The channel island of Guernsey is the second largest in the tiny archipelago in the English Channel and the largest in the Bailiwick of Guernsey (which also includes the islands of Alderney, Sark, Herm and Jethou). It’s a fabulous place to visit, is easily accessible from the UK and has a fascinating history. If you visit Guernsey there are loads of things to do, especially if you like outdoor activities. There are lots of beautiful walks along spectacular cliff paths, and the island is perfect for spending traditional seaside time on pristine beaches.
There are a bunch of museums and forts to visit and it’s definitely worth investigating day trips or short breaks to the other stunningly beautiful islands.
Guernsey also has a lot to offer if you’re interested in art and literature, and some of these activities are perfect if the weather isn’t on your side for a day at the beach.
Visit Guernsey – The Renoir Walk
The impressionist artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir visited Guernsey in 1883 and created some fifteen paintings during his stay. They were all based around the charming Moulin Huet. You can take a walk along Moulin Huet to view its beautiful bay where Art for Guernsey have cleverly set up some picture frames at five locations so that you can see the precise spot where he worked on his pictures. Each site also have a display showing a picture of the original painting so that you see how the landscape has changed over the years. Most of the frames are located close to the beach but there is one that is slightly further out and it’s a climb along the path to the cliff-top to capture the view across the bay.
There’s a small car park at the end of a narrow road and just along the path from there is a map showing where each of the frames is located.
La cote du Moulin Huet.
Our version of Enfants au bord de la mer à Guernsey should have been entitled Chien au bord de la mer à Guernsey as our shot was photobombed by a very friendly dog.
The foliage had changed over the years since Baie du Moulin Huet a travers les arbres was painted.
It’s a short climb and walk along the cliffs to see Vue de Guernsey.
Victor Hugo’s Hauteville House
The French author Victor Hugo spent some 15 years on Guernsey from 1855 to 1870, when he decided to live in exile from his home country following Napoleon III’s coup d’etat in 1851 (Hugo lived in Belgium and Jersey before moving to Guernsey). He wrote extensively while on the island and many believe that his time there was his most productive period, indeed Les Miserables was published during his time on the island. He dedicated Les Travailleurs de la Mer to ‘the rock of hospitality and freedom.’
If you visit Guernsey you can tour his former residence, Hauteville House, in St Peter Port
Hauteville House offers a fascinating glimpse into his lifestyle because Hugo decorated the home himself.
We were particularly taken with the dinner plates on the ceiling!
It is also possible to stroll around the garden of Hauteville House.
Guernsey Sculpture Park
Another artistic activity when you visit Guernsey is to walk around the sculpture park in the grounds of Sausmarez Manor. It’s located on Sausmarez Road in St Martin, a short bus ride away from St Peter Port.
You can follow the ArtParks trail through a lovely woodland and view a couple of hundred sculptures from artists all over the world. You can even buy some of the sculptures if any take your fancy.
Visit Guernsey – The Candie Art Gallery
The Candie Art Gallery is small but perfectly formed. It has a statue of a striding Victor Hugo in the gardens.
The gallery is part of a wider arts and museum complex, which also includes exhibitions on the island’s history and a highly interactive folklore exhibit which features a recreation of an early 19th century Guernsey cottage (complete with appropriately creepy mannequins) and stories of local legends. Some of the stories are fascinating.
There is also a permanent exhibition art space.
The teeny gallery presents a number of paintings depicting the Bailiwick in chronological order as you circle the exhibition space.
It also hosts some temporary exhibits and there were a couple of very famous names on display when we visited in 2018 – including a Damien Hirst and Yayoi Kusama.
Saumarez Park has a fascinating National Trust Folk & Costume Museum which features a number of exhibits from Guernsey’s history. And there are a number of art galleries on the island, including the Coach House Gallery in St Pierre du Bois as well as Iris And Dora in Ruettes Brayes, St Peter Port. St James The Less, a 200 year-old former church in College Street, St Peter Port, also has a variety of cultural events on offer, including visual art exhibitions and musical performances.
