The Banff Mountain Film Festival

A film festival all about mountains. What could be better?

Banff 1

For anyone who loves the outdoors, and there are a rapidly increasing number of us, this is the festival for you. It is action packed, and whatever your sport of choice, if you can do it on a mountain you’ll see it here. Climbing, kayaking, free running, snowboarding, skiing, mountain biking, horse riding, snow-kiting… everyone driven by a passion for mountains and being outside will find something they like, but there are also quieter moments. You can’t just tear through the wilderness without seeing it can you, without breathing it in and having at least the occasional ‘wow’ moment. There’s plenty of that too.

The Banff Mountain Film Festival was launched 40 years ago in 1976, and has since become a highlight in every outdoor-enthusiast’s calendar. Taking place in the Banff National Park in the Canadian Rockies, each year around 300-400 films are entered, and the top 60 or so are showcased at the festival in November. A selection of the best films then go on an international tour, visiting 40 countries in 2016 and being seen by more than 500,000 people. There are a variety of themes and styles, and they range in length from brief shorts to longer, more comprehensive films that the tour provides abbreviated versions of. I suppose you could call them documentaries, but each is telling a story, and the sense of narrative is as important as it is to films that are purely fiction. 

For me, this was a chance to observe the sports I enjoy in very beautiful and very dramatic locations, and to start a wish-list of other things I wanted to try. It was also quite exciting to be a part of the crowd; the MOUNTAIN crowd! What a wonderful group of people, all passionate about the environment and the outdoors, all driven by a thirst for adventure and exploration, and all positive, active and healthy. I definitely recommend.

The 2016 UK and Ireland tour is hitting around 55 cities, towns and communities, and there are still dates left all across the country – the last screening is in Ireland on 28th May. Tickets and dates are available here (£15.49 pp). We saw both the Red and the Blue programmes, but I definitely favoured the Red. Particular joys were the slapdash but talented climbers’ bromance in A Line Across the Sky, the beautiful but sad goodbye in  Denaliand Unbranded, a film following four Texas boys, who decide to break in eleven wild Mustangs to carry them from Texas to the Canadian border (so, across the whole of America. It takes them 5 months. That’s a lot of riding). Saying that, there were some fantastic films on the Blue programme as well, so just go and see them both if you can!

A Line Across the Sky 1

The line across the sky. Climbers Tommy Caldwell and Alex Honnold traversed the entire range you can see here in one go, something that had never been done before.

A Line in the Sky 2

Here they are. Aren’t they just the cutest?

A Line Across the Sky 3

And again. Still adorable.

Denali 3

Denali, taking things much more seriously than his motley crew

Denali 2

Looking after Ben in hospital

Denali 1

Denali and Ben at the beach

Unbranded 2

Cowboys heading North

Unbranded 3

Boys and their… mustangs.

Unbranded 1

My favourite film, Unbranded. This lot were an absolute pleasure to travel with. Trailer for the film here, and you can buy the DVD here.

Is anyone else a Banff fan?

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Loch Coruisk   Wild Swimming 2   IMG-20130406-00043

 

You’re Doing it Wrong

So, how are your New Year’s resolutions going? If they’re making you miserable, you’re doing it wrong.

DSC_0001 (800x533)

Resolutions usually involve giving things up, but I think that’s just because we’re blaming our problems on the obvious rather than identifying and resolving their root cause. We get so caught up in the routines we’ve fallen into sometimes that we don’t realise when we’re unhappy; or, more importantly, why. New Year’s resolutions are the perfect chance to reflect on this and make a conscious effort to change things.

Realising that something is hindering your happiness is actually very difficult, especially when everything is ‘fine’, so we often need a little outside help. Fine just doesn’t cut it. Why not ask someone you’re close to if they think you’re happy? If they shrug and reply ‘yeah I guess’ then you’re not. That’s not good enough. Push for details – when do you seem particularly happy? When are you clearly unhappy? Don’t feel like you’re asking too much with this either, that’s what friends and family are for; free therapy.

Once you know when you’re happy, work out why. Places, people, activities – whatever it is do more of it. Place influences our psychology so much more than we realise, but so many of us live in environments we don’t want to when we don’t have to. If you always go somewhere on holiday, why not just move there? Don’t tell me why it wouldn’t work, just find a way. If you’ve allowed hobbies to lapse maybe it’s about time you gave them another go, even if you haven’t done them since you were a child. You never know what will turn into a career, and who doesn’t want to be paid for doing the things we love. As for the people we interact with and make a part of our lives, they affect us hugely, so avoid those who you don’t enjoy being around and make an effort to see those you do – show them at every opportunity how much you value them.

Again, you’re not being self-indulgent with all of this. We’re taught to always work hard and always make safe decisions from the moment we’re self-aware, but you should be absolutely certain that the things you’re working hard for are what you really want. As for what makes you unhappy, identify it. Put it in a little glass box and examine it from all angles, then work out how to make it go away. Give yourself achievable targets and deadlines, and plan very carefully how you’re going to reach them, and the reward you’ll get when you do!

I know that resolutions do often focus on losing weight, and reaching a size and shape that feels good can have a big impact on your confidence, so I’d never suggest taking it out of the picture if it’s something that’s important to you. Be clever about it though, and make it about positive changes rather than just tormenting yourself. Learning about nutrition for example, or an excuse to listen to your terrible music whilst you’re exercising that nobody will let you play out loud. My number one tip would be to keep busy. Frantically busy! I used to go to the gym nearly every day at university, but it wasn’t until I got a real job (and actually didn’t have time for the gym for a couple of years) that I dropped from a UK 10-12 to a 6-8. Rushing around and working hard is an effective and pain-free way of dropping a few pounds, and it’s productive. Double win.

