Posted in Photography, Travel, Uncategorized

Exploring the quays – Manchester

Last month I took a trip to Manchester to attend the BlogOnX blogging conference and after being a Man United fan for the best part of 30 years the trip was long overdue. I didn’t manage to catch a game while there but I was right next door in the plush Hotel Football having a blast with lots of other lovely bloggers.

During the trip we stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn Hotel down the road from the stadium and decided to make a weekend of it as it was a bank holiday. With our train booked for Monday evening we decided to explore the local area before making our way back to the station.

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After passing the iconic Old Trafford and the canal that runs down the side of it we made our way towards the Salford Quays as we noticed that the Imperial War Museum North was situated next to the river.

When we reached the quays it reminded me a bit of the docklands in London with it’s swanky riverside apartments and lots of glass buildings. The Salford Quays are home to Media city UK, the Lowry shopping mall and a number of other attractions and restaurants.

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We thought it was rather quiet for such a glorious day by the river but after crossing the bridge we realised everyone was on the other side enjoying the sunshine and their lunch on the lush green and taking a dip in a part of the river that had been sectioned off for swimmers.

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If I hadn’t been staying nearby I probably wouldn’t have thought to visit this part of the city and would have looked for attractions in the centre of town, but I’m glad I did as it was a lovely relaxing weekend without all the hustle and bustle of the crowds.

 

Posted in Travel, Uncategorized

Crowne Plaza Hotel – Amsterdam

During our recent trip to Amsterdam, we chose to stay in the Crowne Plaza hotel which is situated quite close to Schiphol airport. We took advantage of the free shuttle bus service to the hotel rather than try to walk as the roads were really busy.

On arrival we had a bit of a wait in the lobby as there were a few people in front of us and although we had already paid before arrival we were asked to pay a city tax charge which came to around €8.00.

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The hotel room had the usual layout of a bedroom and bathroom, neutral décor in a brown and red colour palette and all the amenities we needed, including a comfy chair complete with some tourist magazines and a foot rest and a desk which I had no intention of sitting at. Although there were big windows, there wasn’t much of a view. We overlooked the car park and were mostly surrounded by roads but being five floors up it was probably better than some.

I do like when they leave something a little personal and on top of the huge bed (which we were most impressed with) was a little bottle of lavender sleep spray. There was also a huge dressing gown, but only one which was weird as there was two of us booked in the room!

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The TV showed all the channels so we didn’t miss any of the soaps when we got back after a day of exploring, and tea, coffee and hot chocolate was available, although I’m not really a fan of those tiny milk pots and tend to use them all in one cup.

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The bathroom was pretty basic with a bath rather than a walk in shower but had everything we needed and was clean and fresh.

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There was a restaurant situated just off the lobby and room service available 24 hours but we found it to be quite expensive. On the first night after a busy day visiting Keukenhof gardens we were too tired to go out looking for food so chose to order a takeaway, which the hotel didn’t seem to have a problem with.

The following morning we went to the Royalflora auction in Aalsmeer and the staff were really helpful in giving us directions, although during our stay there were some bus strikes going on so we chose to book an Uber so we didn’t end up stranded in an unfamiliar city.

We didn’t actually spend much time in the hotel but there is a fitness and wellness centre and a shop to pick up all those souvenirs you forgot on your travels.

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It was a comfortable stay, nothing quirky or particularly special but all that we would expect from a large hotel group.

 

 

Posted in Photography, Travel, Uncategorized

Keukenhof gardens – Amsterdam

Keukenhof gardens are situated in Lisse, 30 minutes from Amsterdam airport (a bus service runs continuously during opening hours) and are open to the public annually so visitors can see the amazing flowers that have been grown across the 80 acres of land.

The beautiful spring gardens are open for 8 weeks each year between March and May. I visited at the very end of April and everything was in full bloom. It was a pretty miserable day, raining on and off throughout, but with it being spring you never can tell what the weather will be like! This however didn’t put anyone off visiting, it was heaving with people and the amazing displays certainly brightened up the day.

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The history of Keukenhof

In the 15th century the Keukenhof estate was owned by Countess Jacqueline of Bavaria (Dutch – Jacoba Van Beieren.)  She decided to use the space to grow herbs and vegetables to take back to her castle which is where the name originates from: Kitchen garden.

