Edinburgh travel guide

View over Edinburgh New Town and the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh Castle

Settled around two extinct volcanoes and steeped in history, Edinburgh is a cultural, culinary powerhouse boasting dramatic scenery, excellent food and fabulous shopping. With lots to see and do, it’s a great destination for a weekend city break. If you’re planning a trip to Auld Reekie, here’s my mini travel guide to the Scottish capital…

History

The entrance to Edinburgh Castle

Perched atop one of the city’s two ancient volcanoes, Edinburgh Castle is not to be missed (above). The huge fortress is home to a royal residence, the legendary stone of scone, the Scottish crown jewels, the city’s oldest building (St Margaret’s Chapel), the national war memorial and a few museums (a couple of regimental museums and another on prisoners of war). While the ruined David’s Tower was the site of Scotland’s very own ‘red wedding’ when the young head of the Black Douglas clan and his brother were murdered during a banquet in an event known to history as ‘the black dinner’.

The Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh

Down the hill from Edinburgh Castle, at the end of the Royal Mile, is Edinburgh’s other royal residence, the Palace of Holyroodhouse (above), the Queen’s official residence in Scotland. The palace is also the site of another infamous royal murder – that of Mary, Queen of Scots’s private secretary David Rizzio by her husband Henry, Lord Darnley, and his cronies. Inside the palace you can tour Mary’s apartments and explore the ruined Holyrood Abbey (below), which once upon a time hosted the coronations and marriages of many a Scottish monarch.

A passageway inside Holyrood Abbey

Delve into the capital’s more recent history and pop inside the Scottish Parliament opposite Holyrood Palace. The parliament, which is free to visit, offers guided hour-long tours focusing on different aspects of the building – you can choose from a parliament tour, a photography tour, an art tour or an architecture tour.

Museums and galleries

There are a number of world-class museums and art galleries in the Scottish capital, but the best by far is the National Museum of Scotland. The enormous museum extends over multiple floors and features exhibitions about Scottish history, the natural world, technology, science, fashion and more.

The museum’s most famous artefacts are the Lewis Chessmen, a series of 12th century ivory and walrus-tooth chess figurines discovered on the Isle of Lewis. Eleven of the glorious chessmen – they each have unique facial features – are on display here, the remaining 82 pieces are in the British Museum in London.

The statue of Greyfriars Bobby

On leaving the museum, don’t miss the statue of Greyfriars Bobby opposite (above), outside Greyfriars Kirk. JK Rowling found inspiration for many a Harry Potter character’s name in the churchyard – the names on the gravestones include Thomas Riddell, McGonagall, Potter and Moodie.

Art lovers should make a beeline for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Housed in a gorgeous red brick building in the New Town, the enormous gallery is home to a host of portraits of fascinating, world-leading Scots (I had no idea how many Scots had shaped our world until I visited). Flora MacDonald, Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns are among the famous Scots whose portraits are on display.

Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh

The Scottish National Gallery (above) beside the city’s Princes Street Gardens features works by a slew of famous artists such as Constable, Monet, Degas and El Greco. While modern art fans should plan a trip to the city’s Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art where you can see works by the likes of Joan Miro, Alberto Giacometti and Rene Magritte.

Plants and wildlife

Edinburgh’s most famous gardens are the Princes Street Gardens in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle. The popular gardens are a great place to while away an hour or two with a book on a sunny afternoon. The Royal Botanic Gardens to the north of the city centre span some 70 acres and are home to more than 13,500 plant species. RZSS Edinburgh Zoo, meanwhile, looks after the UK’s only giant pandas (Tian Tian and Yang Guang) and koalas (Alinga, Goonaroo and Toorie), along with penguins, lions, vultures, hippos and more.

