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.

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

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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.

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

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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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The Chelsea Flower Show

The Chelsea Flower Show is always inspirational, whether you enjoy gardening or not. It is an explosion of colour and texture, and full of exciting shapes, grand designs and exquisite details.

I am a fan.

It is horribly, horrendously crowded though, I have to say, so I never get to see everything, but I hope you enjoy looking around with me. The large show gardens always look better viewed from within, rather than from the visitor’s perspective at the margins, so I started with the flower and plant displays in the pavilion. Chelsea Flower Show I’m absolutely terrible at arranging flowers, so I find the displays here fascinating. This is The St Pancras Renaissance Hotel’s beautiful ‘Afternoon Tea’ entry, which actually won the Best Hotel Floristry Exhibit.

Chelsea Flower Show

It happens to be the 150th anniversary of of Alice in Wonderland’s publication, which is the perfect excuse for a theme of books, tea parties, magic and a little sprinkling of madness. ‘The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party’ designed by Simon Lycett had visitors buzzing around it in delight, myself included. DSC_0665 (533x800)

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I loved the towers of living chairs, and the combination of books, tea-pots and flowers also reminded me of a certain wedding that happened not so long ago…

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Chelsea Flower Show

Toadstools made from books, and trees hung with pocket watches and tea cups lined the walls, but the rest of the flower displays were no less wonderful. From prehistoric tree ferns to graceful bonsai, a sea of gentle hostas to huge bouquets of flowers, the exhibitors really have put on an incredible show.

Chelsea Flower Show

Chelsea Flower Show

Chelsea Flower Show

Chelsea Flower Show

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Chelsea Flower Show

Chelsea Flower Show

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I couldn’t forget the gardens though, so here are a few of my favourites:

Chelsea Flower Show

‘A Perfumer’s Garden in Grasse’ (above)

Grasse in the South of France is known as the perfume capital of the world, and this overgrown, L’Occitane-sponsored garden simultaneously represents the abandonment of its traditional perfume plantations and their recent rejuvenation.

Chelsea Flower Show

‘The Time In Between’

This garden was designed both to celebrate life and represent the emotions felt at the loss of someone close. Charlie Albone created it as a space to communicate with his late father about his life since his father passed, and it is both peaceful and thought-provoking.

Chelsea Flower Show

‘The Hidden Beauty of Kranji’

This tropical oasis represents planting common to Kranji in Singapore. The blend of foliage and orchids, a multi-level waterfall and a roof-garden style pavilion aims to convey the importance of modernization blending in with nature, without disturbing the ecosystem.

Chelsea Flower Show

‘The Retreat’

‘The Retreat’ was sponsored by financial advisors M&G, who also sponsor the whole Chelsea Flower Show, so as you can imagine they’ve pulled out all the stops. Hidden amongst the tumbling roses and peonies, Jo Thompson has created a two-storey, oak framed building inspired by Vita Sackville-West’s writing tower at Sissinghurst, and a natural swimming-pool.

It’s basically my perfect garden. My pictures do not at all do it justice though as it’s best enjoyed from the interior decking, so check out the official photos and video here.

Chelsea Flower Show

The Botanist have a pop-up bar on Sloane Square, so we dropped in for a cocktail on our way home. Yes everything apart from the drinks is made of plastic, but it’s wonderfully peaceful after the bustle of the real flower show down the road.

Has anybody else visited this year?

Impressed by the Prestonfield

I’ve mentioned The Prestonfield before, so I’m very glad to finally be able to show you around.

© Jade EveringhamThe main entrance.

© Jade EveringhamSomeone’s lovely leather luggage awaiting collection.

Built in 1687, this gorgeous manor house was originally the private home of Edinburgh’s Lord Provost. By the 1960s, however, it had fallen out of use, so was converted into a boutique hotel. It sits in twenty acres of gardens and parkland, at the foot of Arthur’s Seat, and the view from every window is breathtaking. With only eighteen bedrooms and five suites, you’re also guaranteed a personal service, and indeed the hotel prides itself on this. There are also a number of drawing rooms, complete with roaring log  fires, so even if you’re not a guest there are plenty of beautiful rooms to while away the hours over a glass of scotch or afternoon tea.

