Cardiff – RHS Flower Show

Plants on display at the RHS Flower Show in Cardiff

For the last three or four years, I’ve made a beeline to the RHS Flower Show when it’s come to Cardiff and this year was no exception. The three-day event takes place annually in April in the city’s Bute Park and I usually pop along as soon as it opens (10am) on the Saturday, as the huge crowds that flock to the show often make it unbearably busy if you go any later.

The show is spread out over a large area and features a number of show gardens and plants for sale, as well as food, craft and other stalls selling products such as garden furniture and gardening tools. I tend to do a loop of the showground, looking at all there is to see, before going back and buying any bits and pieces that have taken my fancy.

Flowers at the 2018 RHS Flower Show in Cardiff

Despite not having a garden, I usually find myself going home with a few plants – this year I picked up two cactii (as I’m less likely to kill them than a flowering pot plant) and a pretty Japanese flowering quince. I also have a tendency to buy more food than plants as the numerous food stalls selling cakes and cheeses prove too hard to resist.

But my favourite part of the event is the show gardens as I’m always impressed by the imagination of the garden designers and the creative ways they make use of the space, objects and plants. I find it almost impossible to view a garden as a blank canvas and visualise all the different and creative things you can do to it, so I have a ton of admiration for those who can.

The Japanese-style Disequilibrium garden at the RHS Flower Show in Cardiff

My favourite show garden this year was the silver medal winning garden Disequilibrium (above). I’m a sucker for traditional Japanese-style gardens as they’re so pretty, and I particularly liked the use of water in this one and the rusted red metal backdrop that contrasted beautifully with the pristine, delicate nature of the garden.

The Urban Regeneration Garden at the RHS Flower Show in Cardiff

This year’s gold medal-winning garden was the Urban Regeneration Garden (above) with its stark concrete blocks that form a water feature. The garden was too minimalist and didn’t have enough plants for my tastes, but I can appreciate why it was a top medal winner as it looks very professional. Apparently the concrete blocks were a disused water tank the garden’s designers found while out walking, and while it’s a great way to reuse discarded objects, I found the garden as a whole too cold and uninviting.

The Reimagined Past garden at the RHS Flower Show in Cardiff

I loved this next garden, entitled The Reimagined Past, as I really liked the way the designers had incorporated reclaimed household objects such as the fireplace, sink and table into an outdoor setting. I also really liked the use of colour, and the orange-red bricks in particular added a striking contrast to the green and purple plants. This quirky, creative and colourful design is the sort of thing I’d like to have if I had a garden.

The 'Cwm Caerdydd' garden at the RHS Flower Show in Cardiff

I would have adored this next garden as a child with its man-made water feature, cave and mini-mountain to climb. I could imaging having great fun running over the top of the mound or having secret tea parties in the grotto behind the waterfall. Called Cwm Caerdydd (Cardiff Valley), it was designed to replicate the hills of the south Wales valleys, and it’s a fantastic, playful use of space.

Every year the flower show features a series of wheelbarrows planted by local school children and visitors to the show are asked to vote for their favourite. So before leaving, I had a look around the wheelbarrows. I love how much effort the children put into their wheelbarrows, they’re all brilliant, and it’s always difficult to decide which one to vote for. I ended up voting, not for the most eye-catching garden, but for one of the ones that was quite messy and looked as though the teachers had let the children run wild.

I spent a great couple of hours looking around this year’s RHS Flower Show in Cardiff, and I found myself wishing I had my own garden as there were so many lovely looking plants and flowers for sale. I’m not sure I’ll ever make much of a gardener as I’m not remotely green-fingered, but it’s fun spending a few hours pretending I could be and imagining what my ideal garden would look like.

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Gloucester Cathedral

Gloucester Cathedral from the Secret Garden in the centre of the cloisters

Gloucester Cathedral might not have the same instant name recognition as some of England’s other great ecclesiastical buildings, such as Westminster Abbey, York Minster and Canterbury Cathedral, but it should – as it’s one of the country’s most magnificent cathedrals.

Dating back almost 1,000 years, it’s a huge structure with lots of elements to explore, including spectacular cloisters, a tranquil garden and some of the finest stained glass in England. The present cathedral was built between 1089 and 1100 on the site of an old Anglo-Saxon religious house. Originally known as St Peter’s Abbey, it became a cathedral following the dissolution of the monasteries in 1541.