Potato Peel? In a Pie? Literary Guernsey
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a 2008 bestselling novel that was adapted into a film directed by Mike Newell in 2018. It is a historic drama set during the occupation of the Channel Islands in World War 2. It is possible to go on a tour to see some of the locations mentioned in the book. And if you are interested in the history of the occupation there is the German Occupation Museum which is located close to the island’s airport.
Guernsey also has a Literary Festival, this year running from 11th May to 26th June. It offers plenty of events running throughout the duration of the festival, with lots of guest authors visiting the island to give talks, as well as a writing competition for students in the Bailiwick.
Visit Guernsey – The Art of Dining
Guernsey also has a fantastic food scene. While there are great restaurants all over the island, the pretty capital St Peter Port has a plethora of excellent eateries.
Every October the island has a Tennerfest whereby restaurants, hotels, pubs and cafés will put on a special fixed priced menu and offer people the chance to eat out for a much cheaper price than normal. Make sure you to get a reservation, though, the event is really popular and the best emporia will be fully booked. Being an island, the seafood is superb.
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Spring is a fantastic time of year for walking in the English countryside. The weather is often warmer and the blossom on the trees provides a wonderful backdrop. We even get a bit of sunshine sometimes! It’s also a great time for foraging for the spring greens that start growing – there’s nothing like picking free food whilst on a walk. At the moment, nettles, ground elder, three cornered leek, garlic mustard (aka Jack-by-the-hedge) are all flourishing and they can all be used to create and add flavour to delicious dishes. Wild garlic is our favourite and we have a fabulous recipe for wild garlic pesto.
There are some basic rules to foraging in the UK. You are allowed to pick flowers, fruit and leaves but you are not allowed to dig up roots (e.g. horseradish) unless you have the landowner’s permission. We never take more food than we need.
Wild garlic is an invasive plant and when it grows it spreads wildly, which is fantastic for a forager. It’s usually easy to recognise and has a very definite garlicky smell.
A few weeks after the leaves show through, delicate little white flowers will appear. These are edible too and have a very mild garlic flavour – they make a fantastic edible garnish. The buds can also be pickled and can be used as substitute for garlicky capers.
If you are foraging it is really important that you are 100% sure of what you are picking. Never eat anything if you are not certain about what it is. Many plants are poisonous and some can look very similar to edible species. Beware: there is a plant which looks very similar to wild garlic when it’s young and just peeping through the soil. Arum maculatum, also known as Lords and Ladies, is very toxic. Apparently even putting the leaves into your mouth will result in an immediate burning sensation. It sometimes grows worryingly close to the wild garlic. When it’s more mature it develops shiny arrow-head shaped leaves but when young, looks very similar to wild garlic.
Bluebells, or their white-flowered counterparts, which can also easily be confused with wild garlic’s white flowers, can also grow nearby. Bluebells are extremely pretty but also poisonous.
Whenever we gather wild garlic we go through a process of washing it thoroughly and checking each leaf when we get home.
Recipe for Wild Garlic Pesto
This is a recipe that is not at all accurate – it’s one where you can fling the ingredients together and end up with something delicious. Our wild garlic recipe uses cashew nuts instead of pine nuts. They are a lot cheaper and add a lovely creaminess to the pesto.
Bunch of wild garlic leaves
Handful of cashew nuts
Chunk of Parmesan or Grana Padano cheese
Slosh of extra virgin olive oil
Squeeze of lemon
Pinch of salt
Roughly chop the wild garlic leaves and place into a blender. Throw in the nuts. Roughly chop the cheese into chunks and add these. We recommend adding the leaves first – to the bottom of the blender – so that the weight of the nuts and cheese ensures they get chopped up more finely.
If you are planning to eat the pesto right away, add the oil, lemon juice and salt. The pesto freezes really well but if we are planning to freeze it we don’t add the oil or seasoning; instead we stir it in once it has defrosted.
Blend together until you get the texture you like – smooth or nutty – both work well.
If you are planning to freeze the pesto, decant into containers and pop into the freezer. We recycle plastic takeaway containers as they provide the perfect portion for two people.
We’ve tried variations using pistachio nuts and nutritional yeast, which can replace the cheese in order to develop a vegan version. Pistachio are more nutty in texture and their flavour is more pronounced in the finished pesto.
