Sunday, 13 October 2019

Sunset over the Thames, near Greenwich, South East London

Wednesday, 28 August 2019

The Secret River, The National Theatre, the South Bank, Central London

Images from the National Theatre web site

Set in the early nineteenth century, The Secret River tells the fairly simple, yet absorbing, story of the struggle by a family of downtrodden Londoners to build a new life in Australia. They stake a claim to a plot of prime riverside land that has long been the home of the local Dharug people. From here, the rollercoaster of hopes and fears is fairly predictable. But the play conveys a powerful message, as the tension ratchets up, and the family are forced to take sides in the struggle for supremacy between the motley collection of former convicts from Britain and their aboriginal hosts. With a large cast and live music, this Sydney Theatre Company production is a feast for both the eyes and ears. While the spacious stage is quite spartan, the dramatic lighting and the precise percussion conjure up the Australian outback. When the family start digging holes, the sound of spades scraping on hard ground rings out convincingly. The Brits' faces are painted white, as if to emphasise their alien status, while they routinely refer to the locals as "the blacks". In another era of mass migration, this depiction of the disorientation and distrust, that often accompany dislocation, rings true.

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

Walking and Cycling in the Hills East of Kandapola, Sri Lanka

Blanketed in lush green plantations and studded with tea factories, the hills east of Kandapola are perfect for pottering about on foot or on a mountain bike - the winding roads are mostly quiet and the scenery can be stunning. You'll pass the odd tuk-tuk, the occasional improvised cricket pitch, as well as the many workers toiling on the steep hillsides. You might also see wild boar trotting along the many tracks lacing the hillsides. When the rain stays away, the cool climate makes the hills manageable, even in the middle of the day.

Monday, 5 August 2019

Goatfell, Kandapola, Sri Lanka

In a beautiful stretch of hilly countryside east of Nuwara Eliya, Goatfell is a very comfortable and relaxing place to chill out for a few days. If the weather holds, there are some lovely walks/cycle rides (the hotel has mountain bikes) around the rolling tea plantations in the vicinity, while the tuk-tuk ride down to the nearby tea factory for a free tour is also fun. At Goatfell, the service is exemplary and the views from the terrace and pool are special. There is a good choice of dishes for both breakfast and dinner, spanning both local and international cuisine, and the food itself is generally excellent. Drinks around the open fire pit are another highlight, as is playing card games or reading one of the many well-chosen books next to the open fire in the cosy lounge. Middle class Brits will feel at home here: there is even a (somewhat battered) croquet lawn, as well as a well-stocked umbrella stand next to the front door. It feels like the owners have put a lot of thought into creating a distinctive experience and staying in this tasteful and homely bungalow makes a refreshing change from the big hotels elsewhere in Sri Lanka. 8/10

The Heritance Tea Factory, Kandapola, near Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

A painstakingly and lovingly restored industrial building in the rolling hills around Nuwara Eliya,  the Heritance Tea Factory now serves as a upmarket hotel. In the foyer, basement and bars, the wooden floors and ceilings remain intact, as do the steel girders and the quaint window panes. These communal areas house numerous examples of the original factory equipment, as well as tea crates, vintage photos and other antique paraphernalia. Outside, are beautifully manicured lawns and wide-ranging vistas over the tea plantations, studded with the corrugated iron roofs of the pickers' homes.

Sunday, 4 August 2019

Hakgala Botanic Gardens, near Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

Clinging to a hillside above the highway running south east out of Nuwara Eliya, Hakgala Botanic Gardens date back to 1861. For the modest entrance fee (2,000 rupees for an adult), you get fine views over the Uva Valley below as you wander around the terraces, flowerbeds and arboretums, complete with bands of monkeys. With about 28 hectares to explore, these gardens should occupy you for at least an hour or two.