King Edward II's tomb at Gloucester Cathedral

Gloucester Cathedral also holds the distinction of being one of only a handful of cathedrals in England where a monarch was laid to rest (the others being Winchester, Worcester and Canterbury). Edward II was buried here in a beautifully carved tomb (above) following his murder at nearby Berkeley Castle in 1327. William I’s eldest son and rightful heir, Robert of Normandy, is also buried in the cathedral, in a gloriously ornate and colourful tomb.

The architecture and craftsmanship throughout the cathedral are superb with high vaulted and fan-vaulted ceilings, delicate and intricate stone masonry, and countless stained glass windows. There are numerous chapels within the cathedral, too, including the elegant Lady Chapel (above, centre); the South Ambulatory Chapel, with its striking, blue stained glass windows installed in 2013 (above, right); and the St Andrew’s Chapel, with its colourful painted ceiling.

One of the most impressive parts of the cathedral is the quire, the area surrounding the high altar (above). The church within a church boasts a superb fan-vaulted ceiling, some lovely old wooden choir stalls and an enormous stained glass window (the largest in a medieval cathedral in Britain), known as the great east window.

The Great East Window at Gloucester Cathedral

The great east window (above) was commissioned by Edward III in the 1350s to commemorate his father Edward II and it’s an impressive sight, providing an exquisite backdrop to the wonderful stonework surrounding it. Around three-quarters of the original glass remains and the cathedral has gone to great lengths to preserve it.

During the Second World War, the glass panes were removed and stored in the cathedral’s crypt to protect them from potential bombing raids. It was then carefully pieced back together, using a photo as a guide, once the war was over.

A man crouches down to take a photo Inside the cloisters at Gloucester Cathedral

While the main body of the cathedral is a non-stop barrage of beautiful medieval architecture, my favourite part was the cloisters. The cloisters boast the world’s first fan-vaulted ceiling, intricate carvings all over the walls and rows of stained glass windows.

The cloisters have a magical quality and it’s hardly surprising they were used as a filming location for the first two Harry Potter films. They’re truly spectacular and some of the most beautiful cloisters I’ve seen. There’s also a small, pretty garden, known as the secret garden, in the middle of the cloisters. The garden was quiet and peaceful when I visited, the perfect place to curl up on a hot, sunny day with a book.

The cathedral is also home to a café, the Monks’ Kitchen, which leads off from the cloisters, and it’s where I stopped for lunch. The café sells home-made fare such as sandwiches, quiches, soups and jacket potatoes, as well as a selection of cakes and tray bakes. I had a toastie, made using fresh, good quality ingredients, which, at £4.95, was a bargain as the portion was enormous and it also came with side-helpings of salad, coleslaw and crisps.

The crypt under Gloucester Cathedral

The cathedral offers guided tours of the crypt and the tower, and during my visit I joined a tour of the crypt. The tour lasted some 20 to 30 minutes and was led by a helpful and informative volunteer named Keith. He took us down into the crypt and showed us around, explaining how the crypt was used in centuries past and how it was built (the cathedral’s foundations are only 2m deep and it’s had to be reinforced over the years to hold the weight of the subsequent building work).

Keith explained that during the Second World War, the coronation chair was brought down from Westminster Abbey and locked in the crypt for safekeeping, along with other valuable objects such as the great east window and Robert of Normandy’s tomb.

The crypt is cold and empty these days – there are no bodies buried in this crypt, although it did briefly house Edward II’s body before he was entombed. The only object of note is a very heavy-looking granite font (goodness knows how they got it into the crypt) designed by George Gilbert Scott, the architect behind London’s St Pancras Station, which sits in one of the crypt’s chapels.

I really enjoyed my visit to Gloucester Cathedral, it’s a magnificent building and one of the finest ecclesiastical buildings in the UK. I especially enjoyed ambling around the ethereal cloisters and my informative tour of the crypt, while the café was a great place to recharge my batteries. If you like medieval architecture and/or Harry Potter, it’s well worth a visit.

Gloucester

The city of Gloucester with the cathedral in the background

The Romans, the royals and the Georgians have all made their mark on Gloucester over the millennia, which means the city is a hodge podge of old, beautiful buildings mixed in with some much more recent eyesores. I’d long been keen to visit Gloucester, largely because of its grand cathedral, but I was also intrigued to find out what else this historic English city had to offer.