Walking

View of Arthur's Seat from the grounds of the Palace of Holyroodhouse

When a city boasts two extinct volcanoes, you know there will be plenty of opportunities for long walks and hikes. The best hike in the city is the magnificent Arthur’s Seat (above), which overlooks the Palace of Holyroodhouse and has breathtaking views over Edinburgh and out towards the Firth of Forth. There are various trails you can follow to the peak, some steeper than others, and depending on the weather, it can get pretty windswept at the top.

If you’re not feeling quite so energetic, the nearby Calton Hill, which is topped by the  distinctive, unfinished Parthenon-like national monument, is a better bet. For those who dislike hills, the Water of Leith walkway follows the path of the River Leith from the suburb of Balerno to the port of Leith and extends over 12 miles in total. But for a shorter walk, start in the city’s picturesque Dean Village and follow the river through the city to Leith, home to the Royal Yacht Britannia.

Shopping

Princes Street is Edinburgh’s shopping mecca, awash with the usual high street names such as H&M and Marks & Spencer, but make sure to explore the streets and alleyways behind it in the city’s New Town. The area is filled with independent boutiques that are well worth a browse. Edinburgh’s quirkiest and most interesting shops, though, are to be found in the city’s Grassmarket area and along steep Victoria Street that curves from the George IV Bridge down to Grassmarket.

Food

Outside London, Edinburgh is one of the UK’s brightest culinary hot spots featuring a host of exceptionally good restaurants and cafés. One of my favourite places is The Scran & Scallie gastropub, co-owned by renowned local chef Tom Kitchin, which serves modern, seasonal British fare. Be sure to rock up on a Sunday evening when folk musicians play in the bar area – there’s a lively atmosphere and it makes for a fun evening.

Chez Jules, an unpretentious French bistro in the New Town, is also worth checking out, as is Hendersons, an Edinburgh institution that serves excellent veggie and vegan dishes. It’s my go-to breakfast place in the city. For a quick caffeine fix, Wellington Coffee in the New Town is a tiny, basement delight. Order the hot chocolate – it comes with a giant, pillowy chunk of marshmallow on the side.

Day trips

Fancy seeing some sights outside the city? You’re in luck as the area surrounding the Scottish capital is brimming with places to visit. Fans of symbolism and/or The Da Vinci Code should hop on the number 37 bus from Princes Street, which will take you to the village of Roslin, home to the romantic 15th century Rosslyn Chapel and its copious, intricate stone carvings. Sadly, there’s no sign of the holy grail.

The courtyard inside the ruined Linlithgow Palace

If Edinburgh Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse failed to satisfy your appetite for all things royal, the haunting Linlithgow Palace (above) is a short 20-minute train ride away. The ruined shell of a palace was the birth place of Mary, Queen of Scots. While the imposing and impressive Stirling Castle is around 50 minutes by train from Edinburgh Waverley Station.

Inchcolm Abbey

The beautiful Firth of Forth is also a short train ride away – alight at South Queensferry where you can catch a boat to Inchcolm Island. The small island in the middle of the firth is home to a splendid, partially-ruined abbey (above). While sailing across the firth, keep your eye out for puffins (their distinctive orange beaks make them relatively easy to spot) and soak up the magnificent views as you sail under the iconic Forth Bridges.

Getting there

Edinburgh Airport is well served by airports in the UK and abroad. Once you’ve arrived, the easiest way to get into the city is via the express bus service. Buses run every 10 minutes and cost £7 for a return ticket. The bus’s final destination is Waverley Bridge, overlooking Edinburgh Waverley train station, in the heart of the city.

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Wells – Bishop’s Palace and Gardens

The Bishop's Palace in Wells

Welcome to part two of my Wells adventure, which after Wells Cathedral and Vicars’ Close focuses on the remaining part of the city’s triumvirate of medieval masterpieces – the Bishop’s Palace and gardens. The partially-ruined Bishop’s Palace has been the home of the Bishop of Bath and Wells for more than 800 years and is steeped in history.