The great thing about this recipe is that is so easily adaptable – mix and match ingredients. It’s the underlying gentle garlicky flavour that the wild garlic leaves produce that make this such a brilliant pesto. We’ll be foraging and freezing for as long as the season lasts.
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If there’s one thing that can ruin a walk in the lovely English countryside it’s stinging nettles. If you brush past them with bare skin you can get a painful sting which usually isn’t harmful for most people but hurts for a while. But you can exact revenge on them by eating them! Nettles are not only edible, they are highly nutritious – they contain iron, calcium and magnesium, as well as vitamins A and B. They are great in soup, can be dehydrated to make crisps, can be used like spinach in a variety of dishes such as stir fries and stews, and can also be used in dips and sauces. The process of cooking with them renders them harmless by getting rid of the sting. One of our favourite things to make with them is stinging nettle hummus and we have a recipe.
Despite them being found all over the British Isles nettles are not native plants, they were introduced by the Romans a couple of thousand years ago. Some stories suggest that they were used by Roman soldiers who would flog themselves with the nettle plants in order to use the stings to warm their skin in cold northern climes.
If you do get stung by a nettle there is a plant that you can use that helps soothe the pain. The standard view is that a dock leaf rubbed onto the sting will help. Actually it’s a plantain leaf (which used to be called dock in bygone times) which is more likely to help. Rubbing the sting with a dock leaf won’t harm but plantain will provide more relief.
It is the perfect time of year to go foraging for spring greens. We are already keeping an eye on our local patches of wild garlic, ground elder, mustard garlic, sorrel and three-cornered leek to see how they are growing, and also to plan lots of recipes for them. Stinging nettles are absolutely ready right now.
PREPARING STINGING NETTLES FOR HUMMUS
Go foraging for nettles. Try to find a patch where it’s unlikely that dogs may have been walking (just in case they have used that area for a toilet). Hardy foragers pick the nettles with their bare fingers but we use gloves to save ourselves from the stings. It’s best to pick in early spring to get the most tender leaves (the leaves will become quite tough as summer progresses). You need around half a carrier bag’s worth but you don’t need to be precise.
A word of warning – nettles are generally one of the easiest plants to identify but please be 100% sure that you have identified the correct plant. If you have the slightest doubt, don’t eat it. Plant identification apps aren’t always reliable either.
Wearing gloves, wash the nettles and have a look through them to see whether there are any leaves that should be discarded and look out for any insects to brush away. You can also make sure that no extraneous leaves from other plants. It’s quite common for grasses to end up in your bag as well.
Place the nettles into a saucepan and pour boiling water over them to cover them. Stir for a minute or so. They will start wilting. This process gets rid of the sting and you can handle them with your bare hands from now on.
While they still have their lovely green colour, using a slotted spoon, transfer them into a bowl of cold water for a few minutes.
Keep the hot water from the saucepan and pour it into a mug – you can enjoy a nice cup of nettle tea, which has a mild, refreshing flavour and tastes a bit like green tea or coca tea. Then drain the nettles and let them dry naturally. They can then be used in our stinging nettle hummus recipe.
STINGING NETTLE HUMMUS RECIPE
Bowl of blanched stinging nettles
1 can of chickpeas, drained (if you’re keen to avoid food waste, you can keep the liquid, which is called aquafaba, which can be used to make vegan meringues)
1 large or 2 small cloves of garlic
Juice of 1 lemon
1 dsp peanut butter (you can substitute tahini, or omit completely if you can’t eat nuts)
Slosh of olive oil
Pinch of sea salt
In a food processor or blender, combine the lemon juice, garlic and peanut butter. Give them a whizz.
Add half the chickpeas and half the nettles with a slosh of oil and blend again.
Scrape the sides of the bowl. Add the remaining nettles, chickpeas and a pinch of salt, and blend again.
Have a taste – does it need more lemon or salt? Add seasoning as necessary. We tend to like sour flavours so added the juice of an extra half lemon. You can decide how much you would like your blend depending on whether you prefer a smooth or chunkier texture.
Decant into a bowl and serve with warm pitta bread.