I arrived in the city by train and quickly set off in the direction of the tourist information office to pick up a map and plot my day. Luckily, Gloucester has direction signs throughout the city centre, so even if you don’t have a map you can easily find the city’s main sites.

Warehouses in the historic docks area of Gloucester

After checking out the map, I decided to head in the direction of the city’s historic docks, which are apparently the most inland port in the UK. The area around the docks has been regenerated in recent years and there are lots of bars, cafés, restaurants and shops in this attractive part of the city. There were quite a few people around the docks the day I visited, enjoying the April sunshine, and I imagine the area becomes quite lively at night, especially during the summer months.

The small Mariners' Chapel in Gloucester

After walking around the Victoria Dock, which was filled with colourful canal barges, I stopped to briefly look inside the old Mariners’ Chapel (above). The small chapel was opened in 1849 to serve the maritime community in Gloucester and during the Victorian era it welcomed seamen from all over the world, including the US, Norway, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands. Inside, there isn’t much to see – it’s just one large, very simply decorated room with white walls and wooden pews.

The ruins of Llanthony Secunda Priory in Gloucester

From the church I made my way over to the ruins of Llanthony Secunda Priory nearby. The priory was built in the 12th century after the original Llanthony Priory in Monmouthshire was captured by rebels and the priory’s monks were given the land to build themselves a new home.

I wasn’t able to visit the main body of the priory as it’s currently undergoing extensive restoration work thanks to a large lottery grant, but I was able to wander around the ruins of the priory’s tithe barn (above). The tithe barn is now just an empty shell, but from what I could see of the restoration works, the priory looks as though it will be an interesting place to visit once it opens to the public later this year.

The main basin surrounded by large red brick warehouses in Gloucester's historic docks

From the tithe barn, I walked back to the main basin of the historic docks along the Gloucester Sharpness Canal. There I continued to wander around the docks, admiring the Victorian warehouses and crossing a number of narrow lock bridges to get around. The area around the main basin, in contrast to the Victoria Dock, was quite quiet and made for a peaceful place for a stroll.

St Mary de Crypt Church in Gloucester

Having walked around the docks, I made my way back towards the city centre, passing the Blackfriars Priory and St Mary de Crypt Church (above) along the way.  Both buildings were sadly closed – Blackfriars Priory is only open on Sundays and Mondays, while the church looked as though it was undergoing extensive restoration work – and so I wasn’t able to go inside. I also passed the ruined Greyfriars on my walk taking a quick peep at the little that is left of the 13th century Franciscan monastery.

The Museum of Gloucester

Around the corner from Greyfriars is the Museum of Gloucester (above) and I stopped to go inside as I was keen to learn more about the city’s history. The small museum takes visitors on a tour of Gloucester through the ages, starting from the days of the dinosaurs and culminating in more recent times. The museum costs £5 to enter and the ticket also gives you entrance to the Gloucester Life Museum.

The museum doesn’t have a huge number of really interesting and unusual artefacts, although there are a few stand outs including a 2,000-year-old Celtic mirror found buried alongside a woman on nearby Birdlip Hill (above, top left), the remains of the city’s Roman walls and the skeleton of a Roman woman (above, top right), as well as a very early version of backgammon (above, bottom).

The family-friendly museum has bundles of charm, the staff are welcoming and the curators have done an excellent job making the most of the artefacts on display. They’ve been quite creative in how they present the objects and tried to make the museum as interesting and exciting as possible for visitors.

There are huge dinosaur models to be found throughout the museum and there are lots of activities for children to enjoy, too. There’s also a great temporary photography exhibition featuring some incredible wildlife photographs taken by a local photographer Margaret Robson, as well as a modern art exhibition on the first floor.

I really enjoyed my visit to the museum, it was interesting, excellently curated and I learned a lot about Gloucester (while I knew Gloucester was a Roman city, I hadn’t realised quite how important and prosperous it was).

From the museum, I made my way through the city centre to the cathedral where I spent the rest of my day. I’ll write about the cathedral in my next post as it’s such a magnificent piece of architecture it deserves its own post (and this post will be 2,000 words long at the rate I’m going!).

The remains of St Oswald's Priory in Gloucester

Before leaving Gloucester, I headed over to the ruined St Oswald’s Priory, the burial place of Alfred the Great’s daughter Lady Aethelflaed who once ruled the kingdom of Mercia, only to discover there wasn’t much of it left (above).

