Mamma Mia! The Party: a new immersive theatrical and dining experience is opening in August

mama mia the party at the 02 london

A new five-hour Mamma Mia!-themed show, featuring a three-course Mediterranean dinner and an ABBA disco, is coming to the 02 London this August.

Created by ABBA’s Björn Ulvaeus, Mamma Mia! The Party is set in a taverna on the island of Skopelos, where scenes of the first film were shot.

Nikos and his wife Kate run this exotic restaurant with their family and friends.

Told through dialogue and ABBA songs, the story evolves and unfolds around the guests as they sit at their tables enjoying a Greek meal.

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The evening ends with a 1970s disco, where you can stay to sing and dance to original ABBA recordings.

Considering how belly-achingly-funny the West End musical was, I’ve got high hopes for this production (though the tickets are definitely on the spenny side).

Find out more and get tickets at mammamiatheparty.co.uk.

 

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A thirty-year-old’s guide to Disneyworld and Universal 

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Last month I turned 30 in the happiest place on earth: Disneyworld. It was the most perfect birthday, especially as my darling boyfriend (now fiancé!) proposed to me in true fairytale style in front of the Cinderella castle in Magic Kingdom.

Our week in Orlando was action packed – we tackled both Universal Studios and Universal Islands of Adventure, and three of the four Disney Parks: Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios and Magic Kingdom.

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Returning to Disneyworld as an adult, the castle didn’t look quite so big but golly those nighttime fireworks still astounded me. Also, for all those rides I feared as a child, this time round I put on a brave face and got through them – some I even smiled through. The key, it seems, is to scream and throw your arms in the air and pretend you’re enjoying them; then you actually do. Backstory: as a fearful/intelligent child, when in theme parks I used to make the excuse that I needed the toilet every time we came close to the front of the queue; that way I wouldn’t have to go on the ride! A few of the rides still made me queasy, but at least now I can say I managed them all!

Most of the theme park days required early starts – we ‘rope dropped’ a lot (when you enter the park as soon as the gates open) in order to skip the queues, beat some of the crowds and get through rides before the heat really became unbearable. Our strategy paid off, and with the help of the Universal Express Pass (#gifted) and Disney FastPass (comes as standard with the tickets) we were able to get on all the rides we wanted to.

Turning 30 in Orlando – with the thrill and fun of the theme parks, among the lovable human-sized Disney and Universal characters, the smiles of the staff and families, the sparks of the fireworks – was an unforgettable experience. Going at the end of May was also the perfect time – it was busy, but not too busy, and the heat was bearable (30-33C). I’ve since decided that every year I’d like to be away from home on my birthday… Let’s see how that pans out.

Here are some tips for others who are considering going, and a breakdown of the best rides for adults at the parks, (because some rides can easily be skipped if you’re not travelling with kids).

Parking/transport

Costs $25USD from park opening until 6pm. Parking is free thereafter. Premium parking (apparently you get a better spot that’s closer to the entrance) costs $10USD more (but I ain’t made of money). As much as it’s weird getting your head around driving on the other side of the road, it is so handy to have a car – and in that heat, I wouldn’t want to be walking anywhere or lugging bags back from the supermarket under the piercing rays of the sun. You can catch free buses between Disney parks, and for Universal you can take the Harry Potter train between the two parks.

Celebrating a special occasion? Pick up a Button

At both Disneyworld and Universal, special occasions are a big deal. If you’re celebrating a birthday or an anniversary, or even if it’s your first time at the park, ask at Guest Services for a special badge. You can wear it with pride all day and you’ll get lots of well wishes from the staff and visitors in the parks. Some say the button got them preferential treatment or the chance to skip a queue, but we weren’t so lucky!

I proudly wore two badges: a birthday button on my 30th birthday, and a ‘Happily Ever After’ badge, which I acquired when my boyfriend got down on one knee and proposed in front of the Cinderella castle.

