Rushin’ Around Russia
It had long been an ambition to travel to Russia but the convoluted and lengthy visa process did put us off. It can take several weeks to apply and the authorities will need a vast quantity of information not only about you but also a fair bit of family history as well. The embassy is also likely to retain your passport for the time that the application is going through its processing. So we were delighted to discover that you can actually travel to Russia visa-free. You can’t stay for long – just three days – and the trip can best be described as full-on but, for us, it was a brilliant opportunity to see the highlights of this amazing country.
So, deep breath, this is the itinerary:
Fly to Helsinki – catch a tram to the port – board a ferry – sail overnight to St Petersburg – arrive St Petersburg – tour St Petersburg in morning – lunch – travel out to Summer Palace and tour Summer Palace and surround – drive back to St Petersburg – free time to explore and eat dinner – pick up to train station – overnight train to Moscow – arrive early morning Moscow – transport to hotel for breakfast – pick up for Moscow tour – tour Red Square and Moscow metro – lunch – tour Kremlin, back to hotel in afternoon for a quick shower – pick up in evening for train station – overnight train back to St Petersburg – breakfast in St Petersburg – explore St Petersburg until Hermitage opens – tour Hermitage and marvel at the art, realising you could actually spend days in there – pick up for ferry port – catch ferry – sail overnight to Helsinki – arrive Helsinki – tram to airport – fly home – collapse.
Visa-Free Travel Rules
The Russian Federation foreign visa-free conditions state that:
- You must arrive at the port of St Petersburg aboard a St Peter Line ferry.
- You must leave Russia from St Petersburg aboard a St Peter Line ferry.
- You must leave Russia within 72 hours. The clock starts ticking as soon as you cross border control.
- You must be a part of an organised travel group and follow the tour itinerary
- You must have a valid passport and be able to enter Finland after leaving Russia.
You have to travel with an approved agency. This meant that we would be joining a group tour, which is our least favourite way to travel, but it was something that we were prepared to do. As things turned out, however, Anglo-Russian relations weren’t particularly good at the time of travelling and a number of other guests decided to cancel. Amazingly, we got a private tour! And while politicians often have very public spats in the media, ordinary people are usually lovely and everyone we encountered on our trip to Russia was very friendly and helpful.
The trip was brilliantly designed. One thing to note is that your bed will be moving for four nights running – ferry, train, train, ferry. As someone who is prone to travel sickness, particularly seasickness, this was initially a concern but the Baltic sea was very calm and the boat was very large so there were no issues at all. There are several classes of ferry and train transport available from basic to luxurious – the cost varies accordingly.
Breaking the trip down…
Day One – Start at the Finnish: From Helsinki to St Petersburg
On arrival at Helsinki we caught a tram to the port and boarded the St. Peterline ferry Princess Anastasia. There was plenty to do on board and there was a reasonable choice of restaurants to dine in.
We decided to get a cheap cabin without a window view, mainly because it was an overnight journey so we were planning to be sleeping and didn’t really need a port-hole to look out of while it was dark. It comprised twin beds and a shower room – basic but perfectly functional. As we wandered to the dining room for a buffet breakfast the following morning we could see the ice floating along the river as we headed into port.
Day Two – A Day in St Petersburg
Instructions were issued for debarkation over the ship’s tannoy. We had been given visa-free arrival and departure cards, which we kept with our passports. We joined the queue for non-Russian visitors and eventually got through immigration.
We travelled in mid-April, ostensibly spring, but the weather was still pretty cold – it had risen from around -30⁰C during winter to around 0⁰C. However, St Petersburg’s river Neva was still frozen and not navigable. This meant that unfortunately we couldn’t undertake a planned boat trip, so the itinerary was shuffled around a bit. It was a disappointment not to be able to do this but it meant that we had more time at the Hermitage on day three.
First on the itinerary was a St Petersburg City tour and a visit to the Peter and Paul Fortress. This is effectively the birthplace of the city, its citadel. It is located on Zayachy Island (Hare Island), across the Neva River. You will see lots of hare sculptures around the island. It was founded by Peter the Great in 1703 and built as a star fortress between 1706 and 1740. Curiously, while it was constructed secure Russia’s position on the River Neva, it was never used as a fortress and its cannons didn’t fire a single shot for over 200 years… until the 1917 Revolution.
The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul is a remarkable construction and the oldest church in St. Petersburg. It is home to the graves of nearly all of Russia’s rulers since Peter the Great. Of particular interest are those of the Romanov dynasty, the last of the Tsars.
The fortress was also a prison and it is possible to visit the cells and learn about its grim history. Its more famous inmates included Peter the Great’s son Alexei, Lenin’s brother Aleksandr Ulyanov and renowned writer Fyodor Dostoevsky. Outside the walls of the fortress are the “polar bears” who sunbathe in sub-zero temperatures.
After a brief lunch we headed out of the city to Tsarskoe Selo (Pushkin) located 25km away, to the south. We spent some time exploring the Catherine Palace which was named after Catherine I, the wife of Peter the Great who ruled Russia after her husband’s death, for just two years. The original building, commissioned by Peter in 1717, was a modest construction. It was their daughter, Empress Elizabeth, who decided that Tsarskoe Selo would be her primary summer residence and she commissioned the extravagant and opulent building.
The ballroom and Amber Room (the only place that photos are not allowed is the Amber Room) are astonishing in their magnificence and you can imagine the sheer decadence of life in the palace. We visited out of season and it’s worth noting that this is a very popular tourist attraction and there are often long queues in the summer.
We also visited the exterior of the Alexander Palace which was the residence of Nicholas II, the last Russian Tsar, and his family. Its location outside St Petersburg meant that it was considered to be a safer residence than the Winter Palace in the heart of the city. However, it was the place where the family were initially held under house arrest immediately following the Russian Revolution before they were relocated to Tobolsk and eventually executed.
On our return to the City, we had a few hours in the evening to explore on our own and get a meal. Then we were picked up and taken to the railway station. As part of the tour our tickets had been pre-arranged and we were taken to the platform to ensure we caught the right train.
To contrast with our basic ferry cabin, we treated ourselves to a bit of luxury on the train. We caught the 23:40 ‘Grand Express’. It has been described as hotel on wheels. Our cabin’s seating converted to almost a double bed width and also included a table where we could dine and had a private shower room and toilet. A TV was available too. Breakfast was included (pre-ordered as we checked into the train via the carriage’s steward) so that we could dine the following morning as we made our way into Moscow.
The ‘Grand Express’ train also has standard compartments carriages of 1st (2 berth) and 2nd (4 berth) class which are still very comfortable and somewhat cheaper. Some of the other cabins classes do not include breakfast but this is arranged on arrival in Moscow if needed.
Day Three – A Whistle-Stop Tour of Moscow
Our train pulled into Moscow Leningradskaya station at 08:30 the following morning, bang on time.
We were greeted and taken to a local hotel, the Katerina City Hotel Moscow, which had been booked for us for the day. This was a great idea. It meant that we could keep our luggage there and could also use the facilities. Breakfast is available if wanted. We were instructed to meet our guide for a city tour at 10am.
Our guide loved Moscow. She emphasised her passion for her city by declaring that, “St Petersburg is the head of Russia but Moscow is its heart.” With only a day in the city, the aim was to visit the major sites, so she bought us Metro tickets and we set off on a walking tour. Many of the stations on Moscow’s underground system are stunningly beautiful and, as we had a Metro pass to travel freely, we explored some of the more interesting stations. It’s not unreasonable to assert that some of these glorious stations are art galleries in themselves.