DSC_2024 (800x533)

Being a healthy weight isn’t the only ‘body’ target to consider though – after those gym-free years, I’d lost so much strength and stamina that it actually affected my personality. I became much more cautious, worried about getting hurt or not being able to achieve physical challenges. Tom actually pointed this out to me (there was a lot of sulking, but I did know he was right), so I made plans. I got back into the gym, but I started riding again as well, and took up MMA. Exercise should be fun, not boring, and certainly not torture. I don’t run, because I hate running. It’s boring (sorry runners, you have my respect but you’ll have to tie me to your back to get me out running with you). I do like riding and climbing and hitting things though, so I do those instead.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is that so much of modern life is artificial that it’s hard to see what’s real. What’s really happening to you, and the people you care about. Once a year it’s nice to cut through all of that, and devise plans to make you happy that actually work.

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Decadent Advent Calendars

My mum used to buy me flat advent calendars, even when I was a teenager. You know, where you open a little door and there’s a pretty picture on the other side. And every year I’d think wtf Mum, I want  CCCHHHOOOCCCOOOLLLAAAAAAAAATTTEE, but I never told her because I knew she really liked the little pictures and I was just being a philistine.

Now I’m a grown-up I don’t particularly want the chocolate ones (try telling a child that when they reach an age and financial position that they can buy as much sugar as they want, they will no longer care for it – the horror and confusion on their faces is priceless). I still want an advent calendar though, and I’m still a philistine so I still want a treat every day, so I’ve put together a Top 5. Let me know which is your favourite.

Master of Malt: Tasting Samples £99.95 – £999.95

Master of Malt 2

Master of Malt 1

These are amazing. Choose from whisky, gin, vodka, tequila, rum, mezcal, bourbon, cognac, armagnac or, my particular favourite given the season, absinthe, and each day you will discover a cute little bottle containing different sample-drams of your tipple of choice. Prices are typically £100-150, though their ‘old and rare whisky’ is an eye-watering £999.95.

Susanne Kaufmann: Beauty, £99

Susanne Kaufmann 1

If you know someone (Mum) who always works overtime at Christmas to make it special for everyone else, buying the perfect gifts, covering the house in foliage and scented candles, and cooking sumptuous meals for house-guests and hungry hangers-on alike, then they may just need a reminder to relax for 5 mins every day. The Susanne Kaufmann advent calendar is just the thing, containing a range of luxurious beauty products from her organic treats wellness line.

Diptyque: Candles & Perfumes, £250

Diptyque 1

I can’t believe I missed out on this one (mind you, given the price, probably lucky I did). Diptyque make the most wonderful candles and perfumes, and this calendar houses a plethora of scents. It’s only been available (exclusively from Selfridges) for 2 weeks, and has already sold out. Next year is going to be my year. Who needs food when you can have Diptyque?

They make so many different products, however, that it does seem a shame to limit the calendar primarily to perfumes and candles. Room sprays, scented ovals, diffusers, shower gels, radiance boosting powder (whatever that is)… I would have thought this the perfect opportunity to market smaller-sizes to those clients usually reluctant to venture out of candle/ perfume territory.

Fortnum & Mason: Wooden Tea Box, £125

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2155386

Close your eyes, and imagine yourself surrounded by tropical Indian jungle or oriental bamboo forests. Teas from the hills and valleys of India and Ceylon, China and Japan will help to transport you, for a lot less than the cost of a plane ticket. From ‘Jungpana Second Flush Darjeeling’ to the ‘White Fuding Peony King’, all your tea-needs will be met with this. I love the painted wooden box it comes in also, making it feel that bit more exciting.

Liberty: Beauty, £149

Liberty 2

Liberty 1

Liberty specialise in luxury, and they’ve put together a selection of miniatures across the range in makeup, beauty products and general pampering. Another one that has just sold-out, you’ll have to get in quick next year to benefit from the discount of purchasing these products en-masse, as the calendar has been valued at closer to £400 than the £150 they’re selling it for. It’s also presented in a beautiful and reassuringly-solid box, fronted with the store’s familiar Tudor-frontage and lined with a classic Liberty print.

Oh, and here are two more advent calendars that may not count as decadent, but I actually like just as much as the others I’ve shown you:

Hotel Chocolate: Truffles for Two, £26

Hotel Chocolat 1

Christmas is definitely the time for sharing. My years of finding a lovely Christmas-boyfriend (the only criteria for this being that he had to look good in a woollen jumper, like countryside walks in the snow and watching Love Actually because he’d be gone by February) may be be over, but now I have a lovely Christmas-husband (much longer sell-by date on that one) to share things with. There are two baby truffles behind each window, including festive flavours like Mulled Wine, Pecan Gingerbread, and Cinnamon Praline, and let’s be honest, if you’re going to have chocolate it may as well be the best chocolate.

Yankee Candle: Reindeer Carousel, £31.99

Yankee Candle 1

Yankee candles aren’t terribly pricey, but I still love the idea of trying a different one each day in tea-light form. Fragrances included are: Bundle Up, Candy Cane Lane, Icicles, Spiced Orange, Snowflake Cookie and Winter Glow tealights, as well as a Berry Trifle, Bundle Up, Cosy By the Fire and Winter Glow in votive form.

Is anyone else looking forward to starting their advent calendars, or are they just for children (and me)?

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Flaming Tar Barrels on Bonfire Night

A pre-Bonfire Night post today, to get you in the mood for fire and frolicking.

Ottery Tar Barrels

I was hunting through my old photos earlier, and came across an album from exactly a year ago that I completely forgot to share with you. So, without much ado…

Last autumn we hired a Landrover (any excuse), headed on down to Dorset, and took up residence in Wolverton Gatehouse. It wasn’t one of the most exciting Landmark Trust properties that we’ve stayed in I have to admit, but it was very picturesque from the outside.

Wolveton Gatehouse

Wolveton Gatehouse

The first night coincided with Tom’s birthday, so he was allocated the honour of choosing the obligatory fancy-dress theme. After rejecting several inspired ideas (‘dress as a Kevin Costner character from any of his films’, being my personal favourite), he finally alighted on ‘dress as your mum’s favourite TV or film character’. The only stipulation being that you weren’t allowed to explain in advance why you were asking, and you had to go with the first answer she gave. The results were pretty wonderful, but you can see for yourselves!