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How does the Universal Express Pass compare to the Disney FastPass?

With the Universal Express Pass, there’s less admin involved as there’s no ride pre-booking required; you just turn up at a ride and go straight in the Express pass queue, at whatever time you want. With the Disney FastPass, you have up to 30 days in advance of your trip to choose three rides you’d like to queue jump. If they’re available, you book the time slot you want. When your time slot arrives, you have to turn up at the ride to be able to enter the FastPass queue.

As a result, when at Universal this meant less faffing with the app – we only really looked at it to see what rides were nearby or where the queues were longest. The app doesn’t give any indication about Express Pass queues but on our visit we rarely had to queue longer than 10 minutes.

For both Disney and Universal you have to show a physical card (or at Disney there are now magic bands you wear on your arm (but you have to fork out $11 for them), so it’s worth taking a waterproof lanyard with you as it makes life easier; you have the passes around your neck at all times and don’t have to fiddle around in your pockets or bag each time you queue. It’s also great for popping your phone in when you’re on a water ride.

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No FastPass/Express Pass?

If you don’t have a FastPass/Express Pass, see below for a list of rides that are worth making a dash for once the parks open, because if you go later in the day, the queues are stupidly long ie more than an hour.

PS one other tip, if you desperately want to go on a ride and the queue is ridiculous, consider going in the Single Rider queue at Disney – you may get separated from your pals as you essentially become a ‘stand in’ on the rides to fill gaps, but it generally means you get to ride it quicker and beat the usual wait time. Also keep checking the Disney/Universal apps to see where wait times are shortest. Wi-Fi at Disney drops occasionally; but it’s much better at Universal. Using mobile data is a bad idea (Virgin Mobile charged me £50 for using data for half an hour on my iPhone – let that be a lesson to you!).

Also, a good tip if you’re rope-dropping a park is to head to the rides furthest away from the entrance first – most people will gather at the rides nearer to the park entrance, so you can get a head start and work backwards to everyone else.

Don’t miss the daily daytime shows

I can still remember the shows we saw; whereas the rides tend to blur into one. The show I enjoyed the most was the Beauty and the Beast Live on Stage at Hollywood Studios. The Monsters Inc comedy show was hilarious and we went on it right after the fireworks had finished at Magic Kingdom, to avoid all the queues as masses of people were exiting the park. Animal Actors on Location at Universal Studios was also brilliant – seeing dogs, birds, ferrets, pigs and every other animal imaginable doing tricks (though the animals are denied a life of freedom – sad). If you time it right, you can see a show around lunchtime and eat lunch while watching, in the fan/air-conditioned bliss; it’s a great time saver too. I have highlighted some great shows in the listing below. You can use Disney FastPass for shows but generally we found it wasn’t necessary so don’t waste them! We went in a quieter period (late May) so this might change in peak periods.

Lockers

There are lockers available (you have to pay for some of them) in most parks where you can store your belongings. The only drawback is that the parks are so big that when you put something in a particular locker you have to go all the way back to it to retrieve your items. Best to take as little as you can in your backpack.

Matching T-shirts

Believe it or not, matching T-shirts are quite a big deal, especially at Disney. I bought some in advance of the trip thinking we’d stand out like a sore thumb, but no, it seems to be de rigueur to get some. Some of the best co-ordinated t-shirts we saw had women/girls wearing ‘Best day ever’ and their husbands/brothers/boyfriends wearing ‘Most expensive day ever’ t-shirts. Or ‘Hubby’ and ‘Wifey’ written in the Disney-style font. Personally, we went for ‘Broke’ and ‘Spoilt’.

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When visiting Animal Kingdom, most people wear Lion King merch, or something animal related. We didn’t get the memo on that one.disneyworld magic kingdom cinderella castle by night

Nightly shows

Nothing can beat the Magic Kingdom fireworks – they’re pure magic and gave me all the feels. The Universal Studios show involves water, lights and special projections and is a much more timid affair. The Animal Kingdom show is highly rated, followed by Hollywood Studios; we didn’t last till 9pm on those days to catch the closing shows.

