Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Interesting Things To Do In Kent This Month: February 2018

Hever Castle snowdrop days
Image: Hever Castle

1 February: Harry Potter Book Night, Maidstone

Calling all Potter fans: Waterstones in Maidstone is one of many venues across the UK hosting a Harry Potter Book Night with free games and activities on a wizarding theme. Alright it's aimed at kids, but adults, it's probably worth begging, borrowing or stealing a child for the night if you don't have your own.

2 February: New burlesque night, Tunbridge Wells

This one caught my eye on Twitter: a new cabaret and burlesque night is livening up Tunbridge Wells, with music from swing trio The Dad Pack and a performance from burlesque artiste Lulu Vesper on opening night. Ooh la la.

10 February onwards: Snowdrop walks, Hever

Hever Castle snowdrops
Image: Hever Castle

See in spring in the glorious grounds of Hever Castle, which has been laced with 70,000 snowdrop bulbs of varying colours. Wander your way through the floral carpet, or take a longer walk around the perimeter of the lake.

10-18 February: Vintage Valentine's tea, Hurst Green

Merriments Gardens vintage afternoon tea
Photo: Merriments Gardens
This one tips over into East Sussex rather than Kent, but it tickled my fancy for afternoon tea so I'm allowing it. Merriments Gardens (excellent name!) is serving up a vintage themed afternoon tea for Valentine's Day, with sandwiches, scones and cakes served up on vintage china. One for the Instagrammers, me thinks. Note that the gardens themselves don't reopen until March - this is all about the food.

15 February: Fish and chip train, Tunbridge Wells

Spa Valley Railway Tunbridge Wells
Image: Spa Valley Railway
You'd struggle to find a more British event than this; a fish and chip lunch on a steam train. It's one of the Spa Valley Railway's themed trips, running from Tunbridge Wells out to Eridge and back again, with your lunch served to you at your seat - followed up by ice cream. If you can't make it this time round, the event is repeated semi-regularly.

18 February: Snowdrop Sunday, Sevenoaks

I flippin' love flowers, so here's another chance to see this year's snowdrops, this time at Great Comp Garden in Platt near Sevenoaks. This place takes its snowdrops very seriously, with a plant fair where galanthophiles (snowdrop collectors to you) can get their hands on varieties of the plant. If you're less serious about snowdrops, you can still wander through the garden and see them at their peak, along with hellebores and other February flowerers.

24 February onwards: Rye Bay Scallop Week, Rye

Rye Bay Scallops Week 1066 Country
Image: 1066 Country

Again, this one's slightly further afield, and it's one for the foodies among you. Rye Bay Scallop Week is an annual celebration of seafood with special meals, cookery demos, markets, live entertainment and quizzes, all around the humble scallop. 

About these listings: These are just a selection of the more interesting and unusual events taking place in and around Kent this month. I select events for inclusion based on what I find interesting myself, as I hope these will interest you too. I'm based in West Kent, so geographically they're centred around this area - although I do chuck the occasional further-afield event in if I think it sounds interesting enough to warrant it. Got a suggestion for a inclusion in future event listings? Contact me.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

The whole picture: January 2018

Catch up with my December round-up, and take a look back at my 2017.
Rochester Castle
Not my new abode, unfortunately.

What I've done in January

Well that's 1/12 of 2018 over, and in the true January spirit of being broke and going into hibernation, it doesn't feel like much has happened. I've made headway on approximately half of my 2018 to-do list. I've tackled the running by running a couple of miles on a few different nights, and although I'm not at the 10k stage yet, I'm getting there.

In an additional flurry of fitness optimism, I've signed up to Vertical Rush. If you're not familiar with what that is, you can find out more (and have a laugh at my expense).

Where I've been in January

Topes Restaurant in a wonky building in Rochester High Street

My big trip this month was to Rochester. When I say 'big', I'm talking big by January standards - it's only an hour away on the train, far enough to feel like a proper day trip, but close enough to spend four hours on a Sunday wandering around and still be home in time for a Sunday roast. My motivation for going was to tick off the 'visit a new place each month' part of my 2018 plan, and I'm already glad I wrote that plan out and shared it with the world, otherwise I may well have been tempted to stay in bed instead.

