Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Planning a trip to the UK?

Bristol harbour
I love Bristol!
A friend is coming to visit England in June and I've been excitedly giving her travel tips so I thought I'd toss my ideas out for you to play with.

Tip one: Public transport
Coming to England from some countries (like New Zealand) you might not be used there being as much public transport as there is here. I never used the train in New Zealand, whereas here it's often the best (if not cheapest) way of getting around.

Trains are generally the nicest way of travelling (as long as they're not packed commuter trains). They are substantially cheaper off peak, on weekends and if booking in advance (months in advance). Try the Trainline. Be aware that trains are sometimes cancelled or late so given yourself plenty of extra time if you're doing something time-critical, especially in winter.

Inter-city coaches are much cheaper than trains and fine if you're on a budget. They can be slowed down by traffic and they need to get a bit smelly and tiresome after several hours. I've used National Express coaches several times.

In London get an Oyster card and load it up so you can easily get around by tube, bus or train. I find the tube heaps easier and quicker than buses, although I'd suggest trying to avoid travelling at rush hour in central London as the natives get pretty shirty at anyone who isn't sure of where to go or isn't moving at top speed.

Tip two: Winter closing
It annoys me mightily, but lots of the National Trust properties and some of the English Heritage properties close during winter. Closing times vary from October late December to February or March. The lovely Welsh guys Cadw are better at staying open and they have amazing castles to visit just over the border from England.

Tip three: Sunday closing
Basically the best thing to do in England on a Sunday is have an enormous roast lunch at a pub then toddle off to Evensong at a cathedral. There's not much else to do* as shops are only open for about five hours and much of the public transport doesn't run.

Tip four: Where to go
Well, I think there's so much cool stuff that it'd take a lifetime to scratch the surface, but if I had to chose a few favourites...
  • Bath - Georgian architecture, Jane Austen settings like the Pump Room and Sydney Gardens, lovely museum/art gallery called The Holburne, evidently the Roman Baths are great but I haven't been yet.
  • Salisbury or Winchester - both cute small cities with a quaint old town centre. Salisbury has a deservedly famous cathedral while Winchester has the ruins of a castle with an old round table (the inspiration for Arthur's Round Table?)
  • Cardiff - great shopping and eating and a lovely restored castle right in the middle of town. Also the Dr Who Experience for fans. 
  • Pretty much anywhere in the countryside. You'll need a hire car, but there are different sorts of gorgeous scenery all over the place. The Cotswolds are a line of hills running through Oxfordshire. Gloucestershire and surrounds - they are an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (it's a thing). The National Parks I've been to are lovely - Exmoor and the Brecon Beacons particularly. Pretty much the whole county of Dorset is stunning.
  • York or Chester (but probably York) - medieval city walls in both, Roman ruins in Chester, Tudor houses and cute little shops in both, York Minster church.
You'll notice I'm not saying London. I think most of the touristy things you see in London can be replaced with similar things elsewhere that are less crowded and cheaper to get into. I do recommend Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, but you'll have to book six months in advance to get in (worth doing nonetheless). The shopping in London is better than anywhere else in the country but Oxford Street is craaaaazy busy at peak times and some of the chain stores are overwhelmingly huge. I loved Kew Gardens.

I'm also not saying Bristol, even though I love living here. It is the best place to live in England and there is plenty for tourists to enjoy here, but it's not one of the top few tourist destinations in the UK. 

Also, I haven't yet been to Northern Ireland and I didn't looove Edinburgh. I'm looking forward to seeing more of Scotland so I'll let you know how I get on.

Tip five: A dearth of squirrels
British people don't seem to realise how cute their wildlife is and how much we foreigners would really like to see it.

You can go and see deer in deer parks and otters in WWT wetland centres (highly recommended), but there isn't really anywhere to see foxes and badgers and squirrels etc. I spent my first few trips to England staring at trees as I walked about but only saw about two squirrels in two weeks. If you want to see squirrels - go to a public park where people feed them and look on the ground as well as in trees.

Right, I think that'll do for now. Anyone got any other tips to share? Or any challenges to my admittedly biased viewpoints?

* This is a wild exaggeration.

Saturday, 18 January 2014

New Year - can't quite...

Woman on couch thinking about New Year resolutions
I'm usually ready on January the 1st with a list of plans but this year I find myself wandering like a rudderless boat. Where to go? How to get there?

Lisa's brilliant post explores her motivations and ways of removing obstacles in order to achieve her goals for the New Year. I'm not sure if I am in a place to be able to dissect my own goals with such clarity. However, it's worth a shot. Let's give it a go then, using her framework.