Fancy Dress Party

So, from left to right, we have: Miranda, Doc from Back to the Future, Spock, Aslan and Tommy Cooper.

Fancy Dress Party

Not forgetting Groucho Marx…

Fancy Dress Party

Fancy Dress Party

…and Robert Redford, from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Yes I have stubble. I went full-Redford.

Fancy Dress Party

I think the conclusion we can all draw from this, is that our mums are AWESOME. And weird… but in the best possible way. So thanks Mum, and all the mums, for being the goddamned coolest.

Fancy Dress Party

Fancy Dress Party

Fancy Dress Party

Fancy Dress Party

The next day we ate a lot of fish and chips by the sea, looked at tanks, and hung out with some monkeys. Really though, we were just killing time before we could weave our way down dark, country lanes to Ottery St Mary.

Nobody knows for certain why men, women and children carry burning wooden barrels coated with tar around the town every year, but it is the West Country, so they don’t need to explain themselves. The size of the congregation was phenomenal, but everyone wandered cheerfully up and down from bonfire to town centre via toffee apples, mulled cider and jacket potatoes, so it never felt claustrophobic. Despite barrels of fire being carried at a run through densely packed crowds, the atmosphere was relaxed and the people friendly.

Ottery Tar Barrels

Ottery Tar Barrels

Ottery Tar Barrels

The barrel rollers wore (presumably dampened/ fire-proofed?) hessian mitts, but were otherwise unprotected. Cameras and camera-phones obviously made the most of the spectacle, but just as many people were happy to simply bask in the proximity of the death-barrels. Flurries of sparks cascaded onto the ground, and flames plumed into the air as they looped and turned through the square. Their centres throbbed with heat, a fierce amber glow that was both slightly alarming and yet also strangely hypnotising.

Ottery Tar Barrels

Ottery Tar Barrels

Some spectators went to greater lengths than others to get a good view (he actually received a round of applause from the crowd when he successfully ascended the street-light, though was forced to relinquish his vantage-point soon after by weary police).

Ottery Tar Barrels

We watched the tar barrels for a while, then made our way back to the now-dying bonfire, picking up cider and mulled wine rations as we went. Finally burning low enough that we could get near to it, we joined the circle and stood as close as we could to the glowing embers.

Ottery Tar Barrels

Ottery Tar Barrels

Ottery Tar Barrels

Ottery Tar Barrels

What are your Bonfire Night plans? We hope you enjoy it, whatever you do!

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Exploring Hong Kong

Hong Kong

On our penultimate day in Hong Kong I was lucky enough to have the afternoon off, so I got a taxi back to Kowloon as I had a lot more exploring to do. I started at the Jade Market off Kansu Street, the day-version of Temple Night Market. Don’t go here for jade unless you’re aiming for cheap and cheerful over quality, but it’s good for traditional snuff bottles, stone pendants and ornaments etc. They do overcharge, or try to, but it’s still fairly reasonable compared to the UK even with a 200% mark-up, so if you’re not a fan of haggling you can still pick up affordable souvenirs. The conversion rate can be confusing though, so just be careful they don’t add on an extra zero when typing the price into a calculator for you, taking £7.50 up to £75 for example… “Oh sorry, mistake” will get the price back to normal if you point it out.

I then headed North to Public Square Street, as I was curious about the Tin Hau Temple marked on the map there.

Hong Kong

Apparently the square used to directly face the Yau Ma Tei waterfront in the late 19th century, but it is now almost three kilometers from the shore as a result of land reclamation. Which seems a shame to me, denying the temple of its marine vista and influences (I’m particularly enamoured of a certain church in Cornwall thanks to its waterside location), but Hong Kong and Kowloon are woefully short of land on which to build. In front of the temple and enclosed by reposing banyan trees is the Yau Ma Tei Community Centre Rest Garden. It is meant as a gathering place for senior citizens, though I saw people of all ages enjoying the peace and quiet as they dozed on benches, or ate packed lunches whilst contemplating the trees.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong

The temple is free to enter, the only stipulation being that you refrain from photographing worshippers and staff going about their work. There were perhaps a handful of people inside when I visited, half of whom were tourists like me, so this wasn’t a difficult rule to abide to. It is a small building, a little like a renaissance theatre in that the centre of the roof is open to the elements and the walkways surrounding it therefore cast into exotic shadows. As a willing spectator you are simultaneously a part of the spectacle and separate from it, until you stand or kneel before an altar where you are cast into a unifying glow of light. Unlike Buddhist or Taoist temples and monasteries, Chinese temples are built to worship Shenism, the Chinese folk religion, where people revere nature gods and ancestors.

Hong Kong

Huge, richly-hued incense-coils are suspended from the ceiling. Golden trays hang beneath each to catch the falling ash, and inscribed prayer cards laconically rotate at the centre of each spiral.

Hong KongThere are also a number of different altars at which to worship, though I observed supplicants moving between these in an incense-fuelled circuit, so suspect prayers to each and every deity are more likely to yield results.

Hong Kong

This guy was my favourite

Hong Kong

In addition to statues of the gods, the Tin Hau temple was also adorned with walls of photos of the worshippers’ ancestors

I spent as long as I could here, without wanting to intrude. The atmosphere was peaceful, but also somehow intense.  Clouds of incense drifted through the air, giving you the faintly surreal sense of having stepped into another world or plane, and the gentle ‘shhh’ of ash falling to the ground like snow was one of the few sounds to break the silence.

When I finally emerged back into the sunlight I decided to follow Shanghai Street, and weave my way South to the Star Ferry pier via Kowloon Park.