The Countess lived a very eventful life. She was born in France in 1401 and between 1417 – 1433 became the ruler of Holland, Zeeland and Henegouwen. During her short life of 35 years she was married four times, spent a couple of years in prison, was exiled to England and after being forced to abdicate she withdrew from public life. She died of Tuberculosis not far from Keukenhof a few years later in 1436.

After the death of the countess, the land was passed through the hands of several wealthy merchant families and the design of the English landscape garden was created in 1857 and formed the basis of what the park is today.

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In 2018 the park celebrated it’s 69th anniversary and went with the theme of ‘Romance in Flowers’ I thought this was pretty fitting with it being open right before a royal wedding and all.

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The gardens are huge (we did get lost on more than one occasion) with a large lake in the middle and rivers of water flowing throughout so you often have to walk over small bridges to get around and rest your feet every now and again. There are a total of 280 benches throughout the park and 32 bridges.

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Trees and fountains

For some reason I assumed the gardens would be flat but it was full of rolling hills and enormous trees, even though there were loads of people, there were moments of tranquillity when you strolled through the trees and didn’t notice anybody else around. The calming sounds of the water created an oasis and the there was an array of fountains in different designs to admire. In total there are over 2500 trees in 87 varieties and 15 fountains.

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Sculptures

It is not just the flowers that are on show in the gardens but also around a 100 art objects by different artists dotted about for you to spot on your walks. There is also a maze which we wanted to visit but after realising that the whole park is a bit of a maze we gave up looking for it.

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Restaurants and shops

There are lots of buildings around the park, great to seek refuge when the rain gets too much! The indoor pavilions including Willem-Alexander, Beatrix, Juliana and Oranje Nassau house all sorts, from exhibitions to flower arrangement demonstrations and bulb growing information services as well as 7 souvenir shops and 6 restaurants. The restaurants seemed quite busy and we didn’t eat inside but if you were feeling peckish or just wanted a snack there are pop up eateries all over with everything from burgers to strawberries and cream.

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Windmill

The windmill at Keukenhof is over a century old and was donated to the gardens by the Holland – America line in 1957. Situated at the end of the park, the windmill has great views of the tulip fields across the way. I thought there would be long queues to go up the windmill as there isn’t very much space up there but it moves really quickly as other than looking at the view there isn’t much else to do at the top.

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Child friendly

I didn’t think of Keukenhof as somewhere to bring children as I thought it was just flowers on show and as much as they look pretty they don’t really capture the attention span of the smaller people for very long! I was surprised that on our walk around we came across a large play area, a zip wire, a Miffy house and even a small petting zoo with a variety of animals including pigs, goats and chickens.

Every year the gardens welcome more than a million visitors to Keukenhof and 75% of those are tourists from abroad. Every year the visitor numbers are growing with more people bringing their families and they were recently awarded the Certificate of Excellence from Trip advisor.

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Although there are lots of flowers on show, with over 7 million bulbs planted every year, the tulips are definitely the stars of the show with their variety of vibrant colours and the neat way they are all laid out.

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The tulip is a Dutch icon but hasn’t always been that way. Here is a story of the journey of the tulip…

The tulip travelled far before arriving in the Netherlands. Tulips were originally found in the Tian Shan mountain region of the north-western Himalaya. Dozens of different types in all kinds of colours still grow there each spring. In the 11th Century the Seljuks, who lived there at that time, took the tulip with them to Turkey, where they drove out the Byzantines. The tulip became a cherished flower in Turkish culture, and is still so today. Sultans organised tulip parties each spring. And the most extraordinary tulips were illustrated in beautiful books. Tulips were also depicted on tiles and other household objects.

Dutch trading, including with the then Constantinople, increased towards the middle of the 16th Century. The tulip was a new flower to the Dutch. Botanists such as Dodeneus and Clusius managed to obtain tulip bulbs and by 1560 the first examples were flowering in Antwerp and Mechelen. Clusius was extremely interested in the tulip, wrote a lot about it and, via his network across Europe, maintained a lively barter trade including in tulips. When Carolus Clusius became Hortus Prefectus, or Director, of the Hortus Botanicus in Leiden in 1593, the tulip was one of the things he took with him. This is how the tulip became established in our country.

