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

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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

Jordan travel guide

Wadi Mujib in Jordan

If I had to guess, I’d wager that Petra is the reason most people visit Jordan and it was certainly why I booked my trip. I’d long been keen to visit the ancient Nabutean city, but little did I realise it’s just one of a number of incredible places to see in this fascinating country.

Jordan is home to wonderfully preserved Roman ruins, the lowest and saltiest point on Earth and Moses’s alleged burial site, as well as cracking Crusader castles, spectacular deserts, and relaxing beach resorts. It’s also one of the most beautiful countries I’ve seen and boasts breathtaking scenery that rivals the great American vistas of Zion and Arches national parks.

Jordan has a long and fascinating history, playing host to a number of cultures and peoples over the millennia; the food is delicious; and the people are warm, friendly and hospitable. I spent a week travelling around the country last year and needless to say, I loved every minute of it. Here’s my mini travel to Jordan…

Sightseeing

Amman

I wasn’t hugely impressed by Jordan’s capital city Amman, it didn’t seem to have much of a centre to it and you needed to drive everywhere, so it felt a little soulless. But there are some impressive places to visit, including the old Citadel (above) on top of a hill in the centre of the city and the Roman amphitheatre below it. The Jordan Museum, which is home to some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, is also worth a visit – it’s small, so only takes an hour or so to look around, but it’s full of interesting exhibits about the country, its history and its culture, and has an excellent display about the origins of language.

Jerash

One of the largest and best preserved Roman sites in the world, Jerash is a fascinating place. The ancient city is much bigger than I was expecting and even though we spent a good two-and-a-half hours there, I still felt as though we rushed our trip and didn’t quite see everything there was to see. The spectacular ruins include two almost perfectly preserved amphitheatres, numerous temples and an intriguing mosaic on the floor of an old church.

Dead Sea

The mineral-rich lake that lies between Jordan and Israel is 411m below sea level, making it the lowest point on Earth. There are a number of resorts dotted along the edge of the Dead Sea where you can while away an afternoon floating in the thick salty waters.

Make sure you don’t spend longer than 20 minutes in the sea at any one time before washing all the minerals off your body and avoid getting the sea water in your eyes or other sensitive parts of your body. Look out for small pockets of mud along the shore, which you can use to slather over your body, then wait for the mud to dry before washing it off in the sea – it will leave your skin super soft!

Biblical sites

As part of the Holy Land, Jordan is home to a number of important Biblical sites. Mount Nebo, for example, is home to the Memorial Church of Moses, which commemorates the prophet Moses who reportedly saw the promised land from the spot, and features Moses’s reputed burial site, as well as some fantastic mosaics. The mountain, which lies at the top end of the Dead Sea, also boasts fantastic views over Israel (you can just make out Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem in the distance, above).

St George’s Church in the town of Madaba, meanwhile, features an incredible 6th century mosaic map of the Holy Land (above). Only parts of the map remain, but what’s there is fairly topographically accurate and it’s possible to make out the Jordan River, the Dead Sea and Jerusalem.

Kerak

Perched high on a hill and dominating its namesake town, the crusader castle at Kerak is enormous. The sandstone structure is an imposing and formidable fortress. Much of it is now in ruins, but you can clamber about inside the dark chambers and passages, exploring what remains and there are fantastic views over the nearby valleys.

Petra

The jewel in Jordan’s crown and one of the seven wonders of the world, Petra does not disappoint and is a must for anyone visiting the country. The most surprising thing  about Petra is its size, it’s enormous, and you’ll need at least two, if not three, days to see it all. I spent two full days in Petra and could have done with an extra day.

Petra is famed for its ancient tombs, but surprisingly, they’re not the most spectacular part of the city. Rather I was blown away by its incredible landscapes – it’s one of the most beautiful places on earth. The colours in the rocks – greens, reds, whites, purples, blacks, even bright blues – are like nothing I’ve seen before.

Petra gets very busy, especially the area around the Treasury (above), so it’s worth getting there as early as possible. It was incredibly hot and sunny when I visited in May, so we did the bulk of our sightseeing in the morning before the temperatures became unbearable.

Petra’s very hilly so you’ll need to do a lot of hiking to reach some of the more interesting parts of the city. My favourite place was the Monastery (above), high on top of one of the city’s hills, and for me, more spectacular than the iconic Treasury. My surprise when I turned around and saw it after a long hike to the top of the mountain will stay with me forever.

It’s also worth carrying on past the Monastery to the look-out points on the rocks nearby. There’s one overlooking the Monastery and one further on with a Bedouin tent on top of a precarious-looking rock – don’t miss either highest point and stay for tea with the friendly Bedouin. The view from the rock over the Wadi al Araba is extraordinary and one of my favourite travel moments.

Wadi Rum

The beautiful desert of Wadi Rum was immortalised by Lawrence of Arabia in The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, his detailed account of his time in the Middle East helping unite the Arab tribes. The Seven Pillars of Wisdom is named after a rock formation in the wadi (an Arabic term for valley) and there’s even a carving of TE Lawrence on a rock in the desert. Wadi Rum is also home to an old, unused train station with a train you can clamber aboard, as well as ancient Nabutean carvings. You can also spend the night sleeping under the stars in a Bedouin camp where you’ll be treated to great food, music and dancing.

Aqaba

Aqaba lies at the top of the Red Sea and is the only port in this otherwise landlocked country. I spent a day on a glass-bottomed boat on the sea, snorkelling in the coral reefs. The current in the sea can be very strong, but the marine life is incredible – I was lucky enough to find myself snorkelling with a turtle, which was definitely a pinch-myself moment.

