Monday 30 December 2019

Horse Guards Parade, Central London

The parade ground used for the Trooping the Colour ceremony on the Queen's official birthday in June, Horse Guards dates from the eighteenth century.

Sunday 29 December 2019

Christmas Lights, Regent Street, Central London

Celebrating its 200th anniversary in 2019, Regent Street turned on its ‘The Spirit of Christmas’ lights  on 14th November. The illuminated suspended spirits are inspired by Regent Street’s Christmas lights in 1954.

Friday 27 December 2019

Broadway, Worcestershire

One of the best known villages in the Cotswolds, Broadway has one of the longest and widest high streets anywhere in England.  In the seventeenth century, it was a major staging post on the route from Worcester to London, as coaches had to harness extra horses to get up nearby Fish Hill.

Sunday 20 October 2019

Autumn in Wandsworth Park, South London

Unlike Battersea Park, you can cycle alongside the river in Wandsworth Park, a small, but lovely patch of green next to the Thames.

Harrods Furniture Depository, South West London

A Grade II-listed building completed just before the First World War, Harrods Furniture Depository now houses high-end apartments. Fully restored, the grand facade overlooking the Thames is as impressive echo of the luxurious Knightsbridge store.

Friday 18 October 2019

Master Harold...and the Boys, The National Theatre, The South Bank, Central London

Image from the National Theatre web site
Set in 1950 in apartheid South Africa, Master Harold... and the Boys is a powerful play that unpicks the contradictions and cruelty of a society in which people aren't perceived to be equal. While often light on the surface, Athol Fugard's incisive script explores big themes, dissecting everything from the qualities we look for in great people to the subtle nuances that can undermine respect and friendship and the nature of beauty and conflict.  Although the action never leaves a park cafe and the set is unchanging, the wider world casts a dark shadow over the three characters wiling away a wet afternoon. Across the 100 minutes of the play, a figure we never see - an alcoholic cripple - exercises an extraordinary amount of influence over the events on stage.

Saturday 5 October 2019

The Thames Barrier, East London

First operational in 1982, the Thames Barrier spans 520 metres across the River Thames near Woolwich, and protects 125 square kilometres of central London from flooding caused by tidal surges. It has 10 steel gates, each weighing 3,300 tonnes, that can be raised as high as a five-storey building.

King William Walk, Greenwich, South London

One of the links between Greenwich's handsome hillside park and its historic riverfront 

Saturday 14 September 2019

The Nottingham & Beeston Canal, Nottingham

Two-and-a-half miles long, the Nottingham & Beeston Canal was built in the late eighteenth century to bypass a difficult-to-navigate section of the River Trent. Running through the heart of the city of Nottingham, the canal is now lined with bars and cafes that can be packed on a sunny Saturday evening.

Wednesday 11 September 2019

Hotel Metropole, Place De Brouckère, Brussels

Still sporting its extraordinary late nineteenth century interior, Hotel Metropole is a throwback to La Belle Époque when Europe literally ruled the world. The grandeur of the reception area, with echoes of the bank that originally occupied this handsome building, will leave you open mouthed, while the creaky cast iron lift will leave you waiting patiently on the ground floor. As you would expect, the bedrooms are decorated in period fashion, complete with chandeliers, fussy wallpaper and velvet-roped curtains. By comparison, the breakfast buffet is a bit prosaic. But the still-magnificent Hotel Metropole is a very memorable place to stay. 8/10

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.

Monday 26 August 2019

Notting Hill Carnival, West London

A heady cocktail of colour, costumes, flesh, music, sunshine, architecture and attitude, Notting Hill Carnival is something special.

Sunday 18 August 2019

The Trafalgar Tavern, Greenwich, South London

Overlooking the Thames and awash with nautical paraphernalia, The Trafalgar Tavern is a lively pub and restaurant selling good value beer.  Although it can be swamped with tourists and day-trippers at weekends, there should be just about enough seats, either inside or out, in which to make yourself comfortable.

Saturday 17 August 2019

The Blackbird Bakery, Herne Hill, South London

The Blackbird Bakery is ready for the Saturday influx of hungry park-runners, local families and pastry-lovers.