The purpose of my trip was to take photos for my project on the production of flowers and after seeing the gardens online I was eager to see it in person and so glad that I made the effort! Although it was just a flying visit I also managed to see the auction rooms at Aalsmeer Royalflora and the press photo exhibition in the city centre so it was quite a productive trip. (I still want to go back and see so much more!)

If you think you may want to visit Keukenhof when it reopens next Spring, it will be open from March 21st – May 19th with the annual flower parade taking place on April 13th. For opening times and prices see the official site closer to the time.

Posted in Photography, Travel, Uncategorized

World Press Photo – Dam Square

I am a bit of a sucker for a photography exhibition so while recently in Holland working on my own photography project, I had to take the opportunity to visit the World Press Photo exhibition in the stunning setting of De Nieuwe Kerk in Dam Square.

World Press Photo is an international press photo contest featuring over 160 photos by 42 press photographers, many of which were taken at events that shook the world and featured heavily on the news but also some that documented incidents that I hadn’t previously read about.

As the walls were not suitable for displaying the large scale images, they were mostly hung from wires attached to the ceiling or on wooden display units on the floor.

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One of the images that stood out to me was Earth Kiln (below) by Li Huaifeng. It is of two brothers that live in a cave that has been cut out of a hillside in central China. As well as the interesting story, the photograph has an artistic effect and I actually thought it was a painting.

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As well as photos there was  also a digital storytelling contest with some really interesting documentary films on show. One of the films I found captivating was 30 videos all edited together to create a 10 minute timeline mapping the Las Vegas massacre.

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I was really impressed with the work on show and glad I made the effort to travel into Amsterdam city centre to pay it a visit. If you happen to be in the area up to 22nd of July and you are a fan of photography then you may want to check it out! Tickets cost €11.00 and entry is free for under 11s. There are also concessions available.

Posted in Photography, Travel, Uncategorized

Aalsmeer flower auction – Holland

 

I recently took a trip to Holland (the hub of the flower industry) to work on my photography project, looking into the production and importation of flowers, and was pointed in the direction of Aalsmeer by the lovely Catie who lives not too far away.

Aalsmeer (also known as Royal Flora Holland) is the largest trade centre for flowers in the world, described as a portal to a world full of scent and bloom, it is open to the public on certain days so they can take a look at the amount of work that goes into ensuring fresh flowers are available in your local supermarket whenever you feel like purchasing them.

A statement from Royal Flora…

FloraHolland is a cooperative venture belonging to the growers of flowers and plants. They bring their supply together to perform a single international trade platform, the largest of its kind anywhere in the world. The members/growers are the owners of this company. We are also a ‘Royal’ firm and have been ever since our centenary in 2011 when FloraHolland was presented with the royal title.

On arriving at FloraHolland we were met with coach loads of tourists queueing at the door which I was quite surprised about because compared to other flower attractions in Holland, particularly Keukenhof, this was not advertised anywhere. As you enter the reception area you can purchase tickets priced at 7.50 euros and receive a map, although this isn’t really needed as the route is very straight forward.

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You are basically on a viewing platform above the market floor in the form of a bridge which you walk the length of the building and back again on the opposite side. It is quite a surreal experience to just be watching normal people go about their daily work and you do wonder if they are aware, or care, that people are watching and taking photos of them. At the same time, for the sheer size of the place, I did feel like I was at one of the wonders of the world and really intrigued by the whole process.

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Along the journey we came across a room that is used for research purposes and was filled with flowers. A guy saw us taking photos outside and asked if we would like to have a look around inside, which we were privileged to do so as it is not open to the public. He explained that they are sent new crops of flowers that haven’t as yet been grown for sale and they test them to see how they react to certain lights and temperatures and give them a value depending on their life span and quality.

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As you reach the other end of the bridge you can see the auctions taking place through the windows, unfortunately they were not in full swing when we arrived but there were still a few people bidding on flowers so we got to observe the process.

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After we had watched the bidding and had a bite to eat in the small café we made our way back down the other side of the bridge. As we reached the end of the viewing platform, there was a room that looked like a museum that gave out some information about the history of FloraHolland through videos and photographs and some statistics on the industry via posters.

