Girl About Town: Grimm Tales


Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales: An immersive fairytale

Last year I went to see The Drowned Man and I found a new love for “interactive”, “immersive” theatre, so I’ve been on the look out for other similar experiences since. When the email about Philip Pullman’s Grimm Tales popped in to my inbox I snapped up some tickets.

Adapted and directed by Philip Pullman, he of His Dark Materials genius, coupled with my love of fairy tales in their original (i.e. not Disney-fied) form, my interest was piqued.

The teaser asks: “do you dare experience these infamous fairy tales, no longer bound to their pages but trailing your footsteps, breathing softly down your neck and unravelling in wonder before your eyes”… yes I did dare. But I did take my mum with me in case I got scared.

It wasn’t as creepy or as scary as I had hoped, but I suppose they are stories intended for children. They chose some of the lesser-known tales from the Brothers Grimm, which I think were some of the less grim tales (you see what I did there?), but I understand we can’t have the characters chopping off their toes to fit in to shoes or eyes being pecked by birds, that would be a very, erm, different experience, and not one I’d be reviewing here!

I did love the way that the small cast of actors brought some life and edge to characters we generally only see through Disney-tinted glassed these days. I think what impressed me the most, however, were the gorgeously freaky sets. Walls covered in aging maps, annotated with snippets of information about well known fairy tale locations (Grandma’s house, the wishing well…) and a red string trail pinned between them. Rooms filled with spinning wheels piled on top of each other, some of them still spinning. A bar area crammed with crates of shiny, juicy, enticing red apples. Corridors and staircases lined with pictures that dare you to look twice, and often you’d wish you didn’t…

It’s been extended to April, so you can grab tickets here

Victoria x

PS! Find Victoria over on her blog Sugar Plum Slipper or on twitter @VictoriaHale.

Girl About Town: The Art of Dining – The Colour Palate

With the job that I do, I regularly get emails full of “check out this amazing experience” ideas, lots of which actually aren’t that exciting or innovative. However a few weeks back, one thing did stand out amongst all the “uber cool” Shoreditch bar recommendations or “uber exclusive” private members club launches (with “live PAs form the cast of the latest reality TV series” no less!), and that was a link to the Art of Dining website. I’ve never heard of them before, but have seen similar concepts and so I was eager to try them out.

So I hit up a foodie friend of mine who I knew would also be in for a colour-and-light themed dining experience and booked us some tickets.

We arrived at a non-descript building, not far from Baker Street tube, identifiable as our destination only by a man with a clipboard standing next to instructions chalked on the concrete step outside. We were ticked off a list, ushered down some candlelit stairs to an underground space, washed in green light, handed a Green cocktail each and showed to our seats at the long communal table, laid with green paper, the usual dining accoutrements and, unusually, rather large tree centrepiece.

Once the room filled up with guests we were called to attention by the creative team behind the concept, who briefly talked us through the evening’s proceedings and we were then served our first course: the Green course, consisting of light, leafy, herby, green food on green plate with green napkins accompanied by a paint pot of green sauce and a paint brush (not green) with which to serve it!

When we had finished, serving staff informed us we should rip off the top layer of the “table cloths” to reveal the next colour: White. The tree was taken away and replaced with a silver candelabra and the green light slowly transitioned to soft white.

As a quick aside, a lot of my GCSE science and art came back to me. White light is actually a rather beautiful combination of colours, and it seems that green light washes out colour entirely so my dining companion and I looked like black and white photographs of ourselves! Which is a good point to note if your complexion is looking less than flawless in real life before a big event – put on some red lippie and change your light bulbs to green, you’ll look like a thirties movie siren!

Sorry, back to the dining experience. With the White course (a soup) also came a small glass of colouring pencils so we took to doodling all over the table tops as our neighbours played a heated game of hangman. We decided against the corresponding White cocktail, and stuck with the Green as it was so tasty!

After White came the main course, Yellow, complete with massive vases of sunflowers, yellow table tops and sunny yellow light followed by Black, where the lights were dimmed to almost complete darkness, as we finished off the savoury dishes with black food almost invisible against black plates and table tops by the light of tiny candles.

We ordered some Orange cocktails to match our Orange pudding which arrived (along with the matching tableware, of course) as the lights came back up to a warm glow and our tables were adorned with sprays of orange roses.

The food was interesting and tasty, enhanced by the “concept” in which it was served, and overall it made for a really great night out. Tickets cost £50 for five substantial courses and a welcome cocktail. Drinks thereafter were very reasonably priced for London.

As it’s a pop up, The Colour Palate disappeared as quickly as it arrived, but keep an eye on the Art of Dining website for future pop ups, and check out some of their previous events here which look equally as interesting and exciting.

With my appetite for concept pop-ups fully whetted, have you lovely readers any recommendations? Let me know!

Victoria x

PS! Find Victoria over on her blog Sugar Plum Slipper or on twitter @VictoriaHale.

Girl about Town: Chocolate walking tour of London

Easter weekend is on the way. I am excited for three reasons:

1) Two free days off work! Oh how I need the sleep.

2) Family time! In my house, Easter is like Christmas we gather, we play games, we (even in adulthood) hunt out eggs and we dine en masse.

3) Gluttony! If you’ve been abstaining from treats and indulgences for Lent, Sunday is the day it all comes to an end (just to clarify, I have abstained from nothing this year, I’ve been a glutton throughout Lent. My bad).

In light of this list, Rebecca thought I should tell you about something that combined all three, in particular a chocolate walking tour of London, that I did with my family over a chilled weekend the end of last summer. I booked it through Great British Tours with a 50% voucher from one of those well known discount sites (either the pink or the green, I don’t recall) which made it very reasonable indeed. During the tour we visited some of my favourite chocolateries (where we had tastings and were entitled to a discount on most purchases), wandered through Soho at a leisurely pace soaking up the atmosphere and we found a couple of hidden gems that I’ll definitely be re-visiting.

