Thursday, 31 December 2015

Goodbye 2015

Normally, as another year comes to a close and the strains of Auld Lang Syne waft out from some TV programme or other, I do a round up of my year, looking back at what's happened, and forward at what to expect in the next year. This is not that round up.

2015 didn't go according to plan. It started out well, but fell by the wayside a bit. Don't get me wrong, it wasn't all bad, but a dark shadow was cast over a lot of it. I'll leave it at that.

So I'll leave you in the capable hands of Rachel Platten to sum up how I'm feeling right now, with six hours of 2015 left. Bring on 2016.

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Beaulieu: the capital of the New Forest

Mention that you're going on holiday to the New Forest and the two things that people are most likely to mention are wild horses and Beaulieu.

Having made friends with the wild horses (and donkeys. Oh, the donkeys!) during the first three days of our camping trip, we decided to spend our last day visiting Beaulieu, one of the biggest villages/towns in the New Forest, most famous for its Motor Museum.

Getting into the "when in Rome" spirit of things, we left the car at the campsite and walked through the forest to Beaulieu, as we had done to Brockenhurst two days before, although this trip was a couple of miles further. Our choice to walk was also partly due to the car, which we needed to make the 150 mile trip home, hanging onto life by the skin of its teeth by this point. The twelve mile round trip to the New Forest's most famous village may have been the proverbial straw that broke the coil spring.

We hit our first hiccup just a couple of hundred metres from the campsite, strolling along a concrete path, chatting about our dinner plans. A twig a couple of feet in front of us moved. That twig turned out to be a snake. As anyone who knows me know, snakes are my worst fear, to the extent that I was reduced to tears in the reptile house in Barcelona Zoo - and they're behind glass there.

"Your running's coming along well" said The Boy, when he caught me up half a mile down the road, bawling my eyes out. Needless to say I was on high alert for the rest of the walk, giving anything vaguely twiglike a wide berth.

And what a walk it turned out to be. Across a heath (more donkeys!), past a model airfield, through a village green, down a lane, through a wood, up a hill, down a hill, across a road, through another field, and finally, two hours (and six miles) later, we found ourselves in the village of Beaulieu. At this point I would like to point out that while The Boy's compass was of great help in getting us to Brockenhurst two days previously, Google Maps saved our skins while wandering on the heath today. Tradition 1-Technology 1.

It's a stunning little place, situated next to a lake with swans a-swanning and ducks a-ducking. Neither of us have a vested interest in the Motor Museum or the Abbey ruins (and the sign post suggested these to be a long walk away) , so we headed for the centre of the village where we hoped to find seating, refreshment and amusement.

The village itself was small -disappointingly so after a six mile trek to get there. A 10 minute stroll saw us visit all of the half dozen shops and the garden centre, so we made our way to the tea rooms for some much needed sustenance. A jacket potato, some cake, and a couple of drinks later, we'd explored all that Beaulieu had to offer and set off on the six mile trek back to the campsite.

The Boy contemplates having come face to face with a fearsome predator.
 When we got to the technological refuge of the Happy Cheese pub that night (well worth a visit if you're in the area - yummy burgers), we took advantage of our first WiFi in four days and looked up the snake species.

 I say we, I can't even look at a still image of a snake on a phone screen without wanting to vomit. The Boy looked at photos of snakes to try to identify which one we'd seen (I had absolutely no idea - I didn't stay around long enough to take a close look) and concluded that we'd come across an adder, the UK's only native species of poisonous snake. Although horrified by the thought, and dreading spending one final night in the tent knowing that such a monstrosity was on the loose nearby (did I mention that I don't like snakes?), I couldn't help but feel like a hero knowing that I'd come within a couple of feet of an adder and lived to tell the tale.

Unless we missed anything, this was the extent of the main street
So, Beaulieu - a very picturesque village, and worth stopping if you're in the area, but certainly not worth a 12 mile round walking trip.

