Sunday, 3 December 2017

A first look at Glow Wild at Wakehurst Place

Not saying I've got an obsession with light festivals or anything, but hot on the heels of my trip to Christmas at Kew, I headed to Wakehurst, its sister site in Sussex, for the lantern festival Glow Wild.

After the magic of Kew, I was expecting fantastic things from Wakehurst and in its own, subtle way, it didn't disappoint.

The trail begins at the base of the Christmas tree, the largest in the UK apparently, and use by pilots navigating their way into nearby Gatwick Airport. Take your own lantern to guide your round the trail and from here, a lamp-lined path weaves through the trees, each decked out in their own way.

Various woodland creatures are recreated in lantern form along the route, adding the 'wild' to the festival's name. The first major 'wow' moment comes courtesy of the lake, which is sprinkled with colourful lanterns, creating perfect reflections on a still, dark night. The Christmas tree looming over it only adds to the sense of scale and grandeur.

It only gets better around the next corner, where a stream has been transformed into a literal river of fire. Hundreds of naked flames have been placed on the stream, which flows down into a lake at the bottom. The photos really don't do it justice.

From here, the trail takes a convoluted wander before turning back towards the house, via a fire garden.

It's hard to miss another highlight; the light projections on the house itself. It's fantastic, with absolutely everyone rooted to the spot, entranced by it before being able to move on. Again, I found myself comparing it to the fantastic laser projection show at Kew, which is in a whole other league.

The trail ends here, the path opening up into a market square type area in the courtyard with food and drink stalls, and crafts for the kids.

Glow Wild at Wakehurst doesn't have quite as much oomph behind it as Christmas at Kew, but that's not to say it disappoints. It's a well-thought out, charming way to wile away an hour or so, albeit aimed more at young families than adults alone. Some will appreciate its calmer, slower approach to winter, but for me, it's all about the all-singing, all-dancing wonder of Kew this year.

Glow Wild at Wakehurst Place runs 30 November-17 December 2017, but tickets are now sold out.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

A first look at Christmas at Kew 2017

'Magical' is not a word I throw around lightly in regard to tourist attractions. Disneyland is magical, and... well actually, that's it. I don't think there's anywhere else I'd deem worthy of the term - except, now, Christmas at Kew.

The annual light festival is now in its 5th year, and I've been lucky enough to attend the press launch on three of those years (in case you haven't noticed, I have a thing about light festivals). This year is by far the best year to date, rendering my colleague Rob and I dazzled like little kids. I had hoped to have a video to show you (I'm high tech now y'know), but I'm having trouble with the files at the moment (alright, maybe not) so you'll have to make do with these photos, which don't go any way to doing it justice.

Enter through a twinkling arch, a temple illuminated in the trees over to one side. So far, so average. But the first big 'wow' moment comes courtesy of 'Moon Over The Vista', a sea of illuminated globes stretched out in front of the famous Palm House, which glow and change colour in time with the festive music.

You'll have to hang about for a while to see the full sequence, but it's worth it - if you can resist the lure of the nearby Christmas tree, which flashes to its own tune and, you'll realise if you look closely, is made up of hundreds of individual sledges. Nice touch.

Other highlights include a group of singing trees, whose lights flash in time with their humming, and a fire garden (a bit spooky - singing, rotating, firey Christmas trees against a backdrop of wintry tree silhouettes). Absolute highlight is the bridge going over the lake, which is animated in time with the lights on the islands, and in the water. The full sequence is 20 minutes or so, but you'll be so hypnotised that staying to watch it won't be a problem at all.

Of course, that now-famous light tunnel is back, drawing Instagrammers to it like moths to a flame:

I say the bridge is the highlight. It was, it was right up until Rob and I rounded the very last corner, chatting away, and we were stopped and silenced in our tracks - it was literally breathtaking. We froze for a couple of seconds before running straight towards it to get the best shot we could (ever the professional journalists). The Palm House is illuminated in a spectacular light show. In front of it, holograms dance on the lake - figures ice skating, a ghostly carousel, kids throwing snowballs, all set perfectly to music.

The layout is very cleverly planned - you can see enough of what's ahead to tempt you onwards, but you can only hear the music for the particular section you're standing in, which is crucial when it's as finely choreographed as it is.

Little disclaimer: I went on press night, which means it's less busy than any other night - although it seems far better organised than the shambolic Chiswick Lantern Festival, so you should be alright. However, Kew's set the bar high for Glow Wild at Wakehurst, the equivalent event at Kew's sister venue. I've got tickets for the opening weekend - watch this space.