Then we made our way to Red Square. It is one of the world’s most iconic public spaces, bordered by the eastern red walls of the Kremlin, the colourful onion domes of St Basil’s cathedral and the megastore GUM.
It’s worth noting that Lenin’s tomb is not open on Fridays, so you need to take that into account when planning your trip if you wish to visit and see the preserved body of the founder of the Soviet Union.
St Basil’s Cathedral, aka the Cathedral of Vasily the Blessed, and officially Cathedral of the Intercession of the Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat, is so very, very beautiful and it was a special place to visit. Ivan the Terrible (who our guide insisted should have been named Ivan the Awesome) commissioned the building and it was constructed between 1555 and 1561.
We had imagined it to have a vast interior but in fact it comprises several chapels: eight chapels located around a central chapel. An additional chapel was built some years later over the grave of the Saint Vasily (Basil), a local saint who was highly revered. The Soviet Union had a policy of state atheism so the cathedral was secularised during this time and is now a museum, although Orthodox Christian services with prayers to St. Basil now take place on a weekly basis.
We also visited GUM, an enormous department store, and enjoyed its amazing architecture.
We had lunch at a restaurant a few streets away and enjoyed a warming bowl of borscht soup.
In the afternoon we visited the Kremlin. Security is tight and you will need to be prepared to have your bags checked and walk through a metal detector. If you are likely to set the alarm off (if you have metal limbs, for example), let your guide know – they will talk to the security guards and get you in via an alternative system.
The Kremlin (citadel) is fortified complex with Red Square to the east and the lovely Alexander gardens to the west. Inside its walls are five palaces and four cathedrals amongst other buildings such as the Grand Kremlin Palace that was formerly the Tsar’s Moscow residence, the official residence of the President of the Russian Federation and the State Kremlin Palace.
The State Kremlin Palace (also known as the Kremlin Palace of Congresses), was built inside the Kremlin between 1959–1961. It was commissioned by Nikita Khrushchev for the purpose of holding Communist Party meetings.
Two of the most popular attractions are a cannon that has never been fired in a war and a bell that has never been rung.
The Tsar Bell, the largest bell in the world, is also made of bronze but developed a large destructive crack and its sound has never been heard.
The Tsar Cannon was cast in 1586 by Andrey Chokhov who was renowned for his work with bronze. It was never used in a war and is largely symbolic. (Although there is apparently some evidence to suggest that it has been fired once.)
Cathedral Square is the most beautiful area of the Kremlin; it’s surrounded by a number of buildings, including three cathedrals.
The Cathedral of the Dormition was where all the Tsars were crowned and is considered to be Moscow’s primary church. It was designed by Aristotele Fioravanti and completed in 1479.
The Cathedral of the Annunciation was completed in 1489 but was reconstructed over the years.
The Cathedral of the Archangel Michael was constructed later, in 1508.This contains the final resting places of most of the Muscovite monarchs from the 14th Century until Peter the Great moved the Russia’s capital to St Petersburg.
The Ivan the Great Bell Tower, located next to the Tsar Bell, reputedly marks the very heart of Moscow, the precise centre of the city. It is 81 metres high (it was the tallest building in Moscow until the Russian Revolution) and was completed in 1600. It was commissioned by by Grand Duke Ivan Kalita, the Grand Duke of Moscow from 1325.
Around the corner from Cathedral Square are further buildings, including the Arsenal and the Armoury buildings.
The latter is a museum which contains a plethora of objects from across Russia’s history. Of note is the collection of ten Fabergé eggs, the largest single collection of these jewelled Imperial eggs, Easter gifts from the Tsars to their wives and children. The eggs are astonishing in their design and intricacy and it was wonderful to be able to see them up close.
After our Moscow tour we went back to the hotel for a short time to relax and grab a bite to eat at a local café, before being picked up late evening to be taken to the station for our train ride.
Day Four – Return to St Petersburg
We caught the Grand Express overnight and arrived at St Petersburg the following morning.
We visited the Church of the Spilled Blood, an Orthodox church, adjacent to the Griboedov Canal, which was constructed during the reign of Alexander III as a memorial to his father Alexander II, who was assassinated by anarchist conspirators on that very spot in 1881.
In order to construct the cathedral the canal needed to be narrowed so that the road that the Tsar had been driving on could be located inside the walls of the church.
Our final visit in St Petersburg was to the Hermitage Museum, one of the world’s most important art museums. It was a real treat to be able to spend time in this fascinating place.
Because we had missed the boat ride a couple of days earlier, we had more time to spend inside this most magnificent of buildings. It is, apparently, the world’s largest art museum by gallery space and contains over three million works of art from some of the world’s most renowned artists. It’s not an understatement to say that you could spend days exploring it. It had occurred to us that we could do another visa-free trip and just spend the entire 72 hours inside the Hermitage.
The collections occupy a large complex of six historic buildings along the embankment of the Neva river, including the Winter Palace, a former residence of Russian Tsars, commissioned by Empress Elizabeth Petrovna. It was Empress Catherine the Great who initiated an art collection in 1764 after purchasing a number of paintings from Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky. It seems as though what Catherine wanted, Catherine could purchase. The museum has been open to the public since 1852 and following the Revolution, the palace now houses works of art as well.
After a thoroughly wonderful few hours exploring the Hermitage the clock was ticking and our time in Russia was running out. We were whisked back to the port to board Princess Anastasia to return to Helsinki.
Day Five – Finnish Where We Started
We arrived in Helsinki early in the morning and found our way back into the city via the efficient tram system. There was a restaurant in town where we could grab a light bite for breakfast. Our flight timings were such that we didn’t have too much time in Helsinki so we headed back to the airport via the train link and flew home.
This trip was one of the most intensive we have ever undertaken. But travelling to Russia visa-free was a fantastic opportunity to visit this most remarkable of countries which has such a rich history and so many treasures to explore.
The Feast of Sinterklaas (a contraction of St Nicholas) is celebrated all across the Netherlands, and also in Belgium, on the 5th and 6th December. St Nicholas was the patron saint of children. While he has a similar appearance to that of Santa Claus (who is derived from Sinterklaas) with his red robes and fluffy white beard, his attire reflects St Nicholas’ historic occupation as the Bishop of Myra (now in modern-day Turkey) in the 4th century, so he wears a bishop’s mitre and holds a crosier.
Like Santa, he knows which children have been naughty or nice, as he has all that information recorded in a big red book. Traditionally, nice children receive presents but naughty children were packed up in a sack and taken to Spain. Not-quite-naughty-but-not-quite-nice-enough children might have received a bundle of birch twigs or a lump of coal instead of presents in the past. But that doesn’t happen so much these days…
Festivities connected with Sinterklaas start in mid-November (on a Saturday, three weeks before the 5th December) when he ‘arrives’ on a boat from Spain – each time to a different port – and parades through the city on a white horse. Thousands of people turn out so see him and the event is televised. Sinterklaas’s helper is known as Zwarte Piet (Black Peter), in fact, multiple Pieten also join the parade and carry bags to throw sweets and other treats to children in the crowd. There has been some debate over the depiction of Piet in recent years in the Netherlands and he is Schoorsteenpiet (Chimney Pete), from the soot in the chimneys, in many cities these days.
Although there is an official arrival, most Dutch cities have a Sinterklaas parade. During the weeks that Sinterklaas is in the Netherlands tradition dictates that he rides over the rooftops and children put out a shoe with a treat for the horse, such as a carrot or sugar cube, by the chimney (or the radiator if there isn’t an open fire in the house). During the night Piet climbs down the ‘chimney’, takes the horse’s treat and replaces it with a present.