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If you are a fan of flowers then this is a great place to visit, it is different to other attractions as all the behind the scenes action is the actual show. There is nothing fancy or put on about it and it is a bit dated but I found it to be a real spectacle and so glad I visited. I also purchased some tulip bulbs from the gift shop so I can think of my trip when they grow in the garden.

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Posted in London, Travel, Uncategorized

National Gallery – Trafalgar Square

The National Gallery is hard to miss as it takes pride of place at the top of the steps at Trafalgar square, with free entry and a vast amount of artwork on show it is no surprise that it is listed as the number one thing to do in London on Trip advisor!

I have visited the National Gallery once before but I was photographing an evening event so didn’t get much time to peruse the rooms. So as I was recently killing some time around the area I thought I would pop in and see what all the fuss was about.

There are some really beautiful pieces in the collection and the gallery is huge, I didn’t actually get a chance to make it the whole way round so will need to make another visit in the future! As you enter on the ground floor there is a map to help you find your way around, these are also dotted around the gallery and as it is a bit of a maze they are quite useful.

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The architecture of the gallery itself is also like a piece of artwork with high ceilings and beautiful ornate windows, it seems like the perfect home for some of the great masterpieces!

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I arrived at the museum as it was opening and there was already a queue outside but as it is so big inside and you can wander as you wish, rather than following a path, you may find yourself as the only person in the room. I imagine later in the day it gets really busy but the rooms are spacious and the seating is pretty fancy compared to the plain benches you normally see in gallery spaces.

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The National gallery is home to over 2300 pieces of art and they date from the mid 13th century to 1900 so more for the lover of classical art rather than the modern stuff. They do however play host to temporary exhibitions if you prefer something more modern. At the moment they are showing Tacita Dean: Still life which is a collection of mixed media including paintings, video and sound, displayed between two rooms. Unfortunately you cannot photograph this collection but you are free to photograph the rest of the gallery provided you don’t use flash.

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I would say whether you are a tourist or a Londoner you should definitely take advantage of the amazing collection of art from some of the most iconic artists of all time. Although I am a fan of modern art I can’t help but marvel at the talent of these artist for what they created during their period.

Which is your go to gallery to see great artwork?

Posted in Lifestyle, Travel, Uncategorized

Summer activities with National Citizen Service

The summer holidays are approaching and if your kids are anything like mine they will be complaining from day one that they are bored but not interested in going to any of the places you suggest. If like me you also have a child in year 11 you will know that the summer holidays are even longer than usual as they undertake their GCSE exams and will need something to keep them busy before embarking on new adventures come September.

I first heard about National Citizen Service (NCS) a few weeks ago when my daughter was told about it at school, a few of her friends have already signed up and she is still contemplating it, her biggest worry is that she wont know anybody that goes at the same time as her. My 19 year old daughter says one of her biggest regrets was not signing up to NCS. She didn’t even tell me about it when she left school because she wasn’t interested in going but loads of her friends went and still rave about it and meet up with people that they met on the residential and she feels like she missed out on a great opportunity!

So you are probably wondering what NCS is?

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What is NCS and how does it work?

NCS is a 4 – 6 week programme aimed at 15 – 17 year olds where they come together in their local community to build life skills and take part in a residential trip full of adventure. The programme is split into 4 phases:

  • PHASE 1 – ADVENTURE
A five-day, four-night residential based away from home with fun activities such as canoeing, rock climbing and abseiling. A chance to meet new people and enjoy some adventure, fun and freedom!
  • PHASE 2 – DISCOVERY
A further 5 days and four nights in a uni-style environment where you’ll develop life skills like confidence, leadership and communication to boost your CV or UCAS personal statement.
  • PHASE 3 – ACTION
Working in teams, you’ll put your new skills into practice by delivering a community project of your choice. Plan, fundraise, make a difference!
  • PHASE 4 – CELEBRATION
You and your mates will get together to celebrate your achievements. NCS opens up a world of opportunities, giving you exclusive access to work placements, volunteering and events
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We all know that it is easy for teenagers to get caught up in certain crowds and with individuals that we may not think is a great influence or our little cherubs and many people complain that government cuts mean there is nowhere for their kids to go to pass time and enjoy themselves. NCS is a government backed scheme and was established to help build a more cohesive, mobile and engaged society. NCS helps them to become better individuals, and in turn better citizens by bringing young people from different backgrounds to share in this unique experience.
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It is inevitable that there will be marathon sessions of FIFA or Fortnight and probably binge watching a few Netflix series but if you want to get your teen off the sofa this summer then checkout the NCS website where you can sign up! There are still plenty of places available and you can fit it around other commitments over the summer such as family holidays. This year more than 100,000 teenagers from different backgrounds will come together in common purpose on NCS. That means one in six of the cohort of 16 year olds will live together, develop skills together and build community projects together.

