stomp all over your cake-based hopes and dreams. But even with a traditional sarnies and scones affair, it can be tricky to find an afternoon tea that's done well. Reader, this story has a happy ending.

You don't get much more traditional than a tea room in a barn in the English countryside, and that's exactly what's on offer at Tiptree Tea Rooms in Essex (also home to the Tiptree Jam Museum, which I've covered here).

A vintage delivery bicycle at Tiptree Tea Rooms in Essex

If that's already sounding like a bucolic ideal, let me make it even more British by throwing in a queue. The Tiptree Tea Rooms takes bookings for afternoon tea on weekdays, but at the weekend, it's every man for himself. The restaurant is a decent size, with around 30 tables inside and a further eight or so outside on the terrace, so it only takes 15 minutes before we're at the front of that queue, close enough to eye up every jacket potato and knickerbocker glory that wafts under our noses.

Prawn sandwiches at Afternoon tea at Tiptree Tea Rooms, Jam Factory and Museum, Essex

Now we can get a proper view of the tea rooms, it seems there aren't quite enough staff to cover everything. Several tables are sitting empty, waiting to be cleared, but no-one's clearing them despite a queue of at least 20 people leading out the door. There are mutterings up and down the queue about this, but within a few more minutes, we're whisked off to a table in the back part of the tea room, a cosy area with wooden beams.

We're handed menus and make polite noises about perusing them, but we already know that we're here for the afternoon tea. The menu offers an afternoon tea for two people, but they have no problem in providing one for three of us instead. We're given a choice of sandwiches, each of us opting for a different filling, and then sit back and eye up our surroundings while we wait.

Gin liqueur bottle repurposed as a vase at Tiptree Tea Rooms in Essex

Everything's noticeably on brand, from the Tiptree gin liqueur bottles being used as vases, to the Tiptree jam pots repurposed as salt and pepper shakers, yet far from feeling corporate, this somehow adds to the quaintness of the whole experience.

The tea arrives a few minutes later on the traditional three tier stand, beginning with the sandwiches on the bottom. They're noticeably fresh, each one cut into quarters with the crusts removed. A sharer salad sits at the centre of the plate, accompanied by a pot of Tiptree onion relish.

Afternoon tea at Tiptree Tea Rooms, Jam Factory and Museum, Essex

The scones too taste fresh, and have a homemade appearance, which is much more appealing than the too-perfect scones that often feature in afternoon teas. They're accompanied by a pot of Tiptree jam - what else? - and cream each. It's a shame that the cream is served in plastic pots, giving off a slight aeroplane-food vibe, rather than a ramekin, but that's a minor niggle in an otherwise flawless meal.

Up top, a selection of six cakes is flanked by a strawberry each, and a pot of Tiptree Chocolate spread. Although all tempting, it's not made clear what each of the cakes is, as the menu just promises a selection of that day's offerings - but that's nothing a bit of tasting can't solve. Our selection is a chocolate cake, a chocolate and orange cake, carrot cake, a country slice, a lime tart, and a blueberry mousse - sufficient variety to keep everyone happy.

Cake selection at Afternoon tea at Tiptree Tea Rooms, Jam Factory and Museum, Essex

From the choice of sandwiches to the freshness of the products, the cute pots of jam and the impressive selection of cakes, the Tiptree Tea Rooms afternoon tea is a traditional and highly recommended experience. If possible, I'd advise going on a weekday when things may be a bit less hectic - but even at weekends, the queue is worth it. The two afternoon tea novices I was with found themselves completely converted by the experience.

Tiptree has 10 tea rooms dotted around Essex, plus a new Jam Jar Bar in Colchester, which I fully intend to visit very soon.

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Thursday, 21 June 2018

Visiting the Tiptree Jam Factory and Museum

Inside the Tiptree Jam Factory Museum and Tearooms in Tiptree, Essex

It'd be easy to think there wasn't much going on in Essex between the TOWIE nightclubs and the bright lights of the seaside. But it's actually a really fascinating county with beautiful buildings, picturesque villages and fascinating museums.

One such gem is the Tiptree Jam Museum, a small rural museum next to the factory where Tiptree jam is produced. You know Tiptree - the jam and marmalade with the classy black and white label that you see in the supermarket. Turns out it's named after the Essex village where it's produced. On the edge of the village, along with the factory, is a visitor centre with tea rooms, gift shop and a small museum.

Inside the Tiptree Jam Factory Museum and Tearooms in Tiptree, Essex

I thought the museum would be within the factory, showing the process of the jam being made, but it's actually in a barn outside, focusing on the history of the brand, the factory and the village. It's not a big museum - you could see it all in half an hour - but it has some really interesting items.