See also:

Thursday, 23 July 2015

An adventure playground in the New Forest

Remember when you were a kid, adventure playgrounds were the best thing ever? Everywhere you went --parks, tourist attractions -- were judged on the quality of their playground. A slide and a couple of swings just wouldn't cut it. Zip wires were a particular favourite. If I remember rightly, Hever Castle did a sterling job on the adventure playground front.

So when New Forest Wildlife Park revealed itself to have a spectacular playground, The Boy and I jumped at the chance. In our defence, the sign said "For adults and children aged 6 and over." It was practically a gold plated invite. We had an hour to kill, waiting for the lynx talk to start. Rude not to, really.

For a glorious half hour, we climbed, scrambled and swung like our lives depended on it. As I've said before, camping really lowers your inhibitions.

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

A trip to New Forest Wildlife Park

During our recent camping trip, The Boy and I took time out from forest treks to visit New Forest Wildlife Park. Wildlife Parks are always tricky, in that it's tough to know what to expect. Some, such as Cotswold Wildlife Park, are so big that they are a zoo in all but name (I suspect they avoided that moniker due to the negative connotations it sometimes holds).

New Forest Wildlife Park is one of the smaller types of wildlife park. Although there is a lynx and a wolf pack, the focus is mainly on smaller animals. Owls and otters are a particular favourite, but the park is also home to deer, butterflies, and plenty of other animals.

Being a big cat fan, the lynx was my favourite. Yes, I know it's not strictly a big cat, but it's hardly your average household moggy, is it?

But most impressive was the pack of wolves. With them being diurnal, I don't know that I've ever seen wolves being active before. In most zoos, they tend to be curled up asleep during the day, and I've certainly never been fortunate to see one in the wild.

It was a real treat to see them running around their sizeable enclosure, playing with each other and interacting.

There's enough at the park to spend a couple of hours there, but certainly not a whole day. Plenty of playgrounds make it kid friendly, and there's an abundance of information about the conservation programmes the park is involved in (otters and harvest mice, to name just two).

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

The five worst things about camping

Camping's not everyone's cup of tea, and that's OK. While it can be nice to escape from modern life for a few days, these are a few of the worst things about camping, and certainly something to consider before you rush out and buy a tent.

(Don't think I'm being all doom and gloom about this. Check out my list of the five best things about camping.)

  1. Facilities. We're talking toilets, shower blocks, washing up areas and the like. This one's a bit of a jackpot really - you never know quite what you're getting until you arrive at the campsite. No matter how decent the facilities and how attentive the cleaning staff, you're still sharing a shower and a toilet with potentially hundreds of strangers on a daily basis - if that's not something you like the sound of, camping may not be for you.
  2. Which brings me on to night time needs. To put it frankly, the possibility of needing to pee in the night makes the idea of taking on any liquids after 6pm unthinkable. If you pitch your tent close to the toilet block, you'll have people walking past at all times of day and night. But, the further from the facilities you set up camp, the longer the potential night time walk in darkness.
  3. You're not getting and sleep if it's windy. A strong wind can make a tent rustle unbelievably loudly. Add to that the fact that the walls around you are literally moving, and you'll be lying awake crossing your fingers that you hammered in your tent pegs sufficiently, and aren't about to recreate the Wizard of Oz.
  4. Ditto rain. Pitter patter, pitter patter, all night. Not the sort of noise that's conducive to sleeping. Plus, it'll probably make you need to pee, which brings us back to 2, above.
  5. Ditto sun. Tents are like greenhouses - a couple of hours in the sun, and they'll retain that heat for the rest of the day and throughout the night, making for an uncomfortable attempt at sleep. Trees are your friend - use them as shelter.

Monday, 20 July 2015

WHF Open Days 2015

Wildlife Heritage Foundation, if you haven't heard of it, is a big cat sanctuary in the heart of the Kent
countryside. For me, it's heaven, filled with enough lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs and other cats to keep me happy forever.