The first time we stayed at The Prestonfield it started snowing just as we drove up the main driveway, and we spent an incredibly romantic couple of days there. It was a wonderful introduction to Scotland. The best part, however, was being upgraded to a suite completely free of charge! There’s a big difference between the £170 price tag for a double room, and the £375 you usually have to pay for a suite. The complimentary bottle of Champagne that awaits, the his and hers bathrooms, the separate drawing room just for hanging out in…

© Jade EveringhamHere’s Tom looking very pleased with himself for finding us the most incredible hotel to stay in.

© Jade EveringhamAnd here’s me discovering the complimentary champagne and chocolate truffles.

SO. This time, we thought we’d see if it would happen again. We booked a normal double room and, lo and behold, on arrival we were indeed upgraded to a suite again for free! Apparently this is perfectly normal at The Prestonfield if they’re not already booked up, so if you’re able to go midweek and off-season then for goodness sake do.

© Jade EveringhamPosing in the Ben Franklin suite (shoes L K Bennett, dress French Connection).

© Jade EveringhamThe bedroom.

© Jade EveringhamLounging around on the chaise lounge.

© Jade Everingham

Not a renaissance oil painting, but the reflection on one of the windows of the room’s interior.

© Jade EveringhamPosing in our private drawing room. The leopard print carpet and draped-satin wallpaper may not be to everyone’s taste, but it certainly makes an impact.

© Jade EveringhamThe Yellow Room

After we’d changed for dinner, we sat by the fire for a while in the ever-so-decadent Yellow Room. All gold and yellow Baroque patterns and black leather sofas, the log fire sent shadows darting around the room, and we were able to write in peace for a couple of hours. A fantastic range and array of scotches are also available, and the knowledgeable staff are happy to offer advice based on your preferences whenever they pop in to stoke the fire.

© Jade EveringhamI took a couple of photos the next morning, so you could see all the gorgeous details.

The Prestonfield is also the location of Rhubarb, a very decadent and very delightful restaurant. It’s located in a pair of oval rooms at the heart of the hotel, each hung with a large gold chandelier. The walls are papered in bold red, black and gold stripes, black candles glitter on every table, and oil paintings watch over you as you explore the menu. It put me in mind of dining in the captain’s cabin on board a pirate galleon.

© Jade EveringhamAlthough it looks like a mirrored reflection, the second chandelier you can see is actually suspended in the second dining room.

© Jade Everingham

© Jade EveringhamPoor Thomas, looking very tired!

The food was very impressive, and beautifully presented. We asked for a cheeseboard to be brought up to our room so we could relax, and this array of delights arrived soon after (hot chocolate for Tom, port for me). I can’t remember what all the cheeses were, but they all disappeared pretty quickly!

The next morning we skipped breakfast so we could have a much needed lie-in, and had tea and coffee in The Yellow Room instead after we’d checked out. As we were waiting for our taxi I spotted something through one of the windows, so I grabbed my camera and ran outside…

© Jade EveringhamCan you see them?

© Jade EveringhamPEACOCKS! Sunning themselves on the lawn.

© Jade EveringhamThis is clearly the king of the peacocks.

The Prestonfield was wonderful, as ever, and I’d highly recommend it. Even just the one night is worth it as a treat, especially if you’re able to go mid-week!

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Riding in Rivers and Afternoon Tea With the Brontës

The best riding is to be had in the countryside. Not pootling around Hyde Park with untrained lapdogs snapping at your heels, because they’ve had all intelligence bred out of them and think chasing a horse’s tail will have no skull-crushing consequences. Not going round and round in circles in a sand-school with ten other grumpy ponies trotting nose to tail. You can do what you want in the countryside.