The 5th December is the day that the Dutch give each other gifts, rather than on Christmas Day, which is usually a time for a quiet family celebration. Known as pakjesavond after the Dutch word for present, the family will sit together and hear a knock at the door. Children will open the door to find a bag of presents for them. Older children and adults give gifts and also have a custom of writing irreverent poems to family and friends.
Traditional sweets are pepernoten (mini biscuits), speculaas (spiced biscuits), marsepein (marzipan).
Pepernoten are little spiced biscuits made from rye flour and sugar with anise, cinnamon, and clove flavourings. Sometimes they are coated in chocolate.
Dutch marzipan is awesome – it is often beautifully crafted in a variety of guises: marzipan fruits, a packet of pigs and even chips, presented Dutch-style, with (sugar) ‘salt’ and (white chocolate) ‘mayonnaise’.
Best of all are the chocolate letters associated with Sinterklaas – it’s a massive bar of chocolate in the shape of the first letter of your name. You don’t have to worry if your name begins with an ‘I’ instead of an ‘W’ – you get the same amount of chocolate!
Colin is half-Dutch and has long enjoyed the tradition of Sinterklaas. And no matter how old you are, nor the fact there has been a pandemic raging for the last 20 months, somehow if Sinterklaas can post you a chocolate letter, your day is guaranteed to be filled with joy.
PS – Thanks, Mum!
Alderney is the third largest, or indeed, third smallest of the populated Channel Islands, an archipelago in the English Channel, which are closer to the coast of France than to England and a crown dependency of the UK. Alderney is a small island, around 8 square km, and has a population of just 2000 people. It is also very beautiful. One of the loveliest things you can do when visiting Alderney is to walk all the way around it. There are plenty of good footpaths and, although it can be a bit hilly in places, it’s an easy walk that affords the most splendid views all the way around.
Braye is the obvious place to start a walk around the island. If staying in the pretty town of St Anne, let gravity guide you to the beach along the main road, passing the railway station. Braye Bay is the largest bay on the island and is characterised by its breakwater, a construction that stretches about 1400m into the sea, shielding the harbour and beach from the treacherous currents of the Swinge tidal race. It’s a beach with a broad sandy area on the western shore and rockpools to explore at the eastern end. It’s possible to walk the length of the breakwater but make sure the weather is fine – it is dangerous to do so on a windy day as waves do crash over it. It can be spectacular during a storm.
On an anti-clockwise tour, walking west, past the inner harbour and electricity generator station, lies the tiny rocky inlet Crabby Bay before the coastline stretches to the sand flats of Platte Saline. Despite its inviting appearance, the tidal currents are swift and it is not safe to bathe on this beach.
Heading towards Fort Tourgis, one of the many Victorian fortifications on the island, the coastline becomes rockier. Clonque (pronounced ‘clonk’) is a wonderful beach for walking and exploring. The bay overlooks the tiny uninhabited island of Burhou, a puffin colony, which is a protected site, and, further out to sea, the big oval rock Ortac, and Les Casquets with its automated lighthouse.
About two thirds of the way along the beach is a chair-like rock, known as the Monk’s Chair. Legend has it that a monk fought the devil there and, having vanquished his opponent, the monk sank onto the rock, whereupon it transformed into a chair to provide some comfort.
At the far end of the bay is Fort Clonque, another Victorian fort located on an island and accessed via a causeway, which is cut off from the main island at high tide. The property is owned by the Landmark Trust and it is possible to stay there. If you are travelling with a large group (it can sleep up to 13 people) it represents really good value and is a tremendous place to stay.
ALONG THE CLIFFS
The terrain climbs rapidly and it is not possible to continue along the shoreline, so following a zig-zag up to the south-west end of the island it is possible to walk along the top of the windswept cliffs. Along the Giffoine you can look out to the Garden Rocks where a noisy gannet colony has made its home.
In this area there are several German fortifications from World War 2 when the island was occupied during the war and the local people evacuated. (The larger islands Jersey and Guernsey were also occupied and the residents remained under Nazi rule for five years.)
A walk along the undulating paths of the south coast is always a delight especially in spring and summer when the flowers are in bloom and the area is scented with the coconut smell of gorse.
It used to be possible to climb down steps cut into the cliff to reach the charming Telegraph Bay but the beach is now only accessible from the sea. The walk is adjacent to farmland so it is likely that you encounter some beauties such as these.
They are not Alderney cows, even though the breed is quite famous, having appeared a number of times in literature, from Jane Austen’s Emma to AA Milne’s poem, The King’s Breakfast:
The King’s Breakfast
The King asked
The Queen, and
The Queen asked
“Could we have some butter for
The Royal slice of bread?”
The Queen asked the Dairymaid,
I’ll go and tell the cow
Before she goes to bed.”
And went and told
“Don’t forget the butter for
The Royal slice of bread.”
“You’d better tell
That many people nowadays
Sadly the breed was lost during World War 2 when the animals on Alderney were sent to Guernsey to help the islanders stave off starvation. But while the cows that graze on the lush grass may not be Alderneys, they do produce the most amazing dairy products. Alderney has its own dairy and produces a variety of delicious products including the creamiest milk and butter so yellow it rivals the colour of buttercups. It is absolutely delicious and a real treat to eat. Forget the marmalade, it’s best on bread, spread so thickly that you can see your teeth marks when you bite into a slice.
The journey continues past the airport along the cliffs to Essex Hill.
DESCENT TO THE BEACHES
The Hanging Rock (far right of the picture) overlooks The Race, another treacherous tidal stream across a reef of sharp rocks and the cause of many a shipwreck over the centuries. There is a legend that the people of Guernsey tried to pull Alderney to across the sea by throwing a rope over the rock and having a really good tug… to no avail, of course.
Then the cliffs fall away and you can stroll downwards to Longis Bay, Alderney’s original harbour. It’s a popular bay for bathing, the sandy beach shielded from the inevitable Alderney breeze by a concrete wall that spans the length of the bay, again built during the occupation.
Raz Island, with another fort at the end of the causeway marks the limit of the bay. There used to be some tourist attractions at the fort but it’s no longer possible to visit Raz, although some work is currently being undertaken to open it up again. A gentle stroll along the coast brings you to Houmet Herbe, a ruined fort again constructed on an island and only accessible at low tide.
Remnants of a basic causeway remain and, if you’re willing to scramble over the rocks, it’s possible to explore the fort. On a clear day you will get a fantastic view of the French coastline and Cherbourg, around 11km across the sea. Keep an eye on the tide, though, you will get cut off and have to wait a few hours for the tide to turn again.
Continuing along the coastal path you will arrive at the island’s lighthouse. It’s fully automated these days.
Opposite the lighthouse is Fort Les Hommoux Florains, which has largely been destroyed – each year battered by relentless winter storms. It is possible to get out there to view but you may need to swim across a small channel if the tide isn’t especially low, which probably isn’t worth the effort.
Also, close to the lighthouse, and overlooking Mannez quarry is a German fortification known locally as The Odeon. It is one of the most distinctive buildings on the island. It is an enormous concrete tower that was built by forced labourers 1943. It was planned to be used as a range-finding location to observe enemy ships. It was derelict for many decades but it is now possible to visit The Odeon.
Also at Mannez Quarry is the end of the line for the Alderney railway. Yes, those are London Underground carriages! The railway was originally constructed to bring stone from Mannez to the harbour for construction of the breakwater. It is now open as a tourist attraction for passengers to enjoy a delightfully scenic journey to the quarry from Braye station.
