The day after arriving in London UK to visit my daughter,  I received the following agenda for GERI’s Gin Tour of London.

As many of you know I love Gin and Gin Martini’s. Last Christmas my daughter gave me the gift of a Gin Tour of London—I simply had to come and visit her to collect it!!!

I had no idea it was going to be so amazing!!!

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The Invitation

11:30 – 12:30 Beefeater Distillery Tour : http://beefeaterdistillery.com/shop/11-30am-14th-may-2016/?attribute_date=14-may-16-1130-am&date=1463221800

1:00 – 2:30 – Maltby Market – Little Bird Gin http://www.littlebirdgin.com/#contact

LUNCH in the market

2:30 – 3:00 Maltby Market – Jensens (potential tasting or browsing)

3:30 – 5:30 You must choose:

Holborn Gin Bar – Largest gin bar in London http://www.holborndiningroom.com/reservations/

6:00 London Distillery – Charcuterie and Cheese dinner –http://www.cityoflondondistillery.com/our-bar/

8:00 Jamboree Live Music – PLATYPUS + THE STRING PROJECThttp://www.jamboreevenue.co.uk/events/black-snake-blues-presents-platypus-the-string-project

Be sure to wear your walking/dancing shoes!!!

The Experience:

 Daughter Rachael, niece Madi and I set off bright and early for the Beefeater Distillery for a tour of London’s oldest gin distillery. It is a very small distillery and I had a hard time believing that all the Beefeater gin was distilled in only about 12 stills. But they claimed it was!! The output from the distillery is 80% alcohol, it takes about 2 days to make and is then shipped off to Scotland where they add pure Scottish water and bottle it for shipment all over the world.

For those of you not familiar with Gin, it is a spirit which derives its predominant flavour from Juniper Berries. It became popular in Great Britain when William of Orange, leader of the Dutch republic occupied the English, Scottish and Irish thrones. Genever, as gin is known in Holland, is a favourite of the Dutch….so I also come by my fondness for gin through my dutch genes. In addition to the key juniper berry ingredient, different gins and styles  are created by using other botanicals  ( coriander, angelica, orange, grapefruit or lemon peel, cardomon, cinnamon, grains of paradise, other berries, licorice—the list is endless, creating endless varieties of glorious gin. Typically a fine gin should contain 6-10 botanicals. However one of my favourite gins from Liberty Distillery in Granville Island in Vancouver uses 24 BC botanicals and berries. London Gin must have a strong juniper flavour.

 

London has had a long and tortuous relationship with gin. A Gin Craze swept 18th century London. In over-crowded, slum ridden Georgian London, gin became the opium of the people. For a few pennies, London’s poor found entertainment, and escaped from the cold and hunger at the bottom of a glass. It is said that in 1730, an estimated 10 million gallons of gin were distilled and sold from 7,000 dram shops. This would have meant that an average Londoner drank 14 gallons a year—I know I love my gin—but that is staggering consumption.

No wonder Rev James Townley (1751) pontificated that

Gin, cursed Fiend, with Fury fraught, Makes human race a Prey. 

It enter by a deadly Draught And steals our Life away

What really put gin on the market was the duty on imported spirits during the end of the 18th century when England was at war with France. Restrictions were lifted on domestic spirit consumption—creating a rich source of tax revenue and a healthy market for domestic grain growing landowners as un. The effects on its people however was devastating—gin was blamed for misery, crime, prostitution, higher death and birth rates and madness. It seems during this period cheap low grade gin was more likely to be flavoured by turpentine than juniper.

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The satirical well know print by William Hogarth ‘Gin Lane’ depicts the sins of gin and links the grubby reputation that gin has had for many years as ‘mothers ruin. He contrasts the ill-advised consumption of gin with the healthy consumption of British beer  in ‘Beer Lane’. The government of the day tried to control the gin excess and rein in an unregulated industry, but the craze really did not end until a change in the economy brought on higher grain prices and therefore less affordable gin. Clearly Hogarth’s impact on many brits has been significant—beer is still the drink of choice for most current day Londoners.

 

By the beginning of the 19th century the gin craze and depravity was almost all but forgotten as gin transitioned to a new respectability with the introduction of ‘gentleman’s gin’. Gin was now distilled in commercial distilleries, regulated and quality controlled.

It is during this time that James Burrough and the Beefeater Distillery came onto the scene. James was a trained pharmacist, passionate about experimenting with flavours. It led him to discover the recipe for the nine natural botanicals now known as Beefeaters London Dry Gin.