Usually, it's not open to the public, except for private tours and photography workshops, but four days a year, fundraising open days take place. The public come on site to see the cats, and meet the volunteers and staff, all of whom were so friendly and so knowledgeable about the cats, I just wanted to make friends with them all!

 I visited WHF last year, on a private big cat encounter, and was lucky enough to feed a stunning tiger called Nias. Unfortunately I only caught a quick glimpse of him today, but here are some other snapshots of the open day.
This little dudette is a Pallas Cat, only about the size of a domestic cat.
Narnia, the white tiger, is absolutely stunning. White tigers are Bengal tigers which lack a certain pigment in their fur - only about 1 in 10,000 Bengal tigers is a white tiger, meaning that is extremely rare to see one in the wild (even more so as there colouring makes it difficult for them to camouflage themselves and therefore harder to survive).
An Amur leopard
Part of the pride of nine white lions at WHF. Like white tigers, white lions are not a separate subspecies, but rather are African lions with a rare colour mutation.

The dominant male of the white lion pride.
White lionesses heading over for feeding time. Meat frozen into blocks of watered down blood was thrown into the enclosure for them. Unlike the lions I saw on a night game drive in South Africa, feeding time for this pride was a sedate and civilised affair.
Stunning, isn't he? Look at those eyes!

One of three brother African lions, he had to be separated from his brother after he badly injured one of them in a fight.

Not the best photo, but this pair are particular favourites of mine. Raika and Lumpur used to live at London Zoo before the new Tiger Territory exhibit was built. Tigers are usually solitary animals, but this pair have lived together for years. In fact, Raika appeared in this blogpost from 2011, chronicling my first summer working at London Zoo. 

Sunday, 19 July 2015

The Mad Hatter's Tea Rooms, Lyndhurst

New Forest villages aren't short of a tea room or two, and Lyndhurst is no exception. Among the traditional tea rooms and ice cream parlours, there's even a Costa Coffee for those city dwellers who have had a little too much countryside and need a tall skinny mocha to see them right.

Being one for a gimmick, I was drawn to the Mad Hatter's Tea Rooms the first time we drove through Lyndhurst (beware the one-way system). When we returned for a proper browse, I convinced The Boy to at least have a look at the menu before we chose somewhere to refuel and have a late lunch.

Satisfied by the choices on offer, we went in. The interior is traditional, although some might describe it as dingy, with low ceilings and dark wooden beams. A cabinet of Alice in Wonderland themed merchandise for sale takes up one wall.

 We were fortunate in that the outdoor terrace was all but empty and took a seat among the flowers. Although compact, with only five tables, the garden was a lovely place, bursting with colourful blooms, with no noise from the traffic.

The menu had plenty of choice, and although I'm normally a sucker for a cake or afternoon tea, our morning of activities left me requiring more substantial fuelling. Options ranged from omelettes to fish and chips to lasagne, but I went for good old-fashioned sausage, chips and beans, while The Boy had a jacket potato.

Perfect for refuelling after a morning of exploring
Visiting at 3pm on a Thursday afternoon, we hit a quiet period, and our food was brought out fairly quickly, and we kicked back and enjoyed our surroundings while we waited for it to cool down.

No doubt on a busy summer's day, the wait would be longer and the terrace heaving, but the place is well worth a visit if you find yourself peckish in Lyndhurst.

Mad Hatter's Tea Rooms, 10 High Street, Lyndhurst, S043 7BD

Wondering what all the Alice in Wonderland fuss is in Lyndhurst? Alice Liddell, the girl whom Lewis Carroll based Alice in Wonderland on, is buried nearby.