Other than that, I've been lugging my trust camera around London for run-ins with Lumiere and Winter Lights, two excellent free light festivals that went some way into lifting the gloom out of January. I also saw my first proper improv comedy show at The Comedy Store in Leicester Square. I went in feeling dubious and came out converted, my ribs aching.

What I've eaten in January

Salted caramel donut freakshake at Maxwell's Covent Garden, London

As I write this, my most recent food adventure was a return trip to Maxwell's in Covent Garden, where I finally had one of their salted caramel freakshakes. It's an improvement on the vile Unicorn freakshake they were serving up last year, but (top tip!) there are better freakshakes to be had at BRGR.CO in Soho.

Sticking with the sweet tooth theme, the Charlie and the Chocolate Factory afternoon tea at One Aldwych was something of a disappointment, failing to deliver on the quality, quantity and substance fronts, which is impressive in itself.

A perk of the job presented itself in the form of the chocolate fondue at Jaz and Jul's Chocolate House in Islington, which I was tasked with filming for a short video. Heaps of strawberries and marshmallows, and one chocolate-dipped scarf later, I waddled back to the office on something of a sugar high.

I've also revisited a couple of local places, including the excellent Basil in Tonbridge (go for the chocolate flapjack, you won't regret it) and an extremely satisfying sausage sandwich brunch at Teal in Hildenborough, a highly-underrated former roadside diner which has been transformed into an inviting upmarket cafe.

What's coming up

You'll (hopefully) notice me upping my game significantly on this blog in the next few months. I'm really keen to grow it in terms of number of posts, and hopefully, followers. If you like what I'm doing, please share it with someone else. If you have comments or suggestions, please let me know in the comment, chat to me on social media (details below), or contact me.

Other than that, the next big plan is a two-week trip to Cuba, split between Havana and Varadero. If you've got any tips for either of these locations, hit me up with them.

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

See also - what I got up to in:

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

I've done something rather silly

When will I learn? When I overhear my name in the office, when will I learn to keep quiet and keep my head below the parapet? When will I learn that when I hear the phrase "That sounds like something for Laura", I should find out what "that" is before agreeing that yes, it does indeed sound like something for Laura?*

What I've done, is I've signed up to take part in Shelter's Vertical Rush in March. That's a run up the 932 stairs of Tower 42, a skyscraper in the City of London. Here it is:
That one in the middle - that's the blighter.
Looks nice and shiny and high, doesn't it? Lovely. What's more, I've signed up to do that hefty fight against gravity less than a week after I come back from a lovely (hopefully) relaxing all-inclusive holiday. To say that I won't be in the peak of my physical fitness would be an understatement.

The plot thickens. Not only have I agreed to do this, but I've agreed to do this while being filmed for a video for Londonist. That video will be shared on the Facebook and Twitter pages, which have a combined following of more than 2 million people. 2 MILLION people could see my suffering.

That's gotta be worth a couple of quid, right? If you reckon so, please consider donating to my fundraising page. All of the money raised will go straight to homelessness charity Shelter. Thanks in advance for anything you're able to donate.

*I should add that my colleagues in no way bullied me into this, although I maintain that anything requiring physical exertion, height or adrenaline finds its way onto my desk a lot quicker than it finds its way onto anyone else's.

Monday, 22 January 2018

Lumiere may be over, but Winter Lights lives on

The fantastic bundle of colourful, illuminated joy that is Lumiere London may be over (come back soon - don't leave it so long next time) but that doesn't mean it's lights out for London. There's another free light festival with more than 30 installations going on in the capital until Saturday.

Canary Wharf Winter Lights takes place around the Canary Wharf Estate each year. It's not traditional tourist territory which is why fewer people have heard of it, but the standard of light installations is still impressive.

It's worth downloading yourself a map from here before you head out, although the whole event is much better signposted than in previous years.

I'm not saying it's worth visiting every installation - some of them, especially the smaller ones in windows in the shopping centre, aren't worth going out of your way for.

But, it's a lot more compact that Lumiere, meaning it's possible to see it all in one night, with plenty of cafes, bars and restaurants along the way.