The meeting point was the Algerian Coffee Store on Old Compton Street where our guide greeted us with a large cup of chocolate coated coffee beans and a gigantic grin – imagine if your job was to wander the streets of London eating free chocolate? I’d grin a lot too!

First stop was Hotel Chocolat where we bought chilli hot chocolate powder and tested out their new line of chocolate themed toiletries…

…then on to Paul A. Young where the team introduced us to unusual recipes such as limoncello and cucumber, pink guava and lychee, goats cheese, rosemary and lemon and Marmite truffles and where we also sampled their delicious Aztec hot chocolate…

… a quick pit stop at Freggo to refresh the palate with some Malbec and berries sorbet (new fave thing ever!)…

…a browse around the sweet counter (and a quick dash to the loo) at Fortnum and Mason…

… a brief history lesson about the birth of the truffle at Prestat and sampled some boozy treats…

…all ending up at Charbonnel et Walker where I stuffed my face with my favourite violet and rose crèmes (apparently also the Queen’s!).

All in all a fun filled day!

Great British Tours do some other interesting walking tours including a cupcake and macaroon tour which I have my eye on for my next free weekend…

Victoria x

PS! Find Victoria over on her blog Sugar Plum Slipper or on twitter @VictoriaHale.

Girl About Town: The Drowned Man

The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable – A Punchdrunk production

There’s not a lot I can say about The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable without ruining it, other than, it’s not really a play, it’s more of an experience, an emotional journey. One designed to take you out of your comfort zone and make you think – even if you’re not thinking about the play itself, even if you don’t like the story, I guarantee you’ll be thinking about the dance talent, the amazing sets and the curious artefacts you’ll find along the way, for a long time afterwards. Let me also qualify this post by saying that this is not a review, I’m not a theatre critic, I just like to be entertained. And entertained I was. In fact I still am. Since seeing the play I’ve lost hours on the internet Googling reviews, reading online discussions and stalking the cast members on Twitter to see what others made of their experience.

I booked tickets upon recommendation that it would be “weird, thought provoking, like nothing you’ve ever seen before and right up my street”. I was glad I took up the suggestion and I reiterate the advice to you!

It’s a promenade performance, by the brilliant Punchdrunk, set in a disused four storey building next to Paddington station. Upon arrival you check your bags (so you don’t pilfer things from the amazingly intricate, lovingly accessorised sets), you are issued with a mask (to clearly mark out the audience from the actors), and given a slip of paper with two paragraphs which loosely detail the two parallel story lines of love, adultery, paranoia, betrayal, social struggle and murder.

You are welcomed to “Temple Studios” by a glamorous employee with a brief introduction and then you are encouraged to leave your companions behind, open your mind and follow your own path…

And for three hours that’s what I did.

I lost my family within minutes as I got my bearings in a dark “street” lined with “shops”. I found a few characters and became engrossed in their stories, following them in earnest as they tore through the “desert”, “forest” and on to “movie sets” up and down stair wells, through dimly lit corridors and feeling uncomfortably voyeuristic as I peered through key holes and “bedroom windows”. I got hot and sweaty running up and down staircases (one covered in fresh, bloody hand prints), I shivered as I watched a narrated movie scene play out on a snowy mountain and I ruined my suede boots on a sand dune and had to step through a puddle of water around a bathtub in the middle of a “chapel” in a “trailer park”.

I put those words in quotes as I was well aware I was walking on a set, amongst scenery, but the eerie lighting, disconcerting music and smells, mist and different underfoot textures made the sets feel spookily real. Although I knew I was perfectly safe and was watching a show, my over-active imagination went hell-for-leather and I had a few freak out moments as an audience member was “kidnapped” by a cast member and taken in to a locked room, and I was left virtually alone in a dark corridor next to a shrine to an “ageing actress” and was then taken by surprise by an elegantly dressed lady, appearing at my shoulder literally out of nowhere.

I know, I know. It sounds like I’m talking gobbledegook!

Well I am. And that’s all I’ve done since leaving that building, talking non-stop about how amazing it was to people who haven’t seen it, who clearly think I must be going crazy.

I managed to follow only one of the stories, albeit twice over, thus from two viewpoints, and at the climax I realised that not only was there the parallel narrative detailed on the slip of paper at the beginning, but a number of other subplots and about 10 additional members of the cast that I’d completely missed! I also had a small tantrum (in my head) at the beginning where I got all stroppy that I had absolutely. No. Idea. what was going on. But on speaking to other people, I clearly wasn’t alone at that stage.

I was also worried that I wouldn’t know when it was over, that I’d end up wandering the deserted floors until the small hours, but after a very definitive ending we filtered through in to an on-set bar to be reunited with our companions where we flitted between stunned, reflective silences and garbled chatter where we all spoke over each other in our excitement to relay the things we’d seen, done, felt, touched and experienced. Each and every one of us had seen a different story. Different details, characters, rooms and props. We’d all had utterly unique experiences within the same building in those three hours. Our discussions continued via text and email long in to the night.

I can’t describe it to you without ruining it for you, but I whole heartedly suggest, nay, urge you to read a few professional reviews, check out this synopsis and watch this trailer.

Even if you don’t like it, I guarantee you you won’t regret it. You can book tickets here.

And if you’ve seen it already please, please, message or call me so I can talk to someone about it.

It seems I lied in my first line. There IS a lot I can say about this play, in fact I can’t stop saying things about this play…

Victoria x

PS! Find Victoria over on her blog Sugar Plum Slipper or on twitter @VictoriaHale.