The medieval stone gatehouse and drawbridge that provides entrance to the Bishop's Palace

The palace, along with the 14 acres of gardens that surround it, lies in the heart of the city, a stone’s throw from Wells Cathedral, concealed behind high stone walls. To get inside, you have to cross a large moat, which is home to a number of swans that have a bell they ring when they want feeding, and pass through an impressive stone gatehouse (above).

Stone archway beyond which lies the Bishop's Palace's south garden

After paying our entrance fee, we made our way past the large croquet lawn towards the palace, turning off before we got there by passing through a stone archway into the gardens (above). The archway forms part of the palace’s ruined great hall, which, along with the chapel, is one of the oldest parts of the palace, having been built in the 1290s. Only a couple of its walls and a few turrets remain, and it’s now enveloped by large, idyllic gardens, creating a picturesque scene.

The ruins of the great hall and the surrounding gardens at the Bishop's Palace in Wells

It was a warm, sunny day when we visited and there were quite a few people spread out on the lawn in the south garden (above), reading a book or enjoying a picnic, and I couldn’t help but think that if I lived in Wells, I’d definitely be doing the same when the sun was out. It’s such a pretty, tranquil space.

We strolled around the gardens at a leisurely pace, taking in the sights and enjoying the peace and quiet. The gardens were dotted with pieces of art, including a large wooden carving of a hand and a statue of a monk praying (above). The art was a fun, quirky touch and added a playful element.

Along the far side of the south garden, we climbed up onto the ramparts and walked the length of the wall. If you stand on tiptoes and look over the wall, you can just make out the deer park on the other side of the moat. Despite trying my best, I didn’t spot any deer but the large tract of land has been home to the ruminants since the early 13th century when King John gave the then-bishop Joscelin permission to establish a park, which he later filled with the creatures.

From the ramparts, we wandered through the east garden, which is home to lots of delightful plants and flowers, along with a giant swing, and then passed through a doorway and over a stream into another part of the gardens, which is home to the city’s namesake wells.

The Well Pool in the Bishop's Palace gardens, with Wells Cathedral in the background

The well springs are formed when water in an underground river, which flows down from the nearby Mendip Hills, hits a series of rocks and is forced up through the ground. There are three wells in total, the largest of which is the Well Pool (above). The Well Pool is stunning and we took our time walking around it, admiring the picture-perfect scene and scanning the surface of the water to see if we could spot any bubbles, which form when the water rises through the ground.

We then strolled around the other two wells and the remaining parts of the garden, including the arboretum, which features a large play park for children, and the community garden, before making our way back towards the Bishop’s Palace.

The Bishop's Palace from the east garden

The palace is still in use by the Bishop of Bath and Wells so only a small part of it is open to the public. The most impressive parts on display are the long hall, a long corridor filled with paintings of previous bishops, and the chapel, which features a high-vaulted ceiling and lots of stained glass windows.

By the time we’d finished looking around the palace and its gardens, it was mid-afternoon, so we stopped at The Bishop’s Table café within the palace grounds for lunch. The friendly café sells hearty fare such as ham, egg and chips, burgers and ploughman’s, along with a range of sandwiches and salads. There’s also a great spread of cakes. I had a cheese and pickle sandwich, which came with a side of coleslaw and salad, and really hit the spot.

Saint Andrew's Well in Wells

Having seen all the main sights in Wells, we spent the rest of the afternoon pottering around the market (there was also an antique fair in the city hall) and the city’s shops before making our way back to the bus station. I loved my day out in Wells. It’s a charming place full of pretty medieval architecture and great food, and is the perfect place for a day trip.

Info

The Bishop’s Palace, Wells BA5 2PD
Open 10am-6pm, daily (25 March to 28 October); 10am-4pm, daily (28 October to 31 March) 
£8.05 adults; £7.15 concessions; £3.55 children aged five to 18 years old
bishopspalace.org.uk

Wells

Wells Cathedral from the city's Bishop's Palace Gardens

I’m a little ashamed to admit I hadn’t heard of Wells, England’s smallest city, until a couple of months ago when my Bristol-based sister and brother-in-law took my mother there on a day out. My mother came back raving about the place, insisting I had to go as she knew I’d love it.