I really enjoyed my day trip to Gloucester. The city wasn’t quite what I’d anticipated – I’d expected it to be much more affluent in the centre. There are lots of hideous 1960/1970s buildings and rundown shopping areas interspersed between the beautiful historic buildings and the city doesn’t make the most of some of its old buildings. Nevertheless the historic docks are great, while the area around the cathedral is picturesque and charming, and it’s somewhere I’d like to return to.

Info

Museum of Gloucester, Brunswick Road, Gloucester GL1 1HP
Open Tuesdays to Saturdays, 10am to 5pm
Adults £5, Concessions £3, Children under five free

Poitiers

Cathedrale Saint Pierre in Poitiers

With its ancient churches, numerous bookstores and fantastic shops, Poitiers is one of my favourite French cities. Its medieval centre is a delight to wander around, a maze of winding streets featuring charming timber-clad buildings and distractingly tempting food shops and cafés.

When we arrived in the city, we decided to take a self-guided walking tour around its medieval centre, which took in most of the city’s sights. After a quick cup of coffee near the university, we set off down the Rue Gambetta, stopping to look in the many shops that took our fancy – and there were quite a few! – along the way.

Our first destination was the Church of Saint Hilary the Great. The church is a short walk beyond the city centre, tucked away in a residential area, and as I followed the map to the church, I had to repeatedly reassure everyone that we were going the right way.

The church is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and was built in the 11th century to honour the first Bishop of Poitiers, St Hilaire. The Romanesque church is a striking, weathered building, the highlight inside being its beautiful high vaulted ceiling, and I was glad we’d made the detour to go to the church as it was well worth seeing.

The back of the Palais de Justice in Poitiers

From the church, we walked back towards the city centre, where we passed the impressive town hall and carried on walking in the direction of the Palace of Justice. The palace was once the home of the counts and dukes of Aquitaine, and counts the legendary Eleanor of Aquitaine among its former inhabitants.

Its renowned for its dining hall, the Salle des Pas Perdus (the hall of the lost footsteps), which was commissioned by Eleanor of Aquitaine in the late 12th century and is so-called because it’s said to be so big you can’t hear any footsteps within. We weren’t able to go inside on the day we visited, so we stopped to admire the stunning view of the back of the palace instead (above).

Baptistery of St Jean in Poitiers

We then made our way to the Rue Jean-Jaures and carried on down the street to the Baptistery of St John (above). The Merovingian baptistery is said to be the oldest church in France and dates back to the 4th century. We had a quick look inside and found it to be a fascinating, unusual place with amazing medieval frescoes on the walls and random stone sarcophagi dotted around the place.

Saint Pierre Cathedral in Poitiers

From the baptistery, we headed over to the city’s cathedral, the Cathédrale de Saint Pierre (above). The impressive 12th century cathedral was commissioned by Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and was built on the site of a ruined Roman basilica. It’s a massive, imposing structure from the outside, while inside it’s an elegant space with creamy stone walls and a high vaulted ceiling.

An ornate doorway at the Saint Pierre Cathedral in Poitiers

We spent ages looking around the cathedral, admiring its many notable features including its 13th century wooden choir stalls, its bright, colourful stained glass windows and its grand 18th century organ. I was particularly taken by the intricate carvings above the main doors (above).

Having looked around the cathedral, we headed back to the town centre, passing some quirky and intriguing shops on the Rue de la Cathédrale and the large Notre-Dame la Grande church as we went.

Before leaving, I was keen to visit a large bookshop I’d passed earlier in the day on the Rue Gambetta, Gilbert Joseph. I’m a massive bibliophile and always on the look out for some new (French) children’s history books I can read, so I was keen to check out their selection. Despite having a very thorough rummage – much to everyone else’s consternation – I couldn’t find what I was looking for.

With its long and varied history, characterful buildings and excellent shopping, Poitiers is a wonderful city and I could easily have spent longer there. In fact, I probably could have done with a whole day just to browse in all the interesting shops I passed. The food shops in particular looked very enticing, especially the chocolate shops and patisseries, and I’d probably need a month to eat everything that took my fancy.  I thoroughly enjoyed my day trip to the city, so much so if I were ever to move to a French city, Poitiers would be at the top of my list.