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Visiting The City in the Midlands – Things to Do in Coventry
When you see travel guides to the UK Midlands they often mention the buzzing metropolis of Birmingham or the country towns of Warwickshire such as leafy Leamington Spa, historic Warwick with its castle, and Shakespeare’s Stratford-Upon-Avon, but the city of Coventry is often ignored, which is a shame because it has a lot of history and plenty of things to do and see. It is also the current UK City of Culture. Coventry has great transport connections and is easy to reach from all parts of the UK. It’s just an hour away from London on the train.
History of Coventry – From Capital of England to Ghost Town
Coventry has a long and rich history but little is known about its origins. It is thought that a settlement was established around a nunnery to St Osburga in Saxon times. The name is thought to have originated from the phrase ‘cofa tree’ although no one really know what a cofa is.
Coventry’s most famous legend is that of Lady Godiva who was the wife of the Leofric, Earl of Mercia, who had founded a Benedictine monastery in Coventry in 1043. Leofric was one of the most important people in the country and imposed crippling taxes on the citizens of Coventry. Lady Godiva took pity on them and asked her husband to reduce the burden but he refused… unless she agreed to ride through the city naked. Which she did. And, in gratitude, the people of Coventry averted their eyes… except for one person: the Peeping Tom.
There is a statue to Godiva in Broadgate and Peeping Tom can also be found in the vicinity if you look carefully.
Coventry became an important trading location between 1150 and 1200 when merchants were allowed to visit the city and trade freely. The agricultural land surrounding the city was perfect for sheep grazing and wool production became an important industry. Textiles, weaving and dying in particular were very important and the Coventry’s blue coloured cloth (blue dye being a difficult colour to develop) was considered to be highly prized because of its ability to stay fast, coining the term ‘True Blue.’
Due to its importance as a centre of commerce a wall began to be constructed in the mid-14th century. Sandstone was quarried from the local district of Cheylesmore and a 3.5 km, 3.7m high wall was built around the city centre. It had twelve gatehouses located on the main routes into the city.
By the 15th century Coventry’s main churches had been constructed. St Michael’s Church, Holy Trinity and Greyfriars (Christ Church) all had magnificent spires which could be seen from miles away. The city actually became the capital of England, temporarily, on a few occasions. It was a wealthy city and considered to be hugely important by successive kings and queens of England.
During the English Civil War, Coventry was a stronghold of Parliamentarians and was attacked by Royalists on several occasions but the king’s soldiers failed to conquer the city walls. The city was used as a prison for captured Royalists and those incarcerated were not just treated with disdain – they were ignored completely. It is thought that this is the origin of the term, ‘being sent to Coventry.’
As the industrial revolution started Coventry, with its central location, became an important city of industrialisation. It was renowned for manufacturing textiles and ribbons, watches (many of watchmakers lived in the Chapelfields area of the city), bicycles and cars. The first British series production motor car was made in Coventry, by Daimler, in 1897.
Despite the industrialisation, the city centre retained a lot of its mediaeval buildings. However, because of the industrialisation, the city was a target during World War 2. On the night of 14/15 November 1940 Hitler ordered a bombing raid on the city. Most of the city centre was destroyed, including the interior of St Michael’s cathedral, and over 500 people lost their lives. Coventry has since become a city of peace and reconciliation and has twinned with some 23 cities across the world, including Dresden and Volvograd (formerly Stalingrad), both cities which also suffered devastating attacks during World War 2.
Following the war the city was rebuilt and was designed to be a modern city – it included one of Europe’s first ever pedestrianised precincts. The city thrived thanks to the car manufacturing industries during the 50s and 60s. Famous names include Jaguar, Standard-Triumph, Talbot, Peugot, and Alvis. London taxis – the iconic black cabs – were constructed in the city from the 1950s until 1994. However the industry – and consequently the city – suffered serious decline in the mid-1970s and 1980s due to industrial disputes and competition from other countries. One by one the car factories closed down. In the early 1980s Coventry band The Specials wrote the song Ghost Town about the decline of the city. Bands such as The Specials, The Selecter and The Beat were part of the 2Tone movement which developed in Coventry and was defined by their members being multi-racial and a musical style that combined punk/new wave music with Jamaican ska.
These days, Coventry is a lively city. With two universities, it’s also a young city with a diverse population which has an average age of 33 years. It is also the 2021 UK City of Culture, the start of which was slightly delayed due to the pandemic. As a result there are lots of events happening up until May.