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Today new styles of gin are becoming increasingly popular. Some of the originals are

Genever, Jenever: A Dutch spirit, still immensely popular in the Netherlands today. Distilled from malt wine and flavoured with juniper, hence the name jenever. Also referred to as Madam Geneva in English.

Old Tom Gin: Now used to refer to a style of gin popular in England in the 19th Century. Typically sweeter than modern gin. Various explanations for how name came to be. Traditionally often featuring some sort of cat on the bottle.

London Dry Gin:Modern style of gin, which has dominated since the late 19th Century.

Plymouth Gin:Similar to London dry gin, although said to be slightly sweeter, and the subject of protected geographical indication status, meaning it can only be made in Plymouth.

Sloe Gin:A liqueur made from gin and sloe berries from the blackthorn.

 

Having gotten both the production and history lesson in Gin at the Beefeaters Distillery exhibition,  and fortified by a lovely Gin and Tonic at the end of the tour, we were all set to embark on our ‘gin discovery and tasting tour of London.

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Our next stop Maltby Market.

 

Maltby Market has become a popular destination to wander on a Saturday morning/early afternoon. In Bermondsey the street market has settled in amongst the railway arches of southeast London. While smaller by comparison to Borough market, it has far fewer tourists, yet boasts top-notch food sellers of all varieties. We feasted on the ‘best burger’ in London from African Volcano (as declared by Madi and several other irish ‘foodies we met at the pop up communal bar) awesome charcoal grilled British Beef with chimichurri sauce and fries from The Beefsteaks and a delicious Falafel platter from Hoxton Beach. Quite frankly there were at least another 10 food stalls we would gladly have sampled—there is a style and flavour to suit any taste bud.

 

Our lunch was accompanied by cocktails from Little Bird Gin. We learned that Little Bird Gin is ‘lovingly distilled in small batches in London using unique botanicals including grapefruit and orange to give a smoother more rounded, fresh tasting gin’. We of course each had a different cocktail to enhance our sampling opportunities. Several of their cocktails are on their website but here’s to start you off in the morning.

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Early Bird Breakfast Martini

30ml Little Bird Gin

20ml Cointreau

50ml Pink Grapefruit Juice

2 large teaspoons of Seville orange marmalade 

Muddle the marmalade in a Boston Shaker, add lots of ice and the rest of the ingredients. Shake well and double strain into a chilled martini glass.

 

Before leaving Maltby market we made one more stop and in another archway found Jensen’s Distillery. A little gin tasting of their vintage gins and a sit in the sun, sipping a G&T, while  people watching rounded out our market visit. We clearly agreed with Christian Jensen, resident  distillerer

Jensen’s is gin as it was. Gin as it should be.

 

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Armed with the ways of  world renowned Beefeaters to small local distilleries, we hopped on a double decker red London bus to our next destination, Holborns. Holborns is a grand old brasserie set in midtown London. It boasts a gin bar offering London’s largest collection of Gin, with over 400 Gins and 27 tonics. Apparently, if you had the time and liver for it, you could savour over 14,035 possible Gin and tonic pairings and cocktails.

I wandered the length of the bar and had a good long look at the 3 cabinets of gin bottles. Happily I saw a few of the unique gins, assembled in my gin cabinet, Death’s Door, Genever and of course the old well knowns, Hendricks, Tanqueray ( all of them) Beefeater, Boodles and indeed the new small batch distillery Lady Bird.

Having eschewed the bar cocktail menu I asked to see the list of gins and was presented with the ‘Bible of Gins’ by the gentleman behind the bar. After a deep consultation with said gentleman and a tasting or two I settled on Mayson’s Dry Yorkshire Gin, just to say I allowed my taste buds to sample something a little further afield but still British.

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According to their master distiller Mayson’s Dry Yorkshire Gin is

A London Dry Gin from God’s Own County!

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Masons set out to create something that “wasn’t just your run of the mill, off the shelf, generic gin”. According to the experts it  is a spicy, slightly malty number that has a pleasant fennel character. You may wonder how I could taste the differences by this time….but this was my first straight dry martini of the day ……no tonic or other additives, just a splash of vermouth, a lemon twist and ice on the side…..and I loved it!!!!

 

 

 

 

By now it was late afternoon, and time to depart for our final gin destination, the City of London Distillery. We headed down to a destination near Blackfriars on winding cobbled streets and came to Bride Lane. We actually bumped into a wedding party but did not see the bride. Searching around a bit we found a doorway, headed down the stairs into an underground bar (and fully functioning distillery). There is much too entice one at the COLD (stands for City of London Distillery) bar.