Coulon

The bridge over the canal in Coulon

The tree-lined canals and rivers of the Marais Poitevin are renowed for their idyllic beauty, and as they were only an hour or so’s drive from Parthenay, we were keen to see this fabled part of France for ourselves.

The Marais Poitevin is a huge area of marshland stretching over some 970 sq km and the part we were keen to see was the La Venise Verte, or the Green Venice, so-called because of the green duck weed that covers the waterways. Our destination was Coulon, the unofficial capital of the region. As usual we arrived at lunchtime and after a quick lunch, we set about exploring the area.

A cafe, shop and a church in the centre of Coulon

The small village of Coulon is listed as one of le plus beaux villages de France (most beautiful villages in France) and it’s a charming place, if a little touristy. There are a number of shops and restaurants that are clearly geared towards visiting tourists with shops selling local ‘artisan’ produce and souvenirs, such as fridge magnets. As a result I didn’t find it quite as appealing as some of the other plus beaux villages I’ve visited such as Monpazier and Angles sur l’Anglin.

Boats lined up along the canal at Coulon

Having looked around the village, we made our way down to the river and the heart of the Green Venice. The Sèvre-Niortaise River runs through the village, and down by the water’s edge you can explore the surrounding network of canals and rivers by renting punts or taking a guided boat tour. The river bank is a pretty place with lots of characterful buildings overlooking the river, as well as numerous willow and poplar trees lining the banks.

Bridge over the canal in Coulon

We strolled along the river bank for quite a way into the surrounding countryside, enjoying the water’s peaceful and relaxing charms, and admiring the attractive buildings we passed along the way. Having ambled for quite a while down the river bank, we turned back towards Coulon where we joined a guided boat trip along the river. The boat trip was pleasant and scenic, but nothing spectacular.

L'Eglise de Sainte-Trinite in Coulon

After our boat ride, we strolled back through the village, stopping to look inside the old church in the centre of the village, the Eglise de Sainte-Trinité (above). Our day trip to Coulon was pleasant enough, but if I’m honest, I wasn’t blown away by the experience and I was left feeling rather underwhelmed. France’s Green Venice is a little touristy for my tastes and nowhere near as spectacular as its reputation and name suggests – it’s perfectly nice, but no more than that.

Angles-sur-l’Anglin

View of the cliff-top fortress and a mill on the river bank in Angles-sur-l'Anglin

One of the plus beaux villages de France (most beautiful villages in France), the village of Angles-sur-l’Anglin is, as its label suggests, ridiculously pretty. Situated around the idyllic River Anglin, the charming village boasts picture-perfect medieval buildings, breathtaking views and a ruined cliff-top castle. It’s also home to a series of 14,000-year-old Paleolithic cave sculptures.

The medieval streets in Angles-sur-l'Anglin

We arrived in Angles-sur-l’Anglin at lunchtime and after a spot of lunch, spent a couple of hours ambling around the village’s winding, narrow streets, admiring the attractive architecture, taking lots of photos and looking in the occasional shop we passed along the way.

The village was quiet when we visited, which added to its idyllic charms. It also meant I could take my time playing with the settings on my camera and have a little fun with my photography as I didn’t have to worry about people stepping into my shot.

Angles-sur-l'Anglin fortress

With it’s dramatic position high on the cliff overlooking the River Anglin, one building in the village stands out from all the rest – the castle. The ruined fortress, which was originally built between the 12th and 15th centuries for the bishops of Poitiers, is now in such a precarious state it’s closed to the public for safety reasons. But you can still look around the outside, which is what we did after walking around the centre of the village.

The castle is located in a strategic position between the ancient regions of Berry, Poitou and Touraine, which were hotly contested by the French and the English during the Middle Ages. When we were up at the castle, it was easy to see why the bishops of Poitiers would build a fortress here as it’s elevated position makes it a great place from which to detect an invading army.

After seeing what we could of the ruined castle, we made our way to the highest point on the cliff, which is home to the Saint Pierre Chapel. The tiny, unassuming and abandoned-looking chapel was closed, so we couldn’t look inside, but the views over the village, the castle and the river were fantastic and well-worth the climb.

River Anglin in Angles-sur-l'Anglin

From the chapel, we strolled back down the hill, past the castle, to the river. There we ambled along the picturesque river bank, stopping to look at an old water mill along the way. After a short walk, we turned back and made our way to Roc-aux-Sorciers.