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Food

The food is predictable at the parks: burgers, chips, hot dogs, etc. There are few healthy options and everything costs from at least $6USD. The most exciting food we found was in Animal Kingdom, where the different lands such as Africa and Asia had their own cuisines.

If you want top-dollar nosh, rooftop bar and restaurant Capa at Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort has incredible food, and if you go at night you can see all the fireworks from the balcony. My amazing boyfriend booked us a surprise dinner here, and he’d even gone to the effort to reserve the table on the terrace that gave the best view of the fireworks. It’s a spenny place but the food was memorable and the best we ate all week.

What to pack in your day bag:

-Take your own Minnie/Mickie ears from home and save a few bob

-Hat, sunglasses, sun block

Portable charger if you’re going to be using your phone to take photos and navigate the park using the dedicated app

Insulated lunchbox with freezer blocks to keep your food cool if you’re taking packed lunch. We did and it saved us loads of money.

-Snacks (preferably without chocolate as they might melt and get messy)

-Drinks

-Fan

Waterproof/poncho if you don’t want to get too wet on the rides (you’ll need this at Universal Islands of Adventure the most)
-Something to keep you entertained while queueing

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Best rides/shows for adults at… (best ones are at the top!)

The Disney parks, in my opinion, had more rides for kids. The Disney parks also had more ‘traditional’ moving rides such as rollercoasters whereas Universal had more 4D and interactive attractions.

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90s babies will love the different ‘realms’ here and the rides. The Harry Potter worlds at both Universal parks are amazing, and you could easily spend a few hours exploring them, buy your own wand or cloak.

  • Revenge of the Mummy
  • Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts
  • Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit
  • The Simpsons Ride
  • Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon
  • Animal Actors on Location (show)
  • Transformers: The Ride 3D
  • Men in Black Alien Attack
  • Fast & Furious: Supercharged
  • Despicable Me Minion Mayhem

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Stop off for unusual ice cream flavours at Florean Fortescue’s Ice-Cream Parlour in Diagon Alley, Universal Studios Orlando

Best rides/shows for adults at… (best ones are at the top!)

Universal’s Islands of adventure

This park boasts three water rides – there are none in Universal Studios. Islands of Adventure has has fewer attractions than Universal Studios and feels a tiny bit smaller. There are more kid-friendly rides here than Universal Studios.

  • Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey
  • The Incredible Hulk Coaster
  • Popeye and Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges (prepare to get very, very wet)
  • Flight of the Hippogriff
  • The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man

Thanks to the Universal Express Pass, we got in to the park at 9.15am and had completed all the adult rides by 1.30pm

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Best rides/shows for adults at… (best ones are at the top!)

Disney’s Hollywood Studios

  • Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith
  • Beauty and the Beast Live On Stage (show)
  • Slinky Dog Dash
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Best rides/shows for adults at… (best ones are at the top!)

Disney’s Magic Kingdom
Rides here are mostly very kid-orientated, but there are a few good ‘adult’ ones, see below.

  • Space Mountain
  • Monsters, Inc Laugh Floor (show)
  • Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
  • Splash Mountain
Best rides/shows for adults at… (best ones are at the top!)

Disney’s Animal Kingdom

  • Avatar Flight of Passage
  • Expedition Everest
  • Kilimanjaro Safari (you get to see actual real animals, unlike the fake ‘safari’ at Magic Kingdom)
  • Festival of the Lion King (show)
  • It’s Tough to Be a Bug! (show)
  • Kali River Rapids

 

Other activities

When you’re not out at the theme parks in Orlando, there are lots of outlets to do shopping (premium brands at discounted prices), there’s the Kennedy Space Center, Blue Spring State Park, Thornton Park and lots more. Enjoy your trip!