Girl About Town: London Bars with a Difference…

I like a quirky bar. I like something odd or different. I like drinks and dining to be a bit of an “experience”. I used to be all about a fancy restaurant with white linen and a silver cloche, a grand dining room or a room with a view, but recently I’ve been going in for furniture glued to the ceiling, themed dining and broth served in a halved Diet Coke can. This year for our anniversary I set Mr G the task of finding somewhere “awesome” for dinner. I asked for Sketch (I took him there for patisserie back in April, because we were too broke for dinner, but I quite fancied an actual meal there). Apparently Mr G did not feel that our fourth wedding anniversary constituted a good enough reason to batter our overdrafts and make ourselves homeless. Hmph.

Hours of Googling “coolest/funkiest/oddest/quirkiest cocktails in London”, looking for something on a level with Sketch in terms of the fun factor but not on a level with Sketch in terms of the cost factor, made me realise we’d already visited quite a few cool places, so I thought I’d tell you about some of my favourites here.

Inamo
I booked Inamo via a deal website a while back and managed to get a good chunk off the bill. The tables themselves are the menus, becoming giant “touch screen” displays through which you can scroll for food items and drinks and then select your choices. You can order items and, without ever speaking to a human, they turn up at your table. Run out of cocktails? Order more! Fancy some more rice with that? Double tap and it’s on its way. “What’s that you’ve got there? Can I try it? No? I’ll order some of my own then…”

Once you’ve stopped ordering food and drinks (and it can get dangerous, ordering at the swipe of a finger – a bit like drunken iTunes purchases at midnight because you “really feel like dancing to that great Pitbull song” – you know what I mean… don’t you? Anyone?) then the real fun starts. The games! You can challenge other people to games like battleships, scroll through various electronic “table cloths” or use the table as an interactive area map to see where you should go next. Hours of fun!

Callooh Callay
I’m obsessed with Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass. It’s all the theming, oddness and quirkiness that makes the story so appealing to me. It’s only natural then, that a bar named for one of Lewis Carroll’s poems is full off oddness and quirkiness.
The seats are claw footed baths filled with cushions, the menu is themed like an american year book, some of the cocktails are borderline weird (mine tasted like a chilled thai green curry… odd, an acquired taste, but actually delicious!) and there are hidden bars access through a mirrored wardrobe. What’s not to love?

Flesh and Buns
I’m not going to lie, my friend and I booked this place, not for the funky group dining set up, the cloud-soft hirata buns filled with super-tasty teriyaki salmon or the fruity cocktail list, but for the dessert menu. We kept our savoury order to a minimum (squid, broccolli, teriyaki salmon buns. Yum) so we could focus on pudding.

In particular the s’mores! A fire bowl was delivered to us and we squealed with delight as we toasted our mashmallows on skewers over the flaming coals, squished them between biscuits with matcha paste, and then proceeded to get marshmallow all over our hands and faces. Not cool, but lots of fun! We also saved some room for hot, fresh, black-sugar custard doughnuts. We did a lot of finger licking.

Casa Negra
Sister restaurant to La Bodega Negra, Casa Negra sticks in my mind not because of the delicious mexican food, but because of their thoughtful cocktail menu. If like me you often can’t decide which concoction to order, their Margarita Flight is perfect. Undecided on which flavour of frozen margarita to try, they brought me a miniature one of each on a tasting board! Now that’s my kind of drinks menu!

Soho Diner
I’ve mentioned the Electric Diner on this blog before as a great place to take the boys and it’s sister restaurant Soho Diner is much the same. But when I saw that they had cocktails on tap it’s since become one of my fave girly haunts, and it’s perfectly acceptable to drag along the boys as well. Cocktails on tap? That’s right – think of the increased bottle-to-glass speed as they cut out the measuring, mixing, muddling, shaking and stirring and decant perfectly concocted classics straight to your cup.

The build-your-own burgers aren’t bad either. I often while away an hour or two day dreaming about what we now refer to as the Burger of Doom (christened by Mahj)… double cheeseburger with sliced avocado, fried egg and maple-smoked bacon. Mmmmmm… *Homer-style dribble*

Circus
I spotted this on an episode of The Apprentice and, after talking about it excitedly for weeks, my friends surprised me with a booking for a special birthday dinner. We dined on tasty Asian dishes and slurped yummy cocktails whilst being entertained by a variety of burlesque cabaret acts through the night. Most of the acts take place on or above a large catwalk running down the middle of the restaurant which also doubles as a group dining table and my group was lucky enough to be seated at this table! At the end of the night they clear away the plates and glasses and they encourage you to get up on the table and dance. It’s not often the restaurant staff assist you in getting up on to the table, rather than escorting you down from it…

So, bearing in mind my current love of weird and wonderful places, can anyone suggest anywhere I should try? Has anyone tried Dans le Noir or Dinner in the Sky?

Victoria x

PS! Find Victoria over on her blog Sugar Plum Slipper or on twitter @VictoriaHale.

Girl About Town: London, High and Low

London: standing up high

I work in Canary Wharf and although people say it’s not “proper London” (pah!) I love it for many reasons, one of them being the beautiful views I enjoy day in day out of the London skyline, especially at sunset. From this vantage point, I watched The Shard emerge from its foundations near London Bridge on to the London skyline and then creep its way in to the sky, overtaking the City’s high-rise towers and iconic landmarks to become the “tallest building in Western Europe”. I became rather fond of its glassiness, boastfulness and “Shardiness” in my eye line out across my favourite city, so it was a foregone conclusion that as soon as it was open I’d be in the (online) queue for tickets to visit the viewing platform.

And so a week ago, with my family in tow, I found myself in the queue for The View at The Shard at the front gate ready for our time slot.

Entry is timed in half hour slots, presumably to control the flow of people and prevent overcrowding at the top, but also to increase the “experience” factor. It’s much cheaper to book these slots in advance online so do plan ahead, but if you have a spare £100 in your back pocket, they will grant you a “let me in immediately” pass.

