Islandmomma

Exploring the Stories of the Islands and the Freedoms of Third Age


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What Happened to Britain’s Awful Food?

My very first travel memory might concern food. I am, I think, about six years old and visiting London for the first time, and I think that maybe my tastes were already running to fine cuisine. I’m sitting in Lyons Corner House with my parents, and being force fed greasy chips, which I hate, and I’m pouting and protesting that I don’t want them.

Looking back now to my most recent London visit, I  realize that my memories fall into three categories. Most important, of course, are the personal ones, time spent with family and friends I hadn’t seen in too long, and meeting new folk amongst whom, surely, there are embryo friendships – so let’s call the category “people.” Third I’ll christen “work” – that’s all the fascinating stuff at WTM, wee thrill of my first press pass and all the new stuff I’ve learned and the hopes for the future. So, what, you might ask, is in second place? It comes as a surprise to name this category “food.”

When I left the UK for warmer shores in 1987 the thing I didn’t miss was the food, which is not to knock fish and chips, steak & kidney pies or lovely pub grub, but, overall,  great food wasn’t the norm. Perhaps that’s still true to some extent, but far less I think. For one thing there are plenty of decent chains around now, as I’ve discovered in the last couple of years.

Camden Market’s food stalls. As colorful in presentation as they are in taste!

However!!! I have to declare my most recent London visit an unexpected foodie delight…..and most of it wasn’t even sit-down meals, but food grabbed whilst wandering around, like the eclectic and quirky food stalls at Camden Market, where I dithered over pork jerk, tagine, jian bing (from the Mei Mei street cart – sublime!), noodles and pizza, I finally settled on a kangaroo burger, partly out of curiosity and partly because, well, I like burgers (there are other exotic meats to choose from depending on the season, including bison and emu)…..and note to the guy selling them, whose name I sadly forgot to ask – nice chatting with you! I will definitely be back to sample another kind of burger next time in London!

Nor was my sweet tooth un-catered for – I feasted on tablet in flavors un-imagined (to my Scottish friends, never having tasted it “in situ” I don’t know how authentic it was, but it melted in the mouth and I could almost cry now thinking about it!); churros not only con chocolate but filled with dulce de leche and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar (….I did go twice, I hasten to add that not all of this was consumed in one day!); and rainbow-colored macaroons, which tasted and smelled like fresh fruits and whose slightly crispy outsides melted into a sweet, chewiness inside, which then simply disintegrated onto the tongue – now, I’ve never rated macaroons much, but these changed my mind – however, note to the lady selling them – if you’d been a bit less pushy I might have bought more and would certainly have taken photos which would have been posted all over the internet – your loss,  but your product is delicious.

And to warm the toes and wash down all that decadent consumption? What else but a seasonal cup of mulled wine or apple with cinnamon? Ah – now I truly want to cry just remembering.

But Camden Market wasn’t all! The previous weekend we had gone to a Tea and Coffee Festival on the South Bank. Big coffee fan here, so that was sufficient draw for me, so the yummy foods were a huge bonus….including my very first, ever cupcake! Can you believe that I have reached this advanced age without a cupcake ever passing my lips? The advantage is that it was all the sweeter and more appreciated for the delay, is all I can say! This festival was the third of four this Autumn, two previous being Real Bread and Cheese and Wine and the remaining one, December 7th to 9th is The Chocolate Festival! Oh that I could be there for that! But I have memories of light-as-air quiche and cookies my son declared to be “the best in the world” to feast on!

After South Bank we trotted down to Covent Garden……and more mulled wine. Cheers!!

Perhaps it’s down to the amazing ethnic mix that is now London, perhaps that mix harks back to the days of Empire and the cultural exchanges which resulted, because I appreciate that many of the foods I relished weren’t English in origin. In fact, without traveling too far I had my first bubble tea too (yummy and more-ish) and my first egg waffles in Chinatown…..at least there was plenty of walking involved in this feasting to ease the guilt!