Further on (and don’t tell anyone) are the very best beaches for bathing: Corblets, Arch and Saye (pronounced ‘soy’). Overlooked by private residence Fort Corblets, the eponymous bay has a broad sandy beach and is popular for an energetic and invigorating swim. It’s worth bearing in mind that the sea temperature can be pretty cold, even in summer, but the water is crystal clear and it’s an absolute delight to swim there. (You do warm up!)
Arch is also sandy but has a steep incline. It affords a good view of the lighthouse and Odeon.
Saye can be found by walking underneath Arch Bay’s arch, past Château à L’Etoc (another privately owned fort) and beyond the dunes beside the island’s campsite – again it’s sandy but the enclosed geography of the bay ensures that the sea is much calmer than on Corblets.
Then it’s simply a walk around the grassy headland upon the top of which Alderney’s largest Victorian fort is located, Albert, originally designed to protect the harbour, and the familiar view of Braye, the harbour and the breakwater come into view. Burhou, Ortac and Les Casquets can also be seen in the background.
It’s autumn in the UK, which means it’s the perfect season for foraging for fruit and mushrooms in the countryside. We are lucky to have many sloe (blackthorn) bushes in our local area and one of our favourite things to do at this time of year is to make sloe gin. It’s a really easy process but just needs a little patience. Here’s a flow chart – or, if you will, sloe chart – to show you how to make it:
This is what the colour of the sloe gin will look like after around three months.
Postscript – sloe gin is also great if you pop the bottle into the freezer for a couple of hours. The alcohol doesn’t freeze but becomes slightly syrupy. It’s delicious.
The Faroe Islands are a tiny archipelago located in the Atlantic ocean, just south of the Arctic Circle. If you look at the map you’ll see them around half-way between Norway and Iceland. They are an autonomous territory of Denmark and comprise 18 main islands with a plethora of smaller islands, all of which are stunningly beautiful. A fly-drive journey is the perfect way to visit the islands.
The Faroes are ideal for a road trip as most of the main islands are connected via bridges or tunnels and you can explore the spectacular scenery at your leisure. The roads are well made, usually clear of traffic and the distances between locations are relatively short. You can hire a car at the airport on Vágar. It’s definitely worth booking well in advance to get the best rates. Bear in mind that some of the driving can be a little challenging occasionally. There are a lot of single-track roads, so be aware of how to use passing places – if you see another car heading in the opposite direction towards you, pull over to the passing place on the right. If there is a passing place on your left, keep right and let the oncoming traffic use the passing place. (It’s similar to driving in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, albeit on the other side of the road.) The Faroes also have an awful lot of sheep, some 70,000, more than the human population of the islands, and many of them roam freely. They can be a little skittish, so slow down if there are any grazing close to the road. If you do hit a sheep you have to inform the police by law. Keep your car’s headlights on all the time (many cars will automatically switch on the lights when you turn the ignition but check that they will do this). The major tunnels linking the islands are large and well-lit but probably the scariest driving experience we’ve ever had was going through single-track tunnels which link the northernmost islands. These do have passing places every 100m or so but nevertheless they are mildly terrifying, especially when you aren’t sure where the passing places actually are and the locals are happy to zoom through the tunnels. Seeing oncoming headlights in a narrow tunnel when you don’t know when to pass is pretty scary so take care when driving through them. We developed a sneaky trick of parking temporarily by the entrance until a local driver entered the tunnel and then we followed them, which helped a little bit. The tunnels are undoubtedly the most likely places where you might have an accident. It’s advisable to checking whether it’s worth buying additional insurance – have a close look at the terms and conditions of the car hire company. Also, there are tolls for some of the tunnels; our car hire company paid the tolls on our behalf and recharged them to our credit card at the end of the trip, which was very convenient.
Terrifying tunnels aside, driving around the Faroes is actually a very pleasurable and practical way to discover these gorgeous islands. Pretty much everyone starts on Vágar as that’s where the airport is located; we flew in using Atlantic Airways, the Faroese airline. We undertook a seven day itinerary. We had complete flexibility to explore and did a lot of walking. There were also a number of boat trips available in various locations. It’s worth noting that the weather can change in an instant – from mild temperatures in the sunshine to rain lashing down and impenetrable fog. But that’s all part of the fun. Make sure you bring clothing for all weathers. We found that a pair of sturdy walking shoes and raincoats were essential and multiple layers of clothing worked very well.
After leaving Vágar we headed to Streymoy via the first sub-sea tunnel, a gentle introduction as it was wide and well-lit. It’s also deep, reaching 105m below sea-level. We headed to Vestmanna as we had pre-booked a boat trip to the bird cliffs. It’s the most popular excursion on the islands and well worth undertaking. There are lots of bird viewing opportunities and puffins are a common sighting.
The boat sails very close to the cliffs and around some of the stacks so you are issued with a hard hat, just in case a bit of cliff decides to fall off while you are underneath it. (You’d have to be very unlucky.)
There is also a bizarre museum located close to the harbour which shows some of the history of the Faroes, complete with scary mannequins, while you wait for your boat.
We then travelled to the beautiful rural Gjógv, a delightful rural town. Our hotel offered a cultural evening with local food and the chance to take part in a Faroese traditional chain dance.
You can go walking on the cliff-tops and view the local puffins.
On the way you can see some famous rock formations – this is the Giant, a stack just off the coast. We didn’t get quite far enough around the headland to see its companion, the Hag.
Saksun was a beautiful place to visit. It’s a village is surrounded by steep mountains and lake with a sandy beach leading to the Atlantic Ocean. It’s a lovely walk along the beach out to the sea if the tide is out, even though the weather wasn’t really on our side that day.
We then travelled from Gjógv to Klaksvík, the islands’ second largest city after its capital, Tórshavn.
The tunnel from Oyndarfjørður to the island Borðoy (on which Klaksvik is located) had some amazing light installations created by Tróndur Patursson at its lowest point beneath the sea.
Klaksvík claims to have the most beautiful church on the Faroe islands and it’s difficult to disagree with this sentiment. We stayed in the city and used it as a base to explore the northern islands.
It was during this time exploring the northern islands that we discovered those terrifying single track tunnels. But it was worth it for the scenery: from Viðoy you could see some wonderful views of Svínoy and Fugloy
Viðoy has some of the archipelago’s most spectacular mountains.
And then from Klaksvík we drove to Tórshavn which is, apparently, the smallest, cosiest capital in the world. Certainly according to the locals. It’s a great city to visit, with lots of history, interesting architecture, cool art galleries, fascinating museums and some really good restaurants. Because it’s compact it’s very easy to park the car at your hotel and walk to all the sights in the city.
Tinganes is the site of one of the world’s oldest parliaments, its name means ‘parliament jetty,’ and it was where the Viking parliament first started meeting in around 900 CE.
Fort Skansin was built in 1580 by Magnus Heinason on a hill close to the city in order to protect against pirate raids of the town.
A day trip aboard the Schooner Norðlýsið made for a very enjoyable excursion.
There’s a choice of a visit to either Hestur or Nólsoy and sometimes you can experience a concert in a cave.
Our trip took us to Nólsoy; we visited some of the caves in a dinghy and made a brief landing on the island itself.
….And Why It’s Often Okay to Go Off-Menu When Travelling
Many years ago we were excitedly choosing all sorts of delicacies at the breakfast buffet at our hotel in Yerevan, Armenia, when another guest glanced at our plates, shrivelled their noses in a very patronising manner and exclaimed, “Ugh! Salad? For breakfast?”