Walk the picturesque South West Coast Path

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Seeking a break from the hustle and bustle of London life? Want to swap the blue light of your always-on smartphone or laptop for the gorgeous, soft blues of the sea and sky, and the greens of nature? The Bank Holiday presents the perfect opportunity to escape.

We took advantage of the first Bank Holiday in May to make our getaway to East Devon. The Dorset and East Devon coast (aka the Jurassic Coast) is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and is listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site, so what better way to see it than by foot? We’d packed our hiking boots and decided we would cover a section of the South West Coast Path (an easy, gentle, well sign-posted and popular route, we soon found out).

The South West Coast Path is the longest National Trail in the UK – it follows 630 miles of  coastline from Somerset all the way to Poole Harbour – so it makes sense to split it into small chunks and complete it between several holidays!

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Our base for this trip was Budleigh Salterton – a small, sleepy village with a tiny high street lined by charity shops – conveniently located by the beach and the South West Coast Path.

We stayed in the most beautiful annex located only a few minutes’ walk from the beach. The annex came complete with floor-to-ceiling windows, living room, full kitchen, and a big bath tub that was handy a good soak after the big walk – and we were delighted by the cake that the owner had left for us upon arrival!

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The route

Our plan was to follow the South West Coast Path up to Exmouth, stop for lunch there, then return back (approx 5.7 miles each way). It was easy to locate the starting point of the South West Coast Path – it was up a few steps from the beach (which had gorgeous pastel-coloured beach huts and the smoothest, prettiest pebbles) and easy to find.

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From there onwards it was almost impossible to get lost. We encountered an incredible variety of landscapes on our way; endless sunshine-yellow fields of rapeseed flowers; crumbling red sandstone rocks; ancient cliffs (some more than 100 million years old); cows grazing in green hills; blue sea for miles ahead of us – a delight for the eyes and soul!

We were lucky that the coast was bathed in warm sunshine the weekend of our visit – it was actually much hotter than London, where it was pouring with rain! We came across many people on the route: dog walkers, families, walking groups and runners.

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What I loved most about this walking weekend were the opportunities it presented for long, deep chats – uninhibited by smartphones – and the ability to slow down and really take in the colours and beauty of our surroundings. My mind was able to relax and I felt a sense of inner peace.

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The trail doesn’t necessarily require walking boots, but they were still good to have. It took us about 2.5 hours gently ambling along the coast to get to our lunch spot: seafood restaurant Rockfish (reserve a table in advance if you can; we had to wait 30 minutes for ours). The waitress here explained every kind of fish available, what had been caught fresh that day, and even explained the taste and mouthfeel of the lesser-known ones – very helpful. Plus, unlimited portions of chips were available, if you could stomach them… this was wasted on us as we were full after our first helping!

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Next we walked up the seafront to the Exmouth Ice Creamery, its exterior lined by gigantic blackboards listing all the different flavours, for dessert. I’m sure there were more than 40 flavours available! The ice cream only cost £2.50 and went down a treat in the sunshine.

On our return journey, we didn’t follow the South West Coast Path back to Budleigh Salterton but we took a few inroads that led us to another non-coastal path (again, signposted) which was slightly quicker. It’s possible to take a bus back also. Having completed more than 29,000 steps that day in total, it’s safe to say we were knackered come nightfall and I fell into bed quickly after a long hot bath.

Budleigh Salterton pastel coloured beach huts

The following day we spent a few hours at the long, pebbled Budleigh beach. There were fishermen selling their catch of the day along the shore. We explored the seafront and walked right the way to the end of the beach and back before slipping into one of the beachside cafés for a hot drink and slice of cake before heading to our car for the return journey home. If we had the time and energy, we could have followed the South West Coast Path in the other direction towards Sidmouth.

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On our drive home, we happened to pass the Otter Valley Ice Cream & Field Kitchen (EX14 9QN), and boy were we glad we stopped there. This is a family-run restaurant and farm, and their homemade, creamy and indulgent ice cream is definitely worth queueing for. If you’d like more of a sit down meal before the long drive home, the sourdough pizza is a good shout, and don’t leave without having some of that irresistible ice cream!

