Hanoi

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I was up bright and early on my second day in Hanoi and immediately made my way to Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. The monument to the country’s great leader, which houses his embalmed body, is huge and there were lots of guards, all in pristine white uniforms, milling around and making sure the visitors behaved suitably respectfully.

Despite being just after 8.30am, the queue to go inside the mausoleum was enormous and stretched all the way around the complex – I couldn’t even see the end of the queue. The only queue I’ve ever seen of a similar size was the queue to go inside the Vatican. Rather than join the masses, we made for the presidential palace grounds instead. The presidential palace is a grand, yellow colonial-style building (below), but Ho Chi Minh snubbed the palace, preferring to live in a more modest house in the grounds instead.

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The grounds consisted of a small complex of houses, including a section that showcased the presidential cars and a house on stilts that Ho Chi Minh used as a summer residence. The house was very sparse inside, and there wasn’t much in the way of comfort or belongings. There was also a bomb shelter with a warning bell system – one ring meant the enemy planes were 100km away, but two rings meant an attack was imminent. The palace grounds were incredibly busy and there were so many people you couldn’t walk around at your own pace as there were bodies everywhere you turned. We ended up joining an enormous queue of people that snaked around the complex, slowly walking around in a giant line.

After the mausoleum we headed to the Temple of Literature, the oldest place in Hanoi. The 11th century temple was built in honour of the Chinese philosopher Confucius. It’s a beautiful complex of temples and gardens and that day, it was packed with smartly dressed students having their graduation photos taken. The gardens were really pretty and the temple of Confucius impressive. As I walked around, taking it all in, a couple of female guides pointed out a series of stone tortoises topped with stone slabs inscribed with information about the scholars who studied there between the 15th and 18th centuries.

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Then it was on to a much bleaker site, the Hoa Lo Prison (above), nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton by US prisoners of war. The prison was grim with dingy rooms in which multiple prisoners were confined. The conditions were even worse for those on death row – they were locked in tiny cells, with barely any light, and forced to sit, shackled, on very uncomfortable-looking wooden benches. Some of the photos on display were horrific, and there was a bizarre, propaganda-like display about the US prisoners of war that made it sound as though they were in a holiday camp. Visiting the prison was a sombre, sobering experience, and one which brought home the horrors of war.

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It was now lunchtime so we headed back towards Hoan Kiem Lake to the City View Café for lunch. The café is high up, with superb views over the lake, and I tucked into a plate of spring rolls with crab. With the afternoon ahead of us, we decided to spend the rest of the day sightseeing nearby. First up, was St Joseph’s Cathedral, an impressive French-style gothic cathedral, before heading through the streets to the Opera House (above), a grand building in a chic neighbourhood – a neighbouring street was filled with designer boutiques such as Valentino, Hermés and Chopard.

We then walked back towards the lake where we found lots of beaming couples having their wedding photos taken. Vietnamese couples traditionally have their wedding photos taken the day before the wedding so they can show them to their guests on the day. The women were dressed beautifully in long dresses split to the waist, which they wore over silk trousers, while the men were in suits. Some of the women were holding a bouquet, others a bouquet in a basket, and some were accompanied by make-up artists. Most couples had friends with them or bridesmaids who were also being photographed. I really enjoyed sitting beside the water, watching the constant flow of happy, excited couples posing ahead of their big day.

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After a nice relaxing half an hour on the park bench, watching the world go by, we wandered up towards the Den Ngoc Son temple, crossing the red wooden bridge to get to it. It’s a peaceful little place and the temple is home to the remains of a giant turtle that once lived in the lake, as well as a very living cat. While we were admiring the temple, a number of people came in and placed money on the shrine in front of us, before kneeling down to pray. We left the worshippers to it and headed back outside, but by this point the heavens had opened, so we sheltered under a large canopy until the rain eased off.

Vietnam is well-known for its water puppetry, an ancient art that developed in the rice paddies, and keen to see one of its famous shows, our next stop was a water puppet theatre opposite the lake. In the centre of the stage, there was a waist-deep pool where the puppets would pop up from under the bamboo backdrop and perform. Six musicians, all clad in traditional dress, sang and performed on either side of the stage. The puppetry was very clever with fire-breathing dragons (I have no idea how the fire worked on water), men, women and various birds of paradise all popping up during the course of the show. It was an incredible experience, and a pleasant and relaxing end to a very busy day of sightseeing.

