Friday, 26 December 2014


Ah, jeeze, where has the time gone?

It seems like 5 minutes ago, I was on a plane, but if you've ever flown Ryanair, you know the feeling.  It seeps into your pores and takes hours of scrubbing to get out.  The return flight on EasyJet (SleazyJet, QuesyJet) seemed downright luxurious in comparison.

While the cut-rate air travel is a bit more expensive in the UK then it was in Paris, it's still fairly easy to do.  You know?  The one place I hadn't hit in Western Europe so far has been Portugal, so away we go....

Portugal is still kind of an enigma to me.  It's one of the cheapest places in Europe to travel around, so it gets bonus points right there.  The Moorish invasion left its mark: old-town cities are crammed around hillside forts, with steep, winding, stair-cased street, reminding me more of the Souks of Marrakesh rather than the plazas and piazzas of Spain and Italy.  

Still, it felt very European.

The street art was just fantastic.  I love places that encourage the practice of letting local artist splash a bit of color on the blank spaces.  

Lisbon was beautiful and old, with steep streets winding up and down hillsides, and a valley of plazas with fountains and statues that spit you out to the Sea.  

The weather was a real mixed bag- the day after we left, there were violent downpours that resulted in cars floating away down the main thoroughfare.  It was warmer than Angle-land, slightly longer in daylight hours, and, in late November, quite a bit greener as well.

Accommodation was fantastically cheap- for the price we paid to stay in a run-down pub, we had a huge apartment with designer touches and a courtyard, right in Barrio Alto, the ancient hilltop village, now filled with fun kitsch shops and hip bars with Fado music spilling out onto the pavement.   With a steep climb and a vintage tram to keep you company on the climb up, I fell in love with the city.

I found Portuguese incomprehensible, but Lisbonites were happy to accommodate and help with just a smile and an "Obrigato!"  Oh, and hard drugs are tolerated here, and a couple times enormous handfuls of hash got flashed before me, with weather-worn men smiling and looking for customers anywhere tourist were gathered.

The food was fairly dismal: uninspired and uninspiring, heavy with oil and fried and breadcrumb-crusted.  Despite so much fresh seafood, no one seemed to be doing too much with it.  Yet, there was wine!  More than just Port, they had lovely reds and fresh whites, and a hearty cherry brandy called Ginja.  Thankfully, I found my food salvation:

The Ribeira Market, right on the waterfront.  What was a failing ancient fruit and vege market was bought by TimeOut editors, spruced up and installed with 300 seats, and then populated with some of the best chefs in Portugal.

Seriously.  I went back 3 times in a frantic attempt to try one dish from each booth, plus grabbed a sandwich for the flight home.  Henrique Sa Pessoa, I salute you.  Everything I had there was fantastic.    I couldn't get enough- truffled egg and asparagus, steak sandwiches, perfectly lovely sardines.

The idea of it was just astounding- all the cutlery and plates are the same, so everything gets bused centrally, and the quality of the food made me consider learning Portugese and finding a nice flat close by.  This was a huge hit- even though it only opened in May, you could tell that it was what the neighborhood needed, and trendy groups of Lisbonites seemed permanently fixed to the chairs.  Pizza, sushi, pastry, gelato, tins of sardines, and loads of authentic local cuisine, all very reasonably priced.

In the center of the market, there were bars serving cocktails and wine and beer and Ginja, which we sampled every kind they had.  Warmed and ready to face the weather, we were.

A wearisome and wet walk up to Castelo Sao Jorge, the Moorish fortress that overlooks the city, helped whet the appetite for the next visit to Ribeira.

Sadly, the steep admission to the Castelo wasn't worth it- it was a shell of a fort with very little to actually see or do aside from skirt the castle walls and get the rapidly-disappearing view of the city.

I did make it out to the sublime Tile Museum, but mostly, just walking around was a real treat.  