Places to Visit
Although much of mediaeval Coventry was destroyed it is possible to see some older buildings in the city. Mediaeval Spon Street is largely comprised of old buildings although not all of these were originally built on the site but were relocated from other parts of the city.
Ford’s Hospital was constructed in 1509, as an almshouse.
Some parts of the original city wall can still be seen. Swanswell Gate is the best preserved of the city’s gates.
Dating from the 12th century, the old grammar school is now a conference or wedding venue which occasionally opens up for pop-up art events. You can see the original school chairs, carved by their previous occupants centuries ago.
Coventry Cathedral – old and new
St Michael’s Cathedral was largely destroyed during the Blitz raid but its outer walls and spire remain. It was decided that it should remain in situ. It contains a number of symbols of reconciliation, including a charred cross which was constructed from two fallen wooden beams.
A new cathedral, constructed alongside the ruins of the old, was consecrated in 1962 as a place of worship. Both cathedrals are very much part of the community. There are often concerts and plays held, both indoors and outdoors. The old cathedral even became an ice rink during the winter Christmas season.
St Mary’s Guildhall
Currently being renovated, St Mary’s Guildhall dates back to 1352 and is considered to be one of the finest guildhalls in the country. Despite being located right next to the cathedral, it survived the bombing. It is home of the Coventry Tapestry, which is over 500 years old. The renovation is due to include a mediaeval kitchen.
Coventry Music Museum
Located just outside the city in the Ball Hill district, the Coventry Music Museum is a small but perfectly formed museum dedicated to the musical history of the city.
You always receive a friendly welcome. With a plethora of exhibits and memorabilia, including the original Ghost Town organ and a reproduction of a Two-Tone bedroom, it also looks to Coventry’s earlier music history including an exhibit looking at the work of Coventry born Delia Derbyshire, the pioneering electronic musician (who arranged the Dr Who theme tune). Deliaphonic is an annual celebration of her life and work which takes place in venues around the city.
You can also use the music room there – just pick up an instrument and play. Opposite the museum is the Two-Tone café and the excellent Simmer Down Caribbean restaurant.
Coventry Transport Museum
Located on Millennium Place, Hales Street and celebrating Coventry’s motor history, this is a fascinating museum which has the largest publicly owned collection of British cars in the world.
The museum offers a brilliant history of transportation and also of the city. It has lots of interactive exhibits and you can see an extensive variety of vintage vehicles as well as two of the fastest cars in the world: Thrust SSC and Thrust 2. Fun fact: part of the famous car chase from the film The Italian Job was filmed in Coventry. While the Mini Coopers enter and leave the tunnel in Turin, the actual tunnels were Coventry sewers which were being constructed at the time.
The Weaver’s House (Spon End) is a fascinating listed building which is quite unusual because it was the home of a poor person. Historic buildings are normally preserved because they are great big stately homes owned by important people. The weaver’s house is a remarkable construction because it has an internal jetty for the weaver’s loom, which is very rare. The weaver’s house is located close to the river Sherbourne before it enters the city, so the water would have been clean for washing and dyeing the cloth. The house doesn’t have regular opening hours, but check the website for the next open day when you can learn about its history and also visit its mediaeval garden.
Watch Museum A small but interesting museum dedicated to Coventry’s watchmaking heritage.
Herbert Art Gallery
A fantastic space, the Herbert has a permanent collection and regular temporary exhibitions. It’s located next to the cathedrals. With free entry to most exhibitions, it also hosted the 2021 Turner Prize.
Located to the east of the city, around a 15 minute walk from the city centre on Far Gosford Street, this is the Coventry’s creative quarter. With some quirky shops, great restaurants, venues and an on-site brewhouse it regularly hosts a variety of events.
Theatre and Music The Belgrade Theatre and Albany Theatre have a great programme of theatrical productions. There are lots of venues for music gigs, including the tiny but excellent Tin Music and Arts venue in the coal vaults at Coventry’s canal basin. Warwick Arts Centre, located a few kilometres out of town at Warwick University, has a full programme of music, theatre, film and arts events.
Coventry Biennial This festival of art is held every two years. What’s great about it is that it uses multiple venues around the city and also in some of the surrounding towns.
