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Thursday, 30 April 2009

Greenwich & Deptford



Flower stall

I met up with Julie again last week, in London this time. We spent a lovely morning wandering through Greenwich and Deptford, and it was glorious weather as well which made it even better.

Greenwich

Greenwich didn't feel like part of London, based on the parts of London I've been to before (which is quite a lot!); it felt more like a small town centre.

The 'Milennium Village' had loads of multi-coloured apartment blocks and, in the sunshine, looked like it could have been imported straight from the Spanish coast:

Greenwich milennium village

Deptford, on the other hand, is closer to what I expect of London. One of the morning's most entertaining moments came while I was admiring the huge yams outside this shop in the high street:

Yams

Julie asked the shop owner how the yams could be cooked, and he (an Indian gentleman) said "Oh, I don't know, they're black people's food" which was a bit of a shock to me. Then the conversation was joined by a passing American lady who told us how she used them, and we found out she was in the process of setting up a catering business. And they say people in London don't talk to strangers!

Julie also showed me the incredible cafe which I told you about earlier, and some other things which also deserve their own posts (later).

I went on to my next appointment by boat:

Greenwich boat


Wednesday, 29 April 2009

It's a special talent!



I mentioned earlier that my sense of direction goes to pot in cities. This is what I mean:

I came out of the station and walked the way I always do to the road where my friend lives, and confidently turned right along his road.

London terraces


It took me about five minutes before I realised I should have turned left.

His flat is only a few yards from the junction if you go in the right direction, and I've been there many, many times before, but somehow none of this makes any difference...

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Travel Tuesdays #15: A Sign




This photo was taken on the Great Wall of China at Badaling, in September 2008. I'd love to know whether the Chinese text translates the 'please'.

Monday, 27 April 2009

Chickens & Eggs & Pancakes, oh my!




I recently saw a news report which said that 'large' and 'very large' egg sizes were uncomfortable and stressful for the hens. Even if you don't worry about animal welfare, you should be interested in this report because the other finding was that larger eggs are more watery and less tasty.

This struck a chord with me; we'd been buying larger eggs because they're cheaper, but I've often noticed that when I try to make fried eggs they come out quite runny and watery. I'd assumed I was doing something wrong.

So, this time we got smaller ones. I made pancakes, and found that using 2 'medium' eggs was just as good as using 2 'very large' eggs, so there seems to be something in the theory that they're more dense. You seem to get the same amount of 'egginess' (I know that's not really a word), but in larger eggs there's extra water to make up the volume. Makes sense when you think about it.

I tend to eat my pancakes just the way nature intended - with a light sprinkling sugar & lemon juice. My husband enjoys a wider variety of toppings including jam, orange juice, cherries & cream... not all at the same time though!

You can also make drop scones (smaller, thicker pancakes) by using about half the quantity of milk, and adding the mixture to the pan in small dollops.

Very Simple Pancakes
Makes about 10

8oz (225g) plain flour
2 eggs
1 pint (560ml) milk
sunflower oil (for frying)
  1. Put the flour into a large mixing bowl, make a well in the middle, and break in the eggs.
  2. Mix the egg into the flour, then add milk a little at a time, stirring constantly to ensure a smooth mixture (break up any lumps when you see them).
  3. Once all the milk has been added, whisk the mixture until it's nice and bubbly.
  4. Heat a frying pan with a little oil until the oil begins to smoke. I find that the best way to make sure the pancakes don't stick is to spread the hot oil around the pan with a square of kitchen roll (being careful not to burn fingers).
  5. Add a ladle-full of pancake mixture to the pan, and tilt the pan as necessary to evenly coat the base of the pan with pancake.
  6. Cook until bubbles begin to appear in the top of the pancake, then flip. This is your chance to show off if you're fancy about it, but I just use a spatula! The second side will cook in about thirty seconds.
  7. Add a little more oil and repeat from step 4, until you run out of mixture. I find it helps to give the mixture an extra whisk each time before adding to the pan.


Sunday, 26 April 2009

Every train should have one...



I think I have a new favourite cafe! It's in Deptford, London so I won't get to go there very often, but take a look at this:

Cafe in Deptford

Yes, it's a cafe in a train carriage: I love it.

It's brightly painted outside...

Deptford cafe

...light and surprisingly spacious inside...