Sitting here, feeling bloated just thinking about the deliciousness makes me want to dash down to the airport and get back to London, and I never would have thought that it would be the food which would draw me back – the city has come a long way from greasy chips!

And another nod to HomeAway.co.uk who eased my stay in London and added to my comfort!


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A Little Cockney Warmth on a Cold Day

Chestnut season is approaching here in Tenerife. It’s a time which usually makes me nostalgic, remembering the sellers on the streets of London and Manchester in the England of my youth.

This year, however, my nostalgia is sated, and in all of London’s hustle and bustle I have a lovely memory of Gus, who is acclaimed by non other than Antonio Carluccio as the city’s best chestnut seller!

Gus’s stand was outside the Excel Center during WTM, but on the first two days I was rushing around like everyone else. On the third day I stopped to ask him if he would be there tomorrow – I wanted to take a snap for friends in Tenerife, but my camera was buried deep in my backpack and I didn’t want to mess about looking for it.

“Sure I will,” he said. “I’m here every day. Here, take a bag and you can pay me tomorrow.”

I protested that it wasn’t lack of money which had prompted my question, but he insisted so cheerfully that I accepted, and rushed off to nurse my sore throat. I was disappointed to arrive on Thursday and see he wasn’t there, but, sure enough, when I emerged mid-afternoon there he was on his usual corner.

I reminded him that I owed him money, though he clearly had forgotten, and we bantered for a while. He told me that he sold chestnuts at most big events, including movie premieres at Leicester Square, and that I should Google “The best chestnut seller in London” and I would find him. No Facebook page, but coming! When I bought a second bag of chestnuts, he pressed a third one on me “for my honesty in coming back to pay”……..I wonder how many folk don’t respect his kindness or forget to go back when he gives his goods away?

It was a bleak kind of afternoon, warmed by both his delicious chestnuts and his cheerfulness…..my only regret is that I didn’t chat for longer – when I checked out that Google link it made me think he would have had a whole host of stories to tell!

For my visit to WTM I stayed in a delightful apartment in Hackney supplied by HomeAwayUK. My thanks to them for making my stay so much better :=)


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The One Where I Get a Bit Nostalgic

When I decided to expand the theme of this blog (coming soon! keep on reading, folks!) I wondered about fitting  in ramblings about the country of my birth, England, but, of course it’s a part of  Great Britain or…..the British Isles – voilá it fits….happily since my trip to UK this time took in some old haunts en route to WTM.

It had been some years since I’d visited my home town, and this was pretty much a flying visit, with plans constantly being forced to change. After sitting for two hours on the sultry tarmac at South Tenerife airport due to non-functioning air conditioing,  I, actually, didn’t think I could ever feel cold again! Not so!

I left a wave of heat which hadn’t eased up much since it began in late Spring, and I woke my first morning in my friend Maggie’s house to a crisp morning of crystal-clear sky and a light frost on the lawn. I pulled on clothes and grabbed the camera. Maggie and Mike live in the swathe of flat, green countryside between Blackpool and Preston, and I could see  a hazy sun emerging across the fields. Mike came out to see what I was doing, bemused, I think, by my attempts to photograph the slight frosting on the grass – a sight uncommon to me, but not to him!

Suddenly, he pointed upwards and  I heard a mournful cacophony which used to be very familiar. Following his pointing finger I saw the skein of geese in that unmistakable,  shifting V-shape as it strung out across the blue. Years ago I’d lived in an area like this, and the excited gabbling of  migrating geese was something which confirmed the onset of the “dark side” – those winter months I’d rather not remember!

It was from the geese I learned the word sehnsucht – their cries echoed that yearning inside of me to be in warmer, far-flung places as winter engulfed northern England.

A couple of days later and back on GMT, my cold fingers fumbled to capture an Irish Sea sunset from the beach at Cleveleys, north of Blackpool at what seemed a ridiculously early hour. The Promenade here has been remodeled since I was there, years ago, and its stark but graceful lines and colors now reflect those of the coastline. It was a little chill, but utterly in keeping with the place. The tide here goes out so far that you can’t even see the sea, as a small child I used to think that it disappeared over the edge of the world.