Cycling around Nuwara Eliya, Sri Lanka

In the immediate vicinity of Nuwara Eliya, the family cycling options seem to be pretty limited. The roads in the town itself are the domain of maniac drivers, while the surrounding countryside quickly gets very hilly. There is one fairly safe, but quite short, ride you can make down the track, through the woods, to the Boburuella Reservoir, which is quite a nice spot. You can ride back past Lake Gregory, with its swan-shaped pedalos and other kitsch Victoriana, but you won't want to take your eyes off the road for too long.

Saturday, 3 August 2019

Kandapola, Sri Lanka

Kandapola Kovila, a colourful Hindu temple, north east of Nuwara Eliya.

Train from Peradeniya to Nanu Oya, Sri Lanka

Surely one of the most scenic train journeys in the world, the three to four hour trip from Peradeniya station (close to Kandy) to Nanu Oya (close to Nuwara Eliya) climbs steadily through lush green hillsides blanketed with tea plantations and studded with golden temples. You pass through maybe ten timeless and timeworn stations, complete with vintage signal boxes, faded signage and pedestrians with umbrellas. The track dates from 1864 and some of the trains (the brown ones) are also pretty ancient, transporting you back to the colonial era, as well as up into the cooler hill country in the south of Sri Lanka. Even in the best class, tickets are cheap and foreign tourists can book in advance through one a hotel or tour operator, meaning you should get a seat. Although the carriages can be stuffy, particularly when you are at low altitude, and the train can be noisy and crowded, this journey really does conjure up the golden age of travel. 9/10 

Kandy, Sri Lanka

After working your way through the congested suburbs, the lake in the heart of Kandy is a welcome oasis of space and tranquility. It is overlooked by the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, one of the most important Buddhist sites in the world and the beating, bustling heart of the city.  This revered religious complex is surrounded by venerable colonial-era white-washed buildings. 

Friday, 2 August 2019

Hiking in the Knuckles Mountains, Sri Lanka

Although Sri Lanka is a relatively small and densely-populated island,  it retains some genuinely wild and dramatic scenery, such as that in the Knuckle Mountains.  Although much of the range is unmarked, there are a few hiking trails you can take - one leads up from Knuckles Peak Road (a minor road off the B205), past the Knuckles Falls, and up to a 1850 metre peak. It is about a 12km round trip involving some steep gradients and taking in some fine views, if and when the mist breaks. You are supposed to take a guide and pay the park entrance fee, so this can be quite an expensive, whilst rewarding, walk. If it has been raining, beware of leeches.

Jim's Farm Villas, near Pallepola, Sri Lanka

A quirky and charismatic hotel, combined with a working spice plantation, Jim's Farm is tucked away in a peaceful and hilly rural idyll a few miles off the busy road between Dambulla and Kandy. There are three main buildings, each some distance apart. They all have bedrooms, but one (Mango) has the restaurant, another (Spice Garden) has the reception and another (Hilltop) the pool. You can reach them by hiking up and down the paths or by calling a hotel tuk-tuk. From the Mango Villas and restaurant, the broad views of the sun sinking over the lush green countryside and distant mountains  are a bit special. The meals are also a delight. There is no choice of dishes, but the cooking is excellent and the ingredients, such as pork belly and king prawns, are top notch. The guests eat dinner together around a communal table, which is fun, particularly if the gregarious owner is at home. Breakfasts are also very good: be sure to order the Sri Lankan option, featuring tasty egg hoppers, in advance.

Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Jetwing Sunrise, Pasikuda, Sri Lanka

Built around a 108 metre pool, which zig zags out towards the Bay of Bengal, this spacious Jetwing hotel combines homely and comfortable villa-style rooms with some dramatic communal areas.  Although the pool-side restaurant is fairly understated, the terraces, the lounge, the bar and the atrium have all been built with an architectural flourish.  The en-suite rooms are well-equipped with quiet air-con and safes, but the Wi-Fi can be very flaky.  Both the buffet breakfast and the buffet dinner (3,000 rupees a head) have a large enough selection of both western and Sri Lankan dishes, without going overboard. You can also get an a la carte lunch, but the service tends to be fairly slow and the table water can be tepid.  Next to the beach, a small shack serves drinks to guests that have claimed a hotel sun lounger underneath the trees. From here, you can watch (or join in) games of volleyball on the sands. The hotel also has a games room and a few ropey mountain bikes you can take out for a small fee, but you are likely to spend most of your stay chilling out near the beachfront. 7/10

