Sunday, 25 February 2018

Photo diary: a day in Rochester

Rochester in Kent is a small town on the Medway, punching way above its weight with a castle, cathedral and plenty of Dickensian links. I've already shared some of the quirks and unusual sights of Rochester (as well as a cheeky hack for getting there), so here are a few more snaps from the few hours we spent there on a chilly Sunday in January:

Rochester Bridge over the Medway, Kent
The bridge over the Medway between Rochester and Strood is very elaborate and well-decorated - check out the crown above the lamp. Yet it's also a very industrial design, with huge steel spans. Quite the juxtaposition.

Rochester Castle, Kent
You didn't think you'd get away without a shot of the castle, did you? It's extremely square style may look familiar - it was designed by the same monk responsible for the White Tower at the Tower of London. No time to go inside on our visit though...

Rochester Cathedral seen from Rochester Castle
A view of Rochester Cathedral through the walls of the lawn at Rochester Castle.

Cafe in Rochester High Street, Kent
Plenty of cafes and restaurants to please tourists

Cafe in Rochester High Street, Kent
One of the remaining town gates, along with one of the town's many wonky buildings.

Baggins Book Bazaar in Rochester, Kent
Inside Baggins Book Bazaar, which claims to be England's largest second hand bookshop

Architecture on Rochester High Street, Kent
The town is a real architectural mishmash, with buildings from a variety of time periods. 

View down Rochester High Street, Kent
Looking south down Rochester High Street, with many different architectural styles. It reminds me of the lower half of Lewes High Street in East Sussex.
Sweet shop on Rochester High Street, Kent
I can never resist a quirky sweet shop, there's something charming about them. Managed to bag myself a treat while we were there



The Deaf Cat Cafe on Rochester High Street, Kent
The Deaf Cat Cafe on Rochester High Street, apparently named after a... deaf cat, which used to sit with Charles Dickens as he wrote.

The Deaf Cat Cafe on Rochester High Street, Kent
Inside the Deaf Cat Cafe, because we were in need of refreshment. The hot chocolate was indeed yummy, the cookies somewhat less enthralling.


Shops on Rochester High Street, Kent
More Dickensian references on the High Street. You don't often see old-fashioned greengrocer shops anymore - Rochester has a lovely olde worlde charm to it.

Rochester High Street, Kent
No idea what the decor of this distance marker is, but I'm guessing it's nothing to do with Dickens.
Ghostsign on Rochester High Street, Kent
As you get towards the bottom end of the High Street, look up and you''ll see plenty of ghostsigns...


Ghostsign and Charles Dickens mural on Rochester High Street, Kent
...including this one, which is topped off by a more modern mural of Dickens.

Rochester High Street, Kent
The High Street is home to the former French Hospital, now used as mews housing, but a few hints at its past can still be seen
Rochester High Street, Kent
I was charmed by this door. Serious case of door envy and door goals going on.
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Things to do on a daytrip to Rochester in Kent


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Saturday, 17 February 2018

The truth about Elan Cafe


Pink flower wall at Elan Cafe, Park Lane, London


You may not know Elan Cafe by name, but chances are you've seen it on Instagram. Its pink flower walls, colourful croissants and Lucky Charms lattes have been inescapable in the last few weeks.

To be honest, I didn't have high expectations for my first Elan Cafe visit; let's face it, the quality of your offerings doesn't matter if you're targeting people who will pay above the odds for a one-time latte purely to rake in the likes on Instagram.

Pink flower wall at Elan Cafe, Park Lane, London


Peggy Porschen is the obvious - and original - example of a London cafe that's done well off of social media. I've never been so I can't comment one way or the other about the quality of the food. However, there was that disastrous trip to Palm Vaults in Hackney, another darling venue of London's Insta hoards. Sure it's pretty - although not as much as Instagram would have you believe, because #filters - and yes the food was decent, but as a business, it's a shambles.

Pink flower wall at Elan Cafe, Park Lane, London


So as I Google-Mapped my way to the Park Lane Elan Cafe, my mind was open but my expectations were low. I didn't even know if any tables would be available, or if there'd be queues out of the door, even at mid-morning on a Tuesday.

Pink flower wall at Elan Cafe, Park Lane, London


It's a lot smaller than its online presence suggests. Perched between the behemoth buildings of Park Lane and sunk a little into the ground, it reminded me of this (but obviously not *quite* that small). Good news came in the form of an available table inside.

