Tales of Travel: Leaving London

The decision to leave London was one that we made early in 2009.

Everything started to fall into place when Tall was head-hunted back by the company he’d worked for prior to us leaving Dunedin. He’d already put them off once, but with the doom-and-gloom recession starting to hit New Zealand, he recognised he was lucky to have received such an offer.

Flights to South America for one final jaunt on the way home booked and paid for, we then found out I was pregnant with Tiny. A few weeks of tears and “should we? shouldn’t we?” later, we both handed in our resignations, and began the process of packing up our lives and preparing to leave the country that had been home for almost two-and-a-half years.


I knew that the hardest part about leaving would be saying good-bye to my sister and her family (they stayed in England for a few more months longer), and to the wonderful friends I’d made. But I always knew we wouldn’t stay indefinitely, and that my sister would head back to Melbourne, and I knew that I would always keep in touch with those friends who really mattered. So instead of spending our last few months thinking about what we were leaving behind, we chose to make the most of our time and made sure we saw and did all those things we’d been putting off.

Picnic at Hampstead Heath with my sister and family

Things like visiting museums and galleries, going to see The Phantom of the Opera and having a picnic at Hampstead Heath.

Brighton Pier

Visiting Brighton, taking last strolls for squirrel watching around Hyde and St James’ Parks, and having one last shopping spree on Oxford Street and the maze of streets in Covent Garden.

Course four at Le Gavroche – scallops cooked with ginger, oh my!

Going out for a fancy eight course Michelin-star meal at Le Gavroche, and having “last drinks” at the various pubs we’d spent so much time in over the past couple of years.

Squirrel!! I love squirrels.

There were tears – copious amounts of them – and hugs I never wanted to end, and promises of keeping in touch. There were removal men collecting our boxes for shipping home, and strangers collecting items we’d sold on eBay. There were new tenants to take over our lease, goods to be donated to Oxfam, and food to be used up.

And suddenly, it was the 1st of November, and we were in a taxi in the driving rain, on our way to Heathrow Airport. The tears had dried up, and the excitement and anticipation of eight weeks in South America had set in.


Tales of Travel: Scotland

May Bank Holiday weekend, 2009. The weather in London was scorching hot. We went to Scotland.

It rained.

After a night in an Edinburgh hotel with the worst food in the history of the world (for once, I was compelled to complain, and they sent us a letter apologising for the shoddy food! Really, who smothers delicious Scottish salmon in a jar of tomato pasta sauce??!), we wandered around this gorgeous city amidst legions of (mostly drunk) Leinster and Liecester rugby fans who were in the city for some important final match.

It was slightly surreal to be walking up George Street and onto Hanover Street/Leith Street/Heriot Row/Moray Place, and we could see why Dunedin’s settlers called it the Edinburgh of the South – the views looking out across the city and down the harbour were so familiar to us.

Edinburgh Castle

We went for a wander through the Princes Street Gardens which separate the old and new towns, and played like little kids in the Camera Obscura illusion rooms. The Royal Mile was full of old and quirky shops and pubs, and Edinburgh Castle was an awesome sight perched atop the craggy hill at the end of the mile.

Illusions inside Camera Obscura

We caught a bus back to the airport to pick up our rental car; usually the journey takes 25 minutes, but we were driving through the rugby-going hordes so it took a lot longer! They made for amusing drive-by entertainment though, especially the ones being told off by a little old lady for peeing against the wall of the building next to her cottage! Once we’d picked up Flossie, our rental car, we cruised on up to Inverness.

John O’Groats to Bluff!

Compared to Edinburgh, Inverness was grey and boring, a little chavvy and a little depressing. The next day, we drove up to John O’Groats, the northernmost point of mainland UK – the coastline was very reminiscent of New Zealand, speckled with gorse bushes and rugged beaches. There wasn’t much to see at the top, unsurprisingly, so we took a couple of photos and then drove on. We headed across the top of Scotland, stopping in Caithness for the Castle of Mey (the late Queen Mother’s residence in Scotland – definitely one for the scone-toting oldies!) and somewhere near Durness for lunch…which at 3pm on a Sunday in Scotland was coffee and cake at the only café open for miles! Almost out of petrol, we had to detour to the only 24hr petrol pump around, then drove back down Loch Shin, through rugged, yet beautiful green and lush hillside. It may have been raining, but that only made the scenery even more dramatic.

That night, we made the potentially fatal decision to eat in our hotel again….and ended up having the most amazing meal, which Tall still talks about now, three years on!