Inside the Tiptree Jam Factory Museum and Tearooms in Tiptree, Essex

For me, the most fascinating exhibit is a display of some of the more unusual labels and jars from the brand's history, showing how it has changed through time. Take a close look at the jar above - by appointment to "the Late King George V", it appeared on a jar produced shortly after the king's death.

Inside the Tiptree Jam Factory Museum and Tearooms in Tiptree, Essex

That's not the only bit of royal memorabilia. The whole site might as well have "Queen woz 'ere" stamped on it - a plaque in the entrance commemorates her visit, and there are plenty of photos in the exhibition too.

Inside the Tiptree Jam Factory Museum and Tearooms in Tiptree, Essex

One of the odder exhibits is a taxidermy four-legged chicken which was bred on a nearby farm. A plane propeller, wooden carvings and milk jugs are just some of the other exhibits lining the walls of the barn, while a 10 minute video plays on loop in the centre.

Inside the Tiptree Jam Factory Museum and Tearooms in Tiptree, Essex

There's apparently more to be seen in the outbuildings around the site, with a focus on agricultural machinery. On certain days, you can take a tractor ride around the strawberry fields for a small extra charge - or you can enjoy the tearooms like we did (keep your eyes peeled for a further, scone-filled blog post...)

Inside the Tiptree Jam Factory Museum and Tearooms in Tiptree, Essex

Tiptree Jam Museum, Tiptree. Essex, CO5 0RF. Entry is free.

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

Tea Total Afternoon Tea at W London Hotel, Leicester Square

Flower wall at Tea Total afternoon tea at W London Hotel, Leicester Square, London

After a recent, questionable experience of a cocktail-paired afternoon tea, I'm completely off teas that involve booze in any way, so when I received an invitation to W London's Tea Total (see what they did there?) afternoon tea, it sounded ideal. Afternoon tea against a flower wall backdrop, right next to Leicester Square - what's not to like?

...Well, quite a lot actually. Despite its moniker, a brief glance at the menu reveals that Tea Total is in fact not teetotal. It's not even close. Each sweet treat is paired with a mini, 'crystallised' version of one of the bar's most popular cocktails. 'Crystallised' we later found out, means jelly.

Tea Total afternoon tea at W London Hotel, Leicester Square, London

When I queried the non-teetotalness of the Tea Total tea, I was told that they could whip up a non-alcoholic version on request, although this isn't made clear on the website - so if that's what you're after, do double check when booking.

So, misleading moniker aside, how does this afternoon tea measure up? Like most afternoon teas, it's very well presented, put together with the Instagram generation in mind. The flower wall which appears in the promo photos only takes up one tiny part of the bar, so you may be queuing to get your snap. In design and colour, it's strikingly similar to the larger flower wall at Dominique Ansel Bakery. Beyond that, the decor is something of a talking point - think old school hall meets art gallery meets what I can only imagine the interior of Spearmint Rhino looks like. Enough said really.

Tea Total afternoon tea at W London Hotel, Leicester Square, London

We arrive promptly - and hungry - for our 1pm booking, yet our food doesn't arrive until 2pm, leaving us to amuse ourselves with our tea for an hour, with no explanation for the hold-up. We assume the sandwiches are being made fresh for us, but their dryness and tastelessness when they do arrive stomps all over that theory.

Tea Total afternoon tea at W London Hotel, Leicester Square, London

The scones are decent, if on the small side, served traditionally with jam and cream. For me though, an afternoon tea lives or dies on the quality of the sweet selection, and in this case that translates as floating through life without much comment. A quartet of treats includes an overly rich chocolate mint mousse, a slightly odd eyeball type concoction, a delicious but sickly sweet white chocolate cake, and a meringue with a slice of carrot cake stashed inside it. Again, thought has clearly gone into presentation, but nothing leaves us wanting more.

Tea Total afternoon tea at W London Hotel, Leicester Square, London

At the end of the meal, we discuss our favourite part. For both of us, it's the scones - which tells you all you need to know about this afternoon tea. Average, but not memorable. As for the title? I've still got no idea who thought 'Tea Total' was a good name for a booze-laden experience.

Tea Total Afternoon Tea at W London, Leicester Square. £37-£42 per person, book ahead.