It’s widely considered to be most important meal of the day but so many people seem to be set in their ways when it comes to eating a hearty breakfast. So much that hotels all over the world seem to offer pretty much the same fare. Western visitors are often offered fried food such as bacon, sausage and eggs with bread-based accompaniments and Eastern visitors are usually offered rice or noodle dishes. All these dishes are generally familiar to the tourist and often don’t reflect the traditional breakfasts of the country they are visiting.
Maybe it’s because people don’t feel so adventurous first thing in the morning, and that’s fair enough, but they may be missing out. Thing is, we’re British and can have bacon and eggs any time we like. (Although, to be honest, we haven’t cooked a fry-up for years as it’s quite a lot of effort.) We’d much rather eat a typical breakfast using local ingredients from the country that we are visiting.
It’s quite common for hotels to ask their guests to pre-order breakfast. It makes sense, they know what they need to order in beforehand and this can help minimise food waste. There is usually a form with tick boxes and you can choose from a variety of typical breakfast offerings. But if you do want to eat like a local, we’ve learned that many hotel restaurants are happy to cook you a regional breakfast. We’ve discovered that very often it’s absolutely okay to go off menu.
It all started in Uganda when we breakfasted at a lodge with a local guide. We were eating standard fare but our curiosity was piqued when something entirely different was brought out for him. On asking, we learned that it was a rolex – a chapati with a layer of omelette on top, then rolled into a spiral cylinder, perfect for munching on. So the next day we asked the lodge staff if it would be possible for us to have a rolex for brekkie and they were happy to oblige. It’s great – tasty and filling – a good start to the day.
In Nepal we were given a standard pre-order form to complete (eggs, bacon, sausage, toast…) to pre-order breakfast for the following morning. We politely asked whether it was possible to have a local breakfast instead. We didn’t specify any dish – just asked for local food. They were delighted. The following morning we were served a marsala omelette accompanied by a joyous curry and roti with home-made yoghurt. It was delicious.
Gallo pinto is a typical breakfast in Costa Rica. It’s so popular it is often eaten for lunch and dinner as well. Which is just as well because it tastes great and is also really healthy. It comprises rice and beans and is usually accompanied by a fried egg at breakfast. Other accompaniments to start the morning include sausage, fried potatoes and some salad.
A dosa for breakfast in South India is an absolute joy. This is a pancake traditionally made from rice and dal (lentils) which are ground to form a batter and then fermented. The batter is cooked on a hot plate to form a large pancake and served with chutney – coriander, coconut and tomato are particularly popular.
In Vietnam breakfast usually took a buffet form but often there were chefs on-hand to cook some food to order. We were always offered Pho – a tangle of noodles, freshly cooked and served in a yummy broth, topped with meat and vegetables. You pick up a side plate and add herbs, chilli, limes and other delicious items so that you can create your own personalised taste sensation. The liquid of the broth also ensured that we were thoroughly hydrated for the day ahead.
In Japan, breakfast often comprises grilled fish, vegetables and pickles, maybe with tofu, dumpling and an omelette.
These are accompanied with a bowl of rice, into which you could crack a raw egg mixed with shoyu (soy sauce) – the egg sort of cooks in the heat of the rice – or that famous smelly fermented soybean concoction, natto, maybe with some sliced negi (similar to spring onion). Just grab a slice of nori (dried seaweed), place it over the rice, then using a pincer movement with your chopsticks grab a portion of rice with the nori. Scrumptious. (It’s worth noting that if you are at a breakfast buffet in Japan the eggs on offer may well be raw – be careful when cracking them.)
And, of course, whenever we are staying away from home in the UK, we’ll always have an honest-to-goodness fry-up. Sausage, bacon, egg (usually fried, poached or scrambled), black pudding, mushroom, tomato, beans and sometime a hash brown are the usual components.
We recently discovered that the best possible place for a full English breakfast that we’ve ever eaten is actually in our home town. While many top breakfast establishments boast locally sourced food (which is, of course, delicious), The Gourmet Food Kitchen in Fargo Village, Coventry go one step further and actually cure their own bacon and make their own sausages and black pudding. And that’s just the start: The hash brown (never the most fabulous component of breakfasts) is a home-made bubble and squeak, a glorious blend of fried potato and cabbage. The beans have never seen a tin – they are home-made baked beans in a rich tomato sauce. Chef Tony even makes his own rich, tangy and utterly delicious brown sauce to accompany the feast.
Suffolk, in East Anglia, located on the east coast of England, is a beautiful rural county and a fine place for foodies to visit. It’s famous for its pig farming and high quality pork as well as the seafood bounty from its 50 mile coastline. Adnam’s brewery is also based in Suffolk and most pubs in the area seem to be associated with them. Suffolk can also boast the closest gin distillery to the sea.
Fishers Gin is located in the coastal town of Aldeburgh and the team aim to capture the flavours of the area in their gin using locally foraged botanicals such as samphire and sea purslane. The distillery is located right by the seashore – literally a stone’s throw from the beach. They offer tours of the distillery – an afternoon tour and, later, a sundowner, which has all the elements of the earlier tour but you also get to taste some local food and go home with a Fishers tote bag and a gin mug. We opted for the sundowner.
On arrival we were greeted with a warm, “Hello, would you like a G&T?” which is one of the best possible welcomes. The G&T (a double, of course) comprised Fishers original gin accompanied by a can of Double Dutch tonic water which contains less quinine than traditional tonic waters and hence is less bitter. The G&T was served in a rather splendid tin cup, a nice change from those enormous balloon glasses full of ice that seem to be so trendy these days. Ice and a slice were mandatory of course, but the ice cube was very large, so it kept the G&T cold and did not to dilute the gin. (Note to self: make very large ice cubes in future.) The garnish was a slice of dried orange and a sea purslane leaf. The gin itself is a London Dry Gin but is unusual because many of the botanicals are particularly savoury and have a salty edge to them. Samphire (rock and marsh samphire are both used in this gin) and sea purslane are key ingredients, foraged locally, and both have a flavour which subtly recalls the taste of the sea.
After watching an audio visual display about the local area and botanicals we met the still, which is named Watson after the owner’s dog. The gin making process was explained to us: The botanicals infuse in the base spirit for 16 hours before distillation. There are three outputs from the still: the head (the first few litres of liquid that emerge from the condenser), the heart and the tail (the last few litres). Like whisky, the head and tail are discarded.
As part of the tour we learned about the history of gin – that it originated in the Netherlands – and also about the different botanicals used in the gin-making process by making a botanical tea. We were provided with the botanicals and an empty teabag (as well as another G&T to help the process) and tasted a variety of flavours.
Juniper is the flavour that defines gin as gin, so that was an essential. Then we experimented with various quantities of the botanicals used in Fishers gin to create a unique tea. Each ingredient was crushed using a dinky pestle and mortar to extract the oils and hence maximise the flavours.
The teabags were then infused in a cup of boiled water and we could taste how our particular combination of botanicals worked together.
After making the tea we were invited to a tasting. There were three gins on offer: Fishers original, Fishers Fifty (which is stronger, having an ABV of 50%) and Fishers Smoked.
The smoked gin used botanicals that had been smoked at Orford smoke house, just down the road from Aldeburgh, for six days. Curiously, you can almost smell smoked fish on the nose but the finished gin is smooth on the palette, loses any fishiness but retains a gorgeously subtle smoky flavour. What is particularly interesting about this gin is the way that Fishers use savoury flavouring in their gins. Salt won’t get through the distillation process but the oils from the botanicals allow some subtly salty flavours to come through. Fishers also have a small still to experiment with flavours when developing a new gin.