Passikudah Beach, Sri Lanka

Although it is lined with a dozen or so upmarket hotels, Passikudah Beach still feels quite wild. Many of these architecturally-flashy resorts are set well back from the seafront and there is a large open expanse of sand. With just some low-key water sports, a few fishing boats and the odd volleyball court, there is plenty of space to spread out. The sea is very shallow and very warm, as is the sun - early evening is the best time to go for an amble around this curvaceous bay.

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Kalkudah Beach and Bay, Sri Lanka

Today, just a handful of lethargic dogs laze among the fishing boats lying on the extensive sands of Kalkudah Beach.  Enjoy the emptiness while you can. Tomorrow, there could be hundreds or even thousands of sun-worshippers, judging on the large number of lots of nearby land that seem to have been snapped up by investment companies.

Sunday, 28 July 2019

Poḷonnaruwa, Sri Lanka

Stretching over a 4km long site, the extensive and varied ruins of the medieval city of Polonnaruwa are both atmospheric and absorbing - well worth the US$25 entrance fee and braving the hot and humid micro-climate.  In this major World Heritage Site, there are at least six clusters of buildings you will want to see. As they are spread out, you are probably best hiring a bike or getting a lift from one location to another. In the twelfth century, much of Sri Lanka was ruled from Poḷonnaruwa's Royal Palace and the nearby council chamber in the citadel in the heart of this garden city. 

Safari in Kaudulla National Park, Sri Lanka

In the dry season, scores of Sri Lanka's wild elephants gather in either Kaudulla National Park or nearby Minneriya National Park as they gravitate towards the remaining water sources. The local safari guides will know which of the two parks is the better bet in any given week and you might even see elephants crossing the road on the way there. In any case, heading out in the afternoon as the day cools down is more civilised than getting up before dawn to catch the early morning action. Depending which of the deeply-rutted tracks your jeep takes across Kaudulla, you may be the only vehicle in the vicinity as you observe the odd lone elephant, buffalo or fox, bumping your way up and down through the grasslands around the lake.

Cinnamon Lodge, Habarana, Sri Lanka

Well placed for trips to Sigiriya Rock, Kaudulla National Park and Minneriya National Park, the very security-conscious Cinnamon Lodge is a sprawling resort overlooking some picturesque marsh land. Built around ancient and atmospheric trees, home to troops of monkeys, and a small lake with mini-islands, scores of two-storey chalets each house a couple of en-suite bedrooms. They are generally designed and well-equipped, but the odd one may be missing a safe and it can be a bit of trek to the Lodge's large swimming pool and the massive restaurant.

Saturday, 27 July 2019

Cycle ride from Sigiriya to Kandalama Wewa, Sri Lanka

A round-trip of about 30km, this mostly flat cycle ride takes in picturesque irrigation channels, lush farmland and the Kandalama reservoir. For about 50 dollars a head, Jetwing Adventures will organise decent mountain bikes, a support vehicle, a couple of guides and refreshments. But if you can find somewhere to hire bikes, you could easily do this ride unguided - the roads and tracks are mostly quiet and the route-finding is easy enough.  And you could extend the ride into Dambulla, but that would probably involve dicing with some serious traffic. 7/10

Climbing Sigiriya Rock, Sri Lanka

An enormous boulder in the midst of flat land the heart of Sri Lanka, Sigiriya Rock is the site of a  fortified settlement, dating back over two thousand years. As a foreign visitor, you'll pay a hefty $30 entrance fee, but you can save a few bob by turning down the persistent, but unnecessary, guides that congregate near the car park. It is easy enough to follow the paths and staircases that cut their away through the gardens and ruins at the base of the rock. Soon you are climbing steeply, surrounded by red earth, thick stone walls, shrubs, monkeys and bees nests. A diversion via a nineteenth century spiral staircase takes you up to an enclosed ledge where you can admire some surprisingly well-preserved rock paintings of 21 "damsels" dating from the fifth century.