Have you walked a section of the South West Coast Path? What did you think? I’d love to cover the other sections of the path on future weekend trips!

What’s it like to volunteer with Crisis at Christmas?

Volunteering – spending our time helping those less fortunate – is probably something we’d all love to do more regularly, however, it’s often difficult to commit to it.

Volunteering with Crisis, the charity that helps homeless people in the UK, had been sitting on my bucket list for a while and what pulled me to its Crisis at Christmas appeal was that it only required me to commit to a minimum of two days of volunteering within the Christmas period – that’s it. Many people tend to book off the entire Christmas period from work anyway, so to spend a couple of days doing charitable deeds is a no-brainer.

The Crisis at Christmas appeal takes place every year for the two weeks of Christmas, where it feeds and in many cases, houses, homeless people as winter shelters are closed. It’s a gigantic operation split across various centres in London and the UK that relies on volunteers – doctors, opticians, seamstresses (to fix broken clothes) and more – to lend their time to give homeless people support. Just before the operation each year, the charity gets donations from supermarkets, butchers, bakeries and more – and then cooks up meals on the basis of what’s been offered.

How to sign up for Crisis at Christmas

It is quick and simple to sign up to volunteer – in late October last year, I registered my details on the Crisis at Christmas website (it’s different to the generic Crisis charity website, so do a quick Google search to find it) and chose which role I wanted to do – there was everything from being a kitchen assistant, a media assistant to a general volunteer. Each shift was approximately 8 hours long and you could choose between morning, evening or overnight shifts. Crisis has homeless shelters set up all over London (and a few outside it) so I found the one closest to me (Chalk Farm). My boyfriend and I applied at the same time and selected the same shifts, so we’d be able to do it together. You have to do a minimum of two shifts.

Despite having limited cooking experience, I chose the kitchen assistant role. [It’s not necessary to be an expert, just to know basic skills such as how to handle a knife and a peeler.] The Crisis online system then informed me that I had to book onto a food safety and hygiene course before I would get the stamp of approval to volunteer. Thankfully the certificate is valid for three years, so when I volunteer again in the next two years, I won’t have to worry about this little bit of admin.

The food safety course took place on a Sunday at the Crisis Cafe in Liverpool Street, a few weeks before Christmas. It cost £40, but this fee can either be donated to the charity or refunded back to you once you’ve completed your shifts. The course took a total of about six hours, followed by a multiple choice exam. It all sounds rather serious but it wasn’t too bad – the fail rate is very, very low. I picked up lots of useful nuggets of information I could use in my own kitchen: ie there’s no point washing chicken as the only way the germs are killed is through heating the meat to a high enough temperature.

In the weeks leading up to my shift, I was emailed handy information and a briefing form for what to expect on the day.

What happens on the day/s

As the shifts crept around in December, I was doing my best to remember everything I’d learned on the food safety course. We arrived and checked in at reception, picked up our name badges and dropped off our bags before heading straight to the kitchen. We put on our aprons and hair nets, and then met the chef, who told us what we’d be cooking and what needed to be done.

As it was an evening shift (3pm-11pm), we were going to be making a two-course dinner for 400 people. It was a mammoth task: I found myself peeling at least 150 potatoes (it’s not glamorous work!), cutting them into wedges and then putting them into gigantic industrial ovens. Next I was seasoning and boiling down at least 1kg of cabbage in a pan, then helping to make beef burgers. There’s a common misconception that Crisis is just a soup kitchen – I didn’t see any soup the whole time I was there – instead we were conjuring up elaborate meals.