Roc-aux-Sorciers, or Sorcerers’ Rock as it’s known in English, is a rock shelter featuring 14,000-year-old cave sculptures of animals. The sculptures are closed to the public for conservation reasons, but the site is home to an interpretation centre where you can view replicas of the sculptures and find out more about their Paleolithic creators.

Unfortunately when we got to Roc-aux-Sorciers, we found we’d made that rookie mistake of not checking the opening times before we visited and the centre was closed. We might not have seen the replicas of the Paleolithic sculptures, but we nevertheless had a lovely day out in Angles-sur-l’Anglin, which more than lived up to its billing as one of France’s most beautiful villages.

Montreuil-Bellay

Chateau de Montreuil-Bellay in France

As regular readers to my blog likely know by now, I love a castle, and if there’s one close by when I’m travelling, I have to visit it. During our stay in Parthenay, our hosts had told us the best castle nearby was in the town of Montreuil-Bellay, so that’s where we headed on our second day in the region.

When we arrived in Montreuil-Bellay, we found the castle was closed for lunch, so we found a café where we had a bite to eat and then spent some time wandering around the town until 2pm when the castle was set to reopen. The town of Montreuil-Bellay has a long history as it’s strategically placed between the historic areas of Anjou, Poitou and Touraine (all former Plantagenet strongholds). As a result, it’s home to lots of attractive, old buildings.

The 15th century St John's Gate in Montreuil-Bellay

We spent a pleasant half hour or so ambling around the town’s streets, admiring the old buildings and fortifications (including the 15th century St John’s Gate, above) and looking in the odd shop, before making our way back to the castle. The huge, beautiful castle is still inhabited so it can only be visited by guided tour at certain times throughout the day.

Chateau de Montreuil-Bellay in France

The current castle was built between the 13th and 15th centuries, but there’s been a castle on the site since the 11th century. It has quite the storied history, too. Its moat sheltered starving peasants during the Hundred Years War between England and France, women thought to be sympathetic to the royalist cause were imprisoned here during the revolution of the 1790s, and it served as a hospital for wounded soldiers during the First World War.

View of the River Thouet from the gardens at the Chateau de Montreuil-Bellay

After buying our tickets, we had time to spare before our tour began so we set off to explore the castle’s gardens and ramparts. The castle, which overlooks the River Thouet, boasts 13 towers and some 650m of ramparts, and I had great fun climbing the garden’s towers, exploring the ramparts, from which I had fantastic views of the river below, and strolling around the landscaped grounds.

The gardens were really pretty with beautifully manicured lawns and hedges, and flower beds filled with red, pink and white flowers. There’s also an enormous, elegant chapel. After spending a good half hour roaming the grounds and taking lots of photos, it was finally time for our guided tour.

The guided tour, which takes you around the castle’s ground floor and the cellars, was carried out in French and English, and lasted just under an hour. Among the rooms on display were the music room, dining room and the Duchess of Longueville’s bedroom, as well as the impressive medieval kitchen and the huge cellars where they used to make wine. We weren’t allowed to take any photos inside, hence the lack of indoor pics, but the tour was interesting and our guide knowledgeable.

Montreuil-Bellay is a beautiful château and an interesting place to spend an hour or so, but I’m not sure it was worth the hour or so drive there and back from Parthenay. Unfortunately, you can’t see much of the castle other than those few rooms on the ground floor and the cellars, which is understandable when people still live there, but it felt as though it was lacking something, especially given its long and fascinating history. It’s lovely and all, but if I’m honest, it’s not the most interesting castle I’ve visited in France.

Parthenay

River Thouet in Parthenay

A couple of years ago, I spent a week just outside the fortified town of Parthenay in the Nouvelles-Aquitaine region of France. The town is situated in a bend in the River Thouet and is a charming, attractive place, with timber-clad houses, a ruined castle, a number of impressive medieval gates and striking churches.

The medieval streets with timber-clad houses in Parthenay

Soon after arriving, we spent a happy couple of hours exploring the citadel, wandering through the old town’s hilly, winding medieval streets and enjoying the views of the river. We went on a circuitous route through the old town centre, ambling past lots of rickety-looking timber-clad houses, not quite sure where we were going, going up this road, then that, and seeing where we ended up.