Christmas at Kew 2017, 22 November- 1 January, book in advance.

Monday, 13 November 2017

I wrote a book

That's a blatant lie. I didn't write a book at all. But I did write some articles which made their way into a book, which has now been published. It's a proper book, with pages and page numbers and a cover and everything, so I'm basically classing myself as a published author now thank you very much *mic drop*

Oh, the book? It's good. It's called Londonist Mapped, and was put together by my lovely colleagues at Londonist in collaboration with the AA, because they like maps almost as much as we do. It's got all sorts of London geekery in it, and colourful, beautiful maps to go with each article. Where else could you learn about state banquets, atomic bombs, Sherlock Holmes, penicillin, tube pedantry, and the man who invented sunglasses, all in one book. Eh? Eh?

It's available now on Amazon, which is nice, but also in Real-Life Book Shops, like Waterstones:

A post shared by Londonist (@londonist_com) on

And Foyles:

A post shared by Londonist (@londonist_com) on

And Stanfords:

A post shared by Londonist (@londonist_com) on

So that's a bit exciting (especially Stanfords, because the cafe there does the best hot chocolate in London).

My colleague Will made a video to tell you all about it.

Pretty, isn't it? BUY IT. BUY IT HERE. Buy it for everyone you know this Christmas. And when you've got it in your hands (wash them first please, it's very pretty), open it (carefully!) and head straight to the back, where you'll see my name in black and white (among my colleagues, of course). Then pour yourself a cuppa and read the rest of it. It's a right treat.

Londonist Mapped, available now on Amazon, and in all good bookshops.

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Afternoon tea review: Board games at One Warwick Park

Ok, I'll admit it; this afternoon tea thing is becoming a bit of an obsession now. But considering how much it normally costs, what's a girl to do when she sees one advertised for £16? Call up your partner in crime and get yourself booked in of course.

The tea in question was a board games themed afternoon tea at One Warwick Park in Tunbridge Wells, to celebrate the launch of the new Tunbridge Wells Monopoly. Although the £16 price sounded too good to be true, it was indeed correct (or you could pay £22 for prosecco or £25 for champagne, but #driving). 

The venue's a bit of an odd one, being split across two different buildings, but having arrived in the wrong one, a kind chap on reception escorted us to the right place, a light, airy and modern (and at 2pm on a Sunday, almost entirely empty) restaurant. 

Our food arrived almost immediately, a traditional afternoon tea stand with sandwiches on the bottom, scones on the middle and cakes on the top. The sandwiches were fine, the scones smaller than expected (which actually came as a relief when the inevitable afternoon tea fatigue set in). The jam was a highlight though, one of the sweetest, juiciest I've ever tasted.

On to the all-important cake layer, where our little grey cells were given as much of a workout as our jaws. This is where the board games theme came into play, and although some of it had been explained to us by the waitress, we'd forgotten by the time we'd worked our way up. 

The battenberg is clearly supposed to be a chess board, and the raspberry jelly cubes (thankfully not Turkish delight) were probably meant to be dice. We assigned the chocolate cups the roll of draughts pieces, leaving the macarons a mystery. Those iced biscuits had us puzzling for ages, turning them upside down to figure out if the writing said 'O U P' or 'D M O', neither of which meant anything to us. It was only hours later, back at home, that it clicked; OWP. One Warwick Park. Altogether, a solid selection of cakes, the standout being those chocolate tarts which were a lot richer than they looked.

Top points to One Warwick Park for service, cost and value. Although the board games afternoon tea was limited edition and has now finished, One Warwick Park offers a regular, permanent afternoon tea for the same price. Don't worry guys, it's on my list.

L'Amore restaurant, One Warwick Park hotel, 1 Warwick Park, Tunbridge Wells, TN2 5TA.

See also:

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

In praise of adventures

Five years ago today, I did something really brave, if I may say so myself. I got on a plane and flew to South Africa, where I spent two weeks on my own.

I say that like it was a spontaneous thing. It really wasn't. It took months of planning. Months of saving. Months of dithering. Months of anxious phone calls to the guys at Real Gap who dealt patiently with each and every one of my amateur, ridiculous questions.

 But, at the end of it all, it was the first time I'd flown on my own. It was the first time I'd been anywhere as culturally different as South Africa. Heck, it was the first time I'd even been to Africa - or to anywhere in the Southern Hemisphere for that matter. And I survived. Not only that, I thrived.