And finally, we were offered a platter of local specialities: smoked mackerel pate from Orford, sesame hummus, sourdough and smoked salmon from l’Escargot deli, smoked cheddar and Stilton style cheeses from Orford.
And the evening was rounded off with a couple of cocktails. A Negroni which comprised of Fishers Gold, Campari and sweet vermouth in equal measure and a Mule which contained Fishers Smoked, ginger ale and lime. Both were delicious.
The Fishers team were very friendly, the tour was informative and the tastings hugely enjoyable (hic!). We ended up chatting with our hosts for much longer than the planned tour time as they were so welcoming and accommodating. The experience is highly recommended.
We attended this experience using our own resources.
Melton Mowbray is a small town in Leicestershire in the English Midlands which, without wishing to be unfair, doesn’t really have any remarkable features. However it is known for being a foodie town. It is home of the Melton Mowbray pork pie and has a local creamery that makes Stilton cheese.
Stilton cheese comes in two varieties – white and blue – although the blue cheese is probably the best known these days. It is often referred to as the “king of the blues,” and is likely to have been produced before the 18th century, but probably not in the form we now know it. Indeed in 1724 Daniel Defoe, when travelling through the Cambridgeshire town of Stilton, noted the location to be “famous for its cheese.” Its popularity grew over the years and producers got together in the early 20th century to specify production methods and to protect the origin of the cheese. Stilton is a geographically protected food and is only made in three counties in England… Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire. Ironically, because the village of Stilton is located in Cambridgeshire any cheese made there can’t officially be called Stilton.
There is a very comprehensive history of the cheese here.
You know sometimes, you just have bad luck when you’re on the road? When we visited Melton Mowbray’s market (whilst having a brief break from our canoe building holiday) both the pork pie and the cheese shop were closed. So we just had to go back home and make our own cheese.
The amazing thing about cheesemaking is that it largely starts off in the same way – add a culture to milk, warm it up a bit, add rennet so that it coagulates, separating the solid curds (which will form the cheese) from the liquid whey. It’s the things that you do with the curds subsequently – salting, cutting, pressing, resting, stretching, brining, maturing – that offer such a rich variety of possibilities for the finished cheese.
Cheesemaker Gavin Webber’s site is a fantastic resource. His video recipes are clear and concise but with enough detail to give you confidence to start serious cheesemaking. Here is our attempt at Stilton style. We have to say Stilton style because although we live in the English Midlands we aren’t close enough for our cheese to be able to count. So we’ve called ours Stiltonesque.
This Stiltonesque is a blue cheese, creamy and with lovely veins of sharp blue flavour running through the cheese.
First of all we cleaned all the equipment thoroughly (generally boiling water on equipment is enough to sterilise it) and added 5 litres of organic full fat milk. One of the elements that makes this style of cheese so luxurious is its creaminess which is thanks to the 500ml double cream that we added to the milk.
We put the Penicillium Roqueforti mould powder into the milk and stirred gently for two minutes. This is the bacteria that ensures that blue cheese develops those deliciously tangy blue veins that run through the cheese after it has matured.
Then the milk was gently brought to temperature – 30deg. It’s possible to do this by heating the milk on the hob (very slowly, so as not to burn the bottom of the pan) but if you are serious about cheesemaking it could be worth considering investing in a sous vide (£). This is definitely a non-essential kitchen gadget but it is very cool and can be used for other purposes such as cooking steak in a vacuum pack. The great thing about the sous vide for cheesemaking is that it has a heating element and immersion circulator which stirs the milk, heating it evenly. You can also set a target temperature and it beeps reassuringly when you’ve reached the correct heat level.
Then we added the culture, stirred for a minute and left for half an hour. We’ve found that if you place a tea towel over the pan it does manage to retain the heat pretty well.
Then we added rennet in water and gently stirred it in. The cheese then needed to sit for an hour and a half. Unfortunately at this stage we had some trouble with the rennet – it just didn’t want to coagulate the cheese. A quick internet search revealed that we should try to add a little more rennet and wait a bit longer. If you add too much rennet the cheese can start to taste bitter but then, if you’ve bought the milk, starter and Penicillium Roqueforti you might as well try to continue. So we did.
We did, somewhat later than expected, get a good break (phew!), so ladled the curds into cheesecloth lined colander.
We kept the bowl of whey under the colander to let the curds sit in the whey for around an hour and a half.
Then we scooped up the cheesecloth and roll the curds into a ball. Let whey drip for 30 mins. Our set-up was a bit Heath Robinson – we tied the cheesecloth around an old broom handle and let the remaining whey drip off in the garden.
Then the Stiltonesque needed to be wrapped very tightly for a further drain and to compress the curds. We put a board on top of the wrapped curds then filled up milk bottles with water to place on top of board. We left this overnight and this process pressed most of whey away.
The following morning we opened up the cheesecloth in a colander, broke up the cheese into pieces and added cheese salt, mixing thoroughly.
Then a plastic mould was lined with a sterilised j-cloth, and the curds packed in. We covered the cheese and flipped a couple of times. The cheeses had a very satisfying schlurp sound as they emerged from the mould and, importantly, maintained their shape well through the turning process. We flipped every 15 mins for 2 hours, then let the cheese sit in the mould overnight. Over the next few days we turned the cheese four times each day.
After the fourth day, with hands duly sprayed with white vinegar to ensure they were extra clean, we smoothed the cheese over to try to remove any cracks. The next stage is very important in obtaining that characteristic blue veining. Using a metal cheese thermometer, we (gently) stabbed the cheese.
Then the cheese was placed onto a mat and put into a cave. A cheese cave sounds hugely exotic. Sadly we don’t have ancient caves inside which cheese can be matured at the bottom of our garden in the UK Midlands – the closest we would get is a coal mine in this area! – so our cheese cave is actually a wine fridge, which can maintain a warmer temperature than a conventional fridge. We matured the cheese, turning every couple of days for the first week or so, for four months.
When you undertake long-term foodie experiments (such as making miso) there’s always a bit of trepidation when trying the finished product. Fortunately our Stiltonesque turned out to be a complete success. Cutting through the cheese, there were lovely blue veins.
The cheese was creamy with a lovely salty flavour and characteristic tang from the blue. It didn’t last long…
Cheesemaking is a fascinating process. There’s a lot of frantic activity followed by a lot of waiting while making the cheese itself and then there’s the anticipation of waiting several months for the finished result as it matures. But it is a very satisfying thing to be able to do, especially if the finished product works out.
You can buy cheesemaking equipment from a multitude of online emporia. There are beginners’ cheese kits – definitely recommended if you are just starting out – as well as equipment such as presses for more advanced cheeses. But you can also get by if you cobble together bits and pieces in your house – it’s amazing how you can convert ordinary kitchen utensils into cheesemaking tools.
Some of the links in this article are affiliate links, annotated by a (£). If you click the link and decide to make a purchase we will earn a small commission, at no cost to you, which helps towards running this site.
Based in the UK? Staycationing for the foreseeable? Here are five unusual UK activity breaks…
While Covid continues to provide uncertainty about travelling abroad (red, amber, green list, last minute changes to the rules, endless queues and expensive tests) if you live in the UK, having a break in the UK could well be a good idea, at least for the time being. And it is possible to find some really interesting activities all over the country.
- Build Your Own Canoe
“If you look for a happy person, you will find them building a boat,” said our host John, quoting Beran Wolfe. He’s right. Birchcanoes in rural Leicestershire offer a canoe building holiday where you can stay onsite and construct your very own vessel over the course of three days. John is on-hand to give as much help as you need and at the end of your stay you launch your vessel on the River Wreake and then take your canoe home with you so that you can explore your local waterways – and beyond.