My friend with horses, Hannah, decided it was high-time we went on a good three hour hack, and whispered The Water Meadows to me, like we were going to Shangri-La. For most people, this would sound crap I’m sure. A watery field would mean only surprisingly deep and unpleasantly freezing water pouring over the top of your gumboots, mud sucking off your shoes, and generally ruining any nice clothes you foolishly decided to wear. With horses, however, this means riding through water, and this is just about the most fun you can have on a horse.© Jade Everingham

Hannah and Padraig in the middle of a river (he is over 17hh, to give you an idea of how deep it is.)

Going very, very fast is also fun, jumping is of course fun, but if you consider the ratio of difficulty/ danger to pleasure, plain old riding through water is just as good. Something happens to a horse’s gait when they move through water. The extra energy they have to put into moving is transferred through the saddle and into you, and you get an extra bounce. Not the sort that propels you from the saddle or rattles your bones either, but the sort that makes it feel like you’re riding a dinosaur that’s running. You can also very often see them thinking ‘seriously? You want me to do what?’ Are you completely insane?’  which is very, very funny. Then they get in and realise how much fun it is, and you’re off.

© Jade Everingham

River ponies. Me on Sampson, and Amy on Freckles. I wish I knew what Sampson was thinking here… caption suggestions are welcome.

The river here has swollen with flood water, and is now even deeper and much wider than usual. Riding through flood-water is particularly exciting, as the landscape has temporarily changed. Solid ground has suddenly become water, and wading through it on horseback feels like you’re exploring new territory. You can tell that the horses find it interesting as well – they’ll snort at it with their ears pricked up, and plunge forward once they’re sure they’re not going to be attacked by water demons.

© Jade EveringhamSampson looking particularly disgruntled here. Shortly afterwards Amy made it to the far bank, but Freckles, presumably fearing he would be left behind (though this isn’t really logical as Hannah and I were chatting in the middle, completely stationary, so goodness knows what he was really up to), made a run for it and galloped back through the river at top speed. Amy was completely drenched but managed to stay on, luckily, as we were laughing too hard to fish her out.

© Jade EveringhamMy photography skills here. This is what happens when you try to take photos whilst sitting on a horse in a river.

Despite being a bit wet, quite muddy, and smelling distinctly of horses, Hannah had suggested we do something a bit different in the afternoon. We popped back to my flat to de-horse, and jumped in a taxi to the Renaissance Hotel. We had cocktails here for my Birthday, but they’re currently serving a Brontë-themed afternoon tea, so we thought we’d check it out and make an attempt at being ladylike for a change.

Billed as the ultimate Yorkshire Afternoon Tea, it is designed as a tribute to the famous writing sisters.  We started with finger sandwiches, of course, which included a Wensleydale and pickle option in honour of the Brontës’ love of the Lake District. These were lovely, though we could have done with more sandwiches and fewer cakes to be honest. We then moved on to Yorkshire puddings with mash and gravy, in lieu of the traditional scones, as often cooked by Emily Brontë (apparently). Hannah said these were excellent, though as they contained beef (not made clear on the menu) I had to take her word for it. It was a nice touch though, and made for a more interesting afternoon tea than the usual insipid affair that some hotels try to pass off.

Alongside these were delicious mouthfuls of pistachio cream, and then we moved onto the wonderful cake selection. A mouthful of Yorkshire Parkin (from an original recipe devised by the Brontë ’s faithful servant Tabby), Pontefract liquorice and chocolate cupcakes, some sort of mini tart thingy, and a Rhubarb Eton Mess which was definitely my favourite.

© Jade Everingham

Here’s me (accidentally looking sulky – I promise  I was enjoying myself immensely) wearing an Alice Temperley shawl.

© Jade Everingham

Hannah looking all fresh-faced and innocent (don’t believe it) wearing Hobbs.

© Jade Everingham

We also went for the Victorian gin cocktails, aptly titled Bramwell’s Ruin (Brontë brother Bramwell was an alcoholic) which were served in lovely 1920s coupe glasses. They were made from gin, sloe gin, orange bitters, rhubarb bitters I think, and… more alcohol. It was delicious, but very, very strong. 