Looking up at the Porte Saint-Jacques in Parthenay

Along the way, we came upon the impressive Porte Saint-Jacques (above) where we decided to stop and climb to the top of the tower, admiring the great views over the town and the river. From there, we continued on, making our way down to the river bank and following the path along the river to the castle. The river walk was pretty and peaceful – the only other people we met along the way were a few dog walkers.

Parthenay’s castle was originally built in the 11th century, then expanded in the 13th and 15th centuries. Now much of it lies in ruins with only parts of three of its nine towers remaining. We spent a little time exploring what remained of the ramparts and the towers, before making our way back up to the town.

The water features in the medieval garden in Parthenay

We carried on walking through the narrow, cobbled streets until we came across a lovely medieval garden. It was only small, with a little water feature, an orchard and lots of herbs growing, but it was a relaxing spot and I was glad we stumbled across it. By now, we’d pretty much walked around the whole of the medieval part of Parthenay, so we stopped off at a café for a well-deserved rest and a drink. Our stroll around the town was really enjoyable and a great way to start our week-long break in the region.

London – Junkyard Golf, Brick Lane and Spitalfields

The evil clown hole at Junkyard Golf

After visiting the Winnie the Pooh exhibition at the V&A, which I wrote about in my last post, my friends and I headed east, stopping for lunch at Madame D, a Nepalese restaurant on Commercial Street.

The restaurant’s menu features a series of sharing plates so we each chose one and shared them between the four of us: Naga chilli beef puffs, hakka chilli paneer, vegetable momos and Kathmandu curry with steamed rice. I also ordered a glass of homemade chilly lemonade, aka lemonade with a chilli in it.

The food was really good. The chilli beef puff was delicious and gone far too quickly. The chilli paneer was by far the tastiest dish, but very hot, and even though I really enjoyed it, my mouth was on fire. I wasn’t too fond of the momos, they were a little tasteless and the dough too thick, but the curry was lovely and had a great flavour.

Happily sated, we wandered up Fournier Street, one of my favourite streets in London – I love the characterful period houses, which look like something out of a Dickens novel – to Brick Lane. Junkyard Golf is situated in the Old Truman Brewery quarter off Brick Lane and was heaving when we arrived on the Saturday afternoon.

The skull ferris wheel hole at Junkyard Golf

After having our bags searched and being made to get rid of our bottled water, we headed downstairs to the golf courses. Junkyard Golf is a trendy crazy golf club where all the courses are made out of what look like scrap materials. It has branches in London, Manchester and Oxford.

The Brick Lane branch has four themed nine-hole courses. We were on a course called Bozo, which had a fairground and circus theme, as well as its own bar selling beers, wines and cocktails with names such as Ribena Turner, Hotline Ting and Obi Wan Banoffee.

None of the holes required much skill – some were stupidly easy, others downright impossible. My favourite was the hole where you had to whack your ball through a cannon, which fired it through some star-shaped holes where it then dropped to the ground and rolled perfectly into the hole for a hole in one.

My least favourite was the hole where you had to hit your ball along a pipe from which it was supposed to drop into a skull-shaped carriage on a ferris wheel and tip into the hole. It was impossible. Nobody came close to completing it so everyone got frustrated (not just in our group, in the groups behind and ahead of us, too) and cheated.

Junkyard Golf is great fun and I enjoyed our visit, it was a relaxed, friendly game and no-one got too competitive. The only downsides are it doesn’t take long to complete the course, only an hour, and I’m not sure I’d like to be there at night when there were lots of groups drinking on the course.

Dark Sugars Cocoa House in Brick Lane

After all our exercise on the (crazy) golf course, we crossed Brick Lane to Dark Sugars, a shop selling exquisite and very expensive chocolates, as well as decadent hot chocolates. I couldn’t resist joining the queue of people ordering hot chocolates and opted for a hazelnut praline one for £5.50.

Staff making chocolate shavings to top my hot chocolate

Admittedly it’s rather a lot of money to pay for one hot chocolate, but it was expertly made, combining melted chocolate with foaming hot milk and topped with lashings of dark, milk and white chocolate shavings. It was fascinating watching the staff prepare the hot chocolates and artfully cutting the chocolate shavings. Most importantly, the hot chocolate was sublime and went down far too quickly, although it was so rich I couldn’t have managed more than one.

From Dark Sugars, we hopped back across Brick Lane to the Vintage Market. The cavernous market is filled with stalls selling vintage clothing, some of which is very unusual, and there are designer bargains to be had, too. The first piece I picked up was a 1980s pencil skirt by Alberta Ferretti and I saw numerous pairs of Jimmy Choo heels.