 

 

One can do gin flights,  a gin masterclass tour or even create your own gin. However, our day had presented us with several of these options already and we settled in for another cocktail, myself another dry martini with the house City of London Gin and a lovely charcuterie and cheese platter.  The ambience was terrific, Rachael’s room mates had joined the party by this time and we relived the delights, twists and turns of the day.

 

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Following our gin adventure you will see that the Rachael  had planned a visit to a live music venue with the girls…it turned out to be quite the adventure as you will see from the animals in the band–but that is another story

 

 

 

 

A very special day with very special person and her friends who put a great deal of thought and life into a remarkable London experience!!!

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While in Barcelona I came across several  unique traditions that I should like to share with you. Castelling is the subject of this blog

 

Castellers in Barcelona

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I read about and then searched out the tradition of castelling. A castell is a human tower. Colles Castelleres are groups of people who do these towers. According to UNESCO castells are declared to be amongst the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. Seriously!! You will soon see why.

Various Colles exist across Catalonia, several of them in the city of Barcelona. They build ‘human towers’ at  festivals across the province, competing against one another for the highest and most complex of towers.

The tradition originated in the Ball dels Valencians in Valls, and was first documented in 1712. It became the thing to do in the 18th century.

A Castell  is considered a success when stages of its assembling and disassembling can be done in complete succession. The Castell is said to be complete when all castellers have climbed to their designated places and the enxaneta climbs into place at the top and raises on hand with four fingers erect, symbolically the stripes of the Catalan flag ( yes you may be beginning to see this strong theme of independence and patriotism in so many of the things happening in Barcelona). The enxaneta then climbs down the other side of the castell, and the remaining castellers descend highest lowest to complete the disassembly.

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Complicated??? Yup. But once you see it, not only complex but truly fear inspiring. Regrettably I did not see a Castell created at a festival… missed my opportunity to see one on one of the festival days –most common timeframe for them to put a castell on for show—but within walking distance of my flat I was able to see a practice evening. Even though they were not wearing their traditional dress of white pants, red shirts and black belts, the practice show as amazing….and because we were able to view it from above, we got a real sense of how complicated the castell building is.

 

You will see that to our surprise the highest levels are created by castellers who are small children—very acrobatic children at that. They literally looked like little monkeys ascending and descending the castell. Aside from the children, girls, women, boys and men who create the upper parts of the tower, a bottom base, the pinya,  is needed to act as a safety net to catch or cushion the fall if the castell collapses.

 

I have inserted a couple of videos.. please excuse the audio and commentary…not exactly the most professional documentation, but felt it was worth inserting to give you a real feel for the art of castelling.

Seeing this created is incredible and clearly well orchestrated and managed. There were huge posters on a wall in the practice we saw that indicated for each individual where they needed to be for each castell. Yes they don’t just form one kind….amazingly we saw about 15 different towers built.  I think I counted the highest towere we saw created at seven levels.. the highest they can go is ten…imagine that. We saw towers built with 3,4 and 5 people per level known as pillars.

 

We soon discovered that the black belt of sash known as a faixa  is the most important part of the costume and they wore them that night over their regular dress. The faixa supports the lower back and is used by other castellers. It is a long piece of cloth that is wrapped around the waist. They range from 1.5 to 12 meters long. The longer ones are worn by the lower levels. Castellers go barefoot and they climb up each other by securing their toes into the sashes of the levels as a foot hold when climbing the tower.

The lowest level is made up of very strong, stocky men. Women and children form the highest levels we saw.

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The motto of Castellers is  Forca, equilibri, valor I seny, meaning Strength, Balance, Courage and Common Sense.

 I totally got the Forca, equilibri and valor…but there is no common sense in my mind in creating 10 level human towers.

 thumb_IMG_6856_1024A great day trip from Barcelona takes one by train to the Santa Maria Benedictine Abbey in the Montserrat, a multi peaked mountain, part of the Catalan Pre-Coastal Range. The mountain lies about 45 KM northwest of Barcelona.

 

 

Christopher Columbus, famous in Barcelona, named the Caribbean Island of Montserrat after this mountain.

 

thumb_IMG_6851_1024The Santa Maria de Montserrat Abbey hosts the Virgin of Montserrat sanctuary, identified by some as the location of the Holy Grail well known in Arthurian myths. It was founded in 1025 by Oliba, Bishop of Vic and Abbot of the grand monastery of Ripoli. By the 12th century Pilgrims began to make the climb up to the monastery. Legend has it that in AD 880 the Virgin Mary appeared in a cave to school children, then their parents and eventually was also seen by priests. The sighting is now known as Santa Cova, Holy Cave or Holy Grotto and people still trek to the small chapels erected there in commemoration.