Working in the kitchen, it was the first time in a very, very long time that I spent more than four hours without looking at my phone (phones aren’t allowed outside of pockets), but, incredibly, I didn’t even have a chance to miss it. The music was blaring in the kitchen, the vibe was busy but upbeat, and we were all pitching in to help with whatever needed doing next. In total there were about 9 of us cooking, so it was all hands on deck. Once all the food was prepped it was time to serve – but we didn’t serve the residents directly, instead we served the volunteers who then took the plates to the residents.

After serving we got to eat what was leftover, then came the clean up. Luckily, kitchen volunteers don’t do too much washing (other volunteers are sometimes brought in for this and there’s an industrial dishwasher), but there’s lots of grease to remove from hobs and jobs like that. Gloves are provided, so pop your hands in and get busy.

What I enjoyed most about working in the kitchen was the chance to get to know the other volunteers; the sense of teamwork was immense. One girl I met was bravely doing five days of kitchen shifts in a row. It got very hot in the kitchen so my advice would be to wear layers so you can take on/off items. As you’re on your feet all day, wear the comfiest shoes you own. Stay hydrated; it’s easy to get caught up in the business but take a few minutes to grab a drink and a snack from the stall outside the kitchen. I regretted having my nails painted the day before – by the end of the shift the paint was chipped and ruined! It was an exhausting eight hours, and by the end I was ready to collapse into bed, but it was very rewarding to hear that we’d fed so many people and feedback on the food was very positive.

The second shift I did (day shift, 7.45am-3.45pm), we were making two meals; breakfast and lunch. I knew what to expect this time around, and we were making a full English followed by a roast chicken dinner and macaroni cheese. Time flew even quicker on this shift, and it was nice to see a bit of daylight as we left that day.

It felt good to know we’d helped the residents in some small way, and given our time to a worthy cause. Of course, Crisis at Christmas is only a part of the charity’s work, and they are looking for year-round volunteers, but this is a good way to lend a hand at Christmas, to those that need it most. After Crisis at Christmas is over, the charity hosts a party to thank all the volunteers, so you have a chance to reunite with new friends, too.

We made it to Annapurna Base Camp in Nepal!

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Annapurna on the left, Fishtail mountain on the right

After months and months of preparing and training, I completed a relentless 9-day trek to Annapurna Base Camp in November 2018, along with 26 others in my group. Thanks to the incredible generosity of all our sponsors, we have managed to raise approximately £430,000, which will help Sense International continue doing its amazing work for deafblind children and their families throughout the world.

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Getting closer to the top

Trekking up to Annapurna Base Camp was one of the best yet most challenging things I’ve ever done – it has helped me to discover the strength of my body, my mind, and ignited within me a new passion for trekking and a desire to push myself further. It has exceeded my expectations and rewarded me with great new friendships and treated me to the most amazing vistas, from trekking alongside rice paddy fields, through tiny villages, mountain valleys and within dark forests. It wasn’t easy, but the spirit among the group kept everyone motivated – and regular rest periods (I listened to my body), helped me through. Here’s a day-by-day account of what went down, illustrated by photos, plus a list of essentials to pack if you’re doing the trek yourself (bottom).

LOCATION & PERSPECTIVE

Annapurna is a group of mountains in the Himalayas in north-central Nepal. We trekked to Annapurna Base Camp at 4,130m, taking in its unique and incredibly spectacular setting, amidst the majestic peaks of Annapurna South (7,219m), Annapurna I (8,091m), Hiunchuli (6,441m), Gangapurna (7,454m), Annapurna III (7,555m) and Machhapuchhre (6,993m).

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Our hiking route

THE TEAM

Our group of 27 ranged in age from 24 to 65 years old, with more than 50% of the trekkers over 55 years old. There were 3 father and son/daughter pairs and 7 couples in this global team, which drew together trekkers from the UK, Australia, Canada, Singapore, Italy and Liechtenstein. Our full entourage came to 48 including the 5 local guides and their assistants and 16 porters, all local Gurung people of north-central Nepal. We were under the able leadership of our local Nepalese chief guide called Basu.