Fast forward a few weeks ago and my mother announced she was treating me to a day out in Wells for my birthday. Wells may officially have city status because of its cathedral, but in reality, it’s more like a small, traditional English market town. One that also happens to boast a beautiful cathedral, the UK’s only street that’s completely medieval, a partially-ruined Bishop’s Palace surrounded by idyllic gardens and, of course, a series of wells.

Nestled at the foot of the Mendip Hills in Somerset, the city is named after its three wells and has been inhabited since Roman times. We visited the city on a Saturday, and when the bus dropped us off in the city centre, we found a huge outdoor market taking place. The market stretched all over the large central square (the aptly-named Market Place) and was filled with stalls selling everything from candles to ceramics, cacti and local produce, such as cider, jams and honey.

The medieval houses with their very tall chimneys in Vicars' Close, Wells

After a quick look around the market and a brief sustenance stop (tea and scones) in the cathedral café, we headed to Vicars’ Close, which my mother had correctly predicted I’d spend ages photographing. The street is said to be the only complete medieval street left in the UK and it’s mindbogglingly attractive.

The entire length of the street is filled with small, picturesque stone cottages, each with a distinctive tall, thin chimney. There’s a tiny chapel at the far end (above) and a covered entrance at the other. Walking up and down it, I felt like I’d stepped into a scene from Harry Potter or The Chronicles of Narnia; it has such an otherworldly feel, it doesn’t seem real.

The stone cottages in Vicars' Close, Wells

Built in the 1360s as homes for the cathedral’s choir, the street is still occupied today. And despite looking like a picture-perfect idyll, I can’t imagine it’s much fun to live there. I suspect the steady stream of strange visitors walking up and down the street taking photos of your home must be quite tiresome.

Wells Cathedral

From one medieval masterpiece to another, we made our way to the city’s showstopper – its magnificent 12th century cathedral (above). The cathedral’s facade is unlike any other I’ve seen in the UK as it’s covered with sculptures and boasts one of the largest collections of medieval statues in the world. The sculptures represent a variety of kings, bishops, angels and apostles. There’s also a statue of Jesus.

Scissors arches and the ceiling in the nave at Wells Cathedral

Inside, the cathedral (and the nave in particular) is just as spectacular boasting unusual architecture and rare features, and is the earliest Gothic-style cathedral in England. The highlights include the unique scissor arch design in the nave (above), which was added in the early 14th century to stop the tower’s foundations from sinking. It’s a tremendous piece of craftsmanship and is so beautiful, not to mention practical, that I’m amazed more cathedrals didn’t follow suit and copy the design.

The Chapter House at Wells Cathedral

Just beyond the scissor arches, to the left of the nave, there’s a rickety old staircase that leads up to the mesmerising Chapter House (above). The stunning octagonal chamber dates back to the beginning of the 14th century and is still used today.

The Wells Cathedral clock

At the bottom of the rickety staircase, we stopped for a brief sojourn on a bench opposite the cathedral’s celebrated clock (above). The medieval clock, which dates to around 1390, is said to be one of the oldest in the UK. Every 15 minutes, a series of knights come whirling out onto a ledge above the clock face where they take part in a “jousting contest”.

The knights were amusing to watch and I was impressed that the clock is still in such good working order after more than 600 years. It’s a remarkable piece of machinery. I also enjoyed the little figurine of a man in the top right-hand corner who rings his bell when the knights come out to play.

The quire and Jesse window at Wells Cathedral

The rest of the cathedral, which includes a couple of chapels and cloisters, is fairly typical for a medieval English cathedral. The old quire in the centre of the cathedral is pretty, as is its exquisite stained glass Jesse window (above). I really enjoyed looking around the cathedral and Vicars’ Close, and admiring their charming architecture. It’s remarkable that after so many centuries, these incredible pieces of medieval craftsmanship are still in one piece.