1. Abstraction i.e. what are the overall, big picture urges?
The first thing that comes to mind is health. Somewhere vaguely hanging around my mind is the idea of growth, but I'm too tired and busy to contemplate growth at the moment, so let's just stick with the idea of 'Health' for the moment.

2. Next level of detail i.e. what do I mean?
Well, my physical and mental health could do with a bit of improvement. My spiritual health is okay, I think. My social well being is also okay, at a superficial level at least. (I'm using the Maori concept of holistic health; Hauora to unpack the idea of health.)

3. Obstacles i.e. as Lisa says, "It’s a waste of capacity to bash away heedlessly at what you want. Better to try as hard to remove obstacles as to set goals."
So, what is getting in the way of health?
·         Mainly, putting 90% of my energy into work. People have limited willpower and energy. I have been putting most of my mental and physical effort in one place, leaving not enough time or energy for anything much else. 
·         Also, a lack of routine. Habit is a brilliant way to deal with things like physical health, for example eating the same healthy breakfast each morning or going for a walk every Saturday morning.

4. Resolutions
Hmm... this is where I come a cropper. Putting less effort into work isn’t really an option as I do actually want to stay employed and progress within the organisation.
What to do? Or not do? What are the options?

Firstly, if I’m too busy, is there anything that I can not do? Well, no, I think I’ve already gotten rid of as much as I reasonably can.

Since moving to England, I've stopped a lot of things that used to consume my time. We have a small flat with no garden, I’ve pretty much stopped cooking (and don’t even buy food quite often enough) and cleaning (We do a burst every month or so... and keep the essentials like washing clothes going during the week). I don't volunteer any more. I have one hobby. Well, two if you count blogging, but that comes and goes according to busy-ness. Hmm... possibly three hobbies now I come to think of it... anyway, I do need to socialise a bit!

No, I don’t think there’s anything I can stop. So how do I manage to start some healthy things?

Well, I signed up to do a Dryathon (i.e. not drink alcohol) during January to raise funds for Cancer Research UK. This obviously has some health benefits, though I have been turning to chocolate or ice cream at times in place of a glass of wine.

I’m also avoiding red meat and processed meats i.e. bacon, chorizo etc. (Mmm... chorizo!). This is surprisingly restrictive for example when choosing a quiche, pizza or soup. Still, also healthy as these are things I particularly should avoid.

I have also gotten a bit more rigorous about walking 20 minutes each way to work even if it’s raining (hint, it’s always raining).

Still, it's not enough to actually lead to healthy. 

I think I've come to a standstill in my thinking here - any suggestions?

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Fixing wardrobe holes

After Saturday's useful wardrobe sorting exercise, I worked out a short list of things I need to fill in some gaps in my working wardrobe.

I had a few hours in scouring shops this afternoon with my mental list at the forefront of my mind. I could hunt and gather much more quickly and easily than usual. I have triumphantly carried home some useful items.
M & S black and white check mini skirt
Firstly, a black and white check skirt to go with my pink cardigan, grey cardigan (and of course all my black tops). This is the third skirt in this shape I've bought from M & S over the past couple of years. The slightly longer (21 inch) A-line mini really works for me. I've linked to their website as I couldn't get a decent picture of the skirt.

Black with beige pattern Billie and Blossom dress

Burgandy floral patterned Oasis dressSecondly, I found a couple of easy care, easy wear dresses. These were both on sale - the burgundy one from Oasis was only 10 pounds! The black and beige one is Billie & Blossom from Dorothy Perkins. I've got another dress by Billie & Blossom which has proved to be comfortable and flattering. The dress washes well and doesn't need ironing, which is also a bonus. Both of them will go beautifully with a pale pink or grey cardie over the top.

The only thing I failed to find from my list was a nice grey top. There wasn't much in the way of grey about and the things I found just weren't right. I'll keep my eyes peeled and see how I go...

Anyway, a good day's shopping, I think!

Saturday, 11 January 2014

A sneak peek at my stupid wardrobe

So I've been going through a 'I have nothing to wear to work' patch over the past month or so. I do find that the weather in England changes so much that I kind of need to change my outfits every six weeks or so. New Zealand had a lot less seasonal variation. It's not quite the dead of winter now, but it had changed enough since autumn that it was time for a re-think.

 I got inspired this morning and pulled out all my work clothes. This is all my work 'bottoms' i.e. skirts and trousers. As you can see, it's a stupid collection - basically nothing in the way of neutrals and only two pairs of trousers.