Tom and I haven’t had a proper holiday for months, as even over Christmas we ended up having to work most days (emailing and organising tutors and clients on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Years Eve etc). As the first proper day of our two week holiday therefore, horses and afternoon tea made a wonderful start, so thank you Hannah for suggesting it!

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Birthday Cocktails at The Gilbert Scott Bar

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Most people wind down over Christmas and the New Year, and use it as a chance to take stock of their lives.

Unfortunately for Tom and I, however, most of the entrance exams take place over January, so mid-November to mid-January is our busiest time of the year. Often working weekends and 16hr days, we barely have time to breath. Everything is slowly starting to go back to normal though, so I thought it high-time I got my act together and wrote a new blog post. We’re taking the first two weeks of February off, so I’ll have lots of lovely things to share with you then, but for now I thought I’d introduce you all to The Gilbert Scott bar.

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Commissioned by the Midland Railway in 1866 and designed by George Gilbert Scott, the Midland Hotel was built to accommodate Kings Cross rail passengers. It oozed extravagance and luxury, with extensive decoration in gold leaf, ornate stencilling and flamboyant wallpapers covering every inch of the hotel. By 1935, however, it had become too expensive to maintain and heat. It also lacked ensuite bathrooms, and the solid foundations made it impossible to add new plumbing routes, so it was closed as a hotel and used to accommodate British Rail staff (who evidently didn’t mind sharing bathrooms) and later as railway offices. They were finally forced out in 1985 by a failed fire-safety certificate, but in 2011 the hotel reopened as the Renaissance Hotel (having passed the fire-safety certificate and undergone extensive restoration and updates, including a new wing).

Renaissance Hotel 1

Ta-da.

The rooms are beautiful, the restaurant is lovely, but my favourite part is The Gilbert Scott bar. It’s a fairly small space, and – perhaps as a result – is relaxed and accommodating. Most importantly, the cocktails are just… incredible. I always have a Trade Winds, which apparently contains Bols Genever (the precursor to English gins, as well as being the origin of the phrase ‘Dutch Courage’), elderflower, ginger, lemon, carbonated gunpowder tea, cardamom and cloves. It evokes the romance of the East India Company battling 18th century pirates and the high seas. Never stick to just one cocktail though; that would be silly.

It was my Birthday last week, so we spent a wonderful few hours working our way through the cocktail menu, and taking photos (on my new camera which I have not yet worked out how to use, so apologies for the blurriness). As you can see, we are not a particularly serious lot.

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Aidan (who I’ve known since I was 16 and I played Puck to his Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and the lovely Kirsty (who I met on my Renaissance and Early Modern Studies MA, and who has just completed her PhD the clever thing).

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My best friend Katy (who I’ve known since I was 11, and who, incidentally, played Helena in the same Midsummer Night’s Dream production).

DSC_0084Tom’s friend Steve and I (posing in the guise of Alice and Luther. I can’t remember why.) I think I’m drinking a Pomodoro there.

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Hijacking Dave, who was trying to be sensible. Pah. (Dave was actually the first of Tom’s friends that I met, as they shared a squalid little flat in Muswell Hill at the time.)

DSCF1719We mustn’t forget the cocktails. I think this is an Amber Embers – campfire tea infused scotch, apricot, sweet vermouth and lemon. Delicious and exciting…

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Ooo! See! Very exciting. I do love things that come with smoke. Their January cocktail menu below:

Jan Menu

DSC_0110Tom’s friend Andy is practically bent over double to get his arm round me here. He is a very tall man.

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My lovely friend Hannah (who I’ve also known since I was 11, and who played Bottom in the SAME  production as Katy, Aidan and I. Hannah has also brought horses back into my life, and rock-climbing, for which I would happily marry her if she’d have me).

DSC_0113Aidan and I being aggressive and street. Innit.

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Posing with hair over my face. I’m not sure why I have long hair, only to grab it and put it on top of my head whenever a camera is pointed at me. Perhaps this is why.

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Charles, Tom and Neil, all looking like they’re up to no good.

DSC_0180Charles and I pretending to be Russian spies.