Deptford cafe

...with friendly staff, great coffee, and a nice selection of food.

Open sandwiches

The sandwiches looked amazing - beautifully presented and imaginative - but in the end we settled on coffee and a scone.

Scones

Incidentally, these are photos taken on my new phone, since I didn't take my camera with me. Not bad, all things considered.

Friday, 24 April 2009

Friday Shoot-Out:



This week's Friday Shoot-Out has an open theme, which makes it so much harder! I'm not actually at home this Friday, so these are older pictures (though not ones I've blogged before), from when I'd only had my new camera for a couple of days.

Hopefully this will give you some impression of the kind of area where I live:

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img_0205

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img_0211

img_0216

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Thursday, 23 April 2009

Marlborough



Marlborough

Time for another quaint English town! A short while ago we happened to pass through Marlborough, and my husband suggested we could stop for lunch - and you've probably worked out by now that I don't turn down food!

Appleby's

We ate at a cafe called Appleby's, and somehow managed to fill ourselves up (with homemade soup, potato wedges, and coffee) to the extent that we left without sampling their amazing-looking cakes. Won't make that mistake next time! The food was very tasty, though, and the atmosphere upstairs was lovely.

We also made time for a short walk around the town, taking in William Golding's house (which we hadn't known was there)...

William Golding plaque

... and some fascinatingly knobbly trees!

Trees in Marlborough

I believe it's a form of coppicing where they chop off all the branches each year (but leaving the main trunk), however I don't know much about it. Anyone wiser than me?


Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Playing With Fire




Fire experiments, originally uploaded by Rachel Cotterill.

On our recent National Trust holiday, one of the great features of the basecamp where we stayed was this large woodburning stove. One evening we (mostly me, Andy, and my dad) amused ourselves by taking photos of the fire. The most interesting effect was by changing the amount of zoom on the lens while taking the photo... I could play at this sort of thing for hours!



Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Travel Tuesdays #14: Iceland




This is another photo from our grand tour of Iceland in 2006.

It was, as you can see, a beautiful day as we came into view of the snow-capped mountains in the north of the country. The first ice we saw in Iceland! This was just before one of the hardest climbs I've ever done on a bike, to get to Akureyri - which is a town that most tourists reach by cruise ship.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Packing Cubes & My Travel Essentials



As a student who lives a good two hours away from my university town, and as a fledgling travel writer who loves my holidays, I do a lot of travelling of one sort or another. Now, I've admitted before how much I love packing. However, I hate wasting time, so I usually keep a bag half-packed. The essentials are ready to go, I just have to throw in some clothes and shoes appropriate to the season and purpose of the trip.

For our honeymoon, knowing that we were going to be living out of our cases for a month, we invested in something to make packing and unpacking even quicker. I'd been considering buying some packing cubes for a while, and it seemed like the right time. We went for a brand called eBags, mostly because of the funky colours.

In case you're not familiar with the concept, packing cubes are lightweight, zip-up bags of varying sizes into which you can sort your belongings. When you're regularly taking things in and out of suitcases on a long journey, it makes it much quicker and easier to identify what you want.

I love them.

They're rugged enough to cope with camping as well as hotel travel (updated in 2013 to add: they're still going strong after five years of use). The mesh front is fine enough to keep anything but the tiniest objects in place, yet having it there means you can tell which cube is which without opening them. There's even a handle sewn into the side.

In fact, they're so great that we just tried to buy some more, but unfortunately the UK arm of eBags has been a victim of the recession and is no longer trading. Thankfully the US website is still there (at http://www.ebags.com, if you're American and interested) which proves they're not actually out of business, so I'll be trying to acquire some more when I'm in the US in August.

I now use one of the smaller sized ones to keep my essentials sorted in my suitcase, and I thought you might be interested in (or at least entertained by) the odd variety of things which qualify as travel essentials in my world:

Packing

At the bottom of the case, out of sight, there's a notebook, a pen, a plastic bag, and a map of Sheffield (which I try to remember to take out if I'm going on a long trip elsewhere). Then we have swimwear, asthma inhaler, phone charger, instant pasta snacks, cereal bars, face wipes, tissues, and an ethernet cable (for hotels which don't have wireless). I also usually have at least a couple of days' spare underwear & socks waiting in the case, and my washbag (front of picture) which has all the usual wash stuff, a sewing kit, and some basic makeup.