After leaving the cathedral, we ambled over to our final destination, the medieval Bishop’s Palace and gardens, which I’ll write about next week – stay tuned for part two of my Wells adventure!

Getting there

It’s really easy to get to Wells using public transport. The 376, which stops just outside Bristol Temple Meads train station, runs every 30 minutes and takes around an hour to get to Wells. The bus drops you off in the city centre, but on the return journey, you’ll need to go to Wells Bus Station to catch the bus back to Bristol.

Info

Wells Cathedral

Wells Cathedral

Wells Cathedral, Chain Gate, Cathedral Green, Wells BA5 2UE
Open 7am-7pm, daily (April to September); 7am-6pm, daily (October-March)
Free – donations are welcomed
wellscathedral.org.uk

Dyffryn Gardens 2018

Rockery at Dyffryn Gardens 2018

A couple of months ago, I paid my annual visit to Dyffryn Gardens, a large Edwardian manor house, surrounded by 55 acres of botanical gardens,  just south of Cardiff.

I won’t write about the house as it hasn’t changed much since I wrote about it last year. But there was a wonderful art exhibition in the great hall by the Japanese artist Takumasa Ono. If you come across an exhibition of his work at another National Trust property, I’d recommend checking it out. I spent ages looking at all the prints and paintings for sale, and eventually bought a traditional Japanese-style painting of cherry blossom.

The gardens were as beautiful as ever, and I spent a lovely, relaxing day walking around. As always, I got a little carried away photographing them, even though a number of the flower beds had been left fallow and there were fewer plants and flowers to see.

Here are some of my favourite photos from this year’s visit, starting with this lilac flower:

Lilac flower at Dyffryn Gardens

The blossom was out in force in May:

Pale pink blossom at Dyffryn Gardens

The dragon flies came out to play:

Blue and green dragonflies on a stick in a pond

The Italian Gardens were as delightful as ever:

The Italian Gardens, with a round fountain at its centre, at Dyffryn Gardens

I liked the shape of these red flowers:

Red flowers at Dyffryn Gardens

A couple of the many flowering cacti in the orangery:

A lonely blossom on a tree branch:

Pink flower on a tree branch at Dyffryn Gardens

In case you’re interested in seeing how the gardens have changed over the last few years, here are 2017, 2016 and 2015’s posts.

London – The Impressionists at the Tate Britain

When I was in London at the beginning of April, I was looking for an exhibition to visit and the one that caught my eye was The Impressionists at the Tate Britain. The blockbuster exhibition, which closes today, has been running since November and centres around the French Impressionists who fled France for Britain during the Franco-Prussian War of the 1870s.

Impressionism is one of my favourite art movements and this exhibition didn’t disappoint with notable works by the likes of Claude Monet, Camille Pissaro and Auguste Rodin on display. Spread over eight galleries, it took a little over an hour to see everything there was to see, and while the exhibition was heaving in the first few galleries, the crowds eased off the further into the exhibition I got.

The exhibition began with paintings depicting the horrors of the Franco-Prussian War in Paris, with paintings of dead or wounded soldiers, and buildings alight or in ruins. The artworks were vivid and haunting, and brought home the tragedy of war. The exhibition then introduced some of the most notable members of the Impressionism movement in London, including Monet, Pissaro and Alfred Sisley.

Having introduced the key players, the exhibition then focused on numerous works by James Tissot, which depicted his take on London high society. The paintings were fantastic and some of the best on display, and I was taken by the way Tissot realistically depicted the fabrics worn by the many women in his paintings – one in particular stood out, and that was a painting of a woman in a white dress with yellow bows. The detail and the life-like way he captured the fabrics was superb.

From there I wandered into a large room dedicated to Alphonse Legros, one of the first French artists to seek shelter in London and friend to the likes of Whistler, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Monet, Tissot and Pissaro. There was an array of paintings and sculptures on display, but the standout for me was Rodin’s captivating bust of Legros, which displayed his superb craftsmanship to full effect.