Anyone that’s been to Disneyland or a theme park will immediately recognise the anticipation tactics they employ during the entry procession (and some health and safety reasons too, of course) – checking of the tickets, metal detectors, searches, scanning of the tickets, switch-back roped-off queuing, theme park ride music piped in to the cool, dark, themed spaces in which you wait for the lifts, all overseen by the most non-London-but-very-Disneyland staff who are cheerful, helpful, upbeat, knowledgeable, friendly, happy and willing to engage in small talk with their charges. In fact I’ll go so far as to say that some of them even initiated it!

*Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in London anymore…*

Two sets of lifts and a stair case (wear big knickers – you can see straight up the skirts of the people above you!) and you enter the panoramic viewing platform.

Loving London as much as I do, it literally took my breath away. I’ve gazed from the top of much higher buildings but I wasn’t looking down on my beloved London. Despite being incredibly scared of heights I loved it.

In terms of the main viewing area, there are faux “telescopes” dotted around with electronic screens for you to pick your views (day, dusk, night and live), scan the horizon, zoom in on buildings, attractions and areas and click on information links for more detail. Also on each window are icons of the famous landmarks found if looking in that direction. Helpful for someone like me that navigates London via my photographic-memory-recall of the Tube map alone and a constant recital of “Never Eat Shredded Wheat” to get my bearings!

Also exciting is that, as a purpose built viewing platform, no view up, out, left or right is blocked. In fact it’s built so that you can almost look directly down underneath your feet… if you are mad/brave enough to do so. Therefore, we were able to see straight down in to the beer garden in which, only moments before, we had been staring up at The Shard whilst enjoying a last minute pint and a Pimm’s to help my dad pluck up the courage! It was a little bit surreal.

For me, what really sets The View from The Shard apart from the other viewing platforms in the city, such as 30 St Mary Axe (aka The Gherkin) and Tower 42 is the next level up – the same view, but open to the elements! 72 floors above the street and you can feel fresh air on your skin. For me, working in air conditioned glass towers for the last six years, the feeling is utterly bizarre.

Seeing that my poor father was sweating buckets with fear we took pity and headed out to order a glass of celebratory fizz in one of the two bars (slightly lower in the tower), we were however scuppered in our attempt by a very strict door policy and refused entry on the basis that I was wearing flip flops (they were strappy leather flats!) and Mr G was wearing shorts (it was 28 degrees!) so we took ourselves to All Bar One next door instead… and happily saved ourselves a quid or two!

In summary, it’s a great way to view the city, spot famous London landmarks, get your bearings and appreciate the sheer size of our sprawling capital. But, I think £25 is steep for essentially standing at the top of a sky scraper. If you want more of a special experience, or want to enjoy the view in a more refined manner, my recommendation would be to book dinner at either Hutong* or Oblix* and put that £25 towards some pricey cocktails instead, blag your way to the top of The Gherkin or book a table at Duck and Waffle or Tower 42 instead and enjoy a glass of bubbly with your view!

*NB I’ve tried neither Hutong or Oblix due to my unfortunate shoe situation, so I have no idea on the quality and prices – if you go – let me know!

London: standing down low

In keeping with the theme of standing for a view, as well as standing and looking down, I also did some standing and looking up.

I’ve long fantasised about seeing A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Shakespeare’s Globe, because it’s my favourite of the Bard’s plays and it feels only right to see it in such authentic-feeling surroundings.

Add to this, my long standing obsession with seeing A Midsummer Night’s Dream at midnight and I had no qualms with booking standing tickets in order to make my dream come true. For years I’ve missed out on the one-off show they put on around the Summer Solstice so this year I was tipped off by a friend-of-a-friend at a Midsummer Night’s Dream themed wedding (not a coincidence!) and managed so get some of the last few tickets.

I’ve never been to the Globe before and I was as excited about the setting as I was the play itself. A modern glass exterior leads you through in to a replica Elizabethan open air theatre with wooden seating, a yard for us plebs to crowd in to and a raised, covered stage with beautiful detailing. It would have felt magical at any time of day but arriving in the dark, as the previous audience were heading home for bed, was utterly enchanting.

Like I said, sadly we didn’t have seats so I was slightly worried about having to stand up for over three hours, but in the run up to the evening, Globe theatre aficionados informed me that standing is the best way to see a play there. I wasn’t convinced at the start but really I needn’t have worried. I’ve done longer stints standing at festivals, concerts, on stage myself, and all in less comfy shoes so it wasn’t so bad at all really and in the end I was so engaged and invested in what was happening on the stage I barely noticed that I wasn’t seated. I think I could have been wearing five inch stilettos and I’d still have stayed until the very end. At 11.59, prompt, a band of Ye Olde Englishe musicians came out and played some Ye Olde Englishe folk music to set the scene, and from the first note at the open, to the last hum at the close I was spell bound. I laughed out loud, I grinned, I gasped and I sighed as the hugely talented actors brought Shakespeare’s words to life. In the spine-tingling finale, as the fairies bless the temple, tears pricked my eyes and goosebumps appeared on my skin with the emotion… and perhaps just a little fatigue!

Sadly they only do one midnight show a year, so get your mouse hand ready for next year, but in the meantime, if you love the play I’d highly recommend seeing this version, it’s on until October!

I’d also recommend dinner at The Swan before or after the show for some tasty dishes and a reasonably priced set menu but mainly for the stunning view of St Paul’s across the river.

Victoria x

PS! Find Victoria over on her blog Sugar Plum Slipper or on twitter @VictoriaHale.

#JanuaryJoy – Do something/Go somewhere you have never been before

Today’s prompt seemed like the perfect time to hear from Victoria with her monthly Girl About Town post, particularly as she is always doing things I have never done before. Today’s prompt is intended to get us all out of a January (or maybe long-standing  rut. I think that doing new things, trying new stuff and going to new places is what makes life fun and exciting and keeps life fresh. It’s also great for your relationship. Discovering new things together is key to a relationship and if you choose to do this prompt with a friend then having something new to go home and share with your other half is just as good.