Friday, 26 July 2019

On the road in Negombo, Sri Lanka

On the west coast of Sri Lanka, just north of Colombo, the town of Negombo is renowned for its well-stocked lagoon and its fishing industry, as well as being being home to many of the island's Christian churches.

Jetwing Lagoon, Negombo, Sri Lanka

Everything about the Jetwing Lagoon Hotel is on a grand scale. The swimming pool is over one hundred metres long, the well-equipped rooms are vast, the en-suite bathrooms are enormous. Even the dining area is extensive. Better still, this Jetwing sits on a spit of land that runs between Negombo's broad lagoon and the ocean, meaning there are waterfronts (and cool breezes) on both sides of the hotel. Both the buffet breakfast and the a la carte dinner feature good quality Sri Lankan fare, while the service is warm and professional. And there is even an eco-angle - a small wall light tells you when the impressive in-room air con is running off solar power. Tastefully decorated in restrained tones and finely situated, this very spacious hotel is a peaceful and picturesque place to recuperate from the lengthy flight from Europe before venturing on to the manic roads that lead into Sri Lanka's interior. 8/10

Thursday, 20 June 2019

Tears for Fears, Hampton Court Palace, South West London

Performing in a tightly-packed courtyard inside Hampton Court Palace, Tears for Fears immediately has the crowd out of their temporary seats and singing along to Everyone Wants to Rule the World. The rest of the set is short, but sweet, as the bands' eighties melodic hits are enriched by a powerful and versatile female vocalist. Although they don't have much chemistry on stage, front men Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith put enough effort into their performance to keep the middle-aged crowd happy.  Most of the classics, including Mad World and Pale Shelter, put in an appearance.

Tuesday, 11 June 2019

The Thames, Central London

View from the 32nd floor of the Millbank Tower, which sits on the north bank of the Thames between Lambeth Bridge and Vauxhall Bridge.

Saturday, 1 June 2019

The Walled Garden, Brockwell Park, South London

Very much in flower, Brockwell Park's walled garden is splashed with colours in early June.  Brockwell Hall's kitchen garden was adapted by J J Sexby of London County Council in the late nineteenth century to create a formal garden of massed bedding, rose beds, and topiary around a central fountain, according to Historic England.

Monday, 27 May 2019

Kenwood House, Hampstead Heath, North London

A stately home at the north end of Hamsptead Health, Kenwood House was built in the 17th century and remodelled extensively in the 18th century. Originally the seat of the Earls of Mansfield, the house now belongs to English Heritage and is home to a historic art collection. The surrounding parkland adjoins Hampstead Heath

Saturday, 18 May 2019

The Specials, Brixton Academy, South London

Brixton Academy and seventies ska band The Specials feel like soul-mates. Both the venue and group are long-standing icons of multi-racial Britain. Ironically, the crowd flowing through the timeworn foyers and up the staircases of the Academy to see The Specials is overwhelmingly white.  Although they are again producing popular new music (briefly topping the album charts with Encore in March), The Specials still attracts an ageing, but enthusiastic, audience, made up mostly of thick-set, clean-shaven men with short hair.

Monday, 6 May 2019

View down Gypsy Hill, South London

The view down Gypsy Hill brings together Victorian architecture, leafy green suburbs and the distant skyscrapers of the City of London

Monday, 15 April 2019

Tynemouth Lodge, Tynemouth Road, Tyne & Wear

A longstanding real-ale pub between Tynemouth and North Shields, Tynemouth Lodge has kept a laser-like focus on the quality of its beer, making it perennially popular with legions of middle aged locals, many sporting beards. The decor is dated, but no-one comes here for the decor.