Friday 9 August 2019

Galle, Sri Lanka

Controlled by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British at various times, the fortified seaside town of Galle is awash with old-school atmosphere. Its broad earth and stone ramparts completely enclose a dozen or so streets of restored colonial buildings, mostly occupied by hotels, shops and restaurants aimed at middle class Europeans. There are also some fine public buildings, churches and squares to admire, as well as a white-washed lighthouse and dagoba. The locals play impromptu games of football and cricket in the open spaces, while tethered cows graze the lush green banks around the walls. Just outside the old town's main gateway is an impressive cricket ground, which is still used for international fixtures.  Even in the rain, Galle is a fine place to chill out for a few days. 8/10

The Fort Printers, Pedlar Street, Galle, Sri Lanka

A refined and elegant hotel inside Galle's historic ramparts, the Fort Printers is both a relaxing and stylish place to stay. With white-washed walls decorated with black and white photos, polished wood and tiled floors, verdant pot plants and shady courtyards, the interior belies the eighteenth century building's previous, more industrious roles as printers and a school. Still, in a nod to that heritage, upstairs in the heart of the mansion, some of the best rooms are called "The Headmaster's" and "History".  You'll find the bedrooms well-equipped and comfortable, while the dining area, bar, terrace and courtyard pool are all pleasant places to hang out. Breakfast and lunch in the restaurant is imaginative and varied, with the kitchen expertly handling both western and Sri Lankan dishes. The Fort Printers is pricey, but difficult to fault. 8/10

Thursday 8 August 2019

Thuduwa Camp - Udawalawe, Sri Lanka

A unusual mix of bohemian and mid-market accommodation, Thuduwa Camp - Udawalawe consists of clutch of bungalows around a pleasant pool, a cheap and cheerful restaurant and a ramshackle lake-side bar.  The Wi-Fi can be very, very patchy and the service erratic, but the food is plentiful and tasty enough. This hotel is clean and well-located both for lounging by Kiriibbanwewa Lake and for visiting Udawalawe National Reserve, but it could do with investment. 7/10

Wednesday 7 August 2019

Udawalawe National Park, Sri Lanka

 It is not hard to spot regal birds of prey, preening peacocks, sinister crocodiles, lone elephants, dour buffalo and presumptuous monkeys in this watery nature reserve, which apparently spans more than 30,800 hectares. But be prepared for an early start - the safari guides recommend being at the gates at 6am to see the animals before the heat of the day. The tracks are really bumpy inside the Udawalawe park, so there is a lot of bouncing up and down in your jeep. But there are places where you are allowed to stop to have some breakfast. To hire a jeep, a guide and a driver should cost the equivalent of US$35 a head (including entrance to the park). Worth every cent. 8/10 

Tuesday 6 August 2019

Nine Arch Bridge, near Ella, Sri Lanka

Completed in 1921 and built entirely of bricks, the Nine Arch Bridge has become a favourite location for Instagram enthusiasts visiting Sri Lanka's southern highlands. Although you are very unlikely to see this graceful structure without dozens of other tourists in tow, it is still well worth making the hike along the track from Ella or Demodara. Surrounded by lush green vegetation, the Nine Arch Bridge evokes adventure.

Little Adam's Peak, near Ella, Sri Lanka

A popular hike from the backpacker town of Ella, the climb up Little Adam's Peak is tough enough to get the heart pumping, but easy enough to do in a couple of hours. On the way up, you'll pass the grounds of a very luxurious hotel, a zip wire and a mountain bike rental outlet. From the peak, you'll be treated to fine views of the lush green hills in this part of the island. Although this isn't a walk for those in search of solitude, it is one of the few hikes you can do in Sri Lanka comfortably without a guide.

Monday 5 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.

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

Sunday 14 July 2019

Cycling the South Downs Way, Winchester to Eastbourne

Even over two days, a 100 mile off-road along an undulating ridge strewn with scree and punctuated with steep climbs will be tough. Welcome to the South Downs Way, a glorious trail/bridleway running across south east England.

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