I’ve been thinking about some of the things I want to try and so far I have come up with two – I’d love you to share yours in the comments box after reading Victoria’s post!

  • Take a snowboarding class (I ski but have never tried to board!)
  • Go to the opera – something I have just never gotten around to…

Do something/go somewhere you have never been: History lessons with a twist

I know that all my talk of cocktails, shoes and afternoon tea may leave you surprised when I say that I’m a big fat history geek. As in, I see David Starkey crop up in that information box at the bottom of the screen when flipping through the channels and I’m rendered unable to move from the sofa. Despite giving it up in year nine at school (I thought it was a tedious and boring subject  – turns out, that was just the teacher) I’ve been surrounded by a family full of history buffs all my life and so I seem to have picked up the obsession by osmosis (you’ll tell by the misuse of this science reference that I’m clearly not a science geek, nor Brian Cox fangirl). The past, I now realise, has always been fascinating to me. It’s why I prefer stately homes to art galleries. It’s why, although chick lit is a big fat no on my reading list, chick lit disguised as historical fiction is a-ok (I’m talking to you Philippa Gregory), it’s why although I hate soap operas, my Sky+ is full of costume dramas (basically just soap operas in longer skirts) and why every fancy dress party I throw has some kind of dress code/theme from eras past.

So in that vein, I’m telling you about some little day trips I made to see some stories from our recent past, and one from prehistoric times!

Cabinet War Rooms and the Churchill Museum, Westminster, London

My bro is the biggest history buff of my whole family clan, so for his birthday we all paid a visit to the Cabinet War Rooms. I knew of their existence through the Imperial War Museum, and because my uncle used to work for the Home Office and mentions them a lot, but had never paid a visit as I still to this day have nightmares about the Blitz experience and the trench walk we did when I was a child. I’m also a bit claustrophobic about airless, underground rooms, but seeing as people lived and worked in those rooms for years, to preserve the freedom of our country, I thought I could suck it up and get on with it.

Anyway, back to the actual Rooms. You enter through a sleek sliding glass door at street level, and head straight down under ground to buy tickets and collect the rather good audio guides, before commencing the self-guided tour. It starts with the Cabinet room, set up exactly as it would have been when Churchill held his meetings here with the original furniture (no reproductions!), maps and even the original “graffiti”. It’s literally like you’ve stepped back in time with the sights, sounds and even smells of a defining era of our history assaulting every sense in your body. The whole set up gave me shivers when I realised that in these dingy, dark, uncomfortable, slightly shabby rooms, the fate of the world was decided by a few dedicated men and women (and a few animals too).

The commentary on the audio guide, much like the audio guide at Alcatraz (renowned for its excellence), is punctuated with real life reports from people that lived and worked in the warren of underground rooms, and the sound effects of bustling corridors, whistling guards and whirring machines add an eerie sense of reality to the tour.

Halfway round the tour you segue in to the Churchill Museum, with modern and interactive exhibits to really make it stand apart from the early- to mid-century set up in the Cabinet War Rooms themselves. It makes you feel like you’re actually getting two tours/exhibits for the price of one. The museum is laid out along a time line of Churchill’s life and is full of artefacts, reports, videos and blood-stirring excerpts from his speeches. It’s an amazing insight in to the well-known but also the hidden parts of the life of one of the most famous men in British, if not World, history.

If like me you’re also fascinated not just by the history and the life stories, but also the idea of international espionage, then the little details like the secret telephone room and colour coded telephone receivers will really capture your imagination. My favourite part of the tour was the map room, which was set up exactly how it was found, including the map pins left in the place on the day the war ended, the staff left and the lights were switched off and there they remain to this day. It was also rather endearing to see little touches like carpets and little flourishes of extravagance that were clearly added in an attempt to make this subterranean world more homely for the people that called it both The Office and Home.

As an aside, in the gift shop (there’s always a gift shop!), look past the “Keep Calm” posters and take note of the wartime propaganda notices about keeping your house and life in order. I bought postcards for all my team to pop up on their desks, and interestingly they contain messages that are as appropriate today as they were then, just for different reasons. Amongst others, ones that were particularly relevant to me were: “Less shopping means less shipping!”, “Go through your wardrobe: Make do and mend!” and “Eat less bread”

Titanic Belfast, Northern Ireland

I did know that Titanic was built in Belfast, but it also kind of slipped my mind. It’s one of the facts about Titanic that disappeared behind a wall of fiction in my memory, created by James Cameron. Everything I now “know” about the ship centres around a certain floppy haired actor and a porcelain skinned actress! So, seeing as all the facts I knew had cleverly wiped themselves from my brain, and 2012 was the 100 year anniversary of the tragedy, it felt right that on a trip to Dublin at the end of last year I booked some train tickets to head up to Belfast to see the recently opened exhibition.

Of course it’s not like normal exhibitions, full of artefacts and actual tangible items for you to oooh and aaah over, or as is the case with exhibitions of tragic moments in history, observe in respectful silence and with tears in your eyes. It’s the artefacts that usually pull me in and help me identify with the story the exhibition is trying to tell, so I was a bit worried that it’d leave me a bit cold with no actual stuff (that’s not meant to sound crass, apologies if it did), and that I’d find it hard to empathise with the story. 

I needn’t have worried. Titanic’s much-publicised beginnings are told with pictures, videos, on-board simulations, stories read by actors and real life accounts from survivors told in their own words and voices. The set up is clever, taking you through the history of the community that built her, an actual journey into the “shipyard”, through a very clever launch simulation looking over the actual dock where she first hit water, and then “inside” as they fitted her out. Really, we are seeing the raucous, noisy and glorious birth of probably the most famous ship in history.