 Elan Cafe, Park Lane, London


Not too sure of the system (table service? Order at the counter?) I plonked my coat down to save the table and hovered around the cake counter in what I hoped was a 'help-me-I'm-new-here-and-definitely-not-cool-enough-do-know-what-I'm doing vibe'. Fortunately, I've years of experience in giving off 'not-cool-enough' vibes, and a man who I think was the manager came to my rescue, telling me in a polite and non-patronising way that they'd take my order from my table.

Pink flower wall at Elan Cafe, Park Lane, London


A couple of minutes later he came over with a menu, which turned out to be far more extensive than the repetitive photos of that latte art would have you believe. A quick scour showed that the Lucky Charms latte -my main reason for making this pilgrimage - wasn't on the menu. Perhaps it's only available at the other branch of Elan Cafe, but no harm in asking, right?

And just like that, I became one of *those* people, who order something they've seen on Instagram, even though it's not on the actual menu. A little bit of me died inside as I placed my order, but the knowledge that Lucky Charms were on their way to my table helped me get over it pretty quickly.

Salads at Elan Cafe, Park Lane, London


While I was waiting, I wandered around the ground level, taking photos and chatting to the staff, who weren't remotely surprised at my incessant snapping. Rather judgmentally, I had thought they might be a bit snooty, and a bit, well... Mayfair, especially given that my geeky rucksack and ill-fitting jeans mark me out as quite different to the Instagrammers and bloggers that feature heavily on the Elan Instagram feed.

No need to worry though, as they were all super-friendly, chatting about the food and offering to take a photo of me against the pink flower wall (something they've clearly done once or twice before). My assumptions of Elan Cafe had been destroyed, and that was no bad thing.

Lucky Charms latte at Elan Cafe, Park Lane, London


If the friendly staff aren't enough to shoot down the misconstrued notion that Elan is overhyped, the food should do the trick. A generous portion of Lucky Charms topped my latte, with more heaped on the saucer. The coffee itself was decent, if nothing special, but the jam-filled raspberry croissant was really quite unique.

Cakes at Elan Cafe, Park Lane, London


As I ate, I watched life in the cafe continue around me, surprised to see regulars coming by for their morning coffee. The staff knew what they were going to order before they'd even closed the door, and the manager even asked one lady if she'd been on holiday as he hadn't seen her for a while. Clearly Elan does foster and maintain regular customers, as well as pandering to one-time Instagram tourists.

Elan Cafe, Park Lane, London


Far from being just another Instagram sensation that's all style, no substance, Elan Cafe is serving up decent (if pricey) food and drink, with friendly and helpful staff. That iconic decor is a constant theme throughout. The Instagram hype? That's just a pink, filtered jewel in Elan's photogenic crown. Instagramability* and quality aren't mutually exclusive, and nowhere is that more evident that this petite pink cafe. For me, it's not a everyday cafe, but somewhere I'll definitely return to with friends on special occasions. You'd do well to visit - don't forget your camera.

*definitely a real word.

I visited the Elan Cafe at 48 Park Lane, W1K 1PR, but there's a second branch in Knightsbridge at 239 Brompton Road, SW3 2EP. Work up an appetite on Instagram before you visit.

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Elan Cafe, Park Lane, London



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Wednesday, 14 February 2018

Afternoon tea review: Silly Old Bear Winnie the Pooh afternoon tea

Silly Old Bear Winnie The Pooh afternoon tea at The Gore Hotel and The Pelham Hotel, South Kensington, London

Not saying the powers-that-be (or should that be, the powers-that-afternoon-tea*?) have bugged my office or anything, but some colleagues and I had a conversation about how there absolutely should be a Winnie the Pooh themed afternoon tea in London, and to be quite frank, it's a travesty that there isn't.

The next day, a press release lands in my inbox about a Winnie the Pooh afternoon tea in London. Coincidence? I think not. Tempted? Absolutely.

Silly Old Bear Winnie The Pooh afternoon tea at The Gore Hotel and The Pelham Hotel, South Kensington, London


The Pelham and The Gore hotels, both part of the Starhotels chain in South Kensington, have produced the Silly Old Bear afternoon tea to tie in with the current Winnie the Pooh exhibition at the V&A. It's clear from the off that this afternoon tea is aimed at families. The back of the menus are covered in games and puzzles to keep younger guests (yeah, alright, and me) amused.

Silly Old Bear Winnie The Pooh afternoon tea at The Gore Hotel and The Pelham Hotel, South Kensington, London


The food arrives in the form of a picnic, with scones, cream and honey lollipops - and those all-important crayons - served up in a picnic basket. The sandwiches and sweet treats are presented on what can only be described as tree stumps (don't alert #WeWantPlates just yet though - it's exquisite).