Moody skies over the Lake District hills from Cleveleys Promenade

Here there was that slightly desolate feeling I used to get at this time of year. The bleak sea breeze permeated my inadequate clothing (I long ago used up all my cold-weather clothing!), and whilst I admit to pangs of nostalgia, the short walk was enough to confirm my decision to have emigrated…….it would cost me far too much in clothing to live here now, but do you see all those dots on the pictures? They are all folk out taking a bracing stroll – hardy, these Northerners!

What made me more nostalgic was a visit earlier in the day, with my friend, Pat, to Stanley Park in Blackpool, a place I’d been taken to as a child and in turn took my own kids. It was also close to my senior school and the place we would sneak out to on occasion to read on the grassy knolls around the lake. Here I found the Autumn I always seek at this time of year.

The golden leaves, the sunlight through the trees and all that jazz. And, speaking of jazz, we had a very nice lunch in the café by the Rose Garden, which is, apparently, seared on my memory, because I remembered it quite clearly, the Art Deco-ish decor which must have been very popular in the Blackpool of my childhood I think. Even the brass boxes on the loo doors remained, although these days you don’t have to pay – tell me how could I get nostalgic about a box on a toilet door?…..jazz because on weekends they have jazz there, which I have marked down to go see on my next summer visit! Lovely venue right by the rose garden.

Stanley Park Rose Garden, Blackpool with the café to the left.

My few, short days on the Fylde Coast were warmed by wonderful friendships which have weathered the years and all life’s changes; by scrumptious full-on breakfasts and home-cooked dinners; by babies – my goddaughter’s, the next generation, and by happy memories, but much as I am glad to have grown up there (I think it made me tougher, physically and perhaps mentally) I’m more than happy to return to the sunshine and the sub-tropics!


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When You Need a Home from Home in London try Homeaway UK

I was delighted when Katrina from TourAbsurd asked me if I wanted to share an apartment with her this week in London. We’re both here for the World Travel Market 2012 (more about that another time), and this evening I am even more pleased. After coming down with the sniffles this afternoon it was soooo nice to come back to an apartment, make a hot drink and put my feet up, instead of hiding under the covers in a anonymous hotel room. How is this for comfy?

We have lacked for nothing. The apartment has full cooking facilities, including an oven…..if we had had the energy to cook it would have been easy – there is a Tesco Express three minutes walk away, and that’s just around the corner from the Haggerston London overground station. When I look out of the window in the morning, this is my view:

Yes, my friends, I DID run down there the other morning. The canal towpath is the perfect place! I’m hoping to do it at least once more before I move on on Thursday, but if anything has caused grumbles this week it has been the British weather. Still the apartment has been more than warm enough, so no grumbles when indoors!

We have to thank Homeaway UK for arranging the apartment…..whilst Katrina did all the booking she kept me informed and I know they were exceptionally helpful, checking on transport etc for us. It’s important how those touches improve a travel experience, especially in somewhere as potentially confusing as London!

In fact, I felt at home in no time at all. Whilst I do enjoy to be spoiled from time to time by hotels, staying in an apartment, especially when you are working is a much better experience. We both arrived on Thursday, and the apartment owner was here to meet us with keys. By Friday evening I felt like a local, shopping at Tesco, riding the Tube and the Overground to the manner born (or at least that’s how I felt!). I’ve never lived in London, so never really needed to travel in rush hour before…..quite the experience, and doubly crowded because of WTM apparently!

Our only problem was with the wifi, which was what Brits call ” a dongle” – a USB connection, which meant that only one person could use it at a time. Fortunately Katrina could connect via her phone, but when that went down over the weekend it proved a bit difficult. It’s a minor thing compared to the comfort of the apartment, its convenience for getting to Excel or into the City and that “at home” feeling, and, it goes without saying that sharing an apartment is much more economical than hotels. Though we are only two people, this apartment does sleep four, which would make it an extraordinary bargain so close to so much of London.