Then the mood changes, and the moment she is hit is detailed with displays, narrations and visual effects that left me shivering inside. I sat in the room that told this part of the story in a reflective silence for a long time, listening to the actual voices of survivors, reading the distress message transcripts, and staring at the Morse code symbols over and over.

The inquests that followed the tragedy, and the changes in maritime law that were implemented as a consequence, were then examined. After that you reach a beautiful display of the countless books, films and pieces of music written in tribute to the ship, her crew, her survivors and the poor lost souls, and the years of media coverage and interest her wreckage has generated. I spent quite a lot of time here just looking and listening and feeling.

But then there’s the best bit, a theatre playing footage and voice-over commentary from the submarine that found Titanic at the bottom of the ocean. It’s enchanting, mesmerising, chilling and upsetting all at the same time. Anyone who has seen the James Cameron film will also recognise snippets of the recording. At the end of the film you can then explore the ocean floor for objects using touch screens to access different visual locations from the various mini-submarines and even stand on a (fake) glass floor to look through to the “sea bed” beneath your feet. Even though you know it’s all a simulation, it’s startlingly real and even made me feel a bit queasy!

At the very end I was also excited to find the actual costumes worn by Kate and Leo in the James Cameron film along with a few others, and some props, which explains why they weren’t at the V&A Hollywood Costume Exhibition, where I had expected to see them!

It really was very cleverly done and, considering there’s nothing but photos, film and interviews that they can show, it really captured my heart and drew me right in. My highlights would include the virtual deck tour, re-creations of the cabins, the deep water exploration theatre and the interactive “artefact locator” with the “glass” floor. It’s most definitely worth a visit if you’re in the City.

We booked tickets online and took a cab from Belfast Central station which takes no more than ten minutes.

Walking with Dinosaurs (seen at the O2 but now on tour, back in the UK in the spring)

I mentioned before that my bro is the biggest history geek that I know, but when it comes to dinosaurs, I know of a contender for his crown – my friend’s six year old son! So I took all my dino nerd friends and family, old and young, back to a prehistoric age to see the Walking with Dinosaurs live show at the O2.

It was awesome.

I was surprised to be so excited by the prospect of seeing dinosaur puppets (not a spoiler!) going about their pre-historic business, set to music and narrated by a fake paleontologist, but I really, really was.

The show takes you through the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods and features the “celebrities” of each era… culminating in the Big One. My bro being a complete dino nerd as a child must have rubbed off on me because I found myself actually getting excited as the dinosaurs entered the arena with yelps of “ooooh, Brachiosaurus“, “I bet this is Stegosaurus“, “woooooo, T-Rex!

Thankfully my squeals were drowned out by those of the kids in the box with us!

The journey is illustrated beautifully with the use of the ever changing landscape (so cleverly done) and is accompanied by a moving music score (I didn’t, but I did almost cry at one point). The narrator, playing the part of a palaeontologist called Huxley (who was pretty handsome, as far as I can tell from the close ups!), provided enthusiastic commentary about the flora and fauna of the different ages, evolution, the changing land mass and the dinosaurs themselves in terms that were understandable to young kids, but not boring for the big kids.

The puppets were brilliant and the smaller ones were mesmerising in the same way as those in Warhorse – You know they aren’t real, clearly being able to see the human operatives, but you can’t help but be sucked in by their life-like mannerisms and movements (as life-like as we know long-extinct gigantic reptiles to be). Really very clever.

It’s not highly scientific, more like a prehistoric soap opera at times, and I have no idea on the accuracy, though my dino-expert-New-Scientist-subscriber companions didn’t correct it too much, so I’m assuming it was relatively correct. I found it all rather interesting and engaging but I didn’t learn anything new, but maybe I’m a dino nerd too? Well, I have watched The Land Before Time at least 100 times and the Jurassic Park films about 50, so I must have learned something (Long-Necks don’t play with Three-Horns)?

The ending is all rather cute and funny too with a particular character stealing the show.

It’s going on tour, so check here for dates and tickets.

So what are you doing this month that you have never done before?
Victoria
x

PS! Find Victoria over on her blog Sugar Plum Slipper or on twitter @VictoriaHale.

Dream Find Do comes to London…

Some of you may remember me announcing a new project a while back – the new blogging workshop that I launched with Michelle, Dream. Find. Do. Well, this weekend sees us teach our first workshop in Manchester and I’m just a little bit excited. So excited in fact that we decided to announce another date, in London this time.


Image credit: The lovely illustration you see above is by Argentinian graphic designer Hola Mimi, you can see more of her work here.

So, if you’re a blogger, thinking of starting a blog, or blog for your business, you might be interested in heading over to Dream. Find. Do. and reading all about the next workshop. You can also take advantage of an early bird deal we have on for bookings made before October 5th and this time around we are allowing attendees to book a single day as well as the full weekend workshop.

Come and join us!

Love,
Rebecca
xo

PS, Blogger or not, today I’m actually being interviewed on Dream. Find. Do. and you can read about my blogging journey, what inspires me and how I made Florence Finds happen by clicking on through.

Girl about Town: The Sanctuary Spa

Yay! Victoria is back! We’ve got a suitably glamourous spa review for you this month and I’d love to hear your thoughts if you’ve been or would like to go. That swing isn’t going to entertain itself you know…

In light of Rebecca’s round up of Thermae Spa in Bath, we thought a little review of another famous spa might be interesting, and seeing as the entry restrictions are very gender specific there were none of the, erm, inappropriate spatial awareness issues you guys mentioned, although when I visited Thermae Spa, I could have sworn that I didn’t see a single male. Strange!

