Wednesday, 30 August 2017

The whole picture: August 2017

August's been a quiet one on the blog, as much as my energy has been focused on other things. Namely, trying to get my deposit back from a rogue landlord from when I still lived in London. It's looking like that one might end up in court so I'll say nothing else about it for now. And so, onto happier things...

What I've done in August

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Elsewhere though, things have busy. I had a lovely day on a canal boat in Guildford, catching up with friends and looking after an adorable cockapoo. We hired the boat from Farncombe Boat House and headed a few miles up the river. We had every sort of weather imaginable from bright sunshine, to hail, thunder and lightning - and we were only on the boat for eight hours. We rounded off the day with a meal at Coal in Basingstoke and a few drinks at Las Iguanas.

Workwise, I've zipwired, tucked into afternoon tea, stumbled across an aeroplane graveyard, been ice karting at Queen's Ice and Bowl, visited London Zoo... and spent one or two hours in the office too.

Books. There have been so many books. I always intend to put a snap of every book I've read on Instagram with a mini-review, but I always forget. Now I'm back commuting to work from Tonbridge everyday, that's at least two hours of reading time a day - I'm averaging three or four books a week #geek. Recommendations for what I should read next in the comments please!

What I've eaten in August

Well, there was that aforementioned afternoon tea, which was pink-themed in aid of the Pink Ribbon Foundation. It was at Bluebird in Chelsea, somewhere I've always wanted to try, but it's just so damn far from a tube station (and that's coming from someone who used to live in south London) that I've never made it before. I'll be honest, I was underwhelmed. The food was good, nothing groundbreaking, but the staff weren't great. One particular waitress had an uncanny ability to go from rudely nonchalant to borderline aggressive within a few seconds, which is quite a skill.

Then there was Coal, the Basingstoke restaurant we headed to after a day on the boat (there are a few other branches dotted around too). It's a Tex-Mex grill style restaurant - burgers, chimichangas, plenty of sides and decent cocktails to boot. We've been a few times and it's always at capacity - book ahead for this one guys.

My two favourite cupcake bakeries in London are Hummingbird Bakery and Primrose Bakery. They're very different in style - Hummingbird is a big, bold, American chain with towering layer cakes, and Primrose Bakery is a far more British equivalent, tucked away in Primrose Hill. Both do excellent cakes, and both featured in my August (rude not to, if you're passing by). What pre-holiday diet?

I finally got round to trying the Unicorn Freakshake at Maxwell's in Covent Garden. I have strong opinions on this trend for unicorn and mermaid food, and that's something I'll come back to in a later blog post. The freakshake was an impressive beast, topped up with various marshmallows and sweets, whipped cream, candy floss (sorry, 'unicorn hair floss' #eyeroll) and goodness knows what else. The actual milkshake liquid though, was vile. Being pink, we expected it to be strawberry flavour, but it was some sort of chemical tasting bubblegum flavour that we both struggled to finish. That said, the salted caramel freakshake sounds delicious, and I'll no doubt be back to try it soon.

Things I've loved in August

I've been trying to steer clear of the shops for financial reasons, but sometimes, these things just happened. I fell for this top in the window of Gap (Disney AND sequins, what's not to like?) but natch, it's for kids.

My Oasis X ZSL collection tiger trainers arrived, and have been firmly glued to my feet ever since (top tip: Oasis shoes tend to come up small - go for a size bigger than you normally would).

The wonder that is Domestic Sluttery (seriously, if you haven't already, sign up for a daily dose of sunshine in your inbox) introduced me to the concept of cross stitch maps. Happily for my bank account they're all sold out at the moment, but I'll be adding it to my Christmas list

Cath Kidston's latest foray into the world of Disney is a brush with Peter Pan. It's a cute collection (launching 21 September), but I've found all of their Disney collabs so far extremely overpriced.

What I've been listening to

Ok, don't expect this as a regular section on these round-ups because I'm *whisper it* just not that into music. That said, two of my favourite artists announced new albums this month, which makes it a Good Month For Music.

First up is the girl the whole music world's been talking about this month; Taylor Swift. Her new single, Look What You Made Me Do, has been a bit of a Marmite issue. This guy actually summed things up quite nicely. I'll hold off saying any more until I hear the rest of the album in November.

Secondly, and equally exciting, Scouting For Girls have also announced a new album, marking their 10th anniversary. It's out a month before T-Swizzle's, so the autumn is looking pretty exciting, music-wise.

What's coming up?

I've got a holiday to look forward to (anyone ever been to Bulgaria, specifically Elenite? Holler in the comments below or let me know on Twitter if you have. I has many questions). Then once I'm back from there, the hunt is on to find myself a flat here in Tonbridge.

I thought my August had been quite a quiet one, but actually, I've packed a lot in. Follow me on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook to keep up to date with next month's antics as they happen.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Rare photos from inside St Paul's Cathedral

This chandelier put me in mind of Beauty and the Beast for some reason...
St Paul's Cathedral is offering photographers a rare treat this summer - a chance to get inside and photograph the world-famous building.