 

Montserrat means ‘serrated saw’. Looking at the photos of Montserrat and its multitude of rock formations, you can understand why the mountain has this name. Montserrat was Spain’s first National Park.

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We arrived by train and took the cable car to the monastery. You can also travel by funicular railway. The trick is to decide which option you prefer before leaving Barcelona, as you purchase a combined ticket and you exit the train at different stations.

Barb my friend, wanted to really push her comfort zone so we took the cable car. The views as we climbed up the mountain were spectacular.  The mountain is about 1200 meters high and the views from the monastery and surrounding hills are beautiful.

Having arrived we made our way to the monastery, which hosts the Virgin of Montserrat and a publishing house with the oldest press in the world. The first book was published in 1499. Apparently it is still running.  Regrettably, I was not aware of this before, and I don’t know if one could visit. Nevertheless, we had some amazing experiences while there—but more on that shortly.

Prior to entering the basilica we passed through a broad esplanade, Placa de Santa Maria. There are several beautiful buildings along the esplanade, still used to house and feed pilgrims and visitors. Statues of the founders are also on display.

 

The interior of the basilica is dazzling. Restored in 1990, it dates back from the 16th century and is a mix of gothic and renaissance architecture.

The Virgin of Montserrat is a statue of the Virgin Mary and the infant Chris. They are a black virgin and child. It is one of the black madonnas of Europe, its Catalan name “la Moreneta, –the little dark skinned one”. I found depictions of this Madonna in other churches in Barcelona as well. Apparently, in 1844 Pope Leo XIII declared the Virgin of Montserrat, the patroness of Catalonia. Given the patriotic nature of Catalonians you can understand her popularity.

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In the monastery her statue is at the rear of the chapel, but we regrettably did not get to view it there. We were simply overwhelmed by other happenings. We entered the monastery at the close of the morning mass. It was a sung mass (Gregorian I think but I am not an expert in this field—but I can attest that it was beautiful). As the mass ended we decided to mover further into the basilica, to secure better seats and wait for the ‘L’Escolania choir which performs here every day at 1 pm. As we moved up, people in the pews began to simply sing. Slowly we began to realize that a large group was spontaneously singing a beautiful hymn in German. Looking around we realized they were all dressed in Tyrolean costume, the traditional dress of Austria. We had just come across our first pilgrims, a large group of Austrian Christians.

No sooner had their voices died down and we found ourselves surrounded again by music. This time we were standing beside a group of 12-15 men all singing Ave Maria a cappella. We were side by side with a group of men on a pilgrimage from northern Italy.

We were moved to tears.

Awed by the experience, we seated ourselves. We were treated to yet another musical experience—a short concert of a catalan songstress singing and playing perhaps a bandurria and two Japanese musicians with shamisens. This was a planned concert to reinforce hope and peace in the world. It seemed we were exposed to a truly global musical experience.

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L’Esconalia, the Montserrat Boys Choir, then entered and lifted us with their beautiful voices singing the midday Salve. The basilica was packed, the aisles filled with people standing and listening to the boys’ choir of sopranos and altos. The choir, composed of 50 young boys , is one of the oldest in Europe and has recorded over 100 albums.

 

It was simply an amazing and unforgettable blessed experience.

 

 

 

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Leaving the basilica, we were lucky to secure a picture of the Austrian pilgrims in their Tyrollean costumes.

We decided to take one of the trails up above the monastery. The hike was a bit more of a climb than we anticipated, but we were rewarded by spectacular views of the valley as well as climbers scaling the Cavali Bernat, an interesting rock feature popular with serious climbers. Apparently young people from all over Catalonia make overnight hikes at least once in their lives to watch the sunrise from the heights of Montserrat.

 

We did not hike to the top. We simply found a lovely rock, enjoyed a late lunch and a nap in the sun, ending our great visit to Montserrat.

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It is perhaps very fitting  that my first blog on Barcelona should be about its beaches.

Not three hours after my arrival in Barcelona, I found myself taking a short walk to the shore( 4 minutes from my flat in Poblenou). Within another 2 minutes I was sitting at a “chiringuitos” pronounced chee-ring-geet-toes enjoying my first glass of white wine, the lovely April sun and a breeze off the sea. Life is great in early April on a Barcelona beach!!!

The Beaches in Barcelona, and there are many of them, 9 in all, are magnificent!! On the Mediterranean border they stretch for almost 5 kilometres. Each beach has a name and all have the EU blue flag of excellence for water quality and services. It seems even the National Geographic gave its approval naming Barcelona as the best beach city in the world. I would agree.