Hanoi – First impressions

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My first stop on my Vietnamese trip was Hanoi and after flying into the city, I headed straight to my hotel in the old town to dump my bags and have a quick shower. Then it was time to get my bearings and explore Vietnam’s capital city.

Hanoi’s old town is a maze of narrow streets and on leaving the hotel, I found myself in a narrow alley packed with vendors selling every kind of clothing imaginable, but mostly underwear. Despite its narrowness, there were countless scooters attempting to drive up and down it, much to my amazement.

My destination that afternoon was Hoon Kiem Lake, a large lake in the heart of the city surrounded by parkland. To get to it, I gingerly tagged along behind some locals to cross the busy and chaotic ring-road that encircles it. The first thing that caught my eye was the Den Ngoc Son temple or Jade Mountain temple in the middle of the lake and the long arched red wooden bridge (the Huc or Sunbeam Bridge) that leads up to it.

After taking a few photos, I carried on walking, stopping to admire another structure in the middle of the lake, the Thap Rua or Turtle Tower, a small stone pagoda that represents a local legend. According to the myth, General Le Loi was given a magical sword by a golden turtle that lived in the lake, which he used to banish the Chinese from Hanoi and become emperor. While he was out sailing on the lake a little while later, the turtle reappeared to take back the sword – hence the name of the tower.

The lake was incredibly pretty with lots of people strolling along its paths, as well as vendors selling food, drinks and souvenirs, including delicate paper cards with pop-up origami centres. At the bottom of the lake, I spotted an elderly man doing tai chi, a popular past-time, at the water’s edge. The park was very well maintained, with lots of gardeners, all wearing the traditional conical bamboo hats, hard at work looking after them. After finishing a loop of the park, it was getting late so I headed back to the hotel for a rest before dinner.

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I enjoyed my first experience of Vietnam – it was overwhelming, but exhilarating. Hanoi was wealthier than I was expecting and the entrepreneurial spirit rife, with people selling goods everywhere I went. The streets of the old town were packed with shops selling all manner of things, including sellotape (in all sizes and colours), tinsel, Christmas decorations, metal cages, ladders, and loads more. And I was amazed by the number of shops selling the same things, often right next to each other, and the amount of street vendors selling food, including round hard hollow doughnuts, fruits of all description, soft drinks, souvenirs and so on.

I was expecting Hanoi to be busy, but not as busy as it was – there were people everywhere. But the thing that struck me the most was the endless stream of scooters. The roads were relentlessly busy, yet it seemed to be organised chaos. Scooters didn’t stop at pedestrian crossings or traffic lights and there were no road markings, just a vehicular free-for-all and lots of beeping horns. But the Vietnamese appeared to be very skilled drivers; their weaving skills were incredible.

I didn’t have much time to look around on my first day, but the brief glimpse I had of Hanoi left me raring to get back out there and further explore the city.

 

Vietnam – Top tips

img_7778-2If you’re planning a trip to Vietnam, here are some of my top tips to help you make the most of your visit:

Climate

Vietnam is hot pretty much all year round – in the north it’s cooler in the winter months between November and February, but in the south it’s sweltering all year round. I visited in November/December and it was hot and humid everywhere. As a tropical country, Vietnam has a rainy season, which usually lasts from May to October. It was mostly dry during my trip, but when it did rain, it tended to chuck it down.

Money matters

The Vietnamese Dong is the official currency of Vietnam, although many tourist places also accept US dollars. I took a mixture of both currencies, but mostly spent the Dong. Vietnam is the only place I’ve been able to refer to myself as a millionaire as the Dong comes in high denominations, such as 100,000d, 200,000d, and 50,000d, which made currency conversions tricky. If you run out of cash, there are lots of ATMs throughout the country and I didn’t have any problems withdrawing money or using my debit card.

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What to pack

Vietnam is hot and humid, so sun protection is essential – suntan lotion, a hat and sunglasses are a must. But an umbrella or poncho is also handy for those inevitable downpours. I only had an umbrella with me and ended up buying a luminous pink poncho during one particularly heavy rain shower as my umbrella just wasn’t cutting it.