International essentials live elsewhere, and include passport, EHIC, international bank cards, travel earrings, and a spare phone with a cheap roaming SIM card.

What are your most essential travel items?
And do you keep them packed and ready to shoot off at a moment's notice?


Sunday, 19 April 2009

Unexpected Freebies



There's a certain satisfaction to getting something for nothing. At home, I'm always on the lookout for free samples and coupons, which certainly works for the companies in the long run - a lot of the things I use regularly, I first tried as freebies.

When my husband and I set off on our honeymoon, my mum advised us to tell everyone that we were newlyweds, and see if they would give us anything. This tactic gained us a small bottle of wine on the train to London:

Honeymoon wine

However that was the first and last time it was effective. Nevertheless, there were a few unexpected freebies along the way which had nothing to do with the fact that we were honeymooning.

The first was on the Rossiya train between Moscow and Irkutsk. In the carriage, a small package had a comb, toothbrush, and other essentials in case you'd forgotten to bring anything. Unfortunately I didn't get a photo of them.

In addition to this, each day we were supplied with a bottle of mineral water and a box full of basic food and drink related goodies:

Rossiya food box

Train freebies

The contents were: a napkin & wet-wipe, toothpick, instant coffee, a teabag, coffee creamer, two packets of sugar, tomato ketchup, crackers, butter, salt, and pepper. We still had all the ketchup left over when we got off the train!

In the hotel in Beijing, the normal sachet of shampoo was accompanied by a selection of other bathroom goodies: a shower cap, a toothbrush with a miniature tube of toothpaste, a very solid plastic comb, a pack of cotton buds, two condoms, and a bar of soap. Each.

Hotel Freebies

Note that we were in the hotel for a week, and every day the whole set was replenished if we used anything.

The most impressive 'free lunch' of the trip, however, actually was lunch.

We wanted to take a coach trip from Beijing to the Great Wall of China, and picked the one which also called at the Ming Tombs on the way back. The sign said "lunch included"... we imagined sandwiches, and as a vegetarian I really wasn't expecting to get anything I could eat.

As it happened, ten dishes were brought to our table, and only three were non-veggie - you just had to be quick with your chopsticks to get some of the more popular dishes. The Chinese tourists who shared our table were highly entertained by the fact that I wanted to take photos.

A Chinese lunch

One even more surprising benefit of this was that this photo then went on to win me a box of chocolate! How's that for a bonus freebie?

IMG_0194

What's the best freebie you've ever had?


Saturday, 18 April 2009

MRI



My first response, when the knee consultant said he was referring me for an MRI scan, was boring and thoroughly unblogworthy. Something like, "Oh, okay."

In the three weeks between then and getting an appointment, however, I cunningly managed to accumulate fear through a process known as reading.

First I read on Wikipedia that they might have to inject my knee with 'something' to make it scan better - and I'm a recovering needlephobic which, a bit like being a recovering alcoholic, is something that never really leaves you.

Then there's the fact that the internet - and even the MRI centre's own website - was full of information on how terribly dangerous this strength of magnet could be if there was any loose metal around. I came away with the impression that there should be NO metal in the room (or ideally the whole building!) and carefully left my wedding ring at home in case I forgot to take it off.

So, on Wednesday I went for my scan. Metal-less, aside from an underwired bra (really not optional!) and the studs on my jeans pockets. My husband drove me to the clinic, sat with me while I waited (getting gradually more nervous), and drank my hot chocolate for me when I declared it to be too sweet. (Oh, how I love him!)

Then the MRI operator came to get me, and I followed him into a room that looked very like this:


'De MRI-scanner' by LodewijkB.
(photo from Flickr because I didn't have my camera with me)


"Don't I need to get changed?" I asked as I was ushered in to the room.

"No, you're fine."

"But... I'm wearing an underwired bra!" (Yep, I'm sure he really wanted to know that.) "And I have metal studs on my jeans!"

Apparently, the dangers of MRI magnets are somewhat overstated. Apparently, it's okay to have metal on your clothes only a foot from the machine. Apparently.

As I was instructed on how to lie down and fit my leg into the funny knee-scanning tube, I have to confess it didn't feel all that fine. Even for a knee scan you end up so far inside that machine that when you look up, all you can see is scanner. So I closed my eyes, listened to the radio (they kindly provide headphones), and tried to pretend I was somewhere else.