Castle Urquhart and Loch Ness

On our last day, we drove down the mists of Loch Ness in search of Nessie (but she was away for the long weekend), stopping at the ruins of Castle Urquhart which is on the edge of the loch. The setting was very dramatic and eerie, with the mists rolling across the lake. We carried on down to Fort William and onto Crieff, where we went to the Glenturret Distillery. The tour was interesting, and we met possibly the laziest – and fattest – distillery cat in the world. Her predecessor, Towser, was 24 years old when she died, and currently holds the Guinness World Record as the world’s best mouser. I can’t stand whisky, but Tall tasted a wee dram, with minimal facial scrunching. Then it was back to the airport, bidding a fond farewell to Flossie and bonny Scotland.

So it was sunny in London. Pah. Scotland wouldn’t be the same without a bit of rain, would it?

Tales of Travel: Living in London

Before leaving on our New-YorkNew-ZealandThailand adventure, we’d moved out of our St Albans flat – in deep, deep snow, no less (in fact, the morning we flew to NYC, we trudged from my sister’s house to the train station, in deep, deep snow…)! We spent a couple of weeks selling things on eBay and putting everything else into storage; it was scary how much stuff we’d accumulated in less than two years!

Snow at our front door…

Arriving back in England, we headed back to St Albans to stay with my sister while we looked for a new place to live; conscious of the fact that she had two young children, we wasted no time in figuring out what areas of London we’d consider living in, and set about the daunting task of trawling through ‘Flatmates Wanted’ ads online.

Tall was going to be commuting to St Albans six days a week (five for work, one to play cricket for Wheathampstead), so we needed to be near the Thameslink trainline. Our search, therefore, started in West Hampstead and nearby suburbs – the perfect spot with the train station for Tall, a good tube line to the centre of London for me, and loads of great pubs, bars and restaurants.

The first flat we looked at was in Swiss Cottage, a 10 minute walk from West Hampstead train and tube stations. It was on the third floor of a Victorian terrace, in a quiet street close to Finchley Road and not far from Hampstead Heath. The bedroom was huge, the lounge was even bigger, and the bathroom and kitchen were ginormous by English standards. The flatmates who were staying in the flat just happened to be a young kiwi couple, and we hit it off at that first meeting; she was huge fan of cooking shows on TV (yey for me!) and he was a massive Arsenal fan (yey for Tall!). We fell in love with the flat straight away, but had arranged to view another the same evening.

Swiss Cottage

That second flat was in West Hampstead itself, five minutes from the train and tube stations. The room was small but had a modern ensuite and a separate closet, and the rest of the flat was very tidy and had been recently redecorated….and the flatmates who were staying in the flat were – you guessed it – a young kiwi couple!

Knowing how quickly nice flats get snaffled up in London, we knew we had to make a decision immediately. That night, I called the first flat to say we were keen to take the room; it was tough situation as we didn’t want to seem too eager and scare them off, or too nonchalant and have them give the room to someone else. Luckily, we made a good impression, and they immediately agreed; the flat was ours!

Five days later, we were taking all our belongings out of storage and moving in to the flat that would be our home for the next seven months.

Tales of Travel: Windsor

One wintery Saturday in December 2008, my friend Jess and I took a train from the grey, concrete jungle of London to the rolling green pastures of….well….just out of London, to Windsor.

(That's fake snow)

Windsor is a beautiful town, with cobbled streets and gorgeous old buildings, a crooked pub and quaint little stores (as well as the usual high street offerings). We spent some time just wandering in and out of shops and alleyways….and watching as Santa’s sleigh was pulled down the main street by reindeer.

We had lunch in a traditional English pub that specialised in pies; the ceilings were low and the decor didn’t seem to have changed since the 1700s, but the pies were really tasty and were washed down with crisp New Zealand sauvignon blanc.

Windsor Castle

After lunch, we wandered back up to Windsor Castle. The castle is simply beautiful, and the interiors were opulent and elegant and so very regal. It was amazing to think that we were walking the same carpets (mostly) as Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Queen Mary.

Queen Mary’s dolls house was a highlight – the detail and craftmanship were phenomenal – and St George’s Chapel (burial place of 10 monarchs) was beautiful.

St George's Chapel

We could have toured Eton, or visited Ascot, but chose instead to take a relaxed approach to our visit; we both wanted to see the castle most of all, and once we’d seen that, we were quite content to jump back on a train bound for London.

All-in-all, Windsor was a great choice for a day trip from the capital – easy to get to, easy to navigate, easy to enjoy.

Tales of Travel: Plymouth

When Easter 2008 rolled around, Tall and I decided we couldn’t really afford to go anywhere in Europe, but we wanted to do something. Having planned the last couple of trips, he proclaimed that it was my turn to sort this one out.