DSC_0193The real Russian spies – Sam and Laura, who have moved to Moscow and St Petersburg to teach and anglify small Russian children.

DSC_0194And finally, my lovely Thomas, who organised the evening, and who I’m marrying in 3 1/2 months (panicpanicpanic, must organise a wedding soon.)

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Marmadukes Hotel, and the Best Places to Write in York

Although Tom and I usually prefer staying in self-catered accommodation when we travel (no getting up at the crack of dawn for breakfast, or being interrupted at any moment by unexpected knocks on the door) there’s only one place we stay when we visit York. Marmadukes Hotel.

The decor has a slightly Old World, colonial feel, with plenty of dark wooden tables, leather sofas, wicker chairs and botanical prints. Apparently it was once the home of a Victorian gentleman, and you do get a sense of this. It’s spacious and light, however, and the cabinets of desiccated plant samples and taxidermied animals favoured by the nineteenth century house are absent. I love this place. It always feels like staying in a home rather than a hotel.

Marmadukes Hotel

Posing? ME?! Nooo.

Marmadukes Hotel

Lounging around in our lovely room. It’s actually not quite as pretty as the last room we were allocated, but it still has a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere.

Marmadukes Hotel

The main drawing room. The staff are happy to serve drinks in here whenever you ask, and there’s a second room next door with leather sofas, a chess set and other board games in case you get bored.

If it is taxidermy you’re after, however, head to The House of Trembling Madness (Delirium Tremens, or DT’s to the locals). The shop downstairs sells an incredible range of alcoholic delights, but make your way through this and up the stairs for the real treat. Crooked wooden beams, benches with sheepskins and fur pelts thrown over them, and a whole wall of mounted heads lend this pub a strangely homely and welcoming feel. Like a Viking boozer. We were sat beneath a huge boar’s head, and above the bar an antique Victorian lion snarls down at punters. Miraculously they actually have wifi here, making it a great place to curl up and write.

Delirium Tremens

Delirium Tremens

A moment of calm, before the place filled up completely as people finished work

Delirium Tremens

A whole wall of taxidermy

© Jade Everingham

We had a few drinks here, before meeting Tom’s brother Luke at the Evil Eye Lounge (every drinking establishment in York seems to be competing to have the most ridiculous name. Excellent reason to test them all, I’d have thought.) In theory this is a student bar, but don’t let that put you off as it’s a relaxed and eclectic crowd. Great cocktails, quirky décor, and a menu of dishes brought back by wide-eyes travellers. Carved four poster beds have been incorporated amongst the usual benches and tables, which you should definitely occupy if you get the chance. I completely forgot to take any photos, sorry, but that is testament to the venue and company!

The next day, determined to get some writing done, we wandered around York looking for somewhere suitable. I vastly prefer writing in cafes and bars, as inspiration is all around you. It also feels more purposeful than sitting on the sofa at home, where there are so many other distractions.

The Shambles

The Shambles

Tom, looking more like the Bernard Black of the North

The Shambles

York is a beautiful town, full of Medieval buildings and cobbled streets, but it is also full of tearooms. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of afternoon tea, and Betty’s Tearooms do an excellent one… but they just don’t work as a writing environment. There’s too much light, for one thing. I don’t know about you, but I much prefer hiding myself away in the shadows so I can type and think in peace. There are also far too many people, often sitting at tables crowded closely together, peering curiously at everything and everyone around them. There are plenty of excellent pubs and restaurants in York, but the sort of cafes you get in London and Paris don’t seem to have arrived yet.

After a good half an hour of peering doubtfully through tearoom windows, we were advised to try Grays Court. Not even the locals seem to know about this place, but it was exactly what we wanted. For anyone who does know York, you need to circle anticlockwise around the back of the Minster, then it’s just past the Treasurer’s House. These were the directions we were given anyway! For everyone else there’s google maps.