Sunday, 3 June 2018

Here's why physical maps and guidebooks are still important in this internet age

A flatlay of a map, plus travel maps and guidebooks for Paris, Barcelona, Prague, Marrakech, Havana and Venice

When you come back from a trip, do you get rid of your maps and guidebooks, or do you keep them as mementos and souvenirs?

I recently threw this question out on social media, and wasn't at all surprised at the result. Like me, most of you are absolute hoarders when it comes to travel paraphernalia (there is one monster among you, but I won't name names).

But why do we keep them? A map of the souks of Marrakech is not going to be any use in the Kent countryside, and a plan of the Barcelona Metro offers no solution to the trials and tribulations of the London Underground. They sit there, gathering dust on our already overstuffed bookshelves in space-deprived flats, surviving the many clear outs, while their lesser bedfellows are reduced to the charity shop pile.

Travel planning, including globe, notebook, passport and Cuba travel guide

In my opinion, a map book is the best storyteller a traveller can have, equal in importance to the photos when looking back on the trip. Here's something I wrote about the map I took to Venice.

A ode to my map of Venice

I bought you from WHSmith in Victoria station, about a week before we were due to fly. I barely looked at you at all to be honest, until we got on the plane, but I checked my bag time and time again to make sure you were there, the knowledge you held almost as important to the success of the trip as my passport.

At this time, you were a perfect stranger to me. The city you laid out before me was the great unknown, backstreets of nerves, canals of excitement, bridges of possibilities. You were sights yet to be seen, meals yet to be eaten, bars yet to be discovered. Streets that we would wander and strangers who would become friends.

We unfolded you across both our laps as soon as we got on the plane. Living far apart, my friend and I hadn't had time to do any proper itinerary planning until we took off. Luckily, the elderly, well-spoken gentleman next to us didn't mind us unfurling your streets before him. In fact, your very existence struck up a conversation - he noticed us plotting the tourist hotspots, and gave us some other pointers he'd gleaned from his time living in Venice.

Feet on the floor map in Stanfords travel bookshop, Covent Garden
If you're into travel books and maps, check out Stanfords in Covent Garden

For our whole four days, you were with us, squeezed into my handbag between my camera and my water bottle. You quickly became stained with the debris of pitstops in cafes and bars, yet you remained resilient. A coffee cup ring now circles the entirety of Murano, like a bizarre, waterlocked crop circle. A pizza grease stain became another island in the Venetian lagoon. Your corners are dogeared, your face scarred with hastily scribbled circles where we earmarked a shop or restaurant to return to later. That cute courtyard where we ate pizza on the last night was a particular gem.

You're in the photos of our trips too - sticking out of bags and pockets, sometimes held in our hands as we snapped away, thirdwheeling your way through the weekend. I say thirdwheeling, but you were actually more like our steering wheel, guiding us across those bridges and round the canals.

In some places, your starched creases have ripped completely, their structural integrity weakened by a sudden rain shower on a cobbled back street. It came so unexpectedly, we had nowhere to shelter except underneath you.

That was more than two years ago, and you now sit on my bookshelf, nestled between Paris and Prague. It's not geographically accurate, but together, your rips, doodles and stains tell the stories of my travels. How could I get rid of that? 

That's the story of just one of my maps. Each of the others tells a story too. Our Marrakech map turned out to be mostly useless, the winding, overwhelming souks too complex for even the most skilled of cartographers to render on paper. The Paris map was hurriedly bought at Gare du Nord as we arrived on the Eurostar; the friend we were staying with - who knew the city intricately - was feeling unwell and left us to explore the unfamiliar city on our own instead. My map of Barcelona is the only one I've had cause to use more than once - I've been there three times to date. Perhaps it'll get another airing one day.

"Years ago, when I was backpacking across Western Europe, I was just outside of Barcelona, hiking in the foothills of Mount Tibidabo (if you know, you know...)
To me, the idea of lending the map to someone else is unthinkable. It'd be like lending them a notebook that's already full of my thoughts and scribblings. I'm more than happy to pass on recommendations of restaurants to visit, back streets to wander down and markets to haggle in. I'll even tell you the exact route we took through those back streets, as best as my memory will allow. It's not the experiences I'm precious over, it's the physical map itself. It's too personal.

Throughout your time away, whether that's a two-day city break, or a two month trek through the Himalayas, your map or guidebook is with you. For me, that's far more powerful and emotive than any magnet or shot glass you can buy in a gift shop. And when you look back at that map, it won't just be meaningless lines and colours and squiggles. You'll remember the things the map doesn't show you; how steep that hill was, the way scooters weave among pedestrians, that time you were overtaken by a camel.

You don't get that from Google Maps.