I decided we were going to Plymouth.

Plymouth is on the southern coast of England, in Devon. Why I decided we should stay there, I do not know to this day, but we often laugh about it as being one of those trips best forgotten.

When we arrived at the B&B, our host ushered us into a chintzy, country-cottage-style room, and heaped praise upon the various dining establishments in the city. “Huuuuuge portions”, he crowed, gesturing wildly with his hands. “Huuuuuge!”

Plymouth Hoe

With hope in our hearts, we set out to explore the city. It was incredibly windy, but we wandered our way to Plymouth Hoe, stopping briefly for ice cream on the way. Once there, we climbed to the top of Smeaton’s Tower, a lighthouse originally built in 1759 that was dismantled and rebuilt on the Hoe in 1877. The views were pretty impressive, but we almost got blown from the top which isn’t so much fun for two people with a fear of heights!

Smeaton's (tiny little) Tower

That night was a Saturday, during a holiday weekend. We wandered the cobbled streets of the area known as The Barbican, but every restaurant and cafe was full. Finally we found a half-empty restaurant that said they could “squeeze” us in before the rush (which never came); lucky us.

The restaurant was called Pizzaghetti; perhaps the name of the place should have forewarned us of the quality of the food on offer. Tall’s pizza was undercooked all over, except for the bottom which was charred black. I ordered a pasta dish – I can’t even remember what it was, it was that bad. Bland, unseasoned, with terribly over-cooked supposedly-fresh pasta. I kept spooning on parmesan cheese, in the hopes that this would improve the flavour. It didn’t. The only redeeming factor was the garlic bread to start, and the two bottles of Italian red we consumed to help us digest our food.

The next day, we took a train inland to The Eden Project, in Cornwall. This was awesome! It’s a huge area of gardens and exhibits focussing on conservation, regeneration, education, and our impact on the natural world. Walking down into the valley was like walking into a movie set; the domes suddenly rising out of the earth seemed alien and eerie.

The Eden Project

Inside the Rainforest Biome

The Rainforest Biome was our favourite place on such a cold day – it was a toasty 28degC inside – and I loved the Mediterranean Garden with its tulips and spice plants and olive trees.

Tulips in the Mediterranean Garden

On our final day in Plymouth, we decided to visit the famous Pilgrim Steps, where the Mayflower set off for the far-off land of America. There are steps and an inscription, but not much else, so it was a bit of a disappointment.

Afterwards, we stopped in The Barbican for the worst fish and chips EVER, then Tall dragged me onto a boat that cruised the harbour, looking at important (and boring) naval sights, ships and lots of guns.

If maritime history is your thing, Plymouth might be just the ticket. For us, however, it was a bit of a joke, and it ended up costing just as much as if we’d gone somewhere into Europe.

Needless to say, I was off the hook for planning the next holiday ;o)

NB: our camera battery died again, so the poor quality photos of The Eden Project are from my mobile phone. You’d have thought we’d have learned our lesson, but nooooo!

Tales of Travel: St Albans

St Albans, a twenty-minute fast train north of London, was our home from February 2008 until February 2009. Tall’s job was there, and my commute from outside of London to Piccadilly Circus was still shorter than most of my colleagues’ who lived in London-proper. We lived in a simple but sizeable one-bedroom flat near the train station, and just a 10 minute walk from the town centre. There were a trillion pubs and a gazillion Indian takeaways within a 500 metre radius, and when my sister et al. moved to England in June 2008, I found them a lovely house to rent that was conveniently only 15 minutes walk away. Plus we could leave home, jump on a northbound train and be ready to board an international flight from Luton Airport in under an hour.

St Albans is an historic market city with a population of around 70,000. Given its proximity to the capital, and more “rural” surroundings, it’s considered a commuter’s town, and peak-time trains are always packed to full capacity. On days when there are train strikes, or when extreme heat or extreme cold affects the tracks…getting to and from St Albans could take some time!

St Albans Cathedral

Voted in at the “Mayfair” spot in a revised Monopoly game in 2007, St Albans is an affluent city with a rich history. It was settled in pre-Roman times, and once the Romans arrived, was known as Verulamium. It was renamed St Albans after Saint Alban, the first British Christian martyr, was beheaded there in AD308 (for refusing to give up his beliefs, as ordered by the emperor at the time). His remains are said to be enshrined in St Albans Cathedral, which is a beautiful old church with expansive grounds that are a popular picnic place in the summer.