I did have a pair of black jacquard trousers which recently wore out that I haven't yet replaced. I also recently got rid of a pair of grey trousers that were a bit big and very frumpy. I have just put that fuchsia-coloured satin skirt in the charity shop bag as it's too short and just not the right style for anything.

I took a close up so you can see these trousers are cobalt blue and black pattern. I really like them and they fit well.

My other favourites out of this lot are the two wool mini skirts (red and purple) from M & S. They're just above the knee on me, warm and flattering. I wear them all the time for work and also a bit of casual going out or weekends.
 So, then I added in all my tops that were warm enough to be worn as stand alone pieces (i.e. not t shirts or tops that are just worn as under-layers).

As you can see, I've got a lot of blue and blue-green/ jade colours. I've also got even more black tops than I show here (which makes sense with all those colourful bottoms).

The pale pink wool cardigan is clearly a bit of a wardrobe orphan. I need to get some bottoms to go with it. I do have a nice plum coloured dress with a beige pattern that goes nicely with the pink cardie.

Here are all the clothes with helpful accessories. The pastel coloured necklace makes the pale pink cardigan more modern. I also got a blue/grey/mauve statement necklace which I should make use of with my blue and pale coloured tops. The patterned velvet scarf you can just see with the blue stuff is brilliant as it has mauve and red it in on a black base so it goes with lots of my clothes.
Through this exercise, I realised that my floral patterned Polish scarf would go very nicely with my red skirt and white jumper.

Unfortunately the bright red scarf and belt clash nastily with the deeper red skirt. I either need to buy a new scarf or just wear the scarf and belt as a pop over a neutral outfit. 
I've had those dark turquoise shoes for ages and haven't worn them much as a) the colour is tricky to style and b) they're half a size too tight. Still, seeing them there makes me think I should make some more use of them. They are a really cute 1940's design.

So, after this helpful exercise, it becomes clear that I need just a few things to make my work wardrobe work.
  • At least one grey top nice enough to wear on its own but suitable for layering under my pale grey cashmere cardigan. 
  • At least one or two more work dresses - knee length, comfy, with sleeves, machine washable. 
  • Bottoms to go with the pale pink cardigan - a tweedy greyish skirt? a pair of grey trousers that somehow aren't too boring?
My challenge is that I have two workplaces with quite different requirements.

Workplace one:
- Need shoes suitable for walking 20 minutes to work and back (mainly my knee high riding boots in winter which don't work with some trousers)
- More casual environment with potential for getting a bit dirty
- Cold and possibly wet on the way to work, medium temperature in the office

Workplace two:
- Driving and sitting so I can wear heels
- Often roastingly hot during winter as the heating is on so high
- Can be cold in meeting rooms and if I got out for a walk at lunch
- More formal environment

Anyway, if you haven't done this exercise, I do recommend it. I found it enlightening.  After today I've cleared out a bag of things that just weren't working and I've now got a shopping list. I'll let you know how I get on.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Visiting the ponies of the British Isles

I've got a plan. My plan is to visit the different types of pony from around the United Kingdom.

Last year I saw Welsh Mountain ponies and their foals roaming around the Brecon hills. I tried to entice them over for cuddles with bits of muesli (granola) bar but they weren't keen. Still, they were very pretty to watch, especially the foals as they bounded over the grass.

I've discovered that you can go pony trekking in the Brecon Beacons so I expect I could pat a Welsh Mountain pony at the pony trekking establishment, even if the pony wouldn't be up to my weight for me to actually ride!

I've also seen semi-wild ponies roaming around the New Forest (which is confusingly mostly not forest these days and dates back over 1000 years). I didn't get to pat the New Forest ponies, but I'm a bit less interested in them as they're a less distinctive-looking breed compared to some of the other Mountain and Moorland breeds.

Anyway, my pony visiting plan was born on a recent trip to Exmoor. There was a lady riding an Exmoor pony around the village of Dulverton to promote the Exmoor Pony Centre. I got to pat the pony and I was enchanted. The pony was all shaggy with winter coat and it had the softest dusty coloured nose! So pretty!

I just noticed on the Exmoor Pony Centre website that you can adopt a pony. I think I might. What's 20 pounds for a year of virtual pony ownership? And it'd give me an excuse to go back to Exmoor as it was such a lovely place to visit. (Seriously, visit Exmoor, it's gorgeous!)