The fourth gallery revolved around the French sculptor Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux during his time in London, while the fifth looked at British sports, crowds and parks from an outsiders’ perspective. I really enjoyed this gallery, there was lots to see and some exceptional pieces. I particularly liked Pissaro’s Bank Holiday, Kew and Guiseppe de Nitti’s Piccadilly Wintry Walk in London. Monet’s atmospheric Leicester Square at Night and Hyde Park were also showstoppers.

The sixth gallery focused on foggy scenes of the Thames and Westminster. I’m often captivated by paintings and illustrations where London is shrouded in fog as they’re so far removed from my experiences of the capital. It isn’t something I’ve witnessed, yet it’s a popular 19th century image of London. The gallery featured a number of excellent works, including three pieces from Whistler’s haunting Nocturne series. Pissaro’s Charing Cross Bridge, London and Guiseppe de Nitti’s Westminster were also fantastic.

The penultimate gallery showcased Monet’s work. To me, Monet is the epitome of Impressionism and I’ve been a fan of his since I was introduced to his work in school. The gallery was packed with recognisable works including two paintings of Charing Cross Bridge and countless depictions of the Houses of Parliament.

What I particularly liked about Monet’s paintings of the Houses of Parliament was the way he captured the iconic landmark at different times of the day and in different lights – at sunset, in sunlight and the effect of sunlight in the fog. It was great to see all these similar paintings together in one room as it really helped showcase the varying effects of the light.

The eighth and final gallery explored André Derain’s colourful depictions of the Thames. He painted traditional scenes of the Thames, such as Charing Cross Bridge, in bright, vivid, unrealistic colours and it was a complete contrast to the other Impressionists’ more realistic depictions of London’s most famous river. It was an interesting, unexpected and playful end to the exhibition.

I really enjoyed The Impressionists exhibition – it was packed with exceptional pieces and  showcased works by lesser known Impressionists alongside the blockbuster names. I was introduced to a number of great artists I was unfamiliar with, but I also liked that it featured some of the most iconic of the Impressionists’ works. It was fantastic to see so many of Monet’s works, for example, in one room. A great exhibition and well worth seeing.

Info

The Impressionists, until 7 May 2018
Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1P 4RG
Adults £17.70, many different concessions available
tate.org.uk

 

London – Hampstead Heath and Kenwood House

Kenwood House in Hampstead, London

One of my favourite places in London for a Sunday stroll is Hampstead Heath in the north of the capital. When I lived in London, I spent many a morning tramping through the heath in all kinds of weather, but I hadn’t been back since I left the Big Smoke more than three years ago. So when I was up in London at the beginning of April, I decided it was the perfect time to revisit my old stomping ground.

The viaduct ponds on Hampstead Heath

During my trip, I recreated my favourite walk through heath, which starts at the entrance near Hampstead Heath Overground Station and takes me as far as Kenwood House, the stately home that sits on the northern edge of the heath, before looping back around to my starting point via a different route.

On joining the heath, I walked past the open grassland of Pryors Field and the Hampstead Ponds, and kept walking until I reached the woods. There I carried on through the woods for a short distance until I reached the Viaduct Pond (above). This pond is one of my favourite places on the heath as it’s so pretty and tranquil, and I love the weathered, red brick arches of the viaduct. There are usually a few ducks happily bobbing away on the water, too, which adds to the serene feel of the place.

Walking through the woods on Hampstead Heath

From the pond, I walked up to and over the viaduct, and continued along the path until I reached the men’s toilets. There I turned to the right and carried on walking through the woods, past a massive overturned tree, until I reached the entrance to Kenwood House. This stretch of the heath can get very muddy, so wellies or hiking boots are essential during the winter months or if it’s been raining heavily.