Saturday, 18 July 2015

The five best things about camping

Camping. Bit of a Marmite issue really, isn't it? Some people live for the one week a year when they get to abandon modern life and live under canvas, while others wouldn't be caught dead near a tent.
I've just got back from five days camping in the New Forest with The Boy, and after a lengthy bath, and my first proper cuppa since Monday, I wanted to share my new-found like for camping. Don't worry, I'm not about to go all, like, new age hippy on you, man, and prattle on about finding inner peace. But I think there's something to be said to going back to basics for a few days.
  1. If, like us, you end up in a 3G black hole like we did in the New Forest, it's not necessarily a bad thing (provided you come prepared). Escaping the internet forces you to find other ways to while away the time - let's face it, when else would you find yourself tearing through a decent novel in two days, or knitting as you watch the sunset? My Rory the tiger frisbee from a Haven holiday park (yeah, remember them?) had its first outing since I was about 15 years old, and don't even get me started on how much my American football skills are coming along. 
  2. If you're really lucky with your location and conditions, star gazing may well be an option. Pitch away from other tents and lights, lie back, and hope for a clear night. One of my favourite parts of camping in Sussex last year was lying with the tent door open, wrapped in a duvet staring up at the stars.
  3. You tend to lose your inhibitions in the first 24 hours. I'm not talking stripping down to your underwear and dancing on the foldable picnic table. Rather, you don't care what you look like, when you realise that no-one else cares what you look like either. Those hideous trousers that you never wear at home suddenly become a very attractive option. Make-up goes by the board, and after a few days, you'll barely remember what a hairbrush is. There's something quite liberating about the whole experience. 
  4. Everyone is friendly, like a small community. Strangers say hello to each other on the way to the shower block, a foreign concept to most city dwellers. If you've forgotten an essential (tin openers a particular favourite) head on over to the next tent and ask to borrow theirs. I bet most people don't know their actual neighbours well enough to do that.
  5. You might end up with an absolute beauty like this as your neighbour #vwcampervanenvy

Sunday, 5 July 2015

A day in Hastings

"Let's go to the seaside", said The Boy.
"OK", I said, fully aware that agreeing to such a thing over a week in advance was optimistic at best. I had images in my mind of us huddling on the beach in cagoules, shivering in the rain as we clasped out hands round a hot chocolate for warmth.

Fortunately the day of our seaside trip fell on the week of the hottest day in the UK for nine years, and we stepped off the train at Hastings in bright sunshine and temperatures for 25 degrees.
The East Cliff funicular railway. We gave this one a miss.
I'd been to Hastings a few times before, but it was The Boy's inaugural visit, so we worked our way through the stereotypical seaside checklist. First up was a trip to the beach itself. Despite the balmy temperatures, the beach itself was a bit chilly with the wind, so we only stayed for about half an hour before hotfooting it back up to the path, where we came face to face with the crazy golf.

Not quite Barbados, but good enough for me

Something you should know if you go to Hastings; the crazy golf is deceptive. The course itself looks tiny. What you realise once you get closer is that it's actually three separate courses, each 18 holes. Hours of fun to be had! Faced with the choice of Adventure golf, Pirate Golf, or regular crazy golf, we opted to start with the Adventure golf.

The course was, expectedly, quite busy, so I was expecting it to be a bit of a bunfight, golf clubs at dawn, that sort of thing, but it was a most respectable affair, with everyone queuing for the holes in the most British of fashions (and a bit of inter-group chatter, most un-British - the sea air clearly got to some people's heads).

The Adventure Crazy Golf course
After the Adventure golf, we had the bug, so had a quick round on the regular crazy golf course (windmills, whirlygigs, you know the sort).

36 holes left us with quite an appetite so it was off to the chippy for a typical seaside lunch of fish and chips (OK, chicken nuggets and no chips for me), which we tucked into on the beach. Seven nuggets and an altercation with a seagull later, we were ready to continue exploring, and headed towards the East Cliff Railway, into the fishing quarter of Hastings. This is the quaint part of town - old wooden huts, lovely boats, very photogenic - and a couple of free museums to visit too.