Hong KongI was quite pleased to capture this photo, as I’d read about these women in a guide-book! They look like they’re pushing carts of rubbish around the city, but in actual fact are often transporting mail, machinery and fresh produce as well as recycling and… yes, actual rubbish. Apparently they’re very efficient, and effective at traversing the steep and narrow backstreets. The bright-blue medical scrubs are a little alarming at first though, in conjunction with air-pollution masks and bags containing who knows what (or who)

Hong Kong

A typical Hong Kong skyline, populated as much by jungle as by skyscrapers. Vegetation is everywhere here and, rather than being planted in neat lines as in other cities, resembles more a perpetual invasion. Trees grow out of cracks in the buildings, and bougainvillea suspend umbrellas of delicate, fuchsia lanterns like tissue-paper origami above walkways.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong

After perhaps 15-20 mins of ambling through the crowds, a few wrong turns and some mimed directions from non-plussed, non-English speaking locals, I found it. Compared to the bustle of the streets Kowloon Park is a verdant oasis, in a way that London’s parks never quite manage.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong

The usual cyclists and joggers (or more serious ‘runners’ in their neon lycra) were absent, contributing to the peaceful atmosphere. There were plenty of people exercising, but they wore normal clothing in muted shades of navy, black and cream, stretched against the railings with calm expressions rather than histrionic grunts aimed to garner attention, and either jogged quietly or made use of the exercise equipment.

Hong Kong

Scattered across the park is a series of climbing frames, monkey bars and balancing poles, NOT it seems aimed at children, but in fact for the very-lucky adults to use, turning the entire area into one big adventure playground. I am very jealous of this, as these days I have to borrow a child to be allowed into a play-park, which quite frankly is one of the greatest disappointments of adulthood. I still want a tree house. And a swing please. In fact I’m planning an all-out Robin Hood Prince of Thieves style forest-village (you never know when you’ll need it – skip to 1.40), when Tom and I finally buy our own place.

I may or may… not… have told him this. I’m sure he’ll come round to the idea.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong

Meandering steadily upwards along tiered paths I came across an aviary of tropical birds, and then spotted a flock of flamingoes below.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong

There was a lot more to see but I had to get back by this point, so trotted off down Kowloon Park Drive to the Star Ferry pier, past huge designer stores with floodlit windows and gallery-like displays. As I mentioned before this ferry really is incredibly easy to use (insert coins or notes into machine, and your change plus a token for the barriers instantly rattles back out at you), and costs a mere 29 pence. It also provides the best views of Hong Kong, returning via the sea and weaving in and out of other boats.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong

Tom and I had a rather special dinner-date planned, as we’d been invited to use Duddells, a private member’s club not far from our hotel.

Hong Kong

Any excuse to wear this Diane von Furstenberg dress

Our taxi dropped us off at the top of a dilapidated looking side-street, and we made our way somewhat trepidatiously along it until we found the entrance. Inside of course it was a different story, and the external camouflage gave way to a leafy, roof-top bar and crisp, light-filled restaurant.

Hong Kong

Hong Kong

Hong Kong

 We were recommended cocktails based on our favourite spirits, and the bar’s erm… mixologist? came over to explain the ingredients in each in detail. He was very nice. Plus mine had a scented feather on it, which pleased me no end.

Hong Kong

The grin of a girl with a feather in her drink

After an hour of chatting beneath the stars (you can’t see them obviously because of the light-pollution, but they are there) we headed back downstairs to the restaurant. The maitre d’ was keen to recommend our courses, which I cautiously acceded to once I’d explained what I could/ couldn’t eat (no red meat, no poultry, no fish, only seafood). I’m not sure this was entirely grasped, as Tom was brought enough meat dishes to feed three people, with – we realised – the expectation that I would be able to share them, but the courses specifically recommended for me were fantastic.

Hong Kong - Duddells

For my main, the ‘Braised Imperial Bird’s Nest with Fresh Crab Meat’ was suggested for me. Now, I wouldn’t have chosen bird-saliva soup on my own, but when in China… this is about as adventurous as I’m going to go in culinary terms (technically it’s not meat either, so I can hardly complain), so I thought I may as well pluck up the courage to try it. Edible bird’s-nests are a Chinese delicacy due to their rarity, and are literally nests constructed by swiftlets from solidified saliva. They’re harvested from huge caves, and are apparently the most expensive animal product consumed by humans. They’ve been used in Chinese cooking for over 400 years, typically softened into faintly sweet-flavoured, gelatinous strands and added to soup.

I did actually enjoy it, and it was amazing to have the opportunity to try something I’ve read about but never actually seen served in a restaurant before. I probably wouldn’t order it again, as although there were no prices on the menu I suspect it equated to at least a third of the total bill (which was a lot, though was very generously paid-for by our clients without our realising at the time), but I would recommend it.

Hong Kong - Cathay Pacific Business Class

Just enough time for a quick glass of champagne in The Wing, Cathay’s Business/ First Class lounge

The next morning we returned to London, after teaching one final lesson on top of Victoria Peak. This time, the flight was divine, as we were flown back in Cathay Pacific’s Business Class. Instead of rows of chairs, each passenger has their own little booth, angled away from the others and separated in the central aisle by an actual wall. The chairs slide forward and then recline until they are entirely horizontal, and everything is ergonomically designed to perfection. Every time you go to lean an arm or elbow on something, there is an ideally angled ledge or cushion waiting for it. The food was no better than in Economy, simply more fancily presented, but you don’t fly for the food do you, you fly for the reclining chair. Never again Economy, your days of torturing me are over.

Hong Kong - Cathay Business Class

I didn’t take the above photo, I had to steal it from the internet, as I got so excited I forgot to take proper pictures

We both enjoyed Hong Kong immensely, and there were even discussions about the possibility of moving there in the future. I don’t know if I could give up the British seasons though… it’s so nice to have four distinctive parts to the year rather than just ‘hot’ and ‘too hot’.

There will certainly be a return visit though, next time for a holiday, so any recommendations on what to do are very welcome.

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Arriving in Hong Kong

Hong Kong

Tom and I rarely take on travelling-placements these days as we’re usually too busy running Winterwood, but there was no way I was turning down an all-expenses-paid trip to Hong Kong!