This was made harder by the fact that you don't just have one MRI scan, you have a sequence of them. Every time the operator wanted to speak to me, the radio would stop and a disembodied voice would come through the headphones: "The next scan will take three minutes." This was quickly followed by the machine starting to vibrate, while I tried desperately to keep still - because if you move, it wrecks the result and they have to do it again.

Ah, fun times!

In any case, I can report that it doesn't hurt, my fears were definitely unfounded - but I was so glad to get out of that machine! Next time I have to have a funny medical procedure I'm not going to read up on it first.

I get my results on May 5th, let's hope they find some answers in there somewhere....


Friday, 17 April 2009

Friday Shoot-Out: English Breakfast



Last week, Chef E told me about a weekly Friday 'gang' which is dedicated to sharing little details from your home town. I'm an amateur anthropologist, so I'm always fascinated by what people think is important about their own culture and region, so it sounds like my kind of project; I'm not necessarily going to post every week, but if I'm home on a Friday it's nice to have some inspiration to get out and about to tell you something about my own area.

This week's theme is local food & restaurants, and there could hardly be a better day than Friday for me to write about the food of my region, becaue every Friday (if we're at home) my husband and I take ourselves down into Stroud for a cooked breakfast.

A full English breakfast is one of the classic English meals.

Now, as a vegetarian, there's not that much inspiration to be had from traditional British food. Whether it's meat and two veg or fish'n'chips, an old-style British dinner is likely to have meat at its heart.

Traditionally, so does breakfast, and here's what my (omnivore) husband orders:

Traditional English breakfast

Egg on toast in the centre, then clockwise from the top: bacon, mushrooms, sausage, hash brown, and beans. (Apologies for photo quality, it was raining so I only took the camera on my mobile.)

Not very veggie.

Thankfully, we've found a great cafe which will make me a veggie version (even though it's not on the menu).

Veggie breakfast

Again, egg on toast in the middle, surrounded by tomato, mushrooms, beans, and a couple of hash browns. Very filling; I don't eat lunch when I've had one of these for breakfast!

What I really love about this place, though, is that breakfast, including tea or coffee, is only £3.

What's your favourite breakfast??


Thursday, 16 April 2009

Post-Olympic Beijing



Countdown

We arrived in Beijing in late September, only days after the end of the Paralympic Games. We had the latest editions of all the guidebooks: published in 2007, now woefully out of date... pre-Olympic guides to a post-Olympic city.

Explaining that many of the hutong districts had been knocked down to make way for new developments, one book pointed us to an area behind Wangfujing Snack Street to see traditional ways of life preserved in the very centre of the city. We followed these directions hopefully, but found only tower blocks and building sites.

On our last full day we decided to visit the Birds Nest stadium. We knew the building wouldn't be open (there was to be a one-day special opening the following week, after we'd flown home again) but we wanted to see the architecture anyway.

We went to the metro station, navigated the touch-screen ticket machines which let us choose exactly which station we wanted to go to (the aptly-named Olympic Park), and bought our tickets. The guide books had maps of proposed metro lines, with comments suggesting it was unlikely all would actually be built in time for the Olympics - but they were. Automated announcements on the trains told us, in English and Mandarin, when it was time to change for the Olympic line.

So far, so good... except that it wasn't. No-one had bothered to update the automated systems to account for the fact that the Olympic line had been closed - apparently the second the games were over. We had to walk up, past closed metro stations, to finally reach the stadium - the one place in Beijing not swarming with tourists. Well, not yet.

Beijing managed, against the odds, to transform itself into an Olympic city. It remains to be seen what post-Olympic Beijing will become.


I wrote this as a 500-word exercise a short while ago. I always think of our Beijing visit in terms of 'post-Olympic', and it always puts me in mind of 'post-Apocalyptic'...

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

The World's Shortest Pillow Fight



I don't remember exactly what started the fight. Most likely I was reading late at night, and resisting instructions to turn off the light and go to sleep. And I suspect that my mum, after much negotiation, eventually put her foot down and said that I had to go to sleep now or I'd never get up for school.

I threw my pillow down the stairs at her and, unable to think of anything worse to say, shouted at her that she was "a wicked woman!"