After poking around for a bit, we headed back in the direction we came, giving the funicular railway a glance, but deciding to give it a miss. I was on the hunt for an ice cream, and found one down a back street just off the seafront. It was a lovely street with a few independent bookshops and gift shops, but by this time it was pushing 5pm, so they were all closing.

The amusement arcades, however, were very much open and waiting to take our pennies from us. Having exhausted our copper supply on the slot machine, we moved onto the grabbers, and failing to win ourselves a Paddington cuddly toy, ended up on the air hockey table for the ultimate battle.

Fed and watered, we headed back to the beach for a sit and a paddle (a seaside must), before hotfooting it back to the station for the train home.

Saturday, 30 May 2015

In which I sign up for a half marathon

In a fit of maddened determination and extreme positive thinking, I've signed up to run the Tonbridge Half Marathon in October.

No big deal, you're probably thinking, people run half marathons everyday. Heck, people run full marathons everyday. But I'm not people, not in that sense. I don't run marathons. I don't have a wardrobe full of expensive running kit, or a PB to beat.

The truth is, until a year ago, I couldn't run at all. I mean, I could run, just not with any sense of grace or wisdom.

I'd get home from work, with a route in my mind (usually only a mile or so), get changed, and go. I say this like it was a regular thing, but it'd happen six times a year, maximum, usually as a form of reconciliation after a gluttonous weekend.

 I'd hurtle myself around the block as fast as I could, thoughts of my dinner, and tonight's TV, and the evening's task, pushing me to get back home as fast as I could. The run was a task. Something on my list of things to do, to get crossed off as soon as possible, akin to doing the ironing or making tomorrow's lunch.  The faster the run was over, the faster I could go about my normal evening routine, rude interruptions firmly pushed aside.

While this attitude was great for efficiency, it left no room for that runner's friend: pacing. I had no concept of pacing, meaning that I'd go flat out for the first part of my run, leaving me puffing, panting and gasping for breath for the entire second half. Which is fine for lengthy runs, but as I said before, my route was only a mile or so.

Then, a year into our relationship, I went running with The Boy. This was a Big Deal for several reasons. He's, like, an actual runner. He's run actual marathons and stuff. I was still at the puffing and panting after half a mile stage. Our attitudes to running were mismatched to say the least.

We set off. After a few steps, it was clear that our paces were also mismatched. The odd thing was, I was going faster than him. This couldn't be right. Was he having an off day? He was by far and away the stronger runner of the two of us, yet I was the fastest. He had clearly realised that there was a problem too - but in his eyes, the problem was me.

And so it was that he explained the concept of pacing to me. He gave me by far the best advice I've ever had about running - start running at the pace you think you should be running at - and then halve it. And it worked, I ran the furthest I had ever run, around Streatham and Tooting Bec. I finally felt like I'd cracked this running malarkey.

I still didn't become a regular runner - actual, properly paced running took up too much of a chunk of my evenings - until January this year. Buoyed on by the new year resolution fever I began to run regularly after work. Nor far at first, but I built up my distances over time. This dedication to run went on for about a month, until I got a bad cough. Just breathing was hard enough with this cough, so running was out of the question. Then the weather turned, bad, then I got busy at work, then it was May, I hadn't been running for three months and the excuses just kept coming. Throughout May, I kept promising myself that I would go running that night after work. It never happened, and that's when I realised I needed some motivation to make me run regularly. Self inflicted targets and deadlines just don't have enough effect, so I've signed up to the Half Marathon. giving me the knowledge (and fear) that I need to be able to run 13 miles by October 4. No pressure then.

When I've told people that I've signed up, reactions so far have ranged from the politely interested (from those who know me little enough that anything else would be impolite) to actual, full-on belly laughing (from those who know me probably too well).