I used to pass through it every year, as Mum, Dad and I oscillated between home in Australia and holidays with my UK-based grandparents, and then of course between Nauru and the UK, but I haven’t been back for twenty years since we moved permanently to the UK (Dad and I even got British passports eventually. And no, I don’t know why they allowed two obstreperous, misanthropic Aussies into the country either, never mind let us stay – probably an admin error). The only thing I really remember about Hong Kong though was my first ever cinema experience, when my parents took me to see the first Jurassic Park film as I was into dinosaurs as a kid and they didn’t realise I was going to scream through the whole film in terror with my coat over my face.

I still hate velociraptors.

The flight over was horrendous, as I am not used to flying long-haul in Economy (the benefit of belonging to a family of pilots. You have to listen to a lot of stories about planes, model planes, drones, birds of prey, bees… anything that flies really, but you are compensated with free travel). My recently-broken ankle swelled to twice the size, and in 12hrs I slept for perhaps 2 in total. Nevertheless we survived, managed to navigate immigration, and our driver dropped us off half an hour later at the Grand Hyatt. I enjoyed this hotel, a lot.Hong Kong

The hotel lobby

Our room was about the size of our whole flat in London, there was 24hr room service, a gym, spa and rooftop swimming pool, seven restaurants, two bars and a cafe – all in one building with quite spectacular views over the Harbour.

Hong Kong

We were treated to glorious sunsets over the island every evening, as a gentle apricot blush soon developed into carmine and copper streaks, enhanced I suspect by the high levels of pollution, then steadily deepened into an ocean of fire before the city’s neon took over.

Hong Kong

The ever-changing view from our hotel window

Hong Kong

Hong Kong

When we sent a bag of clothes off to be laundered they returned wrapped in tissue paper and ribbons.

Hong Kong

Oh, and there was a pillow menu. No joke.

I stuck to the gym myself, and a few tai chi workouts in the bathroom whilst Tom was fitting in evening Skype lessons with his London students (“what was that noise?” “Oh don’t worry, Jade just fell over again. She was probably practising ‘white rhino looking at the moon whilst defeating 2-3 ninjas’ or something. She struggles with that), but there was also a pretty special pool that Tom made the most of.

2015-10-24 01.58.59 (577x800)

We ate at the hotel a couple of times, as missing a whole night’s sleep then getting up at 7.30am every day instead of our usual 10.30 ish-probably-later am knocked us back a bit, and we were there to work so didn’t have that much spare time. We particularly enjoyed One Harbour Road, which served traditional Cantonese food and apparently “emulates the elegance of a high-society, 1930s era Chinese mansion”. Anything 1930s has my vote, and the food and service were both excellent.

We did manage to have some fun though, it wasn’t all fresh fruit platters and chinese herb pillows. On our second night we got the Star Ferry over to TST (Tsim Sha Tsui) then a taxi to Kowloon’s Night Market. A jumble of wonderfully-awful tat and old opium pipes, jade figurines and porn, we enjoyed ourselves immensely.

Hong Kong

The view of Hong Kong from the ferry, a ferry so easy to use I even managed it all on my own one day. It powers sedately across the channel between Hong Kong island and the mainland of Kowloon, skyscrapers and tree-clad hills first receding and then approaching. At night the sea turns black as bitumen, and is illuminated in streaks as if buckets of neon paint have been emptied forcefully across it. Plus it only costs $3.4 HKD, or 29 pence. Yep, pence. Public transport is practically free over here.

Hong Kong

The entrance to Temple Street, the main night market, but there are more stalls on neighbouring streets so make sure you explore. You can pick up a lot of bargains here, especially if you’re willing to haggle, and a lot of weird paraphernalia whose value lies solely in its entertainment factor.

Hong Kong

Hong KongHong KongJade like neon-signs

Hong Kong

We then got a taxi over to the International Commerce Centre, as this ludicrously tall building hosts the highest bar on earth, Ozone. Tom doesn’t like lifts, and I really thought he was going to have an aneurism in this one as it shuddered its way towards the Ritz-Carlton hotel’s lobby on the 101st floor in less than a minute, before we had to get out, and resume our ascent to the 118th floor (420 metres above sea level) in a second lift, this one shaped like a lovely marble coffin. Tom took one look at it and muttered “I’m never coming here again”, before grimly – but bravely – stepping inside.

2015-10-21 21.58.29 (800x450)

The view was worth it, just about, though my camera couldn’t cope at all so I had to borrow the above photo from Tom. No doubt better photos could have been taken from the outdoor patio, but this shuts when there are high winds.

Hong Kong

There were some interesting design details and the lighting was great for taking interior photos, but Ozone doesn’t really have a sense of its own identity; it really could be anywhere. Don’t bother dressing up as the expat clientele certainly didn’t, though maybe London’s sartorial standards are simply higher. That or Londoners are just less able to escape the hamster wheel… People certainly seem more relaxed in Hong Kong, as if the permanently tropical climate enforces a steadier pace and less-manic mentality than our colder shores.

Hong KongHong Kong

Hong Kong

Some of the drinks were excellent, some less so, and the prices were comparable with London bars ($180 HKD or around £15 for a cocktail). As to other rooftop bars, I also heard very good things about Sugar. Apparently a hit with Hong Kong hipsters and in-the-know expats, it’s ideal if you want somewhere more laid-back than Ozone’s club-like atmosphere. Otherwise there’s Sevva, if you want to go upmarket, a penthouse bar owned by Chanel’s former Asia Pacific communications director and Hong Kong style icon, Bonnie Gokson. If you’re short of time I’d recommend trying Sugar or Sevva over Ozone, as they seem to have more character, but then again it’s not every day you get to visit the highest bar in the world.

We eventually got a taxi back to the Hyatt ($180 HKD for a 20 minute drive, including the $20 crossing toll), already looking forward to what the next day would bring. Hong KongTales of temples, flamingos and eating bird’s-nests to follow.

Has anyone else visited Hong Kong recently or, perhaps more interestingly, not so recently? I’d love to hear your stories.