The view over the heath from Kenwood House in Hampstead

Kenwood House is an elegant 18th century stately home and I always remember it for its starring role in Notting Hill when Hugh Grant’s character comes to meet Julia Roberts’s character on the set of the period drama she’s filming.

There’s a fair bit of parkland surrounding Kenwood House and once you reach the gates, you have to walk another 10 minutes or so through the grounds before you come upon the house. The grounds are lovely, stretching over some 112 acres, and there’s plenty to see. Alongside the rolling meadows and woods, there are ponds, a fake bridge, an old dairy and sculptures by the likes of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth. Its also the source of the old Fleet River.

A sandwich and a pot of tea at The Brew House Cafe at Kenwood House

It was lunchtime as I arrived at Kenwood House, so I made beeline for its café. The Brew House Café is a great place for a bite to eat, selling tasty food and delicious cakes, and I used to regularly stop off here for a hot chocolate or an ice cream (depending on the season) during my hikes across the heath. It can get very busy though, so if you’re planning to have lunch here, it’s best to do so sooner rather later. I arrived just before it got really busy, and I’m glad I did, as it was heaving some 10 minutes later.

Kenwood House in Hampstead, London

Happily refreshed and sated, it was time to explore the house. The present house was built by the Scottish architect Robert Adam in the late 18th century and is now run by English Heritage. It’s a long, beautiful house with two floors open to the public.

The music room at Kenwood House

On going inside, I found myself in the entrance hall, and from there, I did a loop of the ground floor, before venturing upstairs. From the hall, I went through a narrow corridor to the green room and onto the elegant music room (above). Then I headed back through the green room to the orangery, which boasts fabulous views over the grounds, and onto the breakfast room (below) and Lord Mansfield’s dressing room, finishing up in the grand dining room and the pastel-hued great library.

The Breakfast Room at Kenwood House

One thing I hadn’t appreciated before visiting Kenwood House was how extensive its art collection is. Almost every room in the house is filled with incredible paintings by acclaimed artists such as Rembrandt, Gainsborough, Vermeer and Van Dyke, to name a few. The astounding number of pieces, which once belonged to the 1st Earl of Iveagh, makes Kenwood House one of London’s great, unsung art galleries.

The artworks are superb and I was amazed at how many pieces by great artists were hanging on its walls – even the smaller, less distinguished rooms were dripping with paintings by well-known names.

My favourite room was the Great Library (above), which was refurbished between 2012 and 2013 with the aim of recreating the room’s original late-18th century decor. It’s a huge, light, airy room with an incredible pale blue and pink ceiling, and rows and rows of glorious book cases. It’s a spectacular space and so very, very pretty.

The room filled with collections of buckles, jewellery and miniatures

After seeing all there was to see downstairs, I headed upstairs. There are fewer rooms on the first floor so it doesn’t take as long to see it all, but the first floor, like the floor below, is home to countless works of art. There’s also a room filled with cabinets displaying pieces of jewellery, belt buckles (some of which are very bling) and miniatures. It’s a curious room with some superb, unusual objects and well worth venturing upstairs for.

Having looked around the house, I headed back outside where I wandered through the grounds until I reached the heath. From there, I took a slightly different route back, cutting across the woods via a different path to the Viaduct Pond, crossing the viaduct, and then carrying on in a straight line until I reached the other side of the Hampstead Ponds. There I crossed a path between two of the ponds and carried on walking until I reached Hampstead Heath Overground Station.

Hampstead Heath

I loved my time on Hampstead Heath, it was just as beautifully wild and untamed as I remembered, and wonderfully relaxing, too. When I’m walking across the heath I find it hard to believe I’m in the middle of London as it feels as though I’m in the countryside. For huge stretches of my walk, I was all alone – it’s a fantastic place to unwind, away from the hustle and bustle of the capital. By far and away, one of the best places in London for a walk.

Info

Kenwood House, Hampstead Lane, Hampstead NW3 7JR
Open seven days a week
Free
english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/kenwood

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.

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

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