The old city walls in Verulamium Park

Evidence of St Albans’ Roman history is everywhere, from the old city walls and amphitheatre in Verulamium Park, to the mosaic floors showcased in the St Albans Museum. The park is a wonderful recreational space, with sports grounds, a gorgeous lake (which freezes over every winter and is turned into an ice skating rink), and a myriad of paths to meander along.

The amphitheatre in Verulamium Park

On the edge of the park is “Ye Olde Fighting Cocks“, a fantastic little pub that is said to be (one of) the oldest in Britain, built some time in the 8th-Century – tall people should remember to duck their heads! They serve a very tasty Pimms cocktail, and their meals are amazing – although every time we ate there, I could never go past the delicious ploughman’s lunch (hold the pickled onions, thanks!). It’s a dog-friendly pub, and is always, always packed at a Sunday lunchtime.

The lake in Verulamium Park

The Saturday market is a bit of an institution; no visit to St Albans would be complete without strolling the main street, looking for a bargain or buying fresh produce – the cries of “Pound-a-bowl” are forever ingrained in my memory – and they regularly hold a French market where you can buy the most amazing duck salami and the ooziest, stinkiest soft cheeses imaginable.

St Albans is well worth the trip if you’re ever in London; catching a fast train from St Pancras Station is the easiest way of getting there, and you’ll be glad you made the effort. We can also recommend it as a place to live, even if you’re working in London, and really enjoyed our year living there.

Tales of Travel: Cambridge

Cambridge. Outside of the UK, best known for being home to one of the world’s oldest universities. And punting on the river.

But there’s so much more to this little city. It’s full of beautiful old buildings, including Holy Sepulchre, one of only four round medieval churches left in England. Holy Sepulchre was originally built in about 1130AD, but much of it was rebuilt in the 1840s due to a partial collapse. It’s no longer used as a place of worship, but is open for visitors, and it’s a really fascinating building, inside and out.

There are parks and forests and green spaces to walk and cycle around, and the river winds its way through the city, creating a myriad of pathways leading through historic neighbourhoods and student-y areas.

There are bars and pubs and cafes everywhere you look – typical of any university town – and the usual high street shops. But the main shopping area of Cambridge still manages to maintain an historic feel, with an eclectic mix old buildings old and new.

We spent our first English Christmas in Cambridge, with Tall’s sister and a handful of other kiwis, and returned a few months later for a day trip with my sister and her tribe. It’s definitely worth a visit especially on a warm spring day, when you can get lost between coffees, ambling down any path that takes your fancy.

Tales of Travel: Cardiff

We visited Cardiff on a whim, one chilly weekend in December 2007. Tall and I were suffering a little from cabin fever in our first English winter, and decided that a cheap weekend away would be just the ticket.

We loaded up our trusty old car – Gordy, named after Tall’s grandfather’s favourite 10am tipple – and drove south-west, across the border into Wales. It was probably just our imagination, but the temperature seemed to drop a few degrees the closer we got to Cardiff, and by the time we arrived, Gordy’s seat warmers had had a pretty good workout.

Cardiff is quite a small capital city (the population is just over 340,000), and is really easy to get around both by car and on foot. The central shopping district was quite compact and the shopping wasn’t too bad. The Christmas Markets were in full swing, and to this day, Tall and I both drool in remembrance of the spit-roasted hog sandwiches we devoured there. Best roast pork ever. Seriously.

Cardiff Castle

We took a tour of Cardiff Castle, which was rumoured to once be the home of King Arthur, and “admired” the interior design by William Burges. I say “admired” because we found it all a bit fussy and gaudy, but apparently he was very influential in the 19th Century. At night, the outer walls of the castle were adorned with twinkling coloured lights, which I’m sure would have made Burges proud.

Butes Park

Next to the castle is Butes Park, named for the family who own the castle. We took a brisk stroll along some of the myriad of walkways criss-crossing the park, and really did admire some of the pagan relics.

Welsh National History Museum

One of the girls from our hostel suggested we drive 15 minutes out of town to St Fagans, home of the (free) Welsh National History Museum. This is an open-air museum set on 100 acres of land that was gifted to the people of Wales by the owner of St Fagans Castle. They’ve rescued many old buildings from all over Wales and lovingly relocated and restored them for the public to see how Welsh life was lived many many moons ago. The day was incredibly foggy and due to low visitor numbers, the museum was very quiet and the atmosphere was eerie as we wandered around. It was definitely worth a lengthy visit, and well-worth making the trip out of town.

We never made it back to Wales, but enjoyed this little taste. The Welsh truly are the friendliest, and we hope to go back one day to spend a bit more time exploring the other regions.

Tales of Travel: London 1.0

Visiting London and living in London are two completely different experiences. So instead of one all-encompassing (and epic) post about the English capital, I’m going to spread my tales out a little.