A lot of the public bathrooms don’t have soap or toilet roll, so it’s worth packing hand sanitiser and toilet roll for when you’re out and about. You should also consider taking basic medical supplies, too. I tend to have a fairly strong stomach when I’m travelling. Not so, in Vietnam. By the end of the trip, I was having to eat Western food with some regularity – much to my disappointment – because my body was just saying no. Needless to say, the diarrhoea tablets I’d packed came in very handy.

What to wear

It’s hot and sticky pretty much everywhere, so I stuck to a mix of cool summer dresses or shorts and t-shirts depending on where I was. I mostly wore summer dresses when sightseeing in the cities, and shorts and t-shirts for activities. It sometimes got a little cooler in the evenings, so a cardigan or jumper is handy for when the temperature drops.

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Negotiating the crazy traffic

The traffic in Vietnamese cities is like no other and defies logic. Apart from in Ho Chi Minh City and at the odd set of traffic lights, no one really pays attention to the traffic signals and every type of vehicle you can think of comes at you from all possible directions at the same time. Miraculously I didn’t witness any accidents and all the drivers seemed to effortlessly weave around each other.

The traffic is incredibly intimidating at first, but luckily there’s a knack to crossing the roads. If you can, look for other people to cross the road with and if you find a group, spread out horizontally and cross the road in a line together. But whether you’re crossing by yourself or in a group, make sure to walk at a slow but steady pace – don’t stop or change speed, just keep going steadily – this allows the drivers to judge how fast you’re going and they’ll weave around you. Once you’ve done it a few times, you get used to it and it (almost) becomes second nature.

Shop ‘ til you drop

Literally. If I could give you one piece of advice, it would be to take a half-empty suitcase. I’m not a massive shopper when I travel, but Vietnam is a shopping dream, especially if like me, you love home wares. There are so many beautiful things to buy and it’s all incredibly cheap. I came home with pretty ceramics, wooden objects, paintings, clothes, table mats, coasters, scarves, to name but a few. And I would have bought more if a.) I had more room in my suitcase and b.) I wasn’t worried about breakages. I’m looking to buy a house this year and if I could, I’d fill it with Vietnamese crockery.

One of my favourite shopping streets in Ho Chi Minh City was Le Loi and I especially loved the Saigon Boutique, a small store selling lovely home wares. I bought quite a bit in there including bags, mugs and combs, so much so, they gave me a little wicker shopping basket for free for buying so much. It’s definitely worth a visit if you’re in the city.

If you like fashion, the town of Hoi An is renowned for its tailor-made clothing stores. I’d never be able to afford made-to-measure clothes at home, but I had a dress and a pair of trousers made up while I was in the city. I had great fun choosing the designs and fabrics, and then going to fittings to make sure everything fit perfectly. It’s definitely worth doing, even if it’s just for the experience.

Relax with a massage

One of my favourite discoveries in Vietnam was the cheap massages. At home, a massage is a very rare treat as I can’t usually afford them. But most of the hotels I stayed in had lovely spas with rock bottom prices, so I indulged in more than a couple of massages during my trip. It was the perfect way to unwind after a day of non-stop sightseeing.

Indulge in a beer – or two!

Before going to Vietnam, I hadn’t drunk beer in about 15 years. I hated it. But beer is ubiquitous in the country with the restaurants and bars selling different brands, usually something local. Hanoi, in particular, is famous for its fresh beer. As the old saying goes, when in Vietnam, do as the Vietnamese do (or something like that), so I found myself drinking quite a bit of beer – and surprisingly, liking it!

Vietnam

img_7378-3A long, narrow slither of land, stretching along the Eastern edge of the Indochinese Peninsula, Vietnam had been top of my ‘must-visit’ list for years after watching the Top Gear special in the country years ago. Before watching the show, Vietnam wasn’t somewhere I’d really thought of visiting, but I was mesmerised by the stunning scenery, friendly people and rich culture. I often see places on TV or read about them in magazines or blogs, and think to myself, ‘that looks like a nice place to visit’, but rarely am I so bowled over by somewhere that I spend the next few years chomping at the bit to visit. Vietnam was the exception.

