Monday, 27 October 2014

Highgate Woods, London, and O Moinho

Back to Highgate Woods on Sunday, with most of north London also promenading through them. It was a gloomy light that seeped through the trees from a dove-grey sky. In England, there are a thousand different shades of grey days. We had to get out though: as the first day that the clocks go back for winter, it was high in our minds that we'll need to grab all the daylight we can for the next few months.

Today, however, is beautiful. Duck-egg blue sky, not a cloud and the leaves turning gently to brown. Of course, today is also Monday, so public transportation, crowded streets and... I wanted to write: the next 8.5 hours of my life traded for some cash, but that sounds so negative.

Instead, I will tell you about O Moinho, a wonderful Portuguese restaurant we found on Saturday night. Son has recently returned from Vancouver, so we wanted a good catch-up and, also, we had talked about but never actually went to the area of south London known as Little Portugal, because of its tens of thousands of Portuguese immigrants, which first started coming in the 60s and 70s.

At any rate, having failed to make a reservation at the restaurant that was raved about on the internet – and discovering there would be an hour's wait once we got there – we set off for Wandsworth Road, me ringing restaurants en route. Happily, O Moinho had room for four and voila, we were sorted.

Of course, being the only restaurant in Little Portugal was a free table made me a little worried, but there was no need. The food was absolutely delicious, with all the familiar flavours of Portugal, from baccalau to giant shrimp in garlic and oil. The prices were about average for London these days: budget £25 per head if you share starters and stick to one drink a piece. But the portion sizes are immense (see photos), and the staff so smiley and pleasant that it was all an extremely good evening.

What was not so good was hearing about the grilling son and his friend had from Canadian border control: three hours of questioning, which included having their texts read, their phone pictures looked at, and generally made to feel they were being persecuted. Apparently, this is now not an uncommon experience for people entering the country, even for a 12-day visit to family and friends, as they were trying to do. They were finally allowed in, but after a 10-hour flight and a three-hour questioning, they were absolutely worn out and consequently both came down with a lurgy within days of arriving...  Do I blame the border folks? Think I do...

And so to my own travels... I'm off to the UAE on Saturday to do a couple of stories, review stays and write a blog for We Are the City – am also hoping to do my first inspection for Maiden Voyage. It's my first time further east than the Turkish coast, my first time to the Middle East, my first time going to a foreign country I've never been to before On. My. Own. Feel both incredibly excited – I'm staying at some amazing-looking places and will be interacting with and learning about birds of prey, plus I'm looking forward to discovering new countries and meeting new people and finding out about them – and slightly... Well, nervous is too strong, but let's just say it feels as though I am pushing against the boundary of my comfort zone – but this is undoubtedly a good thing!

Will be blogging here too, so watch this space...!

Monday, 13 October 2014

Suffolk coast, England

This wasn't our first musically inspired trip (that was to Canvey Island in Essex, propelled there by 70s band Dr Feelgood – and if you haven't heard of them, then you're missing out on a treat), but it was our first to Dunwich.

Dunwich, I've discovered, is a place that even folks from Suffolk will say of: "Where?" I know this, because a musician friend from this English county said just that when I told her we'd been.

It's a little place and getting littler all the time, as a display in town helpfully points out. Back in the 1500s, it vied with London for title of biggest English port, but you can't argue with the sea, and it's been nibbling away at this spot, slowing eating it up over the centuries so that now, most of it is beneath the waves.

It makes an interesting mind picture, doesn't it? The truth is, as it's gone in inch by inch or, sometimes, foot by foot, you can be sure it doesn't actually look like Atlantis under there. Still, it's an intriguing sort of place and the local history museum is staffed by a friendly bloke who told us that he reckoned the land we were standing on had about another 100 to 150 years before it, too, would be swallowed up.

We spent some of our walk talk discussing whether you could actually get a mortgage for a property in town or whether it would make a good spot to snap up a bargain – just so long as you didn't have your heart set on passing it on – as we made our way inland to Greyfriars.

Now there's a name that, for me, anyway, conjures up another image: of a little dog in an Edinburgh cemetery, but it turns out that Greyfriars was just the name given to those monks who arrived from France in grey robes and so there are Greyfriars all over this land.

If you head through these ruins and past the sheep grazing there, you will eventually arrive at Dunwich Heath, which is very pretty and heath-like.

However, by the time we got there, we'd already walked a long way  – maybe for two or three hours? – since we'd set off that morning from Walberswick, a much-better known coastal village that has presumably sorted out its erosion problems, because one of the things it's famous for is the price of its beach huts. Numbers like 50,000 get bandied about...

Anyhoo! Enough of that, since we didn't stay longer in Walberswick than it took to park the car and find the path to the beach, which we walked along, stopped to rest on and generally enjoyed the amazingly warm sunshine for a British October Sunday from. There were even folks swimming, but then, I've had a little experience swimming on this coast myself and I have a theory about why the water's so warm.

Just along from this point, seen clearly on the horizon (though not in my picture, as it was at my back), is Thorpness Nuclear Power Station. I have it in my head that the water is warm here because it's passed through the cooling chamber there first. This is said only sort of jokingly.

By the time we hit the heath, we were pretty hungry and, even more than hungry, we were tired. We'd spent the previous night in a place that provided such a poor quality of rest that I won't waste time describing it.

However, we did have an absolutely amazing dinner at the Brudenell in Aldeburgh ( If you like seafood, this is your spot. It's very reasonably priced, most (though admittedly, not all) of the seafood is local and the chef is clearly keen on experimenting with the juxtaposition of influences. I had a crab spring roll that was served alongside guacamole and chilli jam, literally bringing together a whole world of flavours. The restaurant is right on the seafront, so there are fabulous views by day and good star gazing from the terrace by night. A definite thumb's up.

And so to lunch at Dunwich's Ship pub  ( Another good 'un, which appears to serve food all day on Sunday, so we were able to enjoy – and I mean that in every sense – quite possibly the best fish and chips I've ever had. Forget greasy, forget heavy, forget wishing you'd ordered something else entirely – this was light, just crunchy enough, with fabulously thick-cut chips on the side. Perfect fodder for an autumn day and to fuel up for the walk back to the car.

This we did slightly inland, so that we ended up walking beside a waterway through the reeds, which have been used for local thatching for generations. It was very beautiful and, at the end of the day, had an almost eerie quality, being very still and lonesome, though we did see a pair of swans. At one point, our path took us further and further into the reeds and onto a path so definitely less travelled and close to the water that we had to turn around and retrace our steps - not really what you want to be doing at the end of hours of walking.

When we finally emerged by some allotments and saw the backs of a row of Walberswick houses, we had the sense of having been saved. Hurrah for civilisation. Or something like that.

We visited plenty of other places – Sutton Hoo, Blythburg Cathedral, Leiston Abbey – but somehow this feels like enough for now. Besides, as Suffolk is officially my FBC (Favourite British County) I don't want to big it up too much or it might get crowded.