John offers accommodation on-site, so we could stay while we were building our canoe. We slept in the River Cabin, a snug wooden building just a stone’s throw from the river and a 30 second walk from the workshop. It was self-catering and had all the facilities we could have wanted.
We had checked out John’s website to decide which type of canoe to build and after some discussion with him we landed on the Lakota design – the most popular type of build. However, a quick measurement of our garage (we have a small car) revealed that we would not be able to fit both the Lakota and the car inside. No problem, John modified the design to accommodate our maximum length and very first Lakota 4.4 (4m 40cm) began construction.
Day One of the canoe building involved cutting marine ply panels using a template. We used a Japanese pull saw and a jigsaw to cut out each piece.
We then sewed the canoe together using cable ties and added the gunwhales. At the end of the day our canoe most definitely looked like a canoe.
The next day we made the seats. There was a lot of sawing, particularly at strange angles, using an ingenious contraption John had devised, and sanding. Then the seats were fitted inside the boat. We also applied resin to the inside of the canoe.
Day Three involved getting the canoe watertight and ship-shape. There was a lot of planing and sanding involved – all by hand – to get a really smooth finish.
Then we applied glass fibre tape and resin to the exterior of the canoe.
The resin needed to dry overnight so the fourth day was launch day. It was essential that we had a mini-bottle of Prosecco for pre-launch.
The lovely thing about this experience is that the whole family is welcome to join in.
We also needed to think of a name. After some deliberation we landed on Obi-Wan Canoe-bi. We had fitted a roof-rack to our little car a few weeks before our holiday and Obi-Wan sat snugly on top.
Since getting home we’ve thoroughly enjoyed paddling on our local canal and plan to go further afield this year. Several trips for the price of one!
While You’re In The Area
The workshop is in rural Leicestershire and there are some lovely walks in the area. It’s also very close to Melton Mowbray which is known as a bit of a foodie town and is famous for both its pork pies and Stilton cheese
2. Meet and Fly Some Birds of Prey
At Icarus Falconry in Northamptonshire you can meet and fly their remarkable birds of prey. We flew several owls and a harris hawk and also got to hold a tawny eagle and a peregrine falcon.
We met four different owls. Their bodies are really small but are fluffed out by masses of feathers which enables them to fly virtually silently. Many of the feathers are serrated for additional hush. They eat rodents and swoop low, flying just above ground level, to pick up their prey mid-flight. For this reason when you are flying owls you don’t hold the meat lure in your glove otherwise they would just fly off with it; you reward them when they’ve landed on your hand. Apparently the “wise old owl” moniker is a myth. They’re not very clever and haven’t got very good eyesight either. But each one we met had a terrific personality. Tom the Burrowing Owl was tiny and cute and ran round and round the drainpipe system in his cage, clearly enjoying himself. He’d fly directly into your hand.
Spot the Spotted Owl (she’s over there!) was very beautiful and apparently could be a little bit naughty. She was happy to be petted. She flew well but got a touch tired towards the end of the session and decided that walking was much more fun.
Mia the Bengal Eagle Owl was just gorgeous, she had the most wonderful eyes. She was also very vocal.
Grace the Barn Owl (also known as Dis-grace) just loved flying. She couldn’t be bothered to wait for a reward, she’d just fly to anything that looked like somewhere to land. She was hand-reared and had spent her early months perched at the end of her owner’s bed.
Curiously, owls can take a dislike to certain people and will refuse to co-operate with them. However, all the owls we met were most definitely on their best behaviour and it was an absolute pleasure to meet and fly them.
3. Forge Your Own Birdfeeder at a Traditional Blacksmith’s Forge
At the National Waterways Museum at Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, you can join Alex the blacksmith for a day, using a traditional 19th century forge to create a bird feeder comprised of fishtail scrolls amongst other forged elements. Safety equipment was provided and we were given full instructions and supervision. The fire had been started for us before we had arrived so the forge was ready.
We visited in winter, which was a really good idea because the forge is hot! We used steel rods which we heated in the fire until they were white hot (about 1600 ⁰C) and we saw sparks – indicating that the steel was ready to be worked– then took the rod out and hammered a fishtail shape on the anvil.
Alex also demonstrated how to bend the metal around a jig creating the lovely curvy design of the birdfeeder – you had to heat the metal, get it to the jig quickly and bend it before it cooled. It required quite a lot of dexterity to pick up the metal using tongs (with gloved hands) and transfer it to the jig while it was still white hot. It took a couple of attempts but eventually we managed to produce some very satisfying curves.
When the constituent parts had been constructed Alex welded them to a support pole and turn them into the finished piece. Alex was very accommodating – as mentioned with the canoe building, our car isn’t very large. Transporting two long birdfeeders down the M6 motorway wasn’t going to happen (we did this course before we invested in roof racks), so Alex managed to adjust the overall length so that they would fit into the car. As we own a cat we decided it wasn’t fair to the birds to use them as birdfeeders but instead we added hanging baskets in order to grow tomatoes. They make a lovely addition to our garden.
While You’re In The Area
We stayed overnight and visited the National Waterways Museum which offers a fascinating history of British canals and waterways. It’s also close to historic Chester where there are loads of places to visit, and lots of activities including a Roman tour led by a centurion, running tours, cycling tours and, of course, foodie tours.
4. Become a Big Cat Zookeeper for a Day
Dartmoor Zoo in Devon is famous for being that zoo from the film We Bought A Zoo starring Matt Damon. The story of the zoo is very interesting and we discovered that they offered zookeeper experiences. Our day was due to start really early, so we had driven down to Devon the night before and stayed at a local hotel. After we arrived we were given a safety briefing and advised not to be too squeamish. Good advice – you come into contact with raw meat that was most definitely formerly part of an animal as well as copious amounts of poo. We met our keeper, Holly, and volunteer George, who we would be shadowing throughout the day. They had prepared and portioned the meat for all the animals we were to encounter. We were impressed to learn that local farmers donate carcasses of farm animals that have died or been killed which are used to feed the carnivores, which strikes us as being a very sensible approach. Similarly, local supermarkets donate unsold food, some of which can also be used to feed the animals. As soon as we were wearing appropriate clothing (old clothes with wellies and gloves), we set about doing the morning rounds to make sure that all the animals were still in their cages and in good health. We had a wheelbarrow full of meat and an empty bucket and shovel for cleaning the enclosures.
Our first stop was the lions. We met two lions, an enormous male, Jasiri, who weighs about 200kg and Josie, a female. They were being kept inside for the day of our visit because the zoo was constructing an enclosure that would allow them to interact with each other. The lions were none too chuffed about being inside but the zoo had left a couple of Christmas trees inside Jasiri’s pen to keep him occupied.
We visited Josie to feed her. She snarled a little, unsurprisingly, and a grumpy lion is a pretty scary thing. But she soon settled after her protest and was happy to wolf down the food presented to her. Sadly Josie passed away some time after our visit due to a medical condition.
Next stop was the jaguar, a four year old male called Chincha who is very curious. He was in gorgeous condition and had the most amazing fur coat. Jaguars have the perfect combination of cat skills – they excel at climbing, jumping, swimming and running.
We followed the same feeding/cleaning routine for all the animals we attended. They were lured inside their indoor enclosures using a piece of tasty meat, then locked in using a counter-weighted metal gate system. We were then free to enter the main enclosure. We had to search for stools and discarded bones, which we removed, and then provided some food for each animal. We tried to present a challenge for them, hiding the meat in various locations so that each animal would have to search for it – something that provided them with a good deal of stimulation.