We wandered beneath a stone archway, and found ourselves in a stunning courtyard. The trees were hung with lanterns, and only just starting to spill golden leaves onto the cobbles beneath. We picked out a heavy oak door as being the most likely entrance, and made our way up the hulking wooden staircase on the other side. As promised, the place was half empty, and we were invited to wander around and find a room we wanted to sit in. We chose the Library (obviously!) but even the main, wood-panelled lobby has been cleverly split into separate areas so you are able to feel more secluded if you want to.

Grays Court YorkThe Library

Grays Court, York

Grays Court, YorkThe Jacobean oak-panelled Long GalleryGrays Court - Jacobean oak-panelled Long Gallery

Apparently the manor house was once owned by the Duke of Somerset, Jane Seymour’s brother, and visited by both James I and James II. It hasn’t been open as a hotel for long, and they still seem to be putting in the finishing touches (a few shelves in the Library hadn’t yet been filled, and a wall of gilt-framed black and white photos in the dining room was only half completed). It’s a lovely, peaceful environment though, and we stayed there most of the day.

We only had two days in York, but we found some lovely places. I’ll save the excellent shopping for another time!

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Meet the Russians

Fox advert

As it happens, I know a lot of Russians, but I also know one in particular.

I met my friend Katia for coffee a few months ago, when she first mentioned that she was being filmed for a TV documentary. She laughed as my eyes widened and I started looking around for a hidden camera crew. As usual she played it down, presenting her role as an adjunct to the real stars, and we left it at that. A couple of weeks later, however, she asked if I’d mind terribly being filmed having tea with her in her flat. I thought about it long and hard (for a good two minutes), before deciding that I should manage not to make a fool out of myself on international TV if I just had to sit still and drink tea, and agreed. A week later, having broken me in gently, she invited Tom and I to a small cocktail party hosted by a friend of hers, also to be filmed for the series. I did have to bribe, cajole and beg Tom to accompany me, but agree he eventually did.

I don’t usually watch reality TV shows, but then I’ve never known anyone starring in one before so an exception definitely has to be made. Friends and family who have watched Meet the Russians have reacted… extremely, shall we say! My mum’s response was probably the best (she’s well clever, my mum), as she was actually quite intrigued by the the innocence of most of the Russians featured; their naivety and lack of self-awareness, so different to the British culture they have settled in which judges others so harshly.

The below table I found online illustrates this quite well, though I’m sure we could add to it! Any ideas welcome.

Translation Table

Tom and I were apparently (room meat) on last night’s episode of Meet the Russians on FOX (Sky only I’m afraid, but that does mean it’ll be repeated  a lot if you missed it). We don’t have Sky ourselves though, so haven’t seen it!  I’m going to take a deep breath, prepare for an onslaught, and ask what you thought. Honesty, good British-style honesty (see above table), appreciated!

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The Holly Bush

One of my favourite pubs in London is The Holly Bush, in Hampstead, so I thought I’d introduce you.

I’m often to be found in here, deep in conversation by the open fire, or staring fondly into the depths of a glass of cider in one of the wood-panelled booths. There are nooks and corners for hiding away in, and larger tables in the back room if you’re bringing a party. It has a lovely, relaxed atmosphere, and is wonderfully free of the bellowing city boys central London establishments are plagued by. It’s usually busy as it’s not the best kept secret, but I always phone up and reserve a table, which strategy has never failed, even late on a Friday afternoon.

There are plenty of ales on tap, as well as Aspalls cider; a godsend if you’re pretending to be ladylike and prefer sipping halves. They also have a good selection of scotch, and the staff are friendly and helpful… and often delightfully eccentric! In addition to the beautiful surroundings, the interesting staff and the excellent range of alcohol, the food is also incredible. Not your usual pub fare at all, though their Sunday roasts are highly renowned. The last time I met my friend Hannah there for a drink, I had the smoked duck egg. As a main course it doesn’t sound the best, does it, but out of curiosity and faith I put my trust in them, and the Holly Bush certainly didn’t let me down.