It's a city oblivious to its charm, with so many nooks and crannies filled with surprises and vistas, and a slightly run-down air gave it a shabby but comfortable feel, with lots of unique shops and bars popping up where the chains usually end up, and locals crowded around a wine barrel to drink and gossip.

It was a truly enjoyable three days:  while it may not have the world-class museums or attractions or swagger of other cities, it seemed lived-in and loved, although maybe not always the good kind of love.

Shoe leather thinner, memory card full.  That sums up my time in Lisbon.

Monday, 22 December 2014

North Downs Night Walk

How did I celebrate the winter solstice this year?

With a night hike, of course!

After spending a weekend in Cornwall and Dartmoor (which I still can't be arsed to write about) I took advantage of clear skies and a full moon for to get my night-legs on- the mood reflecting off the water meant sleep was not an option, along with roommates that sounded like they were sawing a fence in two.  I do love the idea of night hiking- the quiet, the endless privacy, all the creatures that come out once the sun is down.  My love of walking doesn't really gel with the tiny amount of daylight this time of year.

A plan was made.  After being up way too late and eating way too much the night before (thanks, Christmas!) I got a relaxed late start to walking a lonely 16 mile stretch of the North Downs through Kent from Otford to Cuxton.  Normally, I would be horrified at the idea of finishing a hike in darkness, but with a new braveness, I packed a torch and powered up and down the steep, rolling downland and quiet forested paths.

For a trail so well-traveled for centuries and so very close to London, I rarely see anyone on it.  A dog walker here and there. Newland's Corner and Box Hill are both kind of packed, but once you get out of the car parks, you are by yourself on the outskirts of 8.3 million people.

I didn't even break for lunch- it wasn't terribly cold, but cold enough that the chill set in if I lingered.  As the woods darkened under clouds and the sun disappeared to usher in the longest night of the year, a beautiful stillness took over.

The sounds of owls calling greeted the dark, along with the loud squawks of pheasants roosting in the trees and their panicked flights to a safer patch of trees than one invaded by me.  But the owls!  I love them only because they are so elusive- I see them rarely, so hearing them is always thrilling for me, and hearing them in the quiet woods outside of London was even more fun.

Oh, and it never really got truly dark in the open...I could see the eerie pink glow of London illuminating the clouds in front of me, and the city of Rochester lit up the other direction.  The woods were proper dark though.  One foot in front of the other, I slowly made my way through mud and over tree roots.

I used my torch rarely- to check to make sure the way-marks were being read correctly, and to check my compass.  Going through fields proved challenging as it was easy to lose the trail, so I would find a spot on the horizon that lined up with the compass and follow it until a fence was hit.  It's hiking in England!  I was more concerned about having a torch so that cars could see me if I did a stretch along the roadside, which I did.  The one time I did lose the trail in woods, the crunch of deep leaves underfoot alerted me to the fact that I was on A trail, but not THE trail, and I was quickly able to correct (rather than take a more direct route to the train station, it turned out).

In the end:  success.  I found a pub (!) and while waiting for the train back to London, I had myself a glass of wine and some chicken liver pate to celebrate my newly found night vision.  I was exhausted.  16 miles with a couple steep climbs and I was knackered, and the last four miles were in the dark and by far the slowest I've walked in a while, but I found the concentration needed on a moonless night taxing as well as I had to really look for every step.  In total, it took me 6 hours and 20 minutes from station to station, which isn't bad time at all on a muddy winter trail, and a happy peaceful walk is the anecdote to a plethora of seasonal maladies.

Hope you had a fantastic solstice, and enjoy the return of the sun.  Oh, unless you are in the Southern Hemisphere, in which case: enjoy the waning daylight, suckers!


Monday, 15 December 2014


Wandering around the neighborhood Shepard's Bush, I came across these fun cube sculptures.  If you get enough of you friends to join in, you can get them spinning quite fast.  Some of the more nimble climbers can shimmy up the structure for a lesson in g-forces.