So I imagine you are wondering how much it costs to keep a teenager busy for four whole weeks?

Well this is the good part… It’s £50!

Yes £50 includes all food, activities and accommodation, probably less than you spend on one days childcare, and bursaries are also available on a case by case basis. More than 400,000 teenagers have already taken part in this government backed scheme since it started in 2011 and I am off to try and convince my daughter that taking part is going to be so much more fun than me dragging her around all the museums in London over summer.

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*written in collaboration with National Citizen Service and all images provided by them
Posted in London, Travel, Uncategorized

Travel Show – ExCel London

 

We descended on the Excel centre in London last week to visit our first ever travel show. I wasn’t sure what to expect but was hoping to get some inspiration for places to travel to in the future and hopefully get some information about countries that we are already planning a holiday to this year.

We were blown away by how massive the Excel Centre is and the travel show only took up a small space within it. We thought the room that held the Travel Show was really large but soon found out that most of it was actually taken up by the Bike Show so the Travel Exhibition wasn’t as big as expected and didn’t take too long to walk around.

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There was a talk about cruises on but we had already missed the beginning so didn’t stick around to listen, we also came across chef Lesley Waters cooking up a storm and talking about her own travel experiences. As well as looking at destinations there was a few hands on activities such as getting a massage, playing some crazy golf and trying out the seating with Singapore airlines, including the very plush booths which are like tiny hotel rooms.

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Unfortunately we didn’t come across any representatives for Holland or Dominican Republic as we are planning on visiting both places this year and would have liked some information but we enjoyed perusing between countries and came away with the desire to go travelling around Africa and Canada by rail as they both looked amazing from the photos!

We were not expecting to see holidays for sale but there were two really good offers to stay in Scotland and Malta for £99 per person, these looked like amazing opportunities but with a large family we like to research where we are going beforehand and have a good read of small print and these unfortunately had to be booked on the spot.

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The travel show is really useful if you are free to jet off  at the drop of a hat and need inspiration or want to speak to certain tourists boards, some were a bit more approachable and friendly than others. We left the Travel Show with lots of brochures to look through and ideas of places to travel to in the future!

Where are you planning to go this year?

Posted in London, Travel, Uncategorized

The Cumberland Hotel – Marble Arch

I mentioned in my post – 10 places to visit in London  that I have never had the opportunity to stay in a hotel in London as I have always lived here so it was something on my list of things to do this year. We decided that Valentines day would be the perfect time to have an overnight stay somewhere special so arranged a night at The Cumberland Hotel in Marble Arch.

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The Cumberland is situated right opposite Marble Arch at the end of Oxford Street so a great location to see all the landmarks of the West End and a perfect position if you are planning a shopping trip, I saw loads of people that seemed to be from overseas carrying large Primark bags so that is obviously a popular choice for tourists.

As you walk into the hotel you are greeted with a wide open lobby space, it does look nice but I got the feeling that it was a bit wasted with a seating area on one side and nothing on the other.

We were told that our room was on the sixth floor and that it had just recently been refurbished so we were keen to see what it looked like!

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The Cumberland is part of the Guoman chain of hotels and has over 1000 rooms. The hallways seem to go on forever and I could easily get lost in here after drinking one too many! When we reached our room we were pleased to see it was nice and spacious and looked very clean and comfortable. It was a bit chilly but we soon worked out how to set the air conditioning on to heat the room up although this was quite loud so didn’t keep it on for too long.

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The room did have everything we needed (there was coffee in the drawer) but I felt it lacked a bit of character, this might be because it was just refurbished but it seemed to suit someone that was just staying over on business and didn’t have any personal touches.

The one thing I was most disappointed about was that I was imagining a long soak in a bubble bath with music playing (imagine Julia Roberts in Pretty woman but without the prostitution) only to find that there was no bath! There was a shower that squirted water from different directions but I actually almost froze to death being squirted with cold water while I worked out how to use it. It was also a shame that the view just overlooked other windows in the hotel as I imagine you could see some pretty interesting things along Oxford Street at night.