A pair of twenty-somethings without any kids in tow, we were thrilled by the presentation of the tea. Those of you who know me will know I'm a stickler for afternoon tea being served on the traditional tiered stand. Well, this case proves to be the exception to that rule.

Silly Old Bear Winnie The Pooh afternoon tea at The Gore Hotel and The Pelham Hotel, South Kensington, London


But does it pass the taste test? Mostly, yes. Let's start with the sweet treats; the Eeyore themed chocolate mousse - served in a gorgeous mini Kilner jar - was the absolute highlight, although it could have done without the layer of orange compote at the bottom.

The meringue and marzipan bee was a cute little fella, the marzipan easily removable for those who don't like it, the biscuit and meringue paired perfectly. The cupcake and the passion fruit macaron slipped down nicely too.

Silly Old Bear Winnie The Pooh afternoon tea at The Gore Hotel and The Pelham Hotel, South Kensington, London


The Hunny Pops - balls of honey parfait, white chocolate and caramel glace on a stick - were where we ran into trouble. They're served up in that picnic basket, which as it transpires, is lined with moss to really commit to the picnic theme - cute, but not ideal when one fell off its stick and was rendered green, furry and inedible. We had to abandon the rescue operation due the sheer volume of honey everywhere - parents, you're gonna need a bigger pack of wet wipes.

Silly Old Bear Winnie The Pooh afternoon tea at The Gore Hotel and The Pelham Hotel, South Kensington, London
In hindsight, we should have seen the problems coming


The scones are crumblier than your average, almost biscuit-like in texture, which I rather enjoyed. Rummage around in the picnic basket (mind the honey!) and you'll find delightfully thick clotted cream and generous amounts of lemon curd to send them on their way.

Afternoon tea connoisseurs may find little to please them here, but that's OK because this isn't an afternoon tea for them. It's a fun twist on the tradition and a great way to introduce younger diners to afternoon tea. The food is ideal for this - not too much, not too rich, not too unusual.

Silly Old Bear Winnie The Pooh afternoon tea at The Gore Hotel and The Pelham Hotel, South Kensington, London


*If any other afternoon tea planners are reading this, I have two words for you: Lion King. DO IT, I beg of you, and do it well.

Silly Old Bear afternoon tea is available at The Pelham and The Gore, both in South Kensington until April 2018. It costs £43 per person which includes entry to the V&A exhibition, and needs to be booked in advance.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Photo Diary: Orchids Festival 2018 at Kew Gardens

Orchid Festival at Kew Gardens Princess of Wales Conservatory 2018

If you listen really carefully right about *now*, you'll hear the sound of a thousand bloggers and Instagrammers slapping on their lippy and heading to a certain botanical gardens for their latest photo shoot.

Orchid Festival at Kew Gardens Princess of Wales Conservatory 2018


Orchid Festival at Kew Gardens Princess of Wales Conservatory 2018


I am of course talking about Kew Gardens, which has just launched its annual Orchids Festival in the Princess of Wales Conservatory.

Orchid Festival at Kew Gardens Princess of Wales Conservatory 2018


The absolute highlight (although strictly off-limits for those close-up selfies) is the floating installation on the pond, which features 600 individual orchids and depicts Thailand's Bang Pa-In Palace:

Orchid Festival at Kew Gardens Princess of Wales Conservatory 2018

Orchid Festival at Kew Gardens Princess of Wales Conservatory 2018


Elsewhere, join the bundle for a photo with one of the three floral arches adorning the conservatory's winding pathways.

Orchid Festival at Kew Gardens Princess of Wales Conservatory 2018

Orchid Festival at Kew Gardens Princess of Wales Conservatory 2018

Orchids grow up pillars and across pathways, and even hang from the ceiling:

Orchid Festival at Kew Gardens Princess of Wales Conservatory 2018


It's absolutely stunning, composed of almost 7,000 individual orchids, but as well as showcasing the flowers, the festival is a celebration of Thai culture.

Orchid Festival at Kew Gardens Princess of Wales Conservatory 2018
Can I get some blogger points for matching my nail varnish to the flowers?

Fun fact: five water dragons live permanently in the conservatory to keep unwanted insects in check. They're notoriously difficult to spot - especially when a herd of scoop-hungry press photographers is stomping about all over the place - so I wasn't lucky enough to see them this time.