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I spent two weeks travelling the length of the country, which is home to some 92 million people. Starting in the north, in the capital Hanoi, I travelled south stopping off at some of the country’s most famous sites before ending my trip in Ho Chi Minh City, the financial capital, in the south. Along the way I stayed in the old imperial city of Hue, the pretty port of Hoi An and the laid-back Mekong Delta, with visits to the ancient city of My Son (Vietnam’s Angkor Wat, above), picturesque Halong Bay and the infamous Cu Chi network of tunnels used by the Viet Cong during the Vietnam War.

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The country was incredible and the scenery, especially in Halong Bay, more than lived up to my expectations. The Vietnamese people were friendly and helpful, and the food flavoursome. As a former French colony, the influence of the French is inescapable, whether it’s in the food, the city planning or the architecture – the Gustave Eiffel-designed General Post Office in Ho Chi Minh City is sublime. Yet traditional Vietnamese culture abounds, too.

In Hanoi, the old town is a warren of streets and alleys, and the traditional shopping district is home to all kinds of shops (from blacksmiths and silk specialists, to sellotape stores and Christmas shops). All the shops selling similar goods tend to be clustered together in the same little street so all the food shops are next to each other, the hardware stores are side-by-side and so on.

One of the things that struck me most during my trip was the contrast between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City – both are bustling to say the least, but whereas Hanoi feels like the traditional heart of the country, Ho Chi Minh City feels like an up-and-coming global metropolis. After spending a couple of days in the busy cities, it was nice to escape to the relaxing surroundings of Halong Bay and the Mekong Delta, where, when I wasn’t taking in the beautiful scenery or examining the wildlife, I could be found reading on the deck of a boat or lounging in a hammock.

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Traces of the Vietnam War are never far away – from the Hoa Lò Prison in Hanoi, which housed US prisoners of war, to the Cu Chi tunnels and the harrowing photographs on display in the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. All were, unsurprisingly, told from the perspective of the Vietnamese and in the military museum in Hue (above), in particular, the language used in the displays was combative. Having seen lots of US-made films about the war over the years, it was really interesting to finally read about the war from a Vietnamese point of view.

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Before my trip, I’d been warned about the crazy traffic in the cities by some friends who’d visited the year before, yet I was still taken aback by the essential free-for-all in the city centres. A never-ending stream of cars, scooters, bicycles, tuk tuks and other vehicles would come from different directions, effortlessly weaving in and around each other and any pedestrians attempting to cross the roads. Vietnam is a safe country and once I’d mastered the art of crossing the roads, I felt very comfortable walking around by myself.

Vietnam is very much a rising tourist hot spot and I’m glad I had the chance to explore it before it becomes another major stop on the global tourist trail. Ho Chi Minh City is already showing signs of becoming a generic metropolis in the centre with high-rise skyscrapers, shopping centres filled with the usual big name high street brands and coffee shops on every street corner. But the country has a wonderful charm and strong cultural identity, and I hope whatever the future brings, it holds on to them as it’s a truly magical country.

London – The Design Museum and Holland Park

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Last weekend I was in London to catch up with friends and top of our to-do-list was the recently opened Design Museum in Kensington. On arriving in London, instead of taking the tube from Paddington to High Street Kensington, I strolled down to the station via Kensington Gardens. I’d forgotten how lovely Kensington Gardens can be as I walked past the Italian Gardens, the lake and Kensington Palace. It was late morning so the park was busy with lots of people milling around and admiring the grand palace, but it was nevertheless a pleasant way to start the day.

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After meeting my friends, we headed up Kensington High Street to the Design Museum. The museum, which reopened last November, is situated in the old Commonwealth Institute at the bottom of Holland Park. The first thing that struck me on going inside was the architecture. It’s suitably modern and innovative for a design museum, a mixture of wood, concrete and glass manipulated into eye-catching shapes and forms.

The first exhibition we visited was Designer, Maker, User on the second floor, which looks at the role each one plays in the design experience. The exhibition was really well curated and there were lots of interesting things to look at – from models of towers designed by Zaha Hadid to road signs and a kitchen made entirely from wood. Among the every day and iconic objects on display were wellies, Game Boys and Philippe Starck’s famous lemon squeezer. I especially enjoyed the display of posters by the Italian manufacturer Olivetti and the technology, which brought back lots of memories.