Anyone for Tetris? Some of these photos don't do justice to the installations themselves, especially the one below. You'll find these shimmering orbs in the corridor of installations in the basement of Crossrail Place. They're pretty hypnotic, well worth seeing.

Here's a video I made of opening night for Londonist:

Canary Wharf Winter Lights 2018 is completely free and takes place 16-27 January 2018.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Afternoon tea review: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at One Aldwych

Things are off to a whimsical start at Charlie and the Chocolate Factory afternoon tea, as we're presented with menus adorned with doodles of Dahl's own characters. The Salt family and co. inform us of the feast we're about to tuck into, including quite the array of teas. The cocoa tea turns out to be be a fine choice, smelling deliciously of chocolate but retaining a subtle taste which works as the ideal palette cleanser between courses. The hot chocolate, although fine, is nothing special.

That sets the tone for the entire meal. There's no theatricality behind the meal, no dedication to the theme beyond those menus. It's Roald Dahl for goodness sake, Willy Wonka - the master of theatricality. The Alice Tea Party afternoon tea may have left something to be desired in terms of service, but at least it committed to the theme with playing cards and hatter's hats strewn around the room, a pearl necklace draped across the sugar bowl. Here though, nothing.

Our first course arrives, a selection of savouries consisting of two sandwiches each, a brioche roll and a mini quiche. The sandwiches and roll are fine, nothing standout, and the quiche is a warm, tasty mouthful, but highlight of this course are the cheese scones served with bacon jam. We're disappointed that the food hasn't arrived on the traditional tiered stand, but when the next course arrives, the reason for this becomes clear.

We're delivered a shared bread basket full of mixed baked goodies. The plain scones are served with the traditional cream and jam, and an added bonus of lemon curd, which I enjoyed but my friend found too bitter. The banana and walnut mini loaf cakes also pass the test - fruit cake isn't really my thing, but it's tasty nonetheless. Highlight though, are the chocolate financiers (brownies, basically), little teardrop shaped droplets of gooey, chocolatey heaven.

And then we're on to the final flourish, the sweet course. Served on a podium, we've got; chocolate and caramel milkshake, candy floss, chocolate eggs filled with cheesecake, a blueberry and white chocolate cake pop and a bubblegum panna cotta.

Ok, the presentation's cute (yes, we both consider stowing those mini glass bottles away in our handbags until we think the better of it), but there's still nothing 'Charlie' about it. The chocolate and caramel milkshake is delish, but things peak there. The panna cotta is sweet and inoffensive, the cake pop fails in texture and tries to overcompensate in taste. The candy floss is... well, it's candy floss.

In a flurry of misguided optimism, we leave those chocolate eggs until last. The cheesecake filling is so sweet, we end up scraping it out onto our plates. As it turns out, the filling was all that was masking the fact that it's cheap, nasty chocolate. The eggs remain uneaten (and the chef could learn a thing or two from whoever puts together those delicious white chocolate egg cups at Le Meridien Piccadilly).

Staff are attentive throughout, ensuring we have everything we need, without making us feel hurried. As we reach the end of the meal we realise that although we're not hungry, we don't have the usual post-afternoon tea fullness going on. Quantity-wise, it's not the most satisfying afternoon tea available (pretty lucky, we later realised, as the presentation of the sweet course has been designed to make taking any leftovers home in a doggy bag pretty much impossible - clever).

We're presented with a bill - including an £11 service which isn't shown as optional. Given that the food we've just eaten doesn't feel worth anything like £88, we begrudgingly pay the £99 total, not realising until we get home later and check the menu online that it's optional. Had we known that at the time, we certainly wouldn't have coughed up.

Bottom line: this afternoon tea isn't worth anything like £100 for two people, and we're not the only one that think it. As we're poring over the bill, the woman on the table next to us confides that her and her husband feel they've paid way over the odds for the afternoon tea they've just had with their two children too. Perhaps that's the theatricality we were waiting for - your money disappearing in a puff of smoke.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory afternoon tea at One Aldwych Hotel. From £44 per person.