I made new friends, both human and not-so-human. I learnt how to haggle. I got an insight into modern African culture. I learnt more about how other people live.

I was 21 years old when I did that. I'd graduated from uni four months previously. I'd been hopping around various short-term jobs and internships, looking for a break into journalism (little did I know that I had another 14 months of that ahead of me before landing a permanent job). Now, at the age of 26, I can't imagine doing something like that. I'd love to, but I've always got an excuse ready; I can't get the time off work. That's too much money to spend on two weeks. That 21 year old seems like a different person

But if 21 year old me can do it, 26 year old me definitely can. 26 year old me definitely should. Why am I writing this here? I'm making a public promise to myself - that way I can't renege on it - to be more spontaneous. To do more things. To not let the what-ifs hold me back.

Here's to more adventures.

Monday, 30 October 2017

The whole picture: October 2017

Miss my September round-up? Catch up here.

What I've done in October

Freshest in my mind as I write this is my three-day trip to the Lake District with a couple of friends for a hen do. It wasn't your usual hen do, consisting instead of cottages and lakes, long muddy walks and autumn leaves, home cooked meals and whisky by a roaring fire. I returned to London feeling so relaxed, I can only imagine what a full week would have done to me. Suffice to say the Lake District is firmly on my list for a longer visit in future.

I also took the opportunity to visit Knole Park, a National Trust property not far from where I live. It's something I want to do more of - so many people focus on exotic holidays abroad, despite having seen very little of their own country, or even their own county. The house itself is beautiful, and the deer roaming free in the grounds are an added bonus - and autumn is by far the best time to visit this Kentish jewel.

But I think the most bizarre event of my October was my evening at the London Dungeon. It was the press launch of both the London Dungeon's Halloween special Necropolis railway, and of Krispy Kreme's Halloween doughnut range.

To cut a long story short, I found myself on a tour of the Dungeon with Tom Daley, clinging onto a friend for dear life in the scary bits (that Ripper bit, though!) and carrying home a (thankfully not-life sized) coffin full of doughnuts on the train.

What I've eaten in October

At this point it would be easier to list what I haven't eaten this month. A shocking total of three afternoon teas is top of the list, including an afternoon tea for fussy eaters like me, a somewhat disappointing Alice in Wonderland themed tea, and a board game themed afternoon tea to celebrate the launch of Tunbridge Wells Monopoly (full blog post about this one to follow).

Onto the savoury, and my love affair with buffalo chicken really intensified this month. Shortly after declaring the buffalo chicken burger at Meat Mission to be the best in London, my decision was thrown into disarray by this offering at Brewdog. I'm still suffering split loyalties to be honest. Guess I'll have to go back and try them both again...

For work, I tried the new vegan and veggie menu (I'm neither) at American chain The Diner. The overall opinion was decidedly average, but the extent of The Diner's veggie and vegan options is impressive.

My favourite slurp of the month was the enchanting Harry Potter cocktail menu at the Booking Office bar in St Pancras. It ties in with the British Library's new Harry Potter exhibition, but if you want to just sit at the bar and get tipsy in a magical kind of way, that's OK too. Top tip: grab yourself a bar seat, watch them whip up your drinks, and order yourself some bar snacks to soak up that absinthe.

Perhaps I'm finally growing up, but I can finally see the appeal of paying a bit extra for a drink to sit in a serene and impressive setting like this, rather than doing battle with the masses in happy hour at Be At One. For an extra dose of ooooh, order the Camouflage Coupette and watch the candy floss disappear as your pour in the potion.

Talking of playing with food, brunch at Beyond The Grounds in Tonbridge consisted of a delectable stack of pancakes, and this DIY hot chocolate.

The Lake District mainly consisted of delicious and warming home cooked food, but on the the last day we ventured out for breakfast at Granny Dowbekin's, a tearooms/cafe in Pooley Bridge. At this point, the luxury hot chocolate (whipped cream, marshmallows, Maltesers, solid chocolate spoon) had been talked up to me for two days at this point, so it would have been rude not to. I followed it up with a Full English and was good for nothing expect lazing in front of the fire for the rest of the day.

Oh, and then there was the Fireball, but that's another story for another day.

What's coming up

I've not currently got much planned for November, which makes a pleasant change. The main event is a trip up to the top of London's rarely-opened BT Tower - watch this space for pictures. I should definitely get some exercise in at some point if the above food intake is anything to go by too.

Follow me on InstagramTwitter and Facebook to keep up to date with next month's antics as they happen.