In my Christmas stocking last year I found a voucher for a spa day at The Sanctuary, which promptly got packed away in the present-opening melee with all my other Christmas vouchers to be “saved for later”. An indulgent, relaxing treat after all the stress of Christmas, a run of 30th birthday parties, a busy season at work and buying and selling property that I swiftly forgot I had. It was only on packing up our flat half way through March and whinging to anyone that would listen that I needed a chill out did I remember that I had the voucher! I gave the hotline a call and the lady on the other end was possibly one of the most friendly and helpful spa receptionists I’ve ever spoken to. She asked where I was travelling from so she could work out an approximate arrival time so she could structure my day appropriately, without having to make me get up too early or have to rush through my time there. How very considerate!

To that end, I arrived at The Sanctuary Covent Garden Spa at 11am in time for a small introduction at the official-looking check in desk (“Hi and welcome to The Sanctuary, is it your first time here? Can I get you some juice”), a locker tutorial (pretty hi-tech), a few moments to strip (but I chose to keep my bikini on) and snuggle up in my fluffy robe and then little bit of wandering to familiarise myself with the various floors before my first treatment appointment – A full body aromatherapy massage.

I had a little consultation with the therapist who asked various questions about pressure preference, any issues or body concerns (“yes, I’m concerned my body doesn’t look like Rose Huntington-Whiteley’s – can you help?”) and what I was hoping to get out of the massage so we could pick the right oils and focus – loosening of the muscles, de-stress time, re-invigoration or just a snooze? I picked the “de-stress” oils as my body was feeling incredibly tight, and a strong pressure to really ease the knots out of my shoulders. 55 minutes later I was feeling considerably more supple and heavily chastised for scrunching at my desk, not exercising my back muscles enough.

A drink of water and I was back wandering the corridors and floors again and I found myself at the exercise pool. Feeling a bit too “floopy”, to quote Phoebe Buffay, for anything as strenuous as swimming I grabbed a towel and stretched out in the sauna for a bit of heat therapy.

After that I took another wander and settled myself in the Koi Carp Lounge which was full of big scoochie chairs (that’s totally a word), day beds and ginormous wicker arm chairs. I squidged myself in to a chair, ordered a platter of picky bits (feta, olives, hummus, pate, bean dip and pitta) a cocktail that I think was called a Cosmopolitini (pink prosecco with a scoop of cranberry and vodka sorbet), grabbed my book (one of the Song of Ice and Fire series) and snuggled in for an hour of chill time with some yummy food and drink! The area is divided up in to various sections and the clientele was equally split between large groups of assorted ages on hen dos, smaller groups of two or three women on special days out and those on their own, like me, there for a true chill out. Obviously in such a large space with so many females the noise levels could have become a bit rowdy, especially with the introduction of alcohol, but the staff do a good job of maintaining a chilled out vibe, whilst still allowing the larger groups to let their hair down and have fun with their friends. Well, that was how it worked out for me, you guys may have had different experiences? It certainly felt more relaxing and indulgent than the public areas of Thermae Spa, which in my opinion, had the potential to feel a bit public swimming pool at times.

After all that exertion I was ready for my session in the Sleep Retreat which involved, shock horror, more chill time! A curved bed vibrates in waves and sound-proofed headphones played calming, imaginative narrative (“you’re standing in a beautiful garden, in front of a trickling fountain”) intended to send you off in to a restful sleep. It worked for most people in the room, as the soft snores can attest, but unfortunately when someone tells me to “clear my mind of all my thoughts” I start thinking about “what should I be clearing?” which leads me to making lists on my mental whiteboard, rather than wiping it clean. And I giggle. Which is why I quit yoga! It was nice and relaxing though, even if I didn’t sleep. A quick note, remember to get comfortable before the experience begins, not halfway through like me. I forgot that I was wearing my slightly damp bikini bottoms under my robe and it wasn’t very comfy so just as everyone was dropping off to sleep with headphones on and eyes firmly closed, there was me trying to wriggle out of my cossie, under the blanket and my robe without making a scene. I’d have loved to have been a fly on the wall, or the security camera monitor, for that little fiasco!

After that, I grabbed a pot of Earl Grey, some magazines (in fancy Sanctuary plastic covers), a blanket and did some advanced-level chillaxing back in the Koi Carp Lounge.

By then I was feeling well and truly rested, so I thought I should do something, erm, productive with my day and almost booked a facial, but I decided I needed a new pair of Converse for my holiday more than I needed a facial scrub, and also all the facial products are available in the dressing rooms, so instead I did a bit of swimming, loitered in the jacuzzi and sweated out all the week’s toxins (which included lots of cachaca after a Rio Carnival reunion) in the steam room before a leisurely shower (with more Sanctuary products), a little bit of pampering with all the skincare products* and I was back at the front desk collecting my free gift and checking out for the day. A quick stop in the ground floor shop for some samples and then a wander back to the Tube, via a sweetshop and a newsagent for magazines and I was set for an evening of sofa surfing.

All in all I had a really lovely day and truly appreciated the chance to enjoy some alone time and to just sit and veg in a cosy robe with a book, some snacks and a drink or two. However, my personal feeling is that the prices are rather high and so if I go back, it will only be if I’m lucky enough to receive another experience as a gift. Otherwise I’ll just stick to massages, facials and nail treatments at my local salon, pootle back home and sit on my couch in my Champneys robe (pilfered from my mum a few years back) with a cuppa (or a glass of, depending on the time!) and there must be an app for Koi carp swimming around in a soothing manner on your iPhone…

And, before you ask, I didn’t use The Swing, I had the urge, but I would have felt like a bit of a berk just swinging on it on my own.

Have you been? What did you think? Are you planning a trip there?