Check out some of the other afternoon teas that I've loved and loathed:

Friday, 19 January 2018

London Is Alight For Lumiere

Those of you who know me know I take Lumiere London seriously. Very seriously. The free light festival began last night, bigger than previously, now stretching south of the river. It covers six different zones this year; Fitzrovia, Mayfair, West End, Victoria, South Bank and King's Cross. My 9.3 mile wander through central London's streets took me 4.5 hours, and never has a McDonald's tasted as good as the one I had at Waterloo station at the end.

Happily, it was nowhere near as crowded as opening night last time round -- the main pressure points, predictably, were Leicester Square and Oxford Circus. The staff were also a lot friendlier, more helpful and less aggressive than Lumiere London 2016, which made for a nicer atmosphere all round.

Here are a few of my favourite bits from each area:


I eased myself in gently - Fitzrovia only had four installations. None of them particularly stand out, although a friend tells me that later in the evening, a giant ping pong game was being projected onto the Imagination Building for A-Bit Immersive, and people were having a lot of fun with the interactive cube Control No Control in Whitfield Gardens.


Things liven up a bit in Mayfair. Those light-up benches are back (and they're also in Canary Wharf for Winter Lights at the moment). I managed to catch the roving Umbrella Project performance in Brown Hart Gardens, where you'll also find some neon bikes and some octopus-type creatures made from recycled plastic bottles.

Illumaphonium is an interactive giant xylophone-type structure crying out to be played (one to visit if you're taking kiddies along), and Impulse, a series of light-up, motion-activated seesaws on South Molton Street, is a lot of fun too.

Was That A Dream? asks the title of the installation in Berkeley Square, apt for the blink-and-you'll-miss-it wire bird perched in the trees. It's pretty, but don't bother risking your life in the traffic to get into the square itself - you get just as good view from the perimeter pavements.

West End

On opening night, Oxford Circus was underwhelming, as that giant, breakway ball was absent due to high winds. The projections onto the surrounding buildings are still pretty, but underwhelming compared to Oxford Circus's 2016 offering.

Unfortunately, I didn't manage to track down Harmonic Portal, which should be in or near St James's Church somewhere, or Flamingo Flyway, which should be in Chinatown. It'll come as a surprise to no-one that Tracey Emin's offering is underwhelming, and seeing it in real life offers no benefit over taking a quick glance at photos of it in the publicity bumph.

The Aquarium and stick men are back from 2016, but if you want to see something new, I'd recommend Supercube in St James's Market. The cube made from glass jars elicits much excitement when the gathered crowds realise that one of the jars is a camera, and mini versions of themselves are being projected into the jars.

Do take time to visit Leicester Square though - it's much the same as last time, and one of the busiest points, but has taken on more of a wildlife theme, with fox, badger and rabbit lanterns positioned round the statue of Shakey Will.

Westminster and Victoria

If you don't spot the art on St-Martin-In-The-Fields from afar, you're unlikely to spot it from close-up. The very top of the spire has been adorned with a neon pink ladder, which can be seen from Seven Dials, South Bank and Waterloo. Across the road, Trafalgar Square is home to one of my favourite installations of the whole festival, a flock of dancing white balloons, swaying around the fountains.

The other three installations in this section are out on a limb, but this is a limb well worth going out on. Westminster Abbey's frontage has a similar colourful projection as two years ago. Further into Victoria, a 20 storey+ building, currently under construction wrap, has projections of huge figures of people climbing it. Perhaps I was hungry and a little light-headed by this point, but the sheer scale of it made me feel a little dizzy.

Just a bit further up the road at Westminster Cathedral is another of my favourites of the whole festival. In the square outside the Cathedral, a giant light-up bullseye type installation made of plastic bottles is powered by members of the public cycling on static bicycles - the more power being generated, the more rings light up.

South Bank

This area is new to Lumiere London for 2018, and is a bit underwhelming. On the advice of a colleague, I made time to visit The Wave, a tunnel best described as a light-up giant Toblerone. Of course, so many people want photos with it, it's hard to actually get a decent shot, but it's impressive to look at nonetheless. I wouldn't bother with anything else in this area unless you're really killing time.

King's Cross

I finally got round to visiting King's Cross on the Saturday night, and as with last time, it was busy. The highlight of the area is the installation in Granary Square, which forms a blue haze over the area. If you stand back and watch for long enough, you begin to feel like you're observing the world's slowest rave. Trippy.