Saturday, 28 October 2017

London's best buffalo chicken: BrewDog

Guys, we've got a problem. After months of rigorous testing and dedicated tasting, I recently declared Meat Mission's buffalo chicken burger to be the best buffalo chicken in London.

I, erm, may have been wrong.

I was discussing buffalo chicken with my colleague, the inimitably whimsical Will, who declared Brewdog to have the best buffalo chicken in London (I was sceptical), and dictated that our next lunch meeting be held there so that he could prove it.

Trouble was, this conversation took place in a pub. On a Friday night. By Monday morning, Will had forgotten that we'd even had the conversation. By Wednesday, he was reneging on his BrewDog declaration. By the time we were seated in a booth in BrewDog Shoreditch the following Friday lunchtime, he was making all sorts of mutterings about being drunk when he tried it, and it probably not being as good as he remembered it. After a week of anticipating this burger, he was stamping all over my dreams (and those of the other four people we'd dragged along to settle the argument).

At this point, the burgers made an entrance to resolve the situation. You smell them before you see them, that intense, vinegary smell getting your tastebuds tingling with anticipation. The burger is served with a full on meat knife stabbed through it, which seems a little OTT at first - until you try to get your gnashers around the entire offering in one go, at which point it becomes entirely necessary.

The balance of flavours and textures is spot on, the intensity of the buffalo sauce matched perfectly with the blue cheese dressing, and the crispy chicken bouncing off the soft burger bun. Be warned though: things get messy. Don't wear light colours, be prepared to wear a bib, and stock up on napkins before you get stuck in.

The portion size here is ideal (get a portion of fries on the side), leaving us feeling full, but not so stuffed that we were waddling down the street afterwards. It feels a more satisfactory meal than that at Meat Mission, and the sauce is that bit more intense in flavour, which is why I'm giving it the edge.

Rating: 9/10

It'll be pretty damn hard to beat this one, but I'm not giving up the dream that there's even better buffalo chicken out there somewhere.

BrewDog, various London and UK locations.

Do you know of a better buffalo chicken burger than this in London? Let me at it (let me know about it in the comments, or tweet me).

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

On using special occasions to confuse children

I've been doing a lot of thinking recently, which is never safe. This particular thinking session was triggered by the assault of Halloween and Christmas products in the shops at the moment, and the firework displays which began a month in advance of fireworks night. It seems that on these special occasions, we ditch all our beliefs and inhibitions - fine for adults, but somewhat confusing for children. Think about it:


What we tell them the rest of the year:
  • Always be yourself
  • Be a good person
  • Don't take sweets from strangers
  • Don't go knocking on strangers' doors
  • Don't do anything that might get you arrested
  • Don't waste food
What we tell them on Halloween:
  • Pretend to be someone else, preferably someone really bad
  • Knock on strangers' doors after dark, asking for sweets
  • If they don't give you sweets, egg their house or cover their car with toilet roll
  • Waste a whole pumpkin that could feed a family for a week by chopping it up to make a lantern


What we tell them the rest of the year:
  • Don't take presents from strangers
  • Don't talk to strangers
  • We're not going to bribe you to do as you're told
  • Sweets and chocolate are occasional treats, not everyday food
  • Drinking alcohol is bad
Sure, invite this guy into your house while you're sleeping.

What we tell them at Christmas:
  • Go and sit on that strange, bearded man's lap while we take a photo
  • Write him a letter inviting him into our house while we're asleep. Perhaps feed him with a mince pie or two while he's here
  • Do as you're told or Santa won't come
  • Have some chocolate everyday for a month, in the build up to a day when you'll eat more chocolate than you do in the rest of the year combined
  • Sit and watch while Grandma gets tiddly on sherry

Fireworks Night

We're going to celebrate a massive terrorism plot which would have wiped out the constitutional epicentre of our country.

(Pedant's note: I know we're not celebrating the actual terrorism plot, rather the fact that it was stopped, but surely No Terrorism is the very baseline at which a country should exist - a sensitive topic at present, I know - rather than something to celebrate?).

The Tooth Fairy

The tooth fairy probably doesn't look like this, but why risk it?
Where do I start? You're basically encouraging kids to sell off parts of their bodies from a young age. From a tooth, it's a slippery slope to a kidney, a limb, and finally, a soul. To the devil.

New Year and birthdays

Another year closer to death, son.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

London's best buffalo chicken: Meat Mission

I've tried and tried, I just can't get a decent photo of it.
This is it. I'm finally doing what I've been threatening to do for ages; blogging about London's best buffalo chicken. This is more than just a food review; it's a passion project. I honestly think I might have found my life's true calling. My mouth's watering just thinking about it.