Being a tourist in London can be a daunting experience, especially when you’re not used to living in a big city. If I’d arrived straight from Dunedin, I think I would have been more than a little overwhelmed when I arrived. Having spent two months in Melbourne, however, I was used to the crowds and the noise and the sheer number of sights that a big city throws at you.

Tall and I spent four days in London when we were first reunited. We stayed in a nice hotel in a pretty dodgy area. This was actually a good introduction to the workings of the city, as well as its inhabitants – I certainly had my eyes opened by some of the things we saw and heard.

We spent most of our time walking around the centre of London. We wandered from Trafalgar Square to Parliament, and marvelled at Big Ben (which is big. Very Big). We wandered along South Bank, across the Millenium Bridge to the Tate Modern and The Globe Theatre. We walked past the London Eye and decided not to join the queue of people waiting for a ride, choosing instead to stroll along the side of the Thames. We joined the crowds outside Buckingham Palace, and remarked how we expected it to be grander, and we wandered down to admire St Paul’s Cathedral.

We spent a lot of time holding hands and regaling each other with tales from the eight weeks we’d been apart. We skipped lunch, in a bid to save money (thank goodness for breakfast buffets), and found cheap restaurants for dinner. We thought we were so English, eating curry and drinking ale, and we tried our best to blend in.

On our second visit to London, we went to Wimbledon. Even though there was no one else around, one of the marshals made us “queue” so we could earn our “I queued at Wimbledon” stickers. We shared strawberries and cream, but couldn’t afford a glass of champagne or Pimms. We’d splashed out on Court Two tickets instead, and enjoyed watching relatively unknown players such as Novak Djokovic and Ana Ivanovic.

We were enjoying spending time with friends and Tall’s cousins, but were acutely aware that neither of us had jobs, and that we were mowing through our savings at an alarming rate. So we reluctantly bought tickets for the train back to Market Rasen, and headed back to Greenwood House and gin at 10am.

Melanzane alla parmigiana

I’m pretty sure that when Elizabeth Barrett Browning penned “How Do I Love Thee?“, she was writing about aubergines. In fact, I’m also sure that there’s a missing line that goes something like:

I love thee eggplant, melongene, melanzane and brinjal,
guinea squash, or as best known: simple aubergine.

We truly do love aubergines, and when they come into season (starting now – wheeeeeee!), I tend to go a little nuts and use them in every possible (and probably some impossible) meal.

Tall was raised on a cattle farm, and went to an all-boys’ boarding school. I probably don’t need to point out that the idea of a meatless meal is about as appealing to him as having his armpit hairs plucked out with a pair of chopsticks…..unless there’s aubergine involved.

When we lived in St Albans, we often ate at a family-run Italian trattoria called Kamillo’s. They made the tastiest Parmigiana di Melanzane, and I’d order it almost every time. So when I found this recipe, you can imagine how excited I was. The chefs at Kamillo’s also add mozzarella, which adds an amazing creaminess, but this version is pretty tasty without. If you did want to add mozzarella, I’d buy it fresh and lay slice on top of the sauce, underneath the basil and parmesan.

Melanzane alla Parmigiana – serves 4

2 medium-sized dark purple aubergines, cut into 5cm thick slices
extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, crushed
500g tomato passata (or make your own tomato sauce and process until smooth)
1T tomato paste
1-2t sugar (optional – depends on sweetness of tomato sauce)
salt & freshly ground black pepper
handful of fresh basil leaves, roughly torn
100g fresh parmesan cheese, grated

Lay aubergine slices on a chopping board and sprinkle liberally with salt. Lay a second chopping board on top of the slices, and place something heavy on the top to press the aubergines. Press for two hours.

Meanwhile, pour 1T of olive oil into a pan and gently fry the garlic until it begins to colour. Add the tomato passata/sauce, tomato paste and sugar (if using) in a second pan, and simmer for 45 minutes, until sauce has thickened, stirring occasionally. Season and leave to cool.

Rinse the aubergine slices in a colander, then dry thoroughly with kitchen paper.

Preheat oven to 200degC.

Heat 2-3T of olive oil in a frypan and brown aubergine slices in batches (about 2-3 minutes each side). Drain on kitchen paper.

Place aubergine slices in one layer in the bottom of a small ovenproof dish. Spoon the tomato sauce over the top, sprinkle with basil leaves and parmesan cheese.

Bake for 20 minutes, until aubergine is tender and the top has browned.

Serve with a green salad, crusty bread to mop up the sauce, and nice glass of shiraz.

Recipe: Matthew Fort – Market Kitchen Cookbook