Sunday, 14 April 2019

Cycling National Route 1, Tynemouth to Newbiggin-by-the-Sea, Tyne & Wear

Picturesque in patches, this 30km stretch of the Coast and Castles section of the N1 cycle route can be windy and desolate. While the ride along the seaside from Tynemouth to Blyth is quite scenic, taking you through rural areas and sand dunes, the stretch from Blyth to Newbiggin-by-the-Sea takes in battered old industrial sites and bleak suburban housing estates. Still, Blyth itself has character, with its quirky mix of docks, red brick back streets, wind turbines and gentil parks. Moreover, there is a fun winding undulating detour inland along the River Blyth. Once you escape Bedlington and Cambois, Newbiggin itself is also quite easy-on-the-eye. As the N1 is pretty well signposted and generally off-road, it is easy to stay on route and stay safe. 7/10

Saturday, 13 April 2019

Hadrian's Cycleway, Newcastle to Tynemouth

You can now ride from Newcastle Central Station to the coast at Tynemouth almost entirely off-road using a stretch of the Hadrian's Cycleway route. From the station, you need to traverse a main road or two to get down to the Quayside from where you can ride past Newcastle's iconic bridges, the elegant Baltic Art centre and the eye-catching Sage cultural centre. The route soon leaves the river bank, rising up to follow a tarmac path surrounded by greenery, with occasional glimpses of the Tyne below. Be careful, as this stretch can be strewn with broken glass discarded by local drinkers. At Wallsend, you'll pass close to the remains of the Segedunum Roman Fort and Museum. On your way to Tynemouth, you'll also take in some fine landscaped parks, robust industrial architecture and the atmospheric waterfront of North Shields, as well as some featureless suburban backwaters. The final, typically blustery, stretch affords wide views across the Tyne to South Shields. At about 20km, this is the long way round, but it is much safer and more scenic than mixing it with the traffic. 8/10

Friday, 12 April 2019

Canova Hall, Ferndale Road, Brixton, South London

An unusually large cafe-bar housed in an atmospheric period building, Canova Hall attracts a steady stream of bright young things sporting laptops. The spacious interior, the quirky crockery, a wide variety of tables, ample sockets and exposed industrial fittings successfully conjure up a start-up stroke loft vibe. The food and drink is reasonably priced, while the service is chirpy. What's not to like?

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Hotel Ibiza, Les Deux Alpes

A short walk from Les Deux Alpes' main drag and the speedy Diable chairlift, Hotel Ibiza is both eccentrically named and eccentrically decorated with pop paraphernalia, including vinyl-lined walls in the lift and dozens of concert posters on the walls. The spacious bar is draped with fake leopard skin coverings and sumptuous furnishings. Cleverly, various board games, such as scrabble and monopoly, are secured beneath perspex covers on the tables: You can get the counters from reception. There is a large games room downstairs, as well as a decent swimming pool, jacuzzi, sauna, boot room and a ski hire shop. Although it is south facing, the large terrace is pretty bare with just some pub garden style tables from which to admire the broad views of the mountains.

April Skiing in Les Deux Alpes, France

With an a diverse collection of pistes and lifts above 2,000 metres, Les Deux Alpes is a good shout for a family skiing holiday in early April. The fairly gentle gradient on the sizeable glacier and steep descents back to town give Les Deux Alpes an unusual profile. It is not a massive resort, but the runs tend to be long and the lift system is pretty effective: you will be skiing a lot, particularly if you avoid the French school holidays. The slopes can be almost empty and there are some stunning views from the glacier. At the end of day, you might enjoy the run down from 3,200 metres to 1,650 metres in one go – a real leg burner, but you feel like you're travelling. Note, there are also a few enjoyable runs on the facing slopes in an area known as the Vallée Blanche, which may remain open when the main resort is struggling with an overload of snow. This area has more trees, and some fun off-piste, but it will only occupy you for a few hours.