 

Every morning I get up and have a long morning walk along the beaches and then enjoy a cup of coffee in my favourite  chiringuito. These small beach bars are dotted along the beaches providing libations as well as lounges to bask in the sun. I can imagine in the height of the summer they would be very full.

 

When I return in the afternoon for a little sun time, the sailboats, pleasure yachts, windsurfers, swimmers, sunbathers are out. Volleyball courts dot the beaches and impromptu soccer games take place. Entertainment along the boardwalk on weekends.

 

At Mar Bella the kite surfers come out late afternoon when the wind picks up. It is incredible to see them fly across the sea and perform their tricks. There is no end of people watching available from early morning till late evening.

 

I understand that  millions of people visit the city beaches every year. I expect in the height of the summer season the beaches are incredibly crowded—not my thing. But at this time of year they are really enjoyable. I have read that the city makes a big effort to keep the sand clean and the seawater clear and already I see signs of the cleaning routines that attest to this. Every morning city people are out washing down the boulevards and all day long beach cleaners walk up and down the beach removing trash.

 

Garbage bins are prominent for all to use.  They even have divers in the winter do an annual cleanup of the seabed.

 

In Spanish the beach is called ‘Playa’, but here in Catalunya they go by ‘Platja”. Mar Bella Platja is the beach I frequent. It has a dedicated nudist beach which I came across one afternoon by accident on one of my strolls along the beach…. But not too many visitors yet at this time of year yet.

I was curious about the beaches and was surprised to discover that up until the 1990s, the seafront had no resemblance to what I am experiencing here. The shores of Barcelona were dotted with factories( textiles  here in Poblenou) , fishing ports and even shanty town slums. All this changed with the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. The 5 kilometers of beach front, boardwalk, cycling and walking paths, and green space was constructed along with the Port Olympic  and Olympic villages. Sculptures, including Frank Gehry’s Peix and modern architecture make the beach walk engaging for full 5 miles. Remarkable!!! Today the Barcelona beachfront remains as an exemplary of Olympic infrastructure spending at its best!! Providing to the city beauty and economic wellbeing.

 

However, now more than 20 years later, some cracks emerge.  Being a popular tourist destination has its downsides. Residents struggle in the height of the season to get to work, do their daily shopping and the number of flats rented ( like mine) to visitors  impacts the real estate prices making local housing less affordable for the locals.

The recently elected Barcelona mayor Ms Colau, is talking about setting a limit on the number of annual visitors by freezing hotel construction or tightening up the rental of flats. Looking at pictures of the beach or the pedestrian La Rambla in summer, I can understand her concern. Apparently Barcelona has 1.7 million inhabitants. It sees over 7.5 million tourists a year… that’s quite an imbalance. Apparently the tourist numbers doubled in just 13 years.

 

The city has already taken some measures.

To ease mobility for residents the popular pickup bike that you find in almost all European cities ( and now even in Toronto in the summer), are generally available to tourists as well as residents. In Barcelona the system operationally supports residential use.  Fees are only provided on an annual (47 euros) basis, no shorter term fares available and one needs a Spanish credit or bank card and a local address to sign up for the system. The system has in fact been put in place to work alongside the local bus and metro system to enable people to get to work in the busy tourist season. I guess if there are 4 tourist to every local, weighting in favour of locals makes some sense.

In the height of the season large tour groups are barred from the famous La Boqueria market enabling local residents to shop for their daily food…. Getting your meat or fish and veg and fruit on a daily basis is still common here. Within the first week I have adopted this pattern.. shopping for my fresh fish, bread fruits every day… its great!!

When we visited Park Guell you have to book on line for a ticket and are assigned a time to enter.  I was quite happy that visitors were restricted to 400 per hour and understand the requirement for a fee.  I don’t think I would have enjoyed my ramble through Gaudi’s park if there were no restrictions on the numbers in the park.

Bottom Line April is a great time to visit Barcelona beaches.. sunny, warm, not too crowded and clean

 

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Fall 2015 found me one more time in London, one of my favorite cities. It was a rather different visit. Instead of exploring the museums, sights and shops I spent several weeks ‘hunting’.

Daughter Rachael was facing down 2 weeks to ‘homelessness’, having been unsuccessful for more than 2 months in finding a new flat to move into with 2 new flat mates, Ana and Lauren. Who would have thought it would be so difficult to find a place to live in central London?

Well I was soon introduced to the challenges of London Flat Hunting!!!