No doubt I will be reluctant to leave tomorrow, but I will have no hesitation in using Homeaway UK’s services in the future! And just to finish…….you know how crazy I am about sunrises? Here was this week’s……maybe not over the ocean and a tad early (it turned fiery pink a bit later) but still…..it was the lovely beginning of a great day!

 

 


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What can you say about London?

Maybe it’s because I live on a small island, which boasts only two cities (which are so close together that really they are one) that I seem to write more about the countryside or the coast – simply, there is more coast and more mountains than there is city life. It isn’t that I don’t like cities.  Often I ache for the energy of a big city.

What’s left to say about London? Honestly, what can you say about London which hasn’t already been said?  I have friends who loathe cities, London included. Me? I love ’em. I love cities, but in a totally different way to the way I love the mountains and the coasts.

I’m a slave to the beauty and the majesty of ocean, mountains, sky and trees, but there is  vitality and zest in cities, which comes from the rubbing together of so much humanity, the pooling of their enthusiasms and enterprise. If I go to Nature for renewal, to wind up my mind and energy, and then the city uses and drains it,  and there is a satisfaction in that being drained too.

Whilst I prize solitude in the countryside, if green spaces in the city are thronging with people I prize the variety and energy that produces also. So a walk in Hyde Park the other week, though beautiful, bursting with the new growth of Spring and easy on the eye, was filled with people too; people walking, running, skating, skateboarding, cycling, sitting, strolling, eating, reading and enjoying the warmth of the sunniest March I ever remember.

 

Look closer at the picture above. At the bottom of the wall you can see swans building a nest. In the midst of folk rambling about, kids shouting and the general cacophony of man they were serenely going about their task, apparently oblivious to all else around them.

On the other hand, in other parts of the park’s animal kingdom, not all was so serene, there was definitely some vying for attention going on!

And the warm weather brought an additional surprise for me – this is the first time in over 25 years that I’ve seen bluebells.

And whilst I was surprised that the craze for gelato seemed missing in Britain’s capital, the Mr Whippy went down a treat! Is there anything quite like it on a hot day? :=)

 


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So, Again, I Didn’t Get to do York’s Ghost Walk

My trip to England took me, as is my custom these days,  to York. It’s a city I know more for its shops, cafes and restaurants than for its historical sites, though its history is as rich and colorful as anywhere in the country. I go to visit family, and there is rarely time to revisit the famous places I remember from youthful visits. This time too I went on family matters, so neither as tourist nor even as traveler, because I was born in England. It is, at the same time, both familiar and novel. The streets run in the same direction they always did, but the facades change, new structures rise, things improve, things have been left to rot. Change and renewal in the city as in the countryside.

York – again – and yet again I didn’t do one of those ghost walks I so much want to try! My time to explore and wander was mainly early evening or early morning. I have two memories from this trip. One is the Big Wheel. I’m sure it wasn’t there in October, the last time I visited. Folk told me it was, but in a different location. Clutching the best Cornish pasty I’ve ever, ever had (bought at the train station when sorting out tickets), full of chunks of moist and mellow meat and the pastry crunchy but light, I approached it around sunset. That seemed like a really good idea, to photograph the city from its heights, bathed in the light of the setting sun, or even just enjoy my supper from that vantage point. Sadly, no food allowed, and I’d bought the large size, and it was far too good to rush, so I wandered off, intending to return at the same time the following day. The price was certainly right at eight pounds.

The next day, wandering along the riverbank, having some time to kill before sunset I became entranced by Spring. Often said I’m an Autumn gal, but not having been anywhere in Springtime for a couple of years, and then it was the “back end” of the blossom season, I was drawn to the daffodils and narcissi, the blossom and the buds.

The way the colors of the fresh, crisp flora glowed in the late afternoon sun seduced me.