Visit Scotland's picture of two Shetland ponies in fair isle cardigans
Talking of lovely places to visit... I was lucky enough to have a Shetland pony as my first horse growing up in New Zealand. Well, sort of lucky. She was a bad tempered little thing who'd bite me as soon as look at me. Still, she taught me to stick on as she tried to brush me off against fence posts and by ducking under low hanging tree branches. She looked rather like the white cutie on the left from Visit Scotland's very successful marketing campaign. (Of course, I didn't put my pony in a giant cardigan - mainly because I didn't have a giant cardigan!)

Anyway, even having had a Shetland pony in New Zealand, I'd really like to go and see her Scottish cousins in their natural environment. People keep making TV shows with presenters exploring islands around the UK and they keep stirring up my desire to see the various islands. The Shetland Isles look like an amazing place to visit with their Norwegian heritage and unspoilt natural beauty.

I'd also really love to head down south again and visit the ponies on Dartmoor in Devon. Most of the bottom of quarter of England seems to be spectacularly beautiful, so it'd be nice to visit a new bit and get some pony spotting in while I'm at it.  (Note I say 'most'. There are some very dingy towns down the M5).  Dartmoor ponies are fairly rare, but hopefully I'd catch sight of one. And I could pop across and take in Tintagel Castle while I was in the area (another long-held  place on my travel wish list).

I'll let you know how I go with Dartmoor and Shetland this year!

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Places to visit - Tintern Abbey in Wales

I realised I haven't done any travel posts for ages - mainly because we really haven't been doing any travel. Still, over our short Christmas break we took a few day trips so here's a peek into one of our days out.

Tintern Abbey, WalesTintern Abbey is only just across the Bristol Channel from us and oh my goodness it's amazing!

The current buildings (or ruins) on site were started during the 1100s and were inhabited by Cistercian monks and lay brothers until that vandal Henry VIII in the 1500s came along and ripped out the lead from the roofing to start the decay of the buildings.

I do have quite a grudge against Henry VII for the dissolution of the monasteries as I visit these beautiful places and compare them to places like Tewkesbury Abbey which was saved by the local people purchasing it from the Crown. Tewkesbury is still in use as a place of worship, whereas Tintern is a tourist attraction. Anyway, enough ranting about ancient history...
Ruit at Tintern Abbey
Tintern was founded to be in a very remote location so the monks could focus on God. It's not so remote these days, but is set in a beautiful valley.

We were lucky to have glorious sunshine (pretty rare for Wales, I have to say!).

Another ruin at Tintern Abbey
And it was lovely that the place was open at all. The National Trust in England has most of its properties closed 'till March (and they're expensive to visit). English Heritage is a bit better as staying open and also has more free and cheap places to visit.

 Cadw is the historic environmental division of the Welsh government and they run places like Tintern Abbey. I've got a lot of time for them - lovely staff, lovely stuff in their little shops, amazing castles and ruins and they don't take three months off! Anyway, I'm ranting again...

Inside Tintern Abbey
The Abbey church was in the traditional cross (or cruciform) shape with chapels and screens and things to break up the space. It's over 70 metres long inside. 

Book cupboard in Tintern Abbey

As well as the great big church there were rooms for various purposes: dormitories, dining rooms, a kitchen and infirmary as well as an excellent drainage system (still working) and gardens. One thing that tickled my fancy was these book cupboards. Books would have been very rare and expensive so needed to be kept safe and dry.
View from inside Tintern Abbey
You can see the sun on the beautiful hillsides through the ruined window. There would have been some stunning stained glass in the church...

West window Tintern Abbey
It started getting dark around 3ish as the sun dropped behind the hills. This is a view of the reconstructed west window from inside the church.

River Wye near Tintern
We went for a quick walk up Offa's Dyke beside the River Wye as it the sun was setting. We were trying to find a place called The Devil's Pulpit but gave up after about an hour of slogging uphill through mud over boulders on a very rough track. It was amazing to be walking on such an old man-made structure, but we didn't want to be toddling about the woods in the dark! 
Houses on the River Wye
 If it looks cold, it's because it was! Rather chilly tromping about outside for several hours, but worth it for the gorgeous views. This is the other side of the bridge over the River Wye.

The Anchor Inn near the Abbey looked like it had a delicious dinner menu but I wolfed down some lovely carrot cake and a warming glass of mulled wine after our walk up the hill.
River Wye at dusk

The sun is just hitting the tops of the hills. So purty! I can see why this area has inspired artists for centuries.

So basically, if you haven't been to Tintern Abbey and you can make it - go! Especially go on a fine day in winter as it wasn't at all crowded. And plan for a meal at the Anchor Inn to complete a lovely day out.