It is incredibly competitive to find a flat in London. Rentals are logged with rental agencies and there are hundreds of them…check out any of the key London neighborhood corners and you will find 4-6 rental agencies within spitting distance. Those looking for a place, log their requirements with agencies—many of them!!! Or you don’t stand a chance!! Each of Rachael, Anna and Lauren were registered with multiple agencies in the 2-3 neighborhoods they were interested in living in. Oh yes, that’s another key element, narrow your search so that you can actually manage the activity…if you don’t you will be run off your feet.

Listing Checking, Agent Pestering, Frustration

Every morning, the flat hunting drill means you 1) troll your search engines (http://www.rightmove.co.uk or http://www.zoopla.co.uk) , 2) hope your agents are also searching for you and sending you emails about new listings—(they often get them before they are logged on the search sites). This later step requires ongoing pestering, as of course in the current environment the agents have many people who are looking for a flat just like you and 3) pick the flats you want to check out. So far so good. The challenge is that you need to move very quickly, almost at the drop of a hat. Getting to the new rental flats first is critical!! I found that for every flat there are another 5-10 people interested in the same space…so it is all about getting your rental offer in quickly!!!

So, as fast as you can, check out the flat, make a decision re what to offer ( at rental price listed, above, below, special requirements etc), get the offer to the agent and wait to see if the owner chooses you for the flat…and yup it is their choice and they typically have multiple offers.

Never Ending Listing Checking and Flat Hunting exhaustion

Sound easy? No, not so much. Frustrating? Yup, and increasingly more so as you make offers and time after time are not chosen!!! arrrggghh

All of the above, is complicated hugely by the fact that you have to make a living…meaning that you typically can only focus on this before breakfast, during work breaks and lunch and after work and on the weekends..in other words you have no life other than flat hunting. And naturally not being able to check out flats until after work, means that you are not typically the first offer!!!

Rachael, Ana and Lauren are all young professionals. Two weeks before they would all be out of their current housing arrangements, Ana was dispatched to Croatia to follow the refugee crisis for Reuters, Lauren was off on a long planned holiday she could not cancel and Rachael had colleagues from South Africa in for the week for a workshop… yup life gets in the way !! They of course were all now not only looking for a new flat to rent, they also needed to pack up their belongings and figure out where they are going to live in 2 weeks time…yup life is complicated and VERY STRESSFUL!!!

Packing up the belongings and storing across London at Friends

So on my arrival, I joined the house hunting task force!! The girls would do the searches early in the morning from wherever they were, send me the possibilities and I would contact the rental agents to see if I could set up a viewing. They armed me with a list of questions to ask, and a checklist of their requirements to confirm in the flats.  The best trick was to take a video of each flat I visited,  check out the flats and load my  visual and verbal observations  ASAP on our WhatsApp group, and the girls could check out the flats virtually.

Walking the streets of Clapham & Balham, checking out flats—lovely ones

WE DID NOT GET!! Aaarrrggghhh!!

I became very familiar with Balham, Clapham Junction and Clapham Common…having walked the streets and visited flat after flat. I, along with niece Madi,  experienced with them the disappointment of a flat that did not live up to expectations, of trying to decide if they would offer, of losing to another bid, and the nerve-wracking waiting to hear.

So every now and then we needed a break!!!

Cocktail Breaks to keep up our Spirits

It took  another 3 weeks to finally secure a flat!!!! But they did it!

It took seeing beyond the distressing lack of housekeeping by the current renters, begging and negotiating with the owner, and constant follow-up with the agent but the girls were successful and late October moved into their flat in a great neighborhood in Balham.

 

Happy Flatmates Ana, Lauren and Rachael in their new flat !!!

They now live happily in a flat, newly scrubbed, decorated and made ‘home’. Balham is where they settled…a great neighborhood, pubs, cafes, parks and easy transportation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brighton by the Sea

Brighton by the  sea.. a city sandwiched between the South Downs and the English Channel—a city that is  colourful, quirky, cool and tacky !!!!

Top of the tacky list is the Brighton Pier… a very long pier enabling all to soak up the tackier side of Brighton …tons of kitsche, noisy arcades, games, lights, fish and chip shops, bars…and at the far end, an old fashioned carnival style amusement park.. horror house to roller coaster to an  old style merry go round. And at night lit up like a grand old dame.

 

 

 

 

 

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My favourite part of the pier, are the great chairs to sit in and soak up the sun.

 

The Brighton Pier opened as a pleasure pier in 1899. In world war II the pier was closed… clearly it was an easily identifiable landmark  at night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just down from the Brighton Pier is the rival West Pier. It was closed in 1975 and having been severely damaged by fires and storms, today is just an iron wreckage rising out of the sea. I think I prefer it to the tacky main event.