Victoria
x

*I used the samples and the products in my free gift box for about a week afterwards but I had to give up on them as they made my skin freak out. After a few years of skin freak outs, I knew enough to stop asap so I’m glad I didn’t try the facial after all. However, I’ve spoken to a few people who really liked them, and I know Rebecca has reviewed the Miracle Oil on Florence Finds in the past, so don’t let my crazy skin put you off!

PS! Find Victoria over on her blog Sugar Plum Slipper or on twitter @VictoriaHale.

How Florence Found: Shoreditch

There has been rather a lot of talk about my weekend in London almost 2 weeks ago (where to stay, what to wear and Notting Hill trips,) I do hope I’m not boring anyone… I also know I’m yet to share my destination guide to the Brecon Beacons (but fear not, it’s coming soon.) However, I thought I shouldn’t let this one linger on and as my friends The Lawsons, Ian and Emma of Big Bouquet and Simon Fazackarley are all off to Shoreditch (and staying in The Hoxton too I might add) soon, I wanted them to get the benefit at least and before I forget everything too!

Pete and I spent Saturday afternoon and Sunday wandering around various areas we had been recommended so I’ll share it as we did it, with links to eateries and shopping spots and a couple of maps in case you’re planning a trip too. 🙂

Day One…
On Saturday afternoon, we had already been to Notting Hill, but after dropping off our bags at The Hoxton we headed out again to have a walk around the local area. We aimed for Redchurch Street going off the recommendations from this blog post.

First off we hunted down The Albion, recommended as a great place for brunch/lunch or even drinks. It reminded me a lot of the places I normally visit around my part of Manchester. Fronted by a grocery style store with artisan goods and freshly baked treats, we lingered before choosing a brownie for late night snacks and a salted caramel tart. I’d definitely go back for lunch and loved the all white decor with rustic touches.

Carrying on along Redchurch street there weren’t as many shops as I thought there would be but we found Labour and Wait, which was similar to Baileys home and garden with all kinds of household items that were properly made from wood and cotton. I also went into Aubin and Wills and despite trying lots of things on was quite disappointed to leave empty handed.

We were pretty tired by this point and in need of refreshment, so we headed back to the Hoxton Bar, but not before booking a table at the Legendary Pizza East. So many of you recommended it and I am possibly the world’s biggest fan of pizza, so I had to go and check it out. Boy was I not disappointed.

Pizza East is enormous, a massive disused warehouse, complete with industrial chic salvage decor (see why I liked it?) and a brilliant menu. The pizza was amazing and we also had a couple of antipasti style plates, but the highlight for me was the awesome dessert. We shared the doughnuts which were hands down, the best I have ever tasted. They arrived huge and puffed up, pipping hot on the plate steaming and covered with sugar. On the side was a pot of molten chocolate, totally unnecessary with the doughnuts themselves but brilliant eaten with a spoon after! Each one when bitten into was like a little cloud of heaven. Light as a feather and empty with tons of sugary sweetness. They made me very happy. 🙂


View Florence’s Shoreditch in a larger map

Day Two…

Sunday morning we had a leisurely plan for getting up and checking out of The Hoxton, as we had places to go. First up was The Breakfast Club. I’ve long been hoping somewhere would make a Breakfast club in Chorlton where I live, somewhere serving boiled eggs, good porridge with toppings, granola, kind of a Le Pain Quotidien type of place. In lieu of this when I heard about The Breakfast Club I was pretty excited. Focusing on the all American breakfast, one of my favourites, the decor is kitsch and retro in equal measure and we had to queue for a table but not for long. I had a stack of maple pancakes with bacon and syrup and a huge smoothie, way too much for just me but it was awesome!

Needing to walk it off we headed to Columbia Road flower market, another place that was absolutely heaving with people, and flowers of course! It was really pretty and we were lucky, the weather was gorgeous, so it made for a nice stroll, but we didn’t get to look at the flowers much because of the bustling crowds! If you’re into mid-century modern design, I spotted an independent gallery space at the beginning of Columbia Road called Two Columbia Road, with some brilliant pieces if you have the budget to spend on them! (I wanted the Hans Wegner Easy chairs.)


Image taken from Skinny Latte and totally unrepresentative of how busy it was when we visited!

I spotted a gorgeous looking cafe at the end of it all, (that my camera sadly missed) though and there were tons of shops I could have stopped and looked in but I was feeling rather harassed so we hurried on. If you’re there and it’s not a Sunday though, I’d definitely recommend taking a stroll over just to see the shops.


Image taken from Two Columbia Road.


Tiny street art near Columbia Road.

Still with time to kill, we walked towards Brick Lane and stumbled right into the middle of their food market. There was everything for sale, a multi-cultural melting pot of curries, juices, sweet treats and interspersed market stalls selling everything from suspiciously ‘off the back of a lorry’ type goods to tat and bric-a-brac. It was perfect for people watching and brought us out close to the famous Spitalfields Market.

Less of a market and more of a covered shopping centre, I was a bit underwhelmed by the Market, although the central area was full of market stalls that seemed rather out of keeping with the space. There were loads of restaurants there though and a really nice area outside where we sat in the sun thinking about our journey back.


View Shoreditch Sunday Stroll in a larger map

On the way back we spotted another cute place to stop but didn’t have time to go in – right behind the Hoxton – The Book Club. I’ll be going next time! Other places we didn’t get to go were Lounge Lover, a cool cocktail bar behind Redchurch street and The Great Eastern Dining Room which is opposite and a little further along the same street The Hoxton is on.


Image taken from Yatzer.

And if you’re looking for a little culture, The legendary graffiti artist Banksy has practically made Shoreditch his canvas. If anybody knows where I can direct readers to find a DIY tour of his works, please let me know in the comments box below…

Phew! That was a mammoth post!

I hope it’s useful to some of you at some point and as always, if you have anything to add, fire away. Also a massive thank you to those of you who have contributed to the recommendations I followed – we had a great weekend thanks to you all!

Love,
Rebecca
xo