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Fight Club

Tai Chi

About three months ago, I started doing MMA.

Mixed Martial Arts is, according to Wikipedia, “a full-contact combat sport that allows the use of both striking and grappling techniques, both standing and on the ground, from a variety of other sports and martial arts”. I don’t really go in for the grappling stuff (because I’m a girl and it seems sort of weird?) but I do like hitting things, and not getting hit in the face, so I’m getting good at both.

Tom has been training for a couple of years now, and I’ve watched his transformation from pretty good boxer to all-out killing-machine with a great deal of pride (and, er, maybe a little nervousness?!). People at our gym tend to stop what they’re doing and openly stare when he starts beating up the punch bag there, and he’s taught me the basics of boxing over the years we’ve been together.

It’s a difficult dynamic though, when one half of a couple is teaching the other, and I’m never good at being told what to do at the best of times, so we sort of stalled recently. Well, I kept getting frustrated, throwing my gloves on the floor and stomping off in a huff actually. Ahem. So Tom suggested I work with his personal trainer Neil instead, as I’d be less of a brat with someone else and also because his personal trainer is the best.

We mostly focus on tai chi chuan, a martial discipline that has different levels and applications, and all starts with the ‘forms’. These are patterns of movement often inspired by animal behaviour, that build muscle memory so they can be translated into sequences of strikes and blocks etc when needed. They have just the best names. Like ‘Golden dragon coiled round a pillar’, ‘Civet cat catching rats’, ‘Embrace tiger, return to mountain’ and, one of my favourites, ‘ Jade rabbit facing the moon’ (the latter basically involves standing still with your arms out but it’s good for you. Awesome). Also, one day, I’ll get to play with learn how to use a sword, and then my life will be complete.

I was sceptical at first, but I’ve got so much stronger, fitter and more toned since I started. For the first couple of months my old back injuries would bother me for days afterwards, as if I had a large, vertical disc inside the centre of my back radiating pain, but it’s slowly improving. I suspect because having my posture and movement constantly corrected is resulting in positive – and hopefully long-term – effects. Doing an hour + of cardio at the gym most days followed by half an hour of weights is all very well, but it really isn’t enough to sculpt a body that’s actually useful, and for tai chi you don’t need a horse, or a climbing wall, or even a set of hand weights – you just need yourself (er, and a Neil. You need one of those some of the time also).

Here are some photos of Tom, my friend Katia and I training together, and for more pictures/ details about Neil’s approach check out his website here.

Jade and Katya 4 (1323) (800x533)

Tai Chi

Tai ChiTai Chi

Tai Chi

Tai Chi

Tai Chi

Tai Chi

Tai Chi

Tai Chi

It looks like I’m shouting encouragement here, but I think I was actually saying “stop hitting so hard!”

Tai Chi

Tai Chi

Tai Chi

‘Pushing hands’ exercises here. Sounds stupid doesn’t it – nope, really difficult. Lots of rotating around your core and not dropping your posture and bending knees and feet at the correct angles and maintaining perfect balance whilst trying to gracefully push a brick wall backwards.

Tai Chi Tai Chi

Tai ChiTai Chi

Tai ChiTai ChiTai ChiTai Chi

Tai Chi

Tai Chi

Noooo kettlebells training for me. I have a bad back remember. No it’s not because I’m lazy, how dare you?!

Tai Chi

Bit of… er… ‘ring-work’ (?) here. I don’t know what things are called. Neil doesn’t tell me, because I laugh at him.Tai ChiTai ChiTai Chi

Hardcore training. No fun being had here!

Tai Chi

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Wild Camping by Loch Coruisk

Camping in the highlands had seemed like a good idea at the time.

We upgraded our camping gear (waterproof tent, airbeds, gas stove, decent backpacks), bought some Adventure Food, and flew to Scotland. The plan was to camp on the Isle of Rum on our first night, then beside Loch Coruisk on the Isle of Skye, then book into the Sligachan hotel for well-needed showers. The problem with this, however, was that a lot of boats were involved, from Skye to Rum, Rum to Skye, and Skye to Loch Coruisk, and high winds were preventing the rig boats getting out to Rum. So the plan changed, and we headed straight to Coruisk.
Isle of Rum
The Isle of Rum above, looking just how I always imagined Neverland would
Loch Coruisk
er… and our actual destination ahead. I think we were all wondering at this point what exactly we were in for.
Loch Coruisk

Well, some of us were. Others were busy posing…

The boat dropped us off on the shore, and we headed over the headland to search for a good place to set up camp. Coruisk is a water-filled caldera, a volcanic eruption millions of years ago resulting in the jagged peaks and swathes of solidified magma you will find there. Boulders of honeycombed pumice are scattered across the loch’s shores, and tendrils of cloud often wrap around the peaks like drifting smoke. It is also very wet, and we spent a lot of time bouncing up and down to determine whether the squelching peat beneath our feet would sustain a tent.
Loch Coruisk
Tom modelling our sexy – and very useful – head-torches
Loch Coruisk

Then the midges found us.

We were woefully unprepared for the ensuing onslaught. Luckily I had a bottle of Amazon-rainforest strength fly repellent, that was frantically dug out of my bag. Do not get this stuff on your lips. It burns. Then your mouth goes numb. I had also brought smoke-coils as we always used these on Nauru, and I figured tropical mosquitoes had to be worse than Scottish midges, but there were just too many midges. The fly-repellant stopped them biting, but did not deter the clouds that swarmed around us, filling our lungs and obscuring our vision. It felt like we were in some kind of crap horror film. Katy and I erected the tents together as quickly as possible, being unusually polite to each other.

“When you have a moment, could you possibly pass me one of those tent pegs you’re holding?” [Shaking head fiercely with eyes closed].

“Oh of course, so sorry” [handing over tent peg in between flapping arms around face, before sprinting away to higher ground for a brief reprieve].
Loch Coruisk
Our wonderful little tents. Very easy to put up and, miraculously, both waterproof and midge-proof
Loch Coruisk
Loch Coruisk

The view from outside our tents. Not bad eh!