We squealed and gasped as we reminisced over the seemingly ancient pieces of technology we used to own, such as the Walkman, Sega Mega Drive, Nokia mobile and old Apple Mac computers. The only downside to the exhibition was it was teeming with people and there was so much to look at, it was a sensory overload and hard to know where to look. But it was a fun trip down memory lane and it’s crazy to think that so many items from my childhood are now museum pieces!

We then stopped by another exhibition about how technology could be used to support an ageing population. I’m not sure how feasible some of the designs were in practice, but it was intriguing to see the innovative ideas and I’d be interested to see whether any of them take off. All in all, the Design Museum was fun, but if you’re not going to the paid-for exhibitions, it doesn’t take long to get round it all.

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After our tour of the museum, we made our way up through Holland Park and had lunch at the café there. I love Holland Park, I always think it’s underrated, and I’d love it if they did more to restore the area around old Holland House as it was looking rather sad and forlorn. It’s such a pretty park, and if you get away from some of the more popular areas (the beautiful Kyoto Garden, above, and the café), it’s quite peaceful. We stopped by the Kyoto Garden on our way through the park to see the water feature and meet the peacocks and fish who call it home.

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We then carried on walking all the way up to Notting Hill and Portobello Road. We all used to work around Portobello Road, so we had a great time revisiting some of our old haunts –magazine emporium Rococo; Mr Christian’s deli (home to London’s best sandwiches); quirky interiors shop Graham & Green: and Pedlars, an eclectic gift shop and café. But our final destination was the Lisboa Patisserie on Goldborne Road (above). The teeny Portuguese café sells the best pastel de nata in London and when we arrived the queue was out the door. But the creamy custard tarts were, as always, well worth the wait! A perfect end to a great nostalgia-fest in West London.

Info
The Design Museum
224-238 Kensington High Street, London W8 6AG

Free
Open 10am-6pm, daily
designmuseum.org

Lisboa Patisserie
57 Goldborne Road, London W10 5NR
Pastel de nata £1.25 each

 

 

London – The Charterhouse

Last Friday, the Charterhouse, near Smithfield Market in London, opened to visitors for the first time in its 700+ year history. I’d walked past the medieval manor many times when I lived in London, always dying to have a peek inside, so when I was in London yesterday, my friends and I decided it was time to have a look around.

The Charterhouse dates back to the mid-14th century when the area was used as a burial ground for victims of the Black Death. In 1371, a Carthusian monastery was built on the site and it remained a monastery until the reformation when it was turned into a grand Tudor house. In 1611, Sir Thomas Sutton bought the house and decreed in his will that it should become an almshouse for 80 destitute, old or disabled men, as well as a boys’ school. Today, it’s still an almshouse – its residents are called Brothers, and last year, it decided to admit women for the first time.

The Charterhouse offers £10 tours at set times of the day around the Great Hall, Great Chamber, Wash-house Court and Master’s Court. You can also book a two-hour behind-the-scenes tour with one of the Brothers, which costs £15, in advance online. Unfortunately we arrived late in the day so we weren’t able to go on a tour, but we still took the opportunity to have a look around the Charterhouse’s museum.

The museum is housed in two long narrow corridors and takes visitors back in time through the estate’s history from the present day to the Black Death. The museum was really interesting, if a little cramped due to its narrowness – it was a tight squeeze at times trying to get past the other people. But I really enjoyed learning about the Charterhouse’s history, especially some of its colourful past brothers and its illustrious list of governors, such as Queen Victoria and Oliver Cromwell. There were also some intriguing artefacts on display, including lovely pieces of old wooden furniture (age unknown) and a skeleton of a plague victim. After touring the museum, we had a look around the chapel, too – a small, charming space.

The Charterhouse’s opening is still in its infancy and it will officially open to the public later this year. A café is also due to open in February. The Charterhouse museum was fascinating and it has whetted my appetite to further explore this intriguing piece of London’s history and I’d love to go back at a later date for a full tour with one of the Brothers.