Saturday, 25 April 2015

A garden in the sky

In the last 20 months alone, The View From The Shard, the Orbit in the Olympic Park, and most recently, the Sky Garden in the Walkie Talkie have all opened, giving Londoners a chance to look down on their city from a variety of angles, like a queen ant looking down on her anty subjects scurrying around the streets below.

Having ticked the first two off my list (I love a view, I do), Sunday was time to hit the concave monstrosity that is the Walkie Talkie. The Sky Garden is completely free to visit, although you do have to book well in advance. For the more sophisticated skygoer, there are bars and restaurants up on high, but if it's a good old-fashioned nosey around you're after, a free ticket is more than adequate.

A quick hop through airport-style security (because really, what self-respecting building doesn't have airport-style security these days?) and a lift ride later, we were standing in the Sky Garden. Three floors of rainforest-style greenery, rockeries and glass windows over the city.

Many of the plants and trees have a bit of growing to do yet before they reach their full potential, but it's easy to see what the planners were going for. Think Eden Project meets urban jungle and you're just about there - the only thing missing is a hummingbird or two flitting from tree to tree.

From one giant to another...a view of The Shard just across the river from the outside viewing gallery

The garden is spread over three floors, the highest part of the viewing gallery facing North, with much of the view blighted by the cluster of skyscrapers in the Square Mile (the Gherkin, the Cheesegrate, the Heron Tower and co.). Turn 180 degrees and there's an outdoor viewing gallery over the South side of the building, looking down onto the river and beyond.

Some tall ships were faffing about on the river while we were there, so Tower Bridge kept opening.

Now for something that's been bugging me ever since. Many of the trees are already fully grown, several feet high with branches sticking out every which way. The garden has only been open a couple of months, so presumably these trees were already a decent size when they were planted. How did they get them up there?  Some of them are too big to fit in the lift. Nature dictates that you can't take a tree apart, then but it back together once it's in situ, not successfully anyway. So how did they get them up there? Answers in the comments please.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Wishlist: Handbags

Ladies of London, you've been doing a sterling job on the handbag front recently. Barely a day goes by when I don't encounter handbag envy of some sort of my journey to or from work. This coupled with the fact that my bag broke spectacularly a couple of days ago has led to me looking for a new gear carrier.

Normally I go for a slouchy bag, perfect for my everything-including-the-kitchen-sink mentality, but at the moment I'm feeling the love for boxy and structured bags, as you can see from my selection below.
                       Handbags 1

The central bag. from New Look, is my absolute favourite (also available in black, directly below. although unusually for me, I prefer it in pink). I love how it's simple and elegant, but not completely boring.

Also unusual for me is the hot pink option at the top. Also from New Look, the thing that puts me off is the combination of black and brown; if the handles were black, this would be a definite contender, but as it stands, there's too much going on.

The Ted Baker option in the top left is divine, but is sadly now sold out (yeah, we're gonna pretend that's the reason I'm not buying it...nothing to do with the hefty TB price tag).

The other three options are all River Island.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

A New Year trip to Primrose Hill

Happy new year, dear reader. May 2015 be an absolute hoot! I'm feeling pretty chuffed because I've already managed to do one thing I wanted to make a point of doing in 2015, going up Primrose Hill.

Early for work this morning, having trudged through an ankle-deep layer of Strongbow cans in Camden, which gave way to an ankle-deep layer of Asti bottles as I rounded the corner into Primrose Hill (how the other half live...), I decided to seize the moment to climb to the top of this hill which I've heard so much about.

As first impressions go, it wasn't a great one. A massive clean up operation was underway to get rid of the absolute mess left behind by revellers last night. Several council vans and men in flourescent jackets were making headway on the layer of rubbish coating the side of the hill. I got speaking to a couple of locals who were out walking their dogs and they were stunned by the mess; they'd never seen it this bad after New Year's Eve before.

Still, I can see how such a place could be attractive with a little less mess and a little more sunshine. One to return to at a later date, me thinks.