Litten Tree Building (until late 2022). This is a pop-up art venue in a disused space above a pub. (Just enter the Litten Tree pub in the Bull Yard, on the way in from the railway station and climb the staircase). It’s totally shabby-chic inside but offers a variety of exhibitions and gigs – just feel free to explore the building discovering fabulous art along the way.
Eating -Where to Eat in Coventry
Coventry has its share of the usual chain restaurants but there are a number of excellent independent restaurants.
The Pod Café – this is located on Far Gosford street and is one of our favourites. A vegan café it sources local ingredients, 70% of which are grown on its Food Union (a social activism initiative run by the local council) allotment on the other side of the city (and one that we volunteer at, so we may even have helped grow your lunch). The café also runs evening supper clubs with live music. And, naturally, the food is absolutely delicious.
Gourmet Food Kitchen – one of the most difficult restaurants to get a table at for chef Tony’s monumentally delicious gourmet evenings (you have to get lucky when slots on the website are released) this teeny restaurant located in Fargo Village also offers the best cooked breakfast in the land (which you can usually just show up for). Everything is home-made and utterly scrumptious.
Earlsdon Supper Club (secret location in Earlsdon – you’ll find the location when you book). This is a supper club where you join chef Tobias who cooks you a delicious tasting menu and describes his inspiration behind each dish.
Hello Vietnam (Smithford Street) offers a wonderful array of Vietnamese dishes.
A-Sushi (Hertford Street) – best sushi in Coventry, this Korean restaurant also offers a variety of Japanese and Korean dishes.
Shin Ramen (Priory Place) is a Japanese restaurant that serves izakaya style food, notably its authentic ramen noodles. The tonkotsu and champon ramen are particularly good.
Jinseong Korean BBQ (Priory Place) – meat eaters can enjoy Korean BBQ where you can cook a variety of meats over a charcoal fire. Their KFC (Korean Fried Chicken) is also delicious.
Pickles (Spon End). There are so many excellent Indian restaurants in Coventry (as there are all over the Midlands) but we’re big fans of Pickles where you get a warm welcome and delicious curries.
Tamils Taste of Asia (Foleshill Road) offers superb and authentic South Indian cuisine. Great if you are hankering after dosas, biryani and idli.
Anatolia (Earlsdon Street) offers amazing Turkish food with great mezze and succulent kebabs.
Drinking – Where to Drink in Coventry
Hops D’Amour – is a lovely micropub on Corporation Street serving craft beer, real ale and a variety of ciders. You can be sure of a friendly welcome and that you will have a different and interesting beer or cider experience every time you visit.
Broomfield Tavern – great beers and a huge variety of ciders are to be found in this small pub just outside the city centre, close to the Butts rugby ground. Teddy, the huge St Bernard dog, will offer a warm welcome, even if he sometimes pinches your seat.
Twisted Barrel – a brew-pub located in Fargo village. They offer a great variety of home-brewed and guest beers. They also have a mail order service so you can order their excellent beers online.
The Old Windmill – one of Coventry’s oldest pubs, located on Mediaeval Spon Street, this building has all sorts of nooks and crannies to sit in while enjoying your pint. It offers a great variety of beers and also locally sourced pork pies, ploughman’s platters and cheese boards.
Beer Gonzo (Earlsdon Street) – located in the suburb of Earlsdon this beer shop and tap room offers a wide variety of interesting beers from around the world. They regularly run “meet the brewer” events which result in a fun afternoon or evening enjoying a variety of beers. They too have an online shop.
Dhillons Spire Bar (next to the Bull Yard) is located within and around Christchurch spire, the third of Coventry’s three spires. You can sit in a personal booth (which has a heater when it’s cold) and drink locally brewed beer such as Ghost Town lager or Red Rebel IPA.
Green Spaces in Coventry
While Coventry has a reputation for being a dull concrete city, it actually has a huge number of green spaces, some close to the city centre and some a bit further out.
Lady Herbert’s Garden is located next to Swanswell Gate and the transport museum.
War Memorial Park is the city’s largest and best known park. Established in 1921 following World War I, it is absolutely huge and has tennis courts, football pitches, bowls green, footgolf course, an outdoor fitness trail and a cricket pitch. There are play facilities and skateboarding ramps too. It hosts the excellent three day Godiva Festival every year.