The reflections and shadows on the river fascinated me.

The way the sun appeared, unexpectedly  between the skeletal remains of centuries-old shells of building, intrigued me.

And before I knew it, I’d lost the moment, because although sunsets do last longer this far North than they do at home, I still didn’t have time to make it to the Big Wheel in time…….so that’s something else, along with the ghost walk, that gives me a reason to return.

Another day, whiling away time whilst my aunt was at the hospital, I trotted into town quite aimlessly. I didn’t have time to commit to a tour of anywhere in particular, so I joined the throngs of other tourists, meandering the city’s narrow streets until I spied a Book CloseOuts-type place…..well, now, broke or not, there is always a few coppers for cheap books, isn’t there! My haul was very moderate compared to past times (thanks, also Ryanair!), but I took them off to a coffee shop to gloat. On the way I passed this shop, and fell just a little in love with its facade. Back when I’d have dived in, looking for treasures, but what with one thing and another I content myself with a photo of its pretty displays now.

Maybe the best thing about my few days in York, though, was meeting Mike Sowden of Fevered Mutterings. Mike is kind of a hero of mine (take a look at his blog if you haven’t already, and you’ll know why), and I don’t know if you’ve ever met a hero, but it makes you a bit tongue-tied. Standing outside of Marks & Spencer waiting to meet a strange man one knows only via the internet – hmmm, good job my dad couldn’t see me! Mike’s lovely, though, and funny and interesting, and he put me at ease right away, and we sat over chai latte and talked and talked. Afterwards he gave me a very brief mosey around the cathedral area, and fed me a couple of interesting facts I wouldn’t have known otherwise.

He’s also a true gentleman, and walked me to my train, because that day I was moving further north again. We walked along the city wall, and the picture below wasn’t actually taken that day because my stuff was all packed up for the journey (I haven’t mastered that art of keeping the camera out whilst juggling baggage too). However much of a hurry one is in, it has to give you a thrill walking the ramparts of a Roman city, knowing that 2,000 years ago soldiers patrolled the same stones, but there wasn’t time to dwell on it. We arrived at the station with minutes to spare for my train, and Mike kind of disappeared, leaving me grateful and wondering if I’d just imagined the last few hours!


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Oh To Be in England Now That April’s There…….

Possibly for the first time in my life I understand why Browning wrote that.

I am definitely an Autumn person. I’ve always thought Spring a bit over-rated, even when I lived in England. It seemed so drawn out, and usually very wet. I suppose that I expected everything to bloom at once, rather than over the three months of the Season. Going in April two years ago I found the best of the blossom over, though there were some stunning scenes in London’s parks. To be honest I was there this year at the end of March, rather than the beginning of April. I got home early this morning, hence the dearth of posts of late. My internet access was woeful most of the time I was there, but more of that another time.

This Spring, which began the day I arrived, was sunny and balmy. Girls were striding out in summer dresses, daffodils were making the most of their last days and birds of all kinds were rushing around all over the place with twigs, bits of paper and all manner of stuff for their nests. Even in the North the sun-god smiled on me. Often I find that whilst the London area might be mild, further north can still chill the bones this early in the year.

Last Sunday Austin and I hiked from Rydal Water to the head of Grasmere, but then turned back and upwards returning to Ambleside, a beautiful walk, taking in the Lake District’s famous daffodils dotted around the edges of the lakes, and landscapes of morning mists and mirror-like reflections on still waters, all enough to inspire the most jaded of  poets.

This evening finds me tired after dozing last night away on a bench in Stansted Airport, but more of that another time, for today, photos of a lovely hike.

And, just to remind you how Browning put it so eloquently:

Oh, to be in England
Now that April’s there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
In England – now!
 
And after April, when May follows,
And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows
Hark! where my blossomed pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover
Blossoms and dewdrops – at the bent spray’s edge
That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!
 
And though the fields look rough with hoary dew,
All will be gay when noontide wakes anew
The buttercups, the little children’s dower, –
Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!