I had a good rake in a number of the stalls and bought an amazing 1980s-style black and gold bolero jacket. You can pick up some incredible finds in the market, in particular classic, elegant coats , quirky dresses and chic hats. I could have spent ages rummaging through all the rails. If you’re after some unusual pieces, the market is worth a visit.

By now it was early evening and time for me to make my way back to Paddington to catch my train home, so we walked towards Liverpool Street Station, stopping off at the Old Spitalfields Market along the way to browse in the shops and stalls. The area around the market is home to lots of quirky clothing and antique shops, as well as bars, cafés and restaurants. After a quick look around the market, I said goodbye to my friends and headed back west having enjoyed a fun, action-packed day.

Info

Madame D
76 Commercial Street, London E1 6LY
madame-d.com 

Junkyard Golf Club
Dray Walk, Old Truman Brewery, 91 Brick Lane, London E1 6QL
Open daily
£9.50 per person Sunday to Wednesday, £11.50 per person Thursday to Saturday
junkyardgolfclub.co.uk 

Dark Sugars Cocoa House
124-126 Brick Lane, London E1 6RU
Open daily, 10am to 10pm
darksugars.co.uk 

London – Winnie the Pooh at the V&A

Winnie the Pooh climbing at the V&A

A few Saturdays ago I caught up with some friends in London. Our plan for the day was to visit the Winnie the Pooh exhibition at the V&A and then a game of crazy golf at Junkyard Golf, just off Brick Lane. I was due to meet my friends at the V&A just after midday, so after arriving at Paddington a little after 11am I set off for the V&A on foot via Kensington Gardens.

Albert Memorial, Kensington Gardens

That day, the sun was shining and aside from a few dog walkers, Kensington Gardens was quiet. I ambled through the park towards the magnificent Albert memorial (above) – commissioned by Queen Victoria to commemorate her husband Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha after his death in 1861 – and then continued on, passing the Royal Albert Hall, on my way down to Exhibition Road and the V&A.

Winnie the Pooh cuddly toys at the V&A

Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic explores the famous children’s stories written by AA Milne and illustrated by EH Shepard. The exhibition, which runs until 8 April 2018, looks at the origins of Winnie the Pooh, the inspiration behind the characters, places and stories, and how it came to be considered a beloved, world-famous classic.

The exhibition features the cuddly toys upon which the characters are based, photographs and information about AA Milne’s home life and explores the real-life locations behind the Hundred Acre Wood, Galleon’s Lap and more. It also showcases lots of Winnie the Pooh-related merchandise and objects, including some first edition books, which must be worth a fortune; board games; lunchboxes; and a very rare Winnie the Pooh tea set that was given to The Queen as a child.

Pooh sticks bridge, Winnie the Pooh at the V&A

There’s lots for kids to enjoy, too, with a slide, cubby holes, a doorway and games among the exhibition’s interactive elements. One of the best interactive elements was the illustrated recreation of Poohsticks bridge (above). My mum used to play Poohsticks with us as kids, but it was only here that I realised where the game came from – I hadn’t made the Winnie the Pooh connection before!

Illustrations on display at the Winnie the Pooh exhibition

The best part of the exhibition was EH Shepard’s amazing illustrations. EH Shepard liked to base his illustrations upon real-life objects and places, and it was fascinating to compare his drawings with photographs of the real-life versions. The exhibition also looks at Shepard’s technique and it was interesting to see his original pencil sketches – in some he’d redrawn the characters repeatedly – alongside the final ink versions.

As well as Shepard’s illustrations, the exhibition features lots of familiar excerpts from the stories – including Eeyore losing his tail and Piglet’s reaction when Eeyore suggested Owl have Piglet’s house – and they brought back lots of fond memories from my childhood.

'Mr Sanders' Winnie the Pooh's home at the V&A

Winnie the Pooh: Exploring a Classic is a fantastic, well-curated exhibition and I very much enjoyed it. There was lots to see and do, and I turned into a child again as we posed for photos on Poohsticks bridge, played with the interactive games and got into the spirit of the exhibition. It was also interesting to learn more about these iconic stories and characters that were such a big part of my childhood.

Info

V&A – Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic
Open daily until 8 April 2018
Costs £8
vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/winnie-the-pooh-exploring-a-classic