Info
The Charterhouse, Charterhouse Square, London EC1M 6AN
Free
11am-4.45pm, Tuesday to Sunday
thecharterhouse.org

 

Southerndown

I love the bays and coves along the South Wales coast. I’m unashamedly biased but I think they’re some of the most beautiful in the world. Less well-known than the beaches of West Wales and the Gower Peninsula, their rugged beauty and excellent walking paths make for a great day out. Each one has its own attributes and personality – from the secluded cove of Monknash to the sand dunes of Merthyr Mawr and the great expanse of sand and strong tides at Ogmore-by-Sea that make it an ideal place for surfing.

One of my favourite beaches is Southerndown, which is situated on the Glamorgan Heritage Path in the Vale of Glamorgan. Nestled in the shadows of the golden yellow limestone and shale cliffs of Wales’s ancient jurassic coastline, the sandy beach of Dunraven Bay that emerges when the tide is out can only be reached by clambering over the rocks or via the concrete path. The surrounding rocks are filled with rockpools and as a kid, I liked to imagine they were dinosaur footprints.

There’s a gothic feel to Southerndown, in part because of the ruins of Dunraven Castle and its walled gardens. The castle, which was situated high on the cliff overlooking the bay, was a large manor house, first mentioned in the 1540s, that underwent major renovations in the 19th century. The site had been occupied by stone buildings since the Norman era and the castle was used as a hospital during both World Wars, and later as a guest house, before being demolished in 1963.

These days all that’s left is the walled garden and a few stone ruins. Entrance to the gardens is via a large wooden door, and within are three enclosed gardens with large lawns at their centre and the wooded cliffs beyond. There’s also a small tower in one of the far corners. The gardens have a secluded feel to them and even when the bay is busy, they’re usually fairly quiet. I can’t help but wonder when I walk around how they and the castle must have looked during their 19th century heyday – it’s such a beautiful spot for a grand manor house and I’m always a little sad that it’s been lost forever and I’ll never have a chance to see it.

That aside, when I’m in the mood for a brisk walk and the sea air, nowhere quite beats Southerndown (apart from maybe Monknash) and I’m aware just how lucky I am to live so close to such a beautiful part of the world.

 

Chepstow Castle

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What amazed me most about Chepstow Castle was that it just keeps going and going. You think you’ve reached the end, then you pass under another archway and there’s yet more castle to explore. Not that I’m complaining, as far as I’m concerned you can never have too much castle.

Situated in the market town of Chepstow in south east Wales, the castle sits high on a cliff overlooking the River Wye, as well as the English county of Gloucestershire on the other side of the river. The castle was begun in 1067, soon after the Norman invasion of England, and work continued on and off until 1690, which explains the never-ending nature of the fortress.

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As successive families and generations took over the running of the castle, they added additional buildings and features, expanding it length-ways along the edge of the cliff. Approaching the castle from the town, it doesn’t look that big, it’s only when you go inside or look at it from the Gloucestershire side of the river that you realise quite how far it stretches.

The oldest part of the castle is the Great Tower, which is one of the earliest stone defensive structures in Britain. It also features some unusual decorative touches, including the coloured criss-cross plaster effect you can see in the stone archways above.

The castle was fascinating and there was loads to see. I really enjoyed wandering around and finding yet more towers, staircases, rooms and various other nooks and crannies to explore. It’s a deceptively delightful Welsh castle and is now firmly on my list of top Welsh castles.

Info
Chepstow Castle, Chepstow NP16 5EY
£6 Adults, £4.20 Concessions
cadw.gov.wales/daysout/chepstow-castle

Bletchley Park

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I was given the GCHQ Puzzle Book for Christmas, and while I’ve only solved the first three puzzles so far, it reminded me that I’ve not yet blogged about my visit to Bletchley Park, the centre of Britain’s code-breaking activities during the Second World War.

I have an incredible amount of respect for the men and women who worked so hard to crack the secret messages being sent by enemy forces during the war, largely because I’m so appallingly awful at deciphering codes and am in awe of those who can unravel the seemingly indecipherable series of letters, symbols and numbers.

So on a crisp November morning, I caught the train from Euston to Bletchley Park to visit the famed site. The museum is made up of a series of blocks and huts, each housing different exhibitions on aspects of code-breaking and the war, as well as the grand mansion house and quaint village adjoining it.