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Top of the quirky list is the Royal Pavilion…the exotic extravaganza commissioned by the equally quirky Prince Regent.

Designed by John Nash, the architect of London’s Regent Street, the Royal Pavilion is a a rather unusual, extraordinary building, boasting minarets, pagodas, twirling domes, balconies and Indian and Chinese motifs. George IV, was a huge disappointment to his straight laced father George III. The Prince Regent was anything but straight laced. He devoted his life almost entirely to pleasure….gambling, heavy drinking, dining, mistresses, racing, fine clothes …and clearly extravagant lavishly furnished homes..and in the process running up huge debts for the royal family.

George IV’s love with Brighton started in 1783. Introduced to him as a health retreat, George IV made it his “London by the sea”.  Here he  settled his mistress, Mrs. Maria Fitzherbert, whom he secretly married, and later disavoved when his father forced him to marry  Princess Caroline of Brunswick . This marriage did not last as Princess Caroline shared his father’s views about George’s lifestyle. Nevertheless having set up in Brighton , the Prince’s royal followers followed and made Brighton fashionable and racy.  He died in 1830 at 68. By this time he was king, morbidly obese, often caricatured by the press as completely out of touch with his subjects, who following the Napoleonic wars suffered famine and high unemployment. The times summed up his passing as follows “ there never was an individual less regretted by his subjects than this deceased king”. 

Interestingly, he clearly left a strong mark on Brighton. I had always planned to visit the Royal Pavilion but was always waiting for a rainy day.. as i barely had any rain when I was in Brighton, I never did go in to see the interior extravaganza..I will probably live to regret this.

Top of the Colourful Cool List …Brightons eclectic vitality  Today Brighton  continues to have a  bohemian vitality. It comes from artists,writers, musicians and other creatives and a thriving gay community. During my month there, it was the comedy festival, so regrettably I was not able to participate as fully in the musical cultural events.

Brighton  has a charming inner core —known as the Lanes and North Laines. Generally car free, it is  a maze of little alleyways crammed with shops and boutiques—lots of jewelry places. I loved to wander the Laines, check out the shops, pop in to a coffee or wine bar and quite lovely restaurants. My favourite was Riddles and Finns, a champagne and oyster bar which also served fabulous sea food. If you are in Brighton check it out.  There are two one on the beach and one in the Laines. I loved the one in the Laines. Tiny venue, open kitchen chandeliers, candelabras on long tables where you are seated family style—a great way to meet people —and sure enough in Brighton, of the artistic sort. One evening my guest and I met a heavily tattooed and pierced young woman from Australia who was a producer of electronic music and her friend a film producer.

Another favourite walk was of course, the one along the seaside on the promenade. Brighton has a long wide pebbly beach ( which is actually very comfortable to sit on—who knew? )  you can walk for quite a distance along the coastline. People flock to the beach in the summer…but even throughout my time there in October it was well populated with people taking in the fall sun rays and simply strolling or cycling along. Lots of places to stop for coffee, a snack or wine or beer. In the first few weeks it was still quite warm and I loved to grab a comfy couch at the outdoor bar, with glass in hand sit in the sun and listen to a wonderful female singer singing jazzy tunes.

I lived in the area of the Seven Dials. Lovely homes, nice pub nearby ( The Cow) and a great Coffee place ( Small Batch Coffee) . My flat was really wonderfully decorated…french provincial country style. Again I booked through AirBnB…my go to place for great flats. The owner was a british airways stewardess and clearly an experienced home decorator. It was a cosy and delightful spot to come home to after a day in Brighton or on the downs.

All in all I enjoyed my time in Brighton on the Sea. A part of which was the hiking in the South Downs, which will be the subject of my next blog.

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Hiking in Exmoor National Park : September 2015

I will begin my 2015 blogs describing my recent visit to Exmoor National Park. My daughter Rachael, currently  working in London UK, had given me a hiking trip for my 65th birthday. She organized it through HF Holidays. Our destination was Holnicote House, a National Trust Home operated by HF Holidays near  Selworthy, a small village within the Exmoor National Park in Somerset.

It was a tremendous 3 day retreat. HF Holidays is one of Britain’s largest walking and outdoor leisure holiday specialist.  They have been in business over 100 years and every year over 50,000 guest travel with them in the UK and other destinations beyond. In the UK they operate 20 Country Houses. Holnicote House was one of them. Although a very old house, the rooms had been completely renovated and updated. Our accommodations were first class.