Orchid Festival at Kew Gardens Princess of Wales Conservatory 2018


A word of warning: the festival is inside a tropical conservatory, so things get hot and steamy. I left my house in -3° to get to the press preview, wrapped up to the extreme, which resulted in much sweating on arrival. It also meant that camera lenses were steaming up left, right and centre hence the less-than-ideal quality of some of these pictures. But, this does mean it makes for an excellent day out in these cold winter months.

Orchid Festival at Kew Gardens Princess of Wales Conservatory 2018


 If you're on Instagram, you can expect to see a lot of this place over the coming month, but if you get the chance, I'd recommend heading there in person - selfies optional.

Orchids Festival at Kew Gardens, 10 February-11 March 2018. Entry to the festival is included in a general admission ticket.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

5 unusual things to look out for in Rochester

Rochester Castle, Kent

I don't believe that anyone who has visited a place for just a day - or even a week - is truly in a position to write about the best places to eat/drink/visit there. You have to go deeper than that to have any sort of authority to write about a place.

That's why, having visited Rochester for a day to fulfil the January part of my visit-a-new-place-each-month plan, I'm not going to tell you about the things you should see, do, eat and drink if you visit. Instead, I want to share a few unusual and quirky things I spotted in my few hours there. Keep an eye out for them if you ever venture into these parts. Or don't. Whatever.

The wonky doors of Rochester

Wonky barber shop, Rochester High Street, Kent

I thought I'd seen the full extent of England's wonky doors when I lived in York, but Rochester has some pretty strong contenders too. Highlights are J.R. Barbers (above), and Topes Restaurant - which, like many Rochester buildings, claims Dickensian links:

Topes Restaurant, Rochester High Street, Kent

Don't miss the door frame of this house next to the castle. Trippy stuff.

Wonky house next to Rochester Castle, Kent

Rochester Bridge

Rochester Bridge, Kent


The people of Rochester, it seems, love their bridge over the Medway. It's a magnificent beast, a bridge of two halves; an ornate offering, decked with handpainted crests, crowns and a quartet of lions not dissimilar to those in Trafalgar Square. 

It's also an ugly hulk of industrial steel, something Brunel would be proud of. The two are completely at odds with each other, but the people of Rochester are proud of it; a building adjacent to the bridge on the Rochester side proudly announces itself as the Bridge Chamber, base of the Bridge Committee; a exhibition dedicated to the bridge can be found in the crypt of Rochester Cathedral, and leaflets about the bridge take pride of place in some of the town's shops.

Rochester Bridge Chamber, Kent


The beach at Rochester


Before you go digging out your swimsuit, it's not that sort of a beach. I'm pretty sure it's more mudflat than beach actually, and probably dangerous and off-limits to the public. But it does make for lovely photos (imagine more sunshine than I managed to capture) and a on a summer's day at low tide, you could probably make out your strolling along the French Riviera. Maybe.


Rochester's unusual post boxes


Unusual post boxes on Rochester High Street

If postal whimsy is your thing, a stroll down Rochester High Street will see you right. The short street has three unusual post box for admiring. The green and black ones pictured above both sit outside the (free!) Guildhall Museum, and date back to the reign of Queen Victoria.

Unusual post boxes on Rochester High Street

The third is the above, which you'll find outside the Post Office at the southern end of the high street. It's not as historically interesting as the other two, but still quirky to look at. 

England's largest second hand bookshop


Baggins Book Bazaar second-hand bookshop, Rochester High Street, Kent

Oh my, the bookshop. If you're a book lover, start planning a pilgrimage to Rochester now, for behind the castle and cathedral lies what claims to be England's largest second hand bookshop. Having been inside, I don't doubt it. It's a maze of aisles and staircases, hidden reading rooms and stacked tomes.

Baggins Book Bazaar second-hand bookshop, Rochester High Street, Kent


A sign on the ground floor kindly requests that shoppers leave rucksacks and shopping bags at the till while browsing - a little further into the shop, as the aisles narrow and the precarious stacks of books get higher, you understand why.

I'm reluctant to use such a cliche, but it really is a Tardis of a shop, its splendid but modest exterior telling nothing of how far back the shop goes.

Baggins Book Bazaar second-hand bookshop, Rochester High Street, Kent


Plus, a tip for visiting Rochester:

Strood railway station, near Rochester, Kent


If you're visiting Rochester by train, you've got a couple of options. Coming from London, you can speed straight into Rochester station. However, if you're coming from West Kent, as we did, you might be better heading to Strood station instead. There are direct trains from Tonbridge and Maidstone, and when you get to Strood, the station is only a 10 minute walk (across that magnificent bridge) to Rochester Castle and the town centre.

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5 quirky things to see in Rochester, Kent


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