My meal arrived on a large piece of slate, with a curious white dome in the centre of it. The glass dome was lifted off with a flourish, and a cloud of smoke swirled out before disappearing into the shadows. After this piece of theatre I was left with two large fried duck-eggs, placed on top of creamy mashed potato, itself piled on top of a bed of thinly sliced greens – possibly celeriac, with its subtly nutty, celery-like flavour. Surrounding this was a selection of wild mushrooms Hugh FW would have been impressed by, including winter chanterelles and a huge cep. Everything was infused with a subtle smokiness, and the whole dish was both exciting and delicious. I can’t remember what Hannah had I’m afraid, as my attention was completely focussed on my own meal (I actually stopped talking for a good ten minutes, which rare occurrence she was particularly impressed by) but I’m told it was also excellent. Tom always orders one of their gourmet scotch eggs as a starter, or even if we just pop in for a drink, as he claims they make the best he’s ever had (and he’s from the North, which makes him an expert).  The menu is regularly updated, the food is consistently excellent, and they always have an interesting vegetarian option.

Isn’t that just the most exciting way to present a meal?

Tottering home through the cobbled streets of Hampstead also feels like stepping back in time, and is a far more pleasant end to the evening than walking past vomiting clubbers closer to the centre of London. Let me know if you pop in for a drink, or if you have any other recommendations for similar watering-holes in the UK (anywhere at all, I will travel!)

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The Horseshoe   P1080890   P1070741

Fear and Loathing in a Vegetarian Restaurant

Just so we’re clear, this is a rant.

I usually tell people I’m a vegetarian, as I don’t eat meat or fish. I’ll eat seafood like crab, lobster and oysters, however (not whelks though. Nasty, slimy, rubbery little mouthfuls of filth), so don’t personally consider this categorisation of my dietary preferences to be strictly accurate. It’s just easier than launching into a list of what I will and won’t eat. The term Vegetarian also seems to be a trigger for verbal warfare. The second you mention it whole rooms of people will turn on you… “B-U-T  W-H-Y?” They shout, whilst arming phasers and activating shields.

Unfortunately ‘vegetarianism’ encompasses a huge range and variety of reasons for not eating meat, all of which are amalgamated by carnivores into one collective perception of vegetarians as freaks. Some of them are. There is the ‘vegetables have feelings too’ brigade out there. There are those who feel it their duty to educate the meat-eating world as to their wrongdoing, but who only damage the cause further by pissing everyone off. Some love the taste of meat but abstain for moral reasons. Some people are just fussy eaters.

Personally, I have a number of different reasons, which, after a heavy sigh, I will dredge up and recite every time I am asked “BUT WHY?” Firstly, I am a fussy eater. I have tried different kinds of meat before, and I just didn’t like it. I also have a vivid imagination, and the slightest thing will put me off my food. Images of death, blood, and organs being ripped out of animal carcasses… yep, that’ll do it. The idea that I am eating muscle and tissue, something that was once animated into life, equally disgusts me. I do object for moral reasons as well. I love animals, and eating things you love seems to push the boundaries of what is humane. To be honest, given how far the human race has advanced in terms of knowledge and technology, I find it shocking that we have not advanced beyond eating the flesh of other creatures, flesh similar to our own… But that’s my opinion, and the perversions of the human race will always be difficult to suppress, so I’ll (usually) keep my arguments to myself.

Now, to the real point of this post.

Why does every restaurant offer the same vegetarian options? I have become a lover of seafood, suppressing any moral reaction to this I may have had, largely just to add a bit of bloody variety when I eat out. If a menu lacks seafood, then it will invariably offer me the same old crap. I’m sick of goats’ cheese. I’m sick to death of risotto. I can’t even eat butternut squash anymore, so frequently has it been forced upon me. Waiters stare at me in confusion if I reject a ‘meat substitute’ – “surely madam wants her vegetables to taste of sausage?” – and even mushrooms, those perfect doses of serotonin, are beginning to pall for me.