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Although the rooms seem to lack any sort of decoration, there was loads of pieces of art to see around the hotel. On our stroll down to breakfast, which was actually quite a walk, we admired the surroundings of the space which included sculptures and charcoal drawings.

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When we eventually reached the dining space we were shown to a table and told that the breakfast is self service and we could chose between cooked or continental. I must say there was so much on offer and I imagined having a large cooked breakfast but as with any opportunity to eat as much as I like I suddenly don’t have a very large appetite! I opted for pastries and muffin with waffles and pancake on the side, while the OH (who is currently a vegetarian) had scrambled eggs with mushrooms and beans which he enjoyed so much he went back for seconds.

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We had a really good sleep, the room was comfy, the amazing choice of breakfast was great and we enjoyed our time at The Cumberland but it felt a bit too basic to be a four star establishment, I feel like that little something special was missing.

Prices for The Cumberland are currently from £129 a night, we were lucky enough to get a friend and family discount as my daughter’s boyfriend works there (it’s not what you know, it’s who and all that!)

We would love to compare some other hotels in London, where is your favourite place to stay in the capital?

Posted in Lifestyle, London, Travel, Uncategorized

A ghostly walk in the City of London

When I was younger I loved all things ghostly, read the books and watched the horror movies but with age I find that the littlest things can keep me awake at night so I tend to avoid anything gruesome. I have however always wanted to go on a ghost walk around London and with it being on my list of places to visit this year, I couldn’t put it off any longer.

After Googling London Ghost walks I came across tours by Richard Jones. He has been in the business since 1982 and written 18 books on London and the paranormal so seemed like the perfect person to show us around the haunted sights of the city.

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As expected, churchyards played a big role in the tour and we passed many grave stones with Richard telling us stories of the chilling encounters of the long departed. Dressed as a Victorian undertaker and with the voice of a seasoned professional storyteller he really captured the attention of the audience. I was accompanied by my 19 year old daughter and was a bit worried that we might be alone on this walk but there was a really good crowd of people and Richard’s tours are obviously very popular.

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One of the sights we learned about was The Old Bailey where many men have been sent to their deaths, as well as a court house it also used to be home to The Newgate prison and execution site. The Viaduct Tavern over the road is thought to be one of the most haunted in London, if you buy a drink when it is not busy they may show you the cellar and if you buy a few they may just lock you in there!

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Onto Cock Lane and coincidently this was one of the first roads that prostitution was legalised, it was however made famous by the Cock lane ghost who occupied one of the apartments after William Kent’s wife died in childbirth but was this all a hoax or did people really see her?

A short walk over the road and we reached the place that all Sherlock Holmes fans will be familiar with at St Bartholomew’s hospital. I am more familiar with the hospital after spending many of my teenage years visiting the orthodontists in there. At 15 I remember having an operation and waking up in a room with eight beds but I was the only person there, it was quite spooky and it wasn’t any less spooky on this trip!

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I didn’t realise that there was a museum at the hospital but with it being founded 895 years ago I imagine there is a lot of history to be learnt about it. It is also the only place where you will still find these boxes collecting for the poor. Apparently the money was used to treat the poor in the hospital when they couldn’t afford medical care so it was mostly filled by the poor who were constantly worried about getting sick and not being able to get treatment.

As you leave the hospital towards Smithfield’s market you enter a large grass area which was used as an execution site, many people including William Wallace aka Braveheart faced his death here and it was reported that Bloody Queen Mary would watch from the Tudor building in the photo as she burnt people on the stakes.

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Our tour ended at the last surviving remains of London‘s old Roman and Medieval city wall. It is quite fascinating to see this wall that was damaged in the war with a backdrop of the cities newly built glass office buildings. Reports of ghostly sightings and sounds are often reported in the area.

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I wouldn’t say our ghostly walk was particularly scary but more of a historical lesson. I am usually supportive of old spaces being regenerated but feel a lot more appreciative of the history that is held in certain locations.

I have just touched on a few things that were covered in the tour and although it was cold and tiring on your legs I would highly recommend for anyone interested in the history of the city to take one of Richard’s tours around London.