Filming and photography are not allowed inside the building normally, but the cathedral is staying open late for a few evenings. Photography is not only allowed, but is actively encouraged at these events.

I'd been to St Paul's once before, when I was about 8 or 9 years old, but my sole memory of it is the bookmark I got in the shop on the way out. This time round, the whole thing was a lot more opulent than I expected.

A combination of the opulence, the scale, and that old photographers' friend, symmetry, make St Paul's a photographers' paradise. Some people may argue that allowing photography detracts from the experience, but I actually found myself paying more attention to the smaller details than I would have done without my camera. The nave and the crypt are open during these events, but the upper levels including the Whispering Gallery are not.

To be honest, I'm disappointed with how a lot of my photos came out. My camera had been working hard all morning at the London Zoo animal weigh-in (have I ever mentioned how much I love my job?), and I was struggling a bit with the focus.

The inside of that world-famous dome
Want to go to a St Paul's Summer Late yourself? At time of writing , there are only two dates left, and they're very soon (28 and 31 August). Tickets are £10 and advance booking is recommended, although there were people buying tickets on the door when I went. I also overheard a couple of members of cathedral staff saying that they may be doing similar events in the autumn, so keep an eye on the website...

Close-up detail of the organ cabinet.

Peering through the grates in the floor of the nave to the crypt beneath. Once people saw me on the floor, pointing my camera through the gaps, a whole crowd gathered to see what I was looking at. Most were disappointed.

The ceilings are spectacular - thousands of tiny mosaic tiles.

Monday, 21 August 2017

We need to talk about brunch

4pm? Really?
Brunch. The clue's all there in that one word. It's a mash-up of breakfast and lunch, a meal for lazy days and long weekends, when you've stayed in bed a bit too late for breakfast, but are too peckish to hold out until lunchtime.

Unless you've been living under a rock, you'll have noticed that brunch has become a big thing recently, particularly with the avocado-loving millennials of London. Of all the meals, it's the one that I partake in least, and probably the one I have strongest opinions about. So, given that I haven't released my inner old woman for a while, here she is to tell you all the issues she has with these new-fangled brunches.

The length of time

If it's past 1pm, we are well into lunch territory. 4pm is nibbling on the heels of dinner. Yet some London brunches go on until 5pm. If you're going that far, why not call it brunner, cover all the day's three meals in one massive sitting, and be done with it?

1pm is the brunch cut-off time for me - it's late enough to allow for a cheeky extra couple of hours in bed of a weekend, but not so late that you'll be passing out from hunger before you get to the restaurant.

Boozy brunches

Booze: just no
This one stems from the fact that I don't drink alcohol much anyway, but boozy brunches are an absolute no-no for me.

If we're sticking to the proper rules, as outlined above, brunch is over by 1pm. Pre-1pm is not the time for downing bubbly. Pre-1pm is the time for tea, and coffee, and hot chocolate and orange juice. Perhaps a lemonade if it's a special occasion. The thought of anything alcoholic passing my lips before this time physically turns my stomach.

While we're skirting around the topic, many bottomless brunches are only bottomless regarding the booze. The food element of the meal firmly has a bottom on it. I'm more of an eat-as-much-as-you-like than a drink-yourself-stupid kinda girl - where are the bottomless brunches for us, huh? Or even for those of who prefer our soft drinks? Bottomless orange juice - now you're talking.

The things that are served

This is a brunch-themed afternoon tea. Completely different and 100% acceptable
I'm a traditionalist when it comes to brunch. It should consist predominantly of breakfast items - pastries, breads, the sort of things you'd find in a Full English. Perhaps a toastie or panini - anything that'll ease you into the day gently.

Not fried chicken. Not steamed bao buns (I've yet to fully fathom what one of these is, but it doesn't sound like something I want on my plate before 5pm - if at all). Not barbecue pork ribs. Not pizza. Okay, that last one's a lie. Pizza's an any day, any time kinda food. But I stand by the rest of it.

The prices

Yes, yes, London. Yes, yes, hipsters. I know. But restaurants have caught onto this trend for weekend brunches and jacked up their prices accordingly. You're being overcharged, plain and simple. But if it's 2pm and you're tucking into fried chicken and cocktails, what makes it brunch, not lunch? The price, that's what. Save yourself £30 odd and book a table for lunch instead (plenty of restaurants have brunch and lunch sittings running simultaneously). Same food, same booze, different title, one heck of a lot cheaper.

Agree? Disagree? Let me know in the comments below - I'd love to hear some other people's thoughts on brunch.

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Sunday, 20 August 2017

Travel tales: being in the right place at the right time

The recent atrocity in Barcelona reminded me of this piece I wrote several months back, which never got published. I've decided to share it now to show Barcelona - and Las Ramblas specifically - in its best light, both for those who know and love the city, and for those who've never been. Unfortunately, all photos of this particular experience were on the phone I had stolen a few months ago, so you'll have to make do of these snaps, which show the beauty of Barcelona as a whole.