Once both tents were secure, sleeping mats blown up and sleeping bags unrolled, I leapt into the porch of mine and Tom’s tent, zipped myself inside, and sat there for a good five minutes regaining my composure. I have no idea what Katy was doing at this point, as I felt like I’d temporarily lost my mind. Perhaps she was doing the same.

Tom returned around then with our bags (we had been forced to drop them and run, carrying only the tents, so he had taken on the responsibility of lugging them over to our campsite). We grabbed gas stove, water, mugs, tea bags and Adventure Food, and scrambled down to where the loch flowed into the sea. A wide expanse of dry rock and a gentle breeze kept most of the midges at bay here, as did constant movement. We were able to perambulate around the area, like druids circling their ceremonial gas stove, clutching much needed mugs of calming sleep-tea.

Revived, we held a brief council of war, and elected to head to higher ground to try and eat our dinner in peace. We climbed as high as we could, searching for a rocky outcrop sufficiently far from water that the midges would be deterred. The views were spectacular, but there was no escape. It was like being hunted by tiny, flying velociraptors, only eluded by our keeping on the move. Katy and Tom returned to the flat rock on which we had made tea, and began to prepare dinner. At this moment however, the sun set, the sky turned carmine and I grabbed my camera.
Loch Coruisk
Loch Coruisk
DSC_1368 (800x533)
Midges
‘Wow, what a beautiful photo. What on earth has caused those glittering specks like fairy-dust in the sky Jade?’ Midges. That’s what. Goddamned midges swarming towards me and confusing the flash on my camera.
Loch Coruisk
Loch Coruisk
Loch Coruisk
If you follow the river’s path down, just before you reach the sea you can see a tiny Tom and Katy making our dinner on a finger of rock that juts into the river
Loch Coruisk

Our Adventure Food supper was surprisingly good. Packets of dehydrated meals need only the addition of boiling water, a fierce stir, then a 10 minute wait as they resume the appearance of food inside the bag they come in. I pulled out a bottle of Oban for us to share (whilst packing my backpack in London I had made the difficult but absolutely correct decision to bring whisky instead of my camera tripod), and as darkness descended the midges finally abated.

Waking up in the wild is the most amazing experience. The air is crisp, the sun gleams like silver on the loch’s surface below you, and the percussive impact of the view hits you as soon as you unzip your tent. After another Adventure breakfast (Katy and I somewhat suspicious of how they crammed 600 calories into a small bag of sugary porridge and raisins), we packed up our gear and got a boat back to Elgol.

Loch Coruisk

Has anyone else survived Scotland’s midges? There must be a support group for us somewhere.

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Hiking in the Lake District (With a Broken Foot)

Lake District

So I broke my ankle, a few weeks ago.

Just a little break, an avulsion fracture of the talus, apparently, though the additionally sprained ankle and knee have been causing me a lot more trouble. Never make assumptions about horses. You think they’re going to go over a jump, you think they’re a big brave thoroughbred, and then they coward out at the last-minute leaving you to go over said jump on your own. Cheers for that Wizard.

Aside from accusations of equine cowardice, I only have myself to blame for my injuries though. I’ve probably fallen off several hundred times since I started riding twenty years ago, thanks to getting a reputation for liking ‘problem’ (crazy) horses. Flop and roll. Every time. Even if you land on your spine, you flop and roll. On this occasion, however, something went wrong and my reflexes said ‘land on your feet – no actually, just on one foot, that’ll work better!’ It didn’t.

I may or may not have lain on the floor for a good two minutes whimpering, and thinking ‘bloody hell, I’ve actually injured myself here, aaaarrrgggghhh’, but then I dragged myself upright and the pain completely vanished. I could feel that the ankle had swollen under my leather boots, but I was able to rotate and put gentle pressure on it, so I recaptured Wizard (who had been standing next to me looking bemused/ bored), and got back on. We carried on jumping for a bit so he didn’t learn that ditching his rider meant getting out of work, then I limped home.

“It’s probably only a sprain, but maybe get it x-rayed just in case” from my GP led me to a fracture diagnosis at the Royal Free a couple of days later, at which point I have to admit I may have gone a little mad. The doctor who talked me through the x-ray didn’t quite know what to make of me, as I espoused my lack of pain and begged to be allowed to go on a hiking holiday. It’s not that I have a high pain-threshold, I really don’t, but I do get migraines and back problems, both of which are so excruciating at times that the upper limits of my pain-scale are perhaps higher than average. Compared to this the ankle hardly hurt at all, and nobody seemed to care about the knee. The problem came, however, when I was told to rest. I don’t do rest. I go to the gym every day, and I ride two to three times a week, and I do MMA and boxing every week, and hiking, scrambling, swimming and occasional rock climbing and ohgodpleasedon’ttellmetorest!

Rest I did though, religiously. I bandaged ankle and knee every day, and tried to use the crutches he forced on me (mostly I carried them around with me, but I sort of used them sometimes). I elevated and iced the ankle every evening when I got home from work, and I kept as still as I possibly could. The clever man, you see, told me that the only way I would be able to go on a hiking trip to Scotland in 13 days was if I rested until then and didn’t go on the planned hiking trip to the Lake District in 7 days.

This ‘resting’ malarkey lasted all of 5 days though, at which point I warily headed back to the Royal Free for an appointment to get a ‘support boot’ fitted, or even perhaps a cast. I waited around for nearly an hour, but the wait was worth it in the end as the wonderful, wonderful doctor who saw me said no cast, no support boot, no crutches if I didn’t want them, and actually yeah, why not go hiking in the Lake District?! Just don’t ignore the pain if it gets worse. I could have hugged her.