Food and drink

Jordanian food is fairly typical Middle Eastern fare – think lots of delicious salads, hummus, baba ghanoush, pickled vegetables, tabbouleh, falafel and flatbreads. Other foods to look out for include kibbe, which are little meat croquettes; mansaf, a dish of goat or lamb served with rice and topped with a yoghurt sauce; and mussakhan, a chicken wrap with onions.

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Alcohol is rare in Jordan – the only places I saw it for sale were in Petra and Aqaba – and instead you’ll find lots of fantastic fruit juices in the restaurants. My favourite was lemon and mint juice, which you’ll find everywhere, although it varied in taste depending on where I had it. Sometimes it was sweet, other times really sour. I also drank lots of mint tea while I was there and tried some fermented goat’s milk, an interesting local delicacy, during a picnic in Wadi Mujib.

Climate

Wadi Rum

Jordan is in the heart of the Middle East and so is a hot, dry country. It’s baking hot in the summer, but cooler in winter, around 5°C to 10°C in January. I visited in May when the sun was searingly strong, so I tried my best to avoid the midday sun, venturing out in the morning or late afternoon and seeking as much shade as possible. I still struggled with headaches and overheating though, despite taking every precaution to protect myself.

Safety

“Is it safe?” was the one question everyone asked when I told them I was going to Jordan. “Yes,” I’d reply wearily, “it’s perfectly safe.” And it is. I didn’t have any concerns about my safety during my trip, and if anything, I probably felt safer there than I do in most European countries.

The Jordanians take their security seriously, so every tourist site has a police presence and there were numerous police checks along the roads. There was also airport-style security at the entrance to a number of hotels. I didn’t find this scary, rather I found it reassuring that the Jordanians know the country’s a likely target for terrorists given its location and are taking the necessary steps to keep everyone safe.

Share your experiences

Have you been to Jordan? If so, I’d love to hear what you thought of it and if you have any tips I haven’t covered here, please share them in the comments.

Barry Island

Whitmore Bay, Barry Island

When I was a child, Barry Island was the most exciting place in the world. At the time it was the rundown site of a Butlin’s holiday camp, but it was also home to a fairground, games arcades and candy floss, so until I discovered the magic of Disneyland Paris, it was the most thrilling place on earth. I can still remember how excited I’d get whenever we’d get the train to the island.

Nowadays the Butlin’s camp has long gone and the island boasts sandy beaches, grassy headlands and hidden coves, which makes it a fantastic place for a Sunday stroll. The island’s transformation is down to the local council, the Vale of Glamorgan, which over the past few years has done an excellent job of sprucing it up, installing playful beach huts and other amenities, and opening up walking paths along the cliffs.

Friars Point, Barry Island

A few Sundays ago, I spent the day at Barry Island, enjoying a pleasant walk in the brisk January sunshine. We started off at Friar’s Point, the headland to the right of the island’s pleasure beach, Whitmore Bay. The headland is a site of special scientific interest because of its cowslip meadow and boasts great views of the sandy beaches either side of it – the one above looks out towards the headland at the Knap in Barry.

Whitmore Bay, Barry Island

From there, we ambled down to Whitmore Bay (above), where we walked across the long sandy beach, past the promenade, the pleasure gardens and the two eye-catching shelters that date from the 1920s.

The beach was full of families enjoying a day out, as well as dog walkers, and there were lots of dogs happily running along the shore front, dancing merrily in and out of the waves. During the peak season, dogs are banned from the beach but at this time of the year, when it’s far too chilly to venture into the water and the beach isn’t too crowded, they’re permitted to roam the sands.

Beach huts, Barry Island

From Whitmore Bay, we continued up towards the other headland that flanks it, Nell’s Point, passing the colourful beach huts, climbing wall and art installation that sprays water during the summer months.

Nell’s Point looks out over the Bristol Channel, and on the day of our walk, the sky was clear so we could make out the islands of Flat Holm and Steep Holm. Flat Holm belongs to Wales and is the most southerly part of the country; while Steep Holm, some six miles off the coast of Weston-super-Mare, belongs to England.

Nell’s Point used to be home to the Butlin’s holiday camp, which closed in 1996, and it’s taken almost 20 years to remove all traces of the 1960s resort and restore the area back to its natural beauty. These days you can explore the ruins of a Norman chapel, St Baruc’s, there, as well as the remains of a gun emplacement that was used to help defend the coastline during the Second World War.

Jackson's Bay, Barry Island

We carried on walking around the headland to the nearby cove of Jackson’s Bay (above), stopping at the Coastwatch Station along the way to visit its small exhibition about the work of the Barry coastguard.

Dating from the Jurassic and Triassic periods, the beaches around south Wales are a geological goldmine and popular with fossil hunters. The cliffs that surround Jackson’s Bay are made from layer upon layer of red and grey rock, and we couldn’t help but wonder as we walked down to the beach what sorts of fossils might be lying within them and what sorts of geological events occurred to create such striking strata.

Rocks, Barry Island

I always enjoy my day trips to Barry Island – these days for very different reasons to when I was a child. Barry Island has been a rundown shell for most of my life, so it’s fantastic to see it now so vibrant and full of life, and to have the chance to walk along its beaches and headlands, and admire the splendid views. It might not be the most exciting place on earth for me anymore, but it always makes me smile and brings back lots of fond memories.