Holnicote House : A National Trust House

Holnicote House : A National Trust House

Holnicote House

Holnicote House

The holiday included full home cooked board and most importantly guided walks in the area.

All of the HFHoliday guides are volunteers..many of them for a long time. Both of our guides had been doing multiple walking trips with them for well over 10 years. The house was full ( I think about 40 guests). Every night the guides would go over the next days walking trips ( easy, medium and hard) and Rachael would rule that we were there for a challenge so ‘hard’ it would be for us.

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The guests with the exception of Rachael were all 50+. You can imagine how delighted they were to have a ‘young’ person in their midst. Rachael quickly figured out that in this crowd, I should have no difficulty with the ‘hard’ walk. And indeed I did not, although there were several guests much older than I who easily surpassed my ‘walking capability’. Our ‘hard’ walk each day had about 8-10 in the group—a perfect size in our view. We met 2 wonderful women from Denmark whom we hit it off with on the hikes. They also were always game for a drink in the bar after the days hike.

Moor Sheep

Moor Sheep

IMG_4495The hikes were outstanding!! the scenery spectacular, the spots along the way of interest both geographically and historically. Each day was a full day. Day one we walked down to Lynmoth. In Lynmoth we took a cliff rail way. It was a funicular cliff lift powered by water.  From Lynmoth climbed to the Valley of the Rocks and then on to Lee Bay.IMG_4567

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We ascended to a high level path above Lynto and then over to Cleaves to Watersmeet. The walk was 11 miles ( 17.5 km)  in total with 2000 feet of ascent ( whew) and 2400 feet of descent ( hard on the knees)

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The next day we hiked directly from Holnicote House ( day one we had taken a bus to our starting point) from Alleford to Bossington and along a long pebble beach to join the South West Coast Path, and then up to Selworthy Beacon and finishing at the lovely tea house in Selworthy.

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While we had full days, there was still so much more to see and do. I am sorry I missed the town of Selworthy. It is a small picturesque village of thatched cottages. owned by the National Trust ( more on that later). We glimpsed Dunster Castle on our way but did not have time to explore.

So a little about the National Trust. As noted above the National Trust owned the house we stayed in ( although operated by HF Holidays), it owned the village of Selworthy and Dunster Castle. I had also seen several signs along our hikes denoting National Trust, so my curiosity took me to the web. It turns out that the National Trust is a charity that works to preserve and protect historic spaces and places – for ever for everyone.

They were founded in 1895 by three passionate victorians interested in preserving outdoor spaces. Today they look after historic houses, gardens, mills, coastlines, forests, farmlands, moorlands, islands, castles, nature reserves, villages and pubs.. Here are just a few of the interesting facts about the National Trust.

  • they are one of the UK’s largest farmers, with more than 618,000 acres of land and 2,000 tenant farmers
  • they own and run 61 historical pubs, 49 churches 9 monasteries
  • they own 59 villages
  • they look after 775 miles of coastline—some of the best beaches and coastal paths in England, Wales and Northern Ireland
  • they have over 60,000 volunteers contributing 3.1 million hours of their time—equal to 1590 full time staff.
  • they have over 4 million members

Quite the organization I would say!!!

Exmoor  was designated a National Park in 1954, in recognition of the outstanding beauty, wildness and tranquility of the moorlands which dominates its landscapes. The moors and heaths of Exmoor are wide open areas overlooking the whole of the West Somerset, North Devon and the Bristol Channel Coast. But Exmoor National Park is not a wilderness. It is a living and working landscape with many settlements from small towns and picturesque villages to tiny hamlets and isolated farmsteads.

The coastline within the National Park stretches for (59 km) 37 miles. It is outstanding for both its scenery and its wildlife and was one of the prime reasons for the designation of Exmoor as a National Park. Exmoor has the highest coastline in England and Wales with coastal hills rising to 433m (1421ft).

Seeing wild ponies on the moor is a highlight for many hikers.IMG_4504

We saw both feral goats and the Exmoor ponies on the moors. The Exmoor pony is one of a number that are native to Britain. I learned that they are only wild in so far as the the herds roam freely on the moor. In fact they all belong to someone.  A number of years ago there was a fear that the ponies might become extinct. Today there are 11 privately owned herds that run on the Exmoor National Park

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The National Trust Holnicote Estate is located in Exmoor and makes up 12,000 acres of the  Exmoor National Park. All of the National Trust estates, and cottages in Exmoor are easily identifiable by their yellow painted walls.. a lovely colour making the homes quite distinguishable.

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All in all a really terrific start to my fall time in the UK.