(My insults were pretty much out of fairytales at that stage. I can't remember exactly how old I was... young enough to throw things in a tantrum, but old enough that I might reasonably have been expected to know worse expressions. Still, it was the best - or worst - I could think of under pressure.)

She kept my pillow.

I'm sure I screamed, and sobbed, and pleaded to get it back. Being a fairly bright kid, I probably said that I wouldn't be able to sleep without it, since sleeping was what she wanted me to do.

She kept it.

I cried a lot.

And I learnt to never, ever mess with my mum.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Travel Tuesdays #13: Cuban Chicks



This photo was taken in Cuba in March 2007.

Chickens roam freely in most of Cuba, pecking at the side of the roads - but these little chicks, up in a coffee-growing village which can only be reached by foot, don't have to worry about cars.

They're not in the least scared of humans, either, which may prove to be a mistake for them.


P.S. I've recently been interviewed/featured on a couple of different sites: The Guardian's travel tips site and Peter West Carey's blog. They're both great sites (in totally different ways), so even if you don't fancy reading travel/photography interviews with me, you should go and check them out anyway.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Unexpected Visitor



The knock surprised me.

It was late evening and I wasn't expecting anyone. I even contemplated ignoring it as my husband wasn't yet home from work.

I certainly wasn't expecting this sight:

Hedgehog

Well, of course he couldn't be expected to find his keys with his hands full of hedgehog! I unlocked the door, instructed him to "wait there!", and turned to run for my camera.

"He was in the middle of the road," my husband explained once I got back. "I had to pick him up to avoid driving over him."

I was so busy admiring our beautiful new guest that it took me a moment to ask the obvious question: "Hang on - you drove holding him?"


Updated because I should have said: this happened last year (I just found the photo again) and we released him into the woods behind our house, where I hope he's enjoying his hedgehoggy life.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Chocolate vs. Cynicism



I can't remember whether I mentioned that my resolution for Lent was to try to give up negativity. Everyone else seems to give up chocolate or sweets these days, but although I did that once or twice as a kid, it was too easy and there didn't seem much point to it. Trying to be more positive, though, could hardly be more worthwhile - surely?

Success is less measurable - instead of being able to say that I made it to Easter Sunday without a morsel of chocolate passing my lips, I instead have to say that, honestly, of course I didn't make it through 40 days without any negative thoughts crossing my mind. In that sense I could never have expected to succeed.

I'm human.

I'm imperfect.

What I've tried to do is to notice when I'm being negative; to spot when I'm being cynical or unnecessarily down about things, and to try and turn my thoughts around, or at the very least to refrain from inflicting such thoughts on other people.

Logically, while everyone else is tucking in to their Easter eggs today, I should be entitled to indulge myself in a bout of negative thinking.

Honestly, though? I think I'd rather stick to the chocolate.

Saturday, 11 April 2009

Your Turn



Flowering currant
I try to keep things as happy as possible in Blogland, but given that I'm currently stuck in bed I don't have much to write about if you don't want to hear about all my aches and snuffles.

So, it's over to you.

I'm in bed, I have my laptop, what better time to explore some blogs I haven't read before? Please can everyone recommend a blog that you enjoy reading? Leave a comment to let me know who I should be reading and why.

Thanks :)

Magnolia

Friday, 10 April 2009

The Birds And The.... Dogs...?



I've recently acquired a new phone (Nokia 5800, if that means anything to you) - primarily in order to have the internet in my pocket, but it also has the benefit of GPS. I've downloaded a handy application that tracks a route and then you can upload it to the internet, and display it on GoogleMaps. When we took a walk through Hyde Park yesterday to go to the V&A, it seemed like a good time to test this out. Here's the result:


Isn't that cute? It didn't quite get the beginning of our walk (I spent a few minutes waving the phone in the air, trying to get a GPS signal) but once it got going, it made a pretty good record of where we went, even down to crossing the courtyard at the V&A to go to the cafe!!


I've already told you a little about our time at the gallery. On our way there, in the park, I had plenty of opportunity to practise my bird photography with a variety of the local wildlife:

seagull
Moorhen
Blackbird
Crow
Swan
Goslings
Parakeet
And a couple of action shots of dogs:

Dogs
Dog with frisbee

P.S. I woke up this morning distinctly feverish, and it's raining, so further adventures are on hold for the moment.

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