Coundon Wedge – about a mile down the Holyhead road leading out of the city towards the A45 and Birmingham, Coundon Wedge is a delightful slice of actual countryside. Coventry’s lovely little river Sherbourne flows through it.
Charterhouse Fields – Opposite the cemetery on the London Road, the Charterhouse of St Anne is a Grade 1 listed building. It was founded in 1381 and is currently being refurbished. It is surrounded by green fields which are located adjacent to the river Sherbourne after it has emerged from flowing under the city.
Coombe Abbey – a bit further out of the city on the way to Brinklow this is a historic hotel set in around 500 acres of parkland. The park is lovely to walk around – with woods and a lakeside to explore and they have also recently opened up a Go Ape venue. The hotel itself offers popular afternoon teas and bawdy mediaeval banquets (the banquets are available for pre-booked groups only).
Shopping in Coventry
Coventry hosts all the major retailers that you would expect from a city. As foodies living in a multi-cultural city, we love that there are all sorts of supermarkets or mini-marts from Asia, Eastern Europe, the Caribbean and Africa. And we are pretty sure that you can buy anything at Coventry market. Located inside a circular building (it took us about 5 years to work out how to leave it at the exit we wanted and we still get a bit lost on occasion) there are stalls for fresh food at great prices and pretty much anything else you might want.
The Best – Or Worst – Road in the World?
Talking of circular things, Coventry’s ring road is one of the world’s smaller ring roads. Indeed it’s so tiny that you can circumnavigate the entire city in less than two minutes. Because the ring road is so teeny cars both enter and leave on the same section of junction, which is usually quite a short distance. This means that it’s something of a challenge for novices to drive on. In fact, we know several people who will drive several miles out of their way to avoid using it. (If you want to avoid it there is a Park and Ride service at War Memorial Park.) But it does work and is hugely convenient. There is a convention: Once on the ring road move to the outer lane unless you are planning to leave at the next exit. When planning to leave at the next junction, move across to the exit lane and exit. If you are about to exit and a car ahead of you is on the junction and planning to enter, slow down and let them enter. Conversely, if you are planning to exit and the car planning to enter is behind you, they should give way. And the same etiquette applies if you are joining the ring road. If you miss your junction you can just go round again – it won’t take long.
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.
A WALK AROUND ALDERNEY – ALONG THE CLIFFS
Continuing the walk around Alderney 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.
A WALK AROUND ALDERNEY – 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.
A WALK AROUND ALDERNEY – FROM THE LIGHTHOUSE BACK TO THE BEACH
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.
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; 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.
To complete the walk around Alderney 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.
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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.
….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. Here are some of the world’s best breakfasts.
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.
One of the world’s best breakfasts is gallo pinto from 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.
Japan also offers some of the world’s best breakfasts. A Japanese brekkie 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.)
World’s Best Breakfasts – Back At Home
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.
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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.
There’s an old saying that ‘a change is as good as a rest,’ which we feel is very appropriate for us because we are absolutely terrible at relaxing when we’re on holiday. We can’t just sit around, we always want to be doing something. Fortunately there are all sorts of unusual UK activity breaks available, from learning a new craft to interacting with amazing animals. Here are five breaks that we’ve thoroughly enjoyed.
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. Amazingly, we were going to build a canoe in three days!
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.
Unusual UK Activity Breaks – 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.
Forge Your Own Birdfeeder at a Traditional Blacksmith’s Forge
At the National Waterways Museum at Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, is another opportunity to take part in an unusual UK activity break. You can join Alex the blacksmith for a day, and learn to use 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, so transporting two long constructions down the M6 motorway wasn’t going to happen (we did this course before we invested in the roof racks). However, Alex managed to adjust the overall length of the birdfeeders 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.
Unusual UK activity breaks -Become a Big Cat Zookeeper for a Day
Dartmoor Zoo in Devon is famous for being the zoo from the film We Bought A Zoo. 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. The idea was 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.
Learn to Play the Japanese Taiko Drum
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.
One of our unusual UK activity breaks was to undertake a course with Mugen Kyo. It 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.