Aether next to Central St Martins is equally as trippy, a fast moving projection of dots with an accompanying bass hum that goes right through your ribs. My other favourite in this area were these illuminated watering cans down next to the gasholders - simple, but very effective, with a huge crowd gathered round.

A few tips for Lumiere London 2018

  • The artworks have temporarily appeared on Google Maps, which is handy for finding your way around. But, bear in mind that some of the pin locations aren't as accurate as they should be, and the map doesn't show you what the artwork should look like, which is why it's a good idea to...
  • Get yourself a Lumiere map. Apparently there's a free one of the Visit London app, but if you're like me and prefer to get inside a good old paper map, you can download and print one here for a donation. The download also includes photos of each installation so you know what you're looking for at each point, and if you're strapped for time, you know which ones you're not fussed about seeing.
  • Some of the installations marked on the map are permanent, rather than special Lumiere attractions - save time by avoiding these. Shaida Walking and The Plug and Bulbs are permanent in the Carnaby area, the Thames Pulse at the Mondrian on South Bank is always there, and I have it on good authority that Bough 1 at Oxo Tower is also permanent. They're also counting the London Eye as part of Lumiere, which is a bit cheeky.
Lumiere London is on 18-21 January 2018 and is completely free. Follow me on Instagram for more Lumiere photos over the coming days.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Book review: Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough

I don't really do book reviews on this blog anymore. Instead, I'm aiming to chronicle every book I read in 2018 over on Instagram, with a mini review of each one there too. But sometimes a book comes along that's just too good...

I was going to be bold and say if you read one book in 2018, make it this. Then I read the last few pages, and would like to say this instead: if you read one more book in your life, make it this.

It's gripping throughout, the same story told from the point of view of a husband, wife, and... well, let's call her a family friend. Their three stories don't match up, and you'll be trying to work out who's lying and why. It'll infiltrate your life, you'll be puzzling over it non-stop. Think Gone Girl meets Stepford Wives.

Then, it all goes Inception (remember that film, with all the different layers of dreams?). I didn't like the film, and normally I struggle to enjoy supernatural/fantasy elements of books - in this case, lucid dreaming- but this toes the line perfectly between making you think and getting too complicated to follow. You might find yourself rereading a couple of pages, but it'll be from sheer disbelief rather than confusion.

There's one heck of a twist at the end... and just when you've recovered from that, Pinborough lobs an even bigger twist at her readers, one which will change everything throughout the whole book you've just finished. I'd be bold enough to say it's the best book ending I've ever read. The book's official hashtag (because that's what books did in 2017) is #wtfthatending, which tells you everything you need to know.

It's rare to find an author who nails both plot and writing style so succinctly. Between Her Eyes has the whole package: a plot that intrigues and entices, keeping you reading until beyond midnight, and well-formed characters, each with their own tone of voice.

I honestly don't know why everyone's making such a fuss about Gone Girl and The Girl On The Train when this far superior domestic thriller is out there on shelves. Do yourself a favour and read it.

TL;DR: Put your life on hold until you've read this in its entirety.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Fed up with being told to stop going to Pret? Yeah, me too

(Four money-saving tips that I've found actually work... because can you even call yourself a blogger if you've never written a post with money-saving tips?)

My friends and I are at that stage of our lives (yep, I feel old just writing that) where we're all desperately trying to save money and make it go further for house deposits, weddings or once-in-a-lifetime trips. I fall in the middle of these; I'm trying to find my own flat, and also trying to see more of the world (next stop: Cuba). Plenty of us are in the same situation, which is why there are so many articles and blog posts out there with money-saving tips. Y'know, things like:
  • Give up buying a coffee on the way to work each morning.
  • Make your own lunch instead of going to Pret every day.
But what if you're already doing these things? My coffee equivalent is a Costa hot chocolate, something I buy maybe twice a year on my way to work, on days when it's so cold I need the heat of that ridged maroon cup just to defrost my fingers. I buy my lunch on average once a month - the rest of the time it's sarnies and cup-a-soups all the way.

I know plenty of you are in the same boat, so I've shared four tips for saving money that have actually worked for me. I'm not claiming that they're original or groundbreaking, but they're all things that I've managed to fit easily into my day-to-day (or month-to-month) life.