Friday, 5 April 2019

The Pano Bar, Les Deux Alpes

A buzzing mountain restaurant, the Pano Bar is conveniently situated in the heart of the Les Deux Alpes ski area, at the top of the first leg of the Jandri Express gondola. The self-service section upstairs offers large main courses, such as tartiflette, steak haché, burgers, and pasta Bolognese, for around 13-17 euros a dish. They are generally very good, but you have to pay for all extras, such as ketchup and mayonnaise and bread, while the big and rich deserts cost 7 euros. As the drinks are also pricey, a hearty lunch at the Pano Bar will set you back. Still, the interior is spacious, and there is a broad sun deck with fine views and decent dance music blaring out. 7/10

For a cheaper, less scenic meal head to the nearby burger bar, which can get busy. It offers a good value lunch menu – a big burger, chips and a drink for 15 euros - a bargain in these parts, particularly if you can find a seat.  Get there early to beat the crush. Although it lacks the space and views of the Pano Bar, it is much better value.

Friday, 15 February 2019

Regent's Park Road, North London

Large Italianate stuccoed villas painted in pastel shades face Primrose Hill, giving Regent's Park Road a rarefied air.  The stucco was originally intended to be left bare, to resemble stone, according to Lyndon Goode Architects, which also notes that many of the homes feature decorative flourishes such as pediments, keystones and scrolled brackets on windows, eves and parapets.

Primrose Hill, North London

At 63 metres above sea level, the top of Primrose Hill affords far-reaching views across London to the south. In the Victorian era, it was a popular spot for duelling and prize fights. Today, this Royal Park attracts a steady stream of sightseers on sunny winter mornings, venturing up from nearby Regents Park.

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Rice Republic, Streatham High Road, South London

More relaxed than many of the Chinese restaurants in the west end, The Rice Republic serves respectable staples at reasonable prices. To kick off, the crispy aromatic duck (£9.50) with pancakes, soy sauce, cucumber and spring onions, is competent and quite generous, while the prawn dumplings (three for £4.20) are delicious and the duo of steamed pork buns (£3.90) makes for a hearty appetiser. For a main course, the chicken in satay sauce is best avoided. It is a bit short of flavour, while the meat is a tad rubbery. The king prawns with ginger and spring onion (£9.50) are far better, while the crispy fried shredded beef is sweet and satisfying. Steamed rice (£3) is nicely done, but a tad pricey, while the egg fried rice (£4) is lacklustre. You can probably do without a small bowl of prawn crackers for a couple of quid.  On the whole, the dishes are good value, but the extras and sides soon rack up, particularly if you are drinking beer (£4 for a 330ml bottle of Tiger) to wash down the spicy food. Still, service at the Rice Republic is very smooth and the ambiance is appealing. A large mural of the Great Wall of China and the light shades that look like bird cages are among the eye-catching adornments. 7/10

Sunday, 3 February 2019

The Thames from Deptford Creek, South East London

From the cycle path hugging the U-bend in the Thames near Deptford Creek, there are fine sweeping views up and down the river, taking in Greenwich, the Isle of Dogs and Canary Wharf.

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Steak Night at the Prince Regent, Dulwich Road, South London

On a Thursday night, the Prince Regent pub has turned its menu over to mouthwatering steaks. A hefty and delicious 9oz sirloin steak (£18) arrives with some decent chips,  a crisp green salad and a moreish Béarnaise sauce. Served in the elegant and well-heated Victorian dining room, you can enjoy your hunk of meat with one of the fine beers on tap. Although the service can be a bit haphazard, it is well-meaning and welcoming. 8/10

Monday, 14 January 2019

Pollen Street Social, Pollen Street, Central London

At any Michelin-starred restaurant in London, a three course lunch for £37 is a bargain. At the expertly-run Pollen Street Social, it is almost a steal, particularly if you steer clear of the pricey wine list. Although there are only three choices for each course, the waiting staff also bring a steady stream of extras, so your taste buds will be well and truly stimulated. These memorable morsels include an afternoon-tea themed mix of appetisers, featuring caviar, smoked salmon, cucumber and a mini-Victoria sponge cake. The miniature mushroom soup, which appears before the main course, is also delicious.