I started my visit in Block C, the modern visitor centre opened in 2014. After a spot of tea and cake, I made my way to an interactive exhibition, hosted by McAfee, that looks at the effects of code-breaking on cyber security today. Entitled Secrecy and Security – Keeping Safe Online, I had great fun having a go at the interactive activities, before moving onto another exhibition that acted as an introduction to code-breaking.

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Feeling suitably primed, I then visited Block B, the museum home to enigma machines, Hitler’s ‘unbreakable’ cipher machine and a replica of the bombe, the famed machine that helped computing legend Alan Turing and co. break the enigma code. The bombe was huge and I was amazed by its size and complexity.

I was also really interested in a display dedicated to Alan Turing’s life and works. I hadn’t known much about the founding father of modern computing before seeing The Imitation Game, but the exhibition was really informative and insightful, and helped further my understanding of this great man. There were lots of really good exhibits within Block B and I spent ages looking at them all, inspecting the objects and reading the various display panels.

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On leaving Block B, I walked around the edge of the lake to the mansion to take a look around the grand building. Inside I found replicas of how the offices within would have looked during the Second World War – in short, very attractive. Then I had a stroll around the charming little village that adjoins the mansion, including the old fashioned Post Office and a garage home to vehicles from the 1940s.

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Then it was on to my last stop of the day – the code-breaking huts, the pre-fab buildings where the code-breakers worked during the war. The huts were full of displays aimed at giving visitors an insight into how the code-breakers worked. One of the huts was home to a series of interactive games around topics such as probability to help further your understanding of code-breaking and I enjoyed having a go at the activities. There was also a replica of Alan Turing’s office, as well as a display dedicated to pigeons and the way in which they were used to send messages during the war. All in all, the exhibits were interesting and again, there was quite a bit to see.

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I really enjoyed my day at Bletchley Park. There were so many exhibits, it pretty much took a full day to get around them all. I came away even more fascinated then I already was by code-breaking (hence, the puzzle book for Christmas) and the men and women who did it for a living. Seriously fascinating stuff and well worth a visit.

Info
The Mansion, Bletchley Park, Sherwood Drive, Bletchley, Milton Keynes MK3 6EB
Open 9.30-5pm, daily (Mar-Oct), 9.30am-4pm, daily (Nov-Feb)
£17.25 adults, £15.25 concessions, £10.25 children aged 12-17 years, free for children under 12 years
bletchleypark.org.uk

Crickhowell

Keen for a pre-New Year stroll, we headed up to Crickhowell in mid Wales for a spot of shopping, light lunch and brisk walk in the crisp mountain air. Situated on the banks of the River Usk, this attractive market town is surrounded by the stunning Brecon Beacons National Park, which makes it a great base from which to explore the nearby countryside.

The town’s USP, though, is its independent shopping – the townsfolk have been adamantly opposed to big name corporations spoiling their high street and last year launched a petition to stop a supermarket opening up in the town. The town is home to some great family run shops, including the department store Nicholls, women’s fashion boutique Cwcw, a book shop, two good butchers and an off-licence selling wines, spirits and local beers and ciders. Former royal nanny Tiggy Legge-Bourke also runs a B&B in the town.

The town’s name derives from the Welsh, Crug Hywel, aka ‘Hywel’s rock’, and is thought to refer to an old fortress belonging to the legendary Welsh king Hywel Dda. Our walk took us through the town, past the old ruined stone castle (above), which was built in 1272, and down to the River Usk. The town is home to some really beautiful, characterful houses and I enjoyed just ambling around and admiring the buildings, they’re so charming. An old stone bridge (the longest in Wales) traverses the river at the bottom of the town – one the one side, the river was perfectly still; on the other, it ran fiercely.

We then wandered back up to the high street, past the old St Edmund’s Parish Church where there’s an effigy of Lady Sybil Pauncefoot, the church’s founder, who notably cut off her hand to pay for her husband’s release when he was captured on crusade. Back on the high street, we stopped off at The Courtroom Café for lunch – it serves simple yet tasty fare such as jacket potatoes, toasted sandwiches and quiches, along with very tempting homemade cakes. Altogether, it was a very pleasant, relaxing day out.