There are a couple of restaurants in Hampstead that frequently impress me. The Horseshoe, and The Holly Bush. Even their salads are innovative; the ingredients intrigue, surprise, and taste fantastic. Though there will usually only be one or two vegetarian options, and the menus don’t really change frequently enough for this to negate my little rant. Today at The Horseshoe I had saffron and potato dumplings, with asparagus, a tomato-based sauce, some sort of green stuff (possibly pesto?) and button chestnut mushrooms. The boys had fancy fish and chips, and we were all perfectly happy. Last night, however,  I had a full-on sulk at dinner. We ate at the Riverfront Bar and Restaurant on the Southbank, and my only options for a main course were a SANDWICH, or a goats’ cheese salad. I had leek and mushroom soup, a starter (it was passable, but I only had a mouthful then continued sulking), and a handful of  chips (they came in a little bucket, they didn’t just put them into my hands, but it was a side-order so petitely proportioned).

The Holly Bush

The Horseshoe

Perhaps I’m just being a brat, but isn’t it about time restaurants put a little more effort into their vegetarian options? It isn’t just vegetarians that want to eat them!

Talking to Strange Cats, and Not Talking to Londoners

I don’t usually talk to people in London. Not just out of misanthropy, but because Londoners don’t talk, unless it’s to complain about the weather or the public transport system. Otherwise, it’s only tourists and crazy people who try to strike up a conversation. If you ask for directions of course, we’ll take out our headphones and turn into a walking A to Z. This is a matter of pride and Britishness. I got lost once somewhere near Bow, and came upon three menacing looking youths with ‘mugger of old ladies’ gleaming in their eyes. “Er, do you know where the 25 route goes near here?” I squeaked, trying to hide behind myself. After staring at me for a long moment, puzzled, one of them took out an old biro and drew me a map, with the bus-times scrawled down the side. Otherwise, however, books and newspapers remain fixed before our eyes.

I get asked for directions a lot actually. I know London pretty well so I usually am able to help, but my demarcation as ‘helpful-looking person’ still surprises me. I’m usually frowning and swearing at my blackberry, and not always under my breath. I have been compared to a female Malcolm Tucker, so it can’t be because I look particularly friendly. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s because I’m always walking twice as fast as everyone else. I’m always late, so I’ve perfected a sort of swishing lope; I feel like Aragorn in high heels and a tweed mini skirt, off to rescue the hobbits teach small children. To the lost and panicked eye, my speed must be indicative of Geographical Awareness rather than poor time-keeping skills.

Usually though, people avoid eye contact. They’ll study the pavement, or the sky, or get their phone out just at the moment when eye contact would otherwise occur. I’ll do any one of these until I’m almost next to someone, at which point I purposefully stare into the distance because hey, I’m not avoiding eye contact. People always stare at the ground when I do this. Maybe it’s weird.

There is one exception, however. Cats. I miss cats like I imagine mothers miss their absent children. If I see one crossing in-front of me, or sitting watching me, it’s like I’ve spotted a long lost family member.  A childhood friend – I’ll do everything to get their attention and strike up a conversation. I’ll kneel down, and offer a hopeful hand. Sometimes I’ll get a quick rub, before I’m deemed not useful, or my perfume sends them into a quick retreat. If I’m lucky though, I’m their new best friend. They’ll insist on both hands being engaged to tickle behind each ear. A full-body stroke from brow to tail-tip will be rewarded with a leap and a wriggle, both front paws lifted momentarily from the pavement.

My favourite London cat is called Rocky. He’s a gorgeous long-haired tabby, with huge, blazing green eyes and Yoda-proportioned pointy ears. He belongs to a cafe in Hampstead, and I often come across him grumpily sitting on the metal chairs outside. The first time I knelt down next to him to say hello, and he realised I wasn’t just pausing for a cursory pat, he climbed right onto my lap and started purring. My heart melted. It was a chilly November morning, and we snuggled up outside the cafe for a good half an hour, my lunch appointment redirected so we didn’t have to be parted.

Rocky, pretending to be shy. Shy this handsome gentleman is not, so do say hello if you happen spot him. He’s just what a girl needs to snuggle up to on a chilly autumn day!

cat-cafe-pic

This is not me. But I would never leave this cafe (Source)

Moral of the story: talk to cats, not to people.