Without further ado, let me introduce the delight that currently sits at the top of my London's Best Buffalo Chicken league table: the Buffalo Chicken Burger at Meat Mission.

This was the burger that first awoke my passion for buffalo chicken, when I tried it on a work lunch. It's a five minute walk from the office (in a former church nonetheless, a history it plays on in its decor). The location was pretty handy until the day I clocked that they do takeaway - my bank balance and my figure took a hit that week, and neither have yet recovered.

 Structurally, it's pretty standard as these things go; a burger bun, deep fried chicken, shredded lettuce, red onions, the buffalo sauce and the blue cheese sauce. Nothing fancy, but it doesn't need to be.

What makes this one is the sauce - a really intense, vinegary, tingly buffalo sauce, balanced perfectly with the creamy blue cheese. Anywhere else, I'd take the lettuce out and eat it separately (I have a thing about rabbit food polluting the pure unhealthiness of a burger), but in this case, to remove the lettuce would risk remove part of that oh-so-delicious sauce with it, and that's just not a risk I'm willing to take. You can't taste the onions at all, which suits me just fine.

Rating: 8/10

'But if it's so good', I hear you cry, 'why not a 10/10?' The presentation of the burger leaves a lot to be desired. I don't expect silver service and a linen tablecloth, but a plate wouldn't go amiss. Service is always prompt, the staff (sorry, 'Burgerettes') always chatty, but your food is served on a metal tray - copable if there's just a couple of you, more problematic if there's a group of you. Cutlery is a no, and napkins come in the form of kitchen roll plonked on the end of the table (trust me, you're going to need a lot of it when the sauce starts running down your arm).

I've always have the buffalo chicken burger when I go to Meat Mission (which really isn't a lot, despite what you've just read), but this time the waiter recommended I try the Monkey Fingers next time. It's basically strips of that delicious, wonderful chicken, without the bun and the vegetables to slow you down. Sounds like a no-brainer really.

Meat Mission, 15 Hoxton Market, N1 6HG. I believe the same burger is available at branches of Meat Liquor too.

Do you know of a better buffalo chicken burger than this in London? Let me at it (let me know about it in the comments, or tweet me).

Saturday, 14 October 2017

The beauty of Knole Park in autumn

The wonderful thing about the National Trust is that whatever time of year it is, and whatever mood you're in, there's somewhere to visit, be it strolling though lush, green gardens in Spring, or taking shelter in sweeping country houses in winter. For me, autumn is all about Knole, a deer park and former archbishop's palace in Sevenoaks, Kent.

As the temperature drops and the leaves turn, Knole becomes Kent's answer to London's Richmond Park. Deer roam the medieval parkland, their antlers silhouetted against the misty hills, their hooves crunching across the orange leaves. You'll know where the deer are - just follow the crowds.

The house itself watches over it all nonchalantly, safe in the knowledge that sooner or later, all visitors stop focusing on the deer, and pay all their attention to its own splendour. It's hard not to - it was built to impress. The palatial front gives way to a tidy courtyard, a overlooked by a Gatehouse and a clock tower, iced with a well-kept lawn and finished off with a couple of sculptures.

Through the clock tower gate is another, smaller courtyard, which, bizarrely, put me in mind of Marrakech's Bahia Palace. I don't know why - there's far less marble and far more mounted deer antlers here. At this point, you can visit the 'Showrooms' - rooms full of rare furniture and impressive artworks. At the time of our visit, some of the Showrooms were closed for renovations (details of which were shown in a recent Channel 5 programme.

It'd been years since I've been to Knole (around 2007, confused French exchange student in tow) and there's a new addition. The Gatehouse is now open to the public - or at least, to members of the public willing to climb the three-story spiral, stone staircase. The tower was lived in by a reluctant heir to Knole until 1940. The first floor bedroom and second floor music room are open to visitors, but of course the main event here is that view from the roof:

Sevenoaks isn't known for its skyscrapers, but you will catch a glimpse of Sevenoaks School's rugby posts in the near distance. Other than that, it's all about those parkland views, another reason why autumn is the best time to visit, when the trees exhibit their full spectrum of colours.

It's free to walk in the deer park, and enter the Courtyard, Conservation Studio and Orangery. You'll have to pay to enter the Showrooms and Gatehouse, but the money will no doubt go back into the current conservation project going on in the Showrooms.

Knole House and Park, Sevenoaks, Kent, TN15 0RP