Pay yourself

You'll need more than one bank account and a regular income for this one - the one you get paid into, and the one you're saving money into. Set up a standing order so that a certain amount of your salary is automatically transferred into your savings the day you get paid. It's gone before you even knew it was there, so you won't miss it (too much...). 

Tidy up your account

This is something I've been doing for a couple of months now, and is the idea that's saved me the most money so far. Last thing each evening, I log into my bank account and see how much money is in there, then round it off to the nearest £5 by transferring the money into a savings account. So if I have £453.36 at the end of the day, that £3.36 goes into my savings. If you're feeling particularly flush, round to the nearest £10 instead. If towards the end of the month funds are getting a little low and you think you might need the cash, hold off transferring for a few days.

Pay for things in cash

Not always easy these days when it feels like everything is bought online. Once you've worked out how much you need each month for rent, bills, travel, food and all the other basics, plus how much you'd ideally like to be putting in your savings, give yourself a weekly budget for other things. That's meals out, trips to the pub, buying things in shops... all that has to come out of the weekly budget.

Yeah, my piggy bank is a campervan, what of it?
Once you've set your weekly budget, go to a cash machine (remember those?) and take it out in cash. I do this on a Sunday night or a Monday morning so I can see in my purse exactly how much I've got left for the week. Plus, handing over cash to pay for things makes you think twice about spending it - waving a plastic card at a card reader never has the same effect, somehow.
If you've got money left, choose whether to roll it over so you've got more to spend next week (a good way to entice yourself into saving up for medium-sized purchases such as clothes) or put it into your savings.

Write everything down

Find yourself a notebook or journal (the prettier the better - Paperchase has some corkers at the moment) and start writing down everything you spend - every single penny. The big things, like rent, bills and the food shop, and the smaller things like that cheeky chocolate bar or Pepsi you pick up on the way home some nights. Make yourself write everything down as soon as you buy it, even if that's outside the shop on the pavement in the rain.

Usually when people recommend this, it's so that you can see exactly what you're spending where and make cutbacks accordingly (I refer you back to the whole buying-a-coffee-a-day thing). But when I tried this a couple of years ago, I found it such a faff to carry the notebook and pen everywhere, and to be whipping it out to record every little thing, that I soon stopped the impulse buys because I just couldn't be bothered with writing them all down.

So there you have it, my top 4 tips for saving money, in a blog post that I hope comes across as helpful rather than patronising. If you've got any other tips that work for you, let us know in the comments below.

Friday, 5 January 2018

An ode to...

You've been in my life for over four years now. You still seem new to me, a bit of a novelty, but at the same time, I can't imagine my life without you.

We had our first fight two months after we met. It was late on Christmas Eve, lashing down with rain, somewhere near Thornton Heath. You seemed to give up, making undecipherable noises - I didn't know what you wanted, or how I could help. We didn't get home until 4am on Christmas morning - a man had to help us back, there's no way you would have made it otherwise.

We've had other ups and downs since. I thought our trip to the New Forest in July 2015 would be the end of us. I was so gentle with you that holiday, treading carefully so as not to push you too far, and it worked - just.

Sometimes I get cross with you, but only because I'm stressed. I don't mean to take it out on you.  Guildford's one-way system has got to be the ultimate relationship test - how many times did we go round in the end?!? If we survived that, I reckon we can survive pretty much anything.

There've been good times too; that time we went to Basingstoke for a wedding. The monkey that took a liking to you at Longleat. Belting out tunes as we whizz round the M25. You take me places I couldn't go otherwise.

I try to look after you, but it's not always easy, especially at this time of year. Some people - one in particular - reckon I should trade you in for a shinier, younger model. But you're my first car, and I'm sentimentally attached to you. I gave you a name - Pepper - on the first day I got you, and although I forget the reasons behind it now, the name itself has stuck.

That Christmas Eve breakdown was stressful at the time, but it makes an excellent story now. I really thought you'd break down again on the way back from the New Forest - I had the radio up so loud just so that I didn't have to hear the awful clunking noise you made. And as for the monkey chewing your aerial... well, that one I was laughing at even at the time.