Then it was on to the tigers. Vladimir and Stripe are brother and sister, about 20 years old. They were born at the zoo, hand reared, and the previous owners apparently used to allow them to be petted when they were cubs. They are utterly gorgeous creatures and very sociable. Stripe willingly comes inside and was happy to pose for us. She also rolls around like a kitten.
We were struck by how many mannerisms we see with domestic cats can be seen with the big cats. It was marvellous to be able to get so close to them.
It was our day to feed the tigers as one of the zoo’s attractions. Holly managed to lure both inside, then we went into the enclosure, performed poo duty and set up some food for both tigers. Holly’s plan was to ensure that Vladimir was occupied with the meat that we had located in an obvious place which would enable Stripe to find her meal without her brother dominating her. Vladimir would be released first and hopefully spot the easy pickings then Stripe would find the meat that we had hung on a chain for her to enjoy. The plan worked perfectly.
And finally it was the turn of Sita the Cheetah. Sita is a grand old lady, over 20 years, an incredible age for her species. She clearly looks her age, but we were impressed at how the staff monitor her health. However, despite her advanced years she is… a cat. And a princess at that. We followed the usual routine of enticing her indoors and Holly called her into her indoor enclosure. Despite knowing the drill, she wasn’t ready to eat and certainly wasn’t going to do anything she didn’t want to.
Any cat owner will recognise this look:
Holly said that feeding usually happens on ‘Sita time’ and she adjusts her schedule to accommodate the cheetah. Eventually Sita made her way into the indoor room, was given meat and medicine (she takes it straight from a syringe) and, once locked in, we went inside the enclosure to do final cleaning duty. We didn’t hide the food for Sita, but simply left it right outside the door for her.
We were so impressed by the zoo – particularly by the animals’ good condition. Apart from Sita, who is very old, their fur is amazingly glossy, they are clearly in good health and also seemed to be happy. We drove back home to be greeted by our little cat… and a litter tray that needed to be emptied.
It’s actually quite hard work and there’s a lot of poo involved but getting up close and personal with the magnificent cats at Dartmoor Zoo was a wonderful experience. Bear in mind that the zoo often has 2 for 1 offers, so keep an eye out on the website.
While You’re In The Area
The zoo is located in beautiful Devon, close to Plymouth, where there are loads of attractions – from a National Aquarium to The Box, a cultural centre. The coastlines of Devon and Cornwall are renowned for their beauty and the zoo is right on the doorstep of the Dartmoor National Park – so it’s definitely worth extending your trip if possible.
- 5 Learn to Play the Japanese Taiko Drums
Japanese Taiko are traditional drums often used at festivals in Japan. There are a number of taiko ensemble groups, notably in Japan, which engage in exciting and energetic performances using a variety of drums. Mugen Kyo – the name means ‘limitless reverberation’ – are a UK based drumming troupe that have been established for over 25 years. The founders trained in Japan and set up a dojo not far from Glasgow. They run courses and workshops and also perform, touring the UK regularly. They have even toured in Japan and were invited to participate in a Taiko festival there – the first Europeans ever to participate.
The group happened to be touring a couple of weeks before our course, so we went along to see them perform. They were terrific – energetic, dynamic, exciting. You can check out their Video Gallery – Mugen Taiko.
The course began on a Saturday morning. The instructors introduced themselves – we were to be taught by the founders as well as two additional professional members of the group. The dojo had nine drums so we paired up and took it in turns to play. This was a really good system – the course was very intense so it was great to have a break from actual drumming to rest legs (not arms) and learn the pieces while the other group practised.
We found many similarities with martial arts: getting into a strong stance, letting gravity do most of the work hitting the drum but maintaining control as the bachi (stick) hits the hara (centre of the drumskin). We learned breathing techniques and the principles of channelling ‘ki’ (energy). And lots of random shouting to encourage your team rather than scare your opponent. We were taught to play as a group. You learn the rhythms by chanting, then chant whilst practicing the hand movements with your bachi in the air. We counted in using: “One, two, so, re” – on ‘re’ raise your hands dramatically to begin drumming.
We learned about the Ji-uchi or base rhythms: Gobu-Gobu (doko doko): 5 – 5, Mitsu-uchi (don doko); three hits and Shichi-san (donko donko): 7 –3. These were played for us by the pros so that we could keep time.
We played three pieces: Kamitsuki Kiyari Daiko (Miyake) and Chichibu Yatai Bayashi, which is traditionally played at matsuri (festivals), where the drummers are located inside huge floats and these are carried through the streets. The drum is positioned at a 45 degree angle, you sit with it between your legs, lean back and drum away. Don Ka Ki Daiko was played as a group with a line-up of five drums at the front and four at the back. The first brave soul did a solo of the first two lines, then on “Ha!” jumped to the next drum and the next in line jumped in. This was repeated until all nine drummers had completed their line. Two drummers were on the O-daiko (the really big drum) and joined in for the next part of the piece. Playing the O-daiko was a brilliant experience – it has such a deep, resonant sound. It’s hard work though.
The Mugenkyo dojo is open for bookings later in the year, you can check the dates here.
While You’re In The Area
We actually did a road trip travelling up to the dojo over several days, travelling along the northeast coast of England, before hopping across to Scotland. This included visiting Whitby…
and Berwick upon Tweed.
We attended all these experiences at our own expense and can wholeheartedly recommend them all.
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Director /screenplay : Amit Gupta
Foodie Expert Madhur Jaffrey
Film Rating: 6/10
Foodie Rating: 8/10
Without the risk of trying to curry favour this is a delightfully enjoyable foodie rom-com. Set in the UK city of Leicester cross-cultural expectations collide with family conflicts and culinary rivalries at the height of the festival of Holi, so colourful confrontations ensue in more ways than one.
Mark (Tom Mison) and Shalini (Amara Karan) want to get married but Shalini is worried about getting approval from her father, especially as they come from different cultural backgrounds. Shalini heads back home to Leicester to inform her dad Raja (Harish Patel) of the proposed nuptials. No need to worry. Her father is delighted. The only problem is that she would like to invite her uncle to the wedding. And her father hasn’t spoken to his brother for a long, long time. Raja and Jagi (Kulvinder Ghir) are rival brothers with rival restaurants, their sibling squabbles centring on an argument that resulted in the splitting of their late mother’s perfect recipe book twenty years ago. And there seems to be no possibility of reconciliation.
Just after the colourful festival of Holi, a high-profile curry cooking competition is due to take place. It is hosted and judged by Indian culinary expert and actress Madhur Jaffrey. To be crowned King of Curry in this contest the winning team must provide the best starter and main-course combination. One of the brothers is a regal starter genius whilst the other is a main course diva. Will family feuding despatch to join forces not only for premium King of Curry success? And will Shalini mange to persuade her uncle to resolve their differences and prepare the perfect wedding banquet for her and her spice savouring spouse to be?
Leicester, as well as being famous as the city where the remains of King Richard III were found in a car park, is one of the best places to eat Indian cuisine in the country. Of course, there is plenty of food on offer in this film with much of its preparation on show too. And while the competition is the catalyst for reconciliation, the family love lies with the preparation of the meals, demonstrating the importance of food in family life. Rather like in Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman when the father cooks food for his daughter and she appraises it like a critic.
Jadoo also highlights some of the cultural elements of the local community particularly a sequence featuring Holi, the fabulous Hindu festival of colour. Overall it’s a sweet family drama featuring some mouth-watering curried concoctions.
You can buy the film here.
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