A week of hiking in the Lakes wasn’t easy, but it was absolutely, definitely worth it. Through trial and error we worked out that I could cope with about half the walking we would usually do, and 10-12 miles a day over rough terrain was about my limit (16 miles was a bad day. A very bad day). I had also forgotten to take any painkillers during ‘rest-time’, so regular doses of ibuprofen and paracetamol on holiday really made a difference. Pushing myself to just get on with things was the best possible remedy. The constant twisting and stretching of my ankle as we clambered up and down uneven mountain paths was a far less boring form of physio (there’s only so many times you can write the alphabet with your foot), and the sense of achievement at the end of every day turned me from a miserable, paranoid gremlin back into something resembling my real self.

Much to Tom’s relief, for whom the two weeks of rest time had been more trying even than for me. Also, we went to cafes. We had pit-stops involving lunch and ice-cream and alcohol. I had an epiphany half-way through the week and pointed out that I was actually really enjoying myself, rather than just walking miles and miles and miles in the rain like usual. Almost like, dare I say it, a real holiday?! “Humph, well, yes I suppose this is what weak people do on holidays” replied my darling Thomas. ‘What, have a good time?’ He did at least laugh at this.

Hopefully more fun walking-holidays are to come, but here are the photos from this one.

Lake District

Lake District

Lake District

Lake District

Lake District

End of the day here, at a waterfall near Borrowdale. Veeerrryy tired!

Lake District

The librarian adventurer.

Lake District

Lake DistrictLake DistrictLake DistrictLake District

Nearing the top of Catbells, a peak I’ve never climbed before because Tom deemed it beneath him. Turned out to be a nice little climb with a beautiful view, despite the crowds – just the thing for a broken foot!
Lake DistrictLake District

A lovely cafe we stumbled upon, the Grange Bridge Cottage Cafe. It has a beautiful little garden with views over the river – the perfect place to stop for lunch and ice-cream!

Lake District

With polariser…
Lake District

…Without polariser. Magic!Lake DistrictLake DistrictLake District

One day I’ll climb up to that cave…Lake DistrictLake DistrictLake DistrictLake District

Outdoor cafe at the Lodore Falls Hotel.

Lake DistrictLake District

Sunset at Castlerigg stone circle.Lake DistrictLake DistrictLake DistrictLake DistrictLake DistrictLake DistrictLake District

Tales of wild-camping and swimming under waterfalls to come.

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Ways With Words at Dartington Hall

Ways With Words, Dartington

I first discovered Ways With Words several years ago. I came across a slightly blurry, monochrome advert for it, in a newspaper that had just been used to soak up an accidental flood of red wine. Carmine-stained pages had rippled into dunes and dales and a puddle of transparent wax was creeping towards it, but the great clock-tower and huge gothic windows of Dartington Hall were still visible. I squinted through the gloom at the disintegrating text (the overhead bulb in our student kitchen had blown, hence the candles), and pulled my laptop towards me.

After a little digging I unearthed the treasure that is their bursary-student scheme. Although you still need to pay for your own accommodation and meals, should you be 17-25 and among the lucky chosen you can attend, completely free of charge, any of the 100+ talks scheduled over the ten days the festival runs for. The equivalent for grown-ups would be a ten-day rover ticket costing £350, and individual talks are £10 per ticket, so it’s a wonderful opportunity.

Ways With Words, Dartington

Seeing as my mum actually studied at Dartington in the 70s, back when it was a prestigious performing arts college, there was no way I was going to let this one pass. I emailed off a frantic plea, not expecting any bursary places to be left so late in the game, and was absolutely delighted to receive a positive reply. You’re not getting any details out of me about the first time I visited, but suffice to say it was one of my favourite undergraduate experiences! We were an eclectic group who made the most out of our time there, attending several talks a day, gleefully interrogating the authors, and having midnight, alcohol-fuelled picnics in the grounds of the estate. A sedate Secret History if you will.

Ways With Words, Dartington

Ways With Words, Dartington

Ways With Words, Dartington

If you are aged 17-25 you should be here. It helps if you like books, of course, but the opportunity to listen to authors, poets, actors, broadcasters, film producers and explorers talk about their experiences is incomparable. I was showered with the most wonderful writing and life advice from the writers I approached, and also managed to bully cajole the then-Literary Editor of the Telegraph into giving me work experience. Sorry about that Sam, you were a good sport!

This time, nearly ten years later, I took my husband. Another English graduate (we have five English degrees between us so far, so that’s a lot of books read), he attended Hay-on-Wye earlier in the year, so was curious to see how WWW would compare. Favourably, I’m happy to report. More relaxed, more beautiful. We could only spare a couple of days so we chose the Rural Writing: Wild Ways day, and the opening of Journeys. The Great Hall talks are eclectic and the Theatre Barn’s are themed, but there will be something for everyone I promise. A day or a week of reading books in the sunshine, surrounded by medieval buildings and stunning gardens, listening to their authors tell all the stories not sufficiently PC to go into print, and acquiring signed copies and a few precious minutes of their time afterwards. “I’ve done some terrible, terrible things, but I’m quite clever so I’ve got away with it” was my favourite comment (from Springwatch presenter Martin Hughes-Games.)

Ways With Words, Dartington

A tiny, one-room chapel just behind the main hall

Ways With Words, Dartington

Ways With Words, Dartington

Bursary scheme aside, if you are enrolled on one of the hundreds of English degrees around the country then shame on you for not attending a festival like this. English Literature is by its very nature interdisciplinary, and broadening your perspective at Ways With Words can only be a positive. The limited attendance of the under-35s is shocking, in all honesty, and I would like to see every university and every A-Level English department encouraging their students to attend. Likewise parents – your children deserve to experience a festival like Ways With Words, but I only saw one child the whole time we were there. He even asked a question of one of the speakers, in front of a whole audience, so well done you young man. The summer holidays needn’t be an intellectual vacuum. Get yourselves to Devon, and prepare to be inspired.

It’s on for a couple more days, until 12th July. The programme is available here for 2015, but Ways With Words runs every summer if you miss it this year. Maybe I’ll see you there in 2016!

Ways With Words, Dartington

Does anyone else have any festival memories?

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