It just seemed dangerously fun.  If I didn't have massively expensive equipment in hand, I would have tried my hand at getting my teeth knocked out.  Their smiles let me know they are wiser and more graceful than I; they seem to have all their teeth.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014


I've been negligent in writing, this I know.  Soon.  Maybe.  

I've been adventuring and working on a lot of other projects, and just really enjoying some dark-sky stargazing whenever possible.  

One of the things I love about London is the foxes.  A musky skunk-like odor wafting from the hedgerow or back garden is the only clue of their presence in the day time.  They are quite hard to capture on film, but they are everywhere.  Go for a walk at night and you'll most always see one in the shadows as they scavenge for easy pickings.  This time of year, their coats are fabulously luxe and elegant, and one night last week one took a graceful leap over a high fence just a few feet in front of me.  

They add a bit of wild to the tamest of city strolls.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Hampton Court Palace

The sunlight now is fleeting.  I try and make the most of it.  

At least the dark, damp days means I've been staying closer to home.  It's hard to hike or justify a trip out of the city when you'll be seeing nothing but inky darkness for the lot of it.  Time to catch up on movies and see what's been happening in London while I was out becoming a hill-person.  

I took a trip out to Hampton Court Palace.  Looking back on the past year, I decided it needed a bit of royal infusion and I searched for an appropriate palatial fix.  Hampton Court Palace in Surrey fit the bill nicely. 

It's not that far out of London and right on the Thames, meaning I could knock another section of the Thames path.

The storied history of the palace fills books.  The money embezzled by Cardinal Woolsey kicked off the building of this imposing mansion.  Once he fell out of favor, it was "gifted" to Henry VIII, who utilized it for his court.  It was passed down to the Stuarts, and Queen Anne took it upon herself to build an elegant addition, and then it became the main home of the Hanoverian kings.

A lot of my local friends told me they hadn't been since grade school- apparently this is very popular with school trips.  There was quite a production of people in Tudor dress and elegant Georgian getups.  

And really.  This was one of the more fantastic palaces I've ever visited.  The Georgian wing rivaled Versailles as far as a gilded casa, and they had lots of information to share.

Oh, and costumes!  You can dress up to get into the spirit.

For its size and status, I don't think this was huge on the tourist hit-list.  Yeah, there were people there, but it wasn't crowded at all, and I was able to take a leisurely stroll through each wing unhurried and unharried.  

The best thing I learned:

The Tudor dining hall was most impressive.

The most interesting bit was the nearby Tudor kitchens and wine cellars.  To feed the court was a production, and the king would have to move from castle to castle based on the fact that his court would have stripped the countryside of bare of anything edible if they stuck around too long.

This was the "refrigerator", a narrow and shady corridor that kept cold year-round...and it was wintry for a minute....

But the kitchens were truly spectacular, with loads of research into the vessels and methods of the tudor court cooks.  The rich meat-heavy diet was a recipe for gout that was so prevalent in the upper classes.  Just because you can afford to eat like a king doesn't mean you should.  

Oh, and I learned all about pies.  Originally, pies were just a cooking vessel as they didn't really have proper cookware for them.  It was a dough made from flour and water, and filled with meat and stew.  You didn't eat the crust- you unlidded it ate ate the good stuff and threw away the rest.

The later wings of the palace were much more elegant and Georgian in style.  But ah, the gardens....

In the waning afternoon light, I took a relaxed autumnal stroll through the rather famous hedge maze, took a peek at the original REAL tennis court.

You can pay membership and play on the same court that Henry VIII showed his prowess. have to serve off the wall and there seemed to be some other interesting rules.

Outside the garden gates, there is a deer park- a holdover for when the King would go out hunting in the nearby countryside.

I walked through the park and connected back to the Thames, and took a long meandering walk back to the train station.

Some wild-growing hops did not go unnoticed or unpicked.

Go if you get a chance- it was a quick 25 minute train ride out of Victoria Station (but don't count on it on Sundays) and a perfectly awesome way to eat up some or all daylight hours.