One of my favourite things about travel is the serendipity of it – the being in the right place at the right time to experience a local festival or occasion. In May 2015, I experienced just that.

It was a Monday night, our last night of a long weekend in Barcelona, and to celebrate, we were heading to Arenas for dinner. Arenas, which I had discovered on my trip to Barca the previous year, is a shopping centre next to the Placa d'Espanya roundabout where several of the city's artery roads meet. The building itself is a former bull fighting ring, restored and renovated in around 2008. Its rotund shape, uniform arch windows and intricate brickwork entrance mark it out as something special against the neighbouring mundane office buildings.

The shopping centre’s decent – ideal in fact, if you’re seeking air conditioning or a free public toilet – but nothing special. What is worth a trip is the viewing gallery on the roof. Pay a Euro to the nice man sitting next to the lift by the Metro station and he’ll let you ride in his lift all the way up to the eighth floor, where a 360 degree of Barcelona awaits, courtesy of the open air viewing gallery. The centre of the roof is taken up by a plethora of bars and restaurants, each facing a different direction.

The view from the top, looking south (ish)
I genuinely believe it’s one of the best kept secrets in Barcelona – sure, locals know about it, but it just doesn’t seem to register on the tourist radar. It's rarely mentioned in tourist guides and listicles. Well, you’re hearing it now; skip the cable car and head here instead. It’s a lot cheaper and offers better views over Barcelona and up to Tibidabo beyond.

I digress. This night in May 2015 we did a lap of the viewing gallery before settling on a French brasserie for dinner. The meal passed pleasantly, without a hitch, and we managed to time our departure from the restaurant to coincide with sunset – cue another lap of the viewing gallery in different light. Standing in the southwest section of the roof, overlooking the roundabout – which is a lot sexier than it sounds, this being Barcelona not Croydon – a huge row erupted on the ground a few storeys below us.

Car and motorbike horns were tooting and bipping, even the buses were getting involved. There was no traffic jam though, and this was no angry tooting (I can’t imagine the serene Catalunans doing anything as aggressive as road rage, can you?), but rather rhythmic, celebratory tooting. My rusty Spanish and excellent earwigging allowed me to infer from the gentleman leaming over the railings next to me that it was something to do with football.

Parc de la Ciutadella, in another part of the city. 
We shrugged it off as football fan jubilance at Spain winning a match and thought no more of it as we hopped on the Metro back to the centre of town, emerging at Placa de Catalunya into what can only be described as a joyous cacophony. There were people pouring everywhere, leaving us in little doubt that something special was going on. The sea of football shirts confirmed to us that sport had something to do with it. But they weren’t Spanish national team shirts - they were Barcelona shirts.

By this time it was close to 11pm on a Monday night, and yet families kept emerging, parents with 2, 3, 4 kids in tow, all elated and all wanting to join in the celebration. It was a spectacular scene to witness anyway, but what made it all the more remarkable was the contrast to what we’re used to. In England, most parents would go out of their way to keep their children out of a crowd of football fans – even fans who were celebrating a win – for fear of the alcohol-induced violence that would undoubtedly rear its head.

Here, they were actively bringing their children into the crowd with them, putting them on their shoulders to give them a closer look, buying them flags to wave and party tooters to toot. The few police that we saw, too, were very different to what we’re used to in football crowds- not a riot shield in sight, and they were put to more use giving directions to lost tourists than they were dealing with any trouble.

For almost two hours we sat on a bench in Placa de Catalunya, Barcelona’s equivalent of Trafalgar Square, watching in awe as people poured onto Las Ramblas from all over the city. They were still arriving by the time we left – presumably word got out about the impromptu party. Every so often, the crowd would burst into a spontaneous song. People were hugging strangers. Firecrackers went off every few minutes (at this point it’s worth noting that this was before the terrorist attacks in Paris and Belgium, and that such noises may be received differently now, in light of these events).

The whole thing was quite overwhelming, and a little emotional – and that’s coming from someone who doesn’t give a hoot about football.

Our returning to the hotel was futile – we’d previously been quite smug about getting ourselves a jammy little deal in a guest house right in the centre or Barcelona just round the corner from Placa de Catalunya, but suddenly this wasn’t looking like such a bright idea.

But staying up all night did get me thinking – would it have been the same situation if we’d found ourselves in Madrid and Madrid had won this particular match? Was it just pride in Messi and co. or was it the Catalan pride shining through extra strong?

We were up early the next day to do our final bits of sightseeing before heading to the airport and were stunned at what we found. There was no hint of what had taken place just hours previously – no broken glass, no discarded beer cans, nothing. I’ve seen Camden looking worse on a regular Tuesday morning. Well played Barcelona. Well played.