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DAY 1 (18 November) – Nayapul to Ghandruk 1,940m

The whole group united in Pokhara for the start. We loaded our bags onto the roof of a people carrier and made a 2-hour car journey to the starting point of the trek at Nayapul (1,010m). The ride was so bumpy we wished we’d been given protective helmets! The rest of our entourage, including the assistant guides and porters, were waiting for us at the starting point. Everyone was muted and deep in thought as there was a sense of excitement coupled with a bit of nervousness amongst our group about the big task ahead and most probably the questionable living conditions we’d encounter over the coming days. We watched in awe as the porters used rope and rolled up old rice bags to secure two of our heavy 20kg backpacks on each of their own backs.

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The amusing, makeshift baggage claim counter at Pokhara Airport

We set off on a dust road at around 11.30am. The weather was glorious; the sun was out and so were the bottles of sun cream. An hour into the trek we stopped for a coffee and to reflect on the lush greenery surrounding the small townships and rice paddies that we had passed. Little did we know of the endless uphill steps that would greet us shortly after our coffee break.

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Leaving the village of Nayapul to start our trek

We followed the trail along the Modi River until we started hiking up a winding path to reach a place called Kimche for lunch; stir-fried rice with vegetables – subsequently voted the worst meal of this trek. Thankfully we’d packed a couple of mini bottles of Sriracha hot sauce, which helped the mouthfuls go down a little easier. Considering it was our first meal, we were even more nervous about what we’d be fed this week.

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Steps, more steps, and even more steps

After lunch the trek continued to ascend towards Ghandruk. Some of us found the first day really challenging and slow going which meant we ran out of daylight towards the end of the day. We had to complete the rest of the day’s walk in darkness – it was eerie, being in a completely silent forest at that time of the day, but provided a very good chance to test those head torches. All in all we had climbed an equivalent of 400 flights of stairs on the first day. The thought on everyone’s mind was that whoever classed this as a ‘moderately difficult’ trek wasn’t thinking very clearly. We were questioning what we’d got ourselves into. On the upside, we were astounded that the porters managed to do the exact same route as we did, but with at least 40 kg loaded on their backs, and in significantly less time than we took.

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Passing lush paddies and green fields

We arrived at our first tea house accommodation in Ghandruk having gained 900m on day 1, at approximately 6.30pm. Tea houses are essentially small, basic hostels in local villages offering both a place to sleep as well as a home-cooked meal. Most of the tea houses are owned, managed and inhabited by local families. They are all very basic, and the standards of service and facilities offered vary significantly between one tea house and the next. In the ‘bedrooms’ were three or four wooden bed frames with a thin mattress on each. Every night we would unfurl our sleeping bags on top of the mattress and clamber inside. The facilities got more basic and fewer as we ascended to villages at a higher altitude and the rooms got colder.

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The porters trekking alongside us, each holding two 20kg bags on their backs

Everyone was completely shattered following a tougher than expected day of trekking immediately after a long-haul flight; so after a traditional Nepalese thali dinner we all retired early.

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A traditional Nepalese thali

There were at least three people in a room (sometimes 5) – it was tight and there was definitely no space to swing a cat! There wasn’t any hot water coming from the shower so a few of us persuaded the owner to boil some water in a kettle for us – a bucket shower it was. The snorers in our group (each vying for the top spot) maintained their orchestral performance throughout the night depriving some of us from much needed sleep and rest – the flimsy, thin bedroom walls were no match against the nightly performance!

DAY 2 (19 November) Ghandruk to Chhomrong 2,170m

With the first day’s trek behind us and armed with a (mostly) good night’s rest in clean mountain air, we were ready to embark on our second day’s challenge, comforted by the knowledge that today would be easier than yesterday as we were only going to end up 250m higher. The early risers amongst us managed to catch a glimpse of the snow-covered mountains in the Annapurna Range far in the distance at sunrise, before the view was hidden by the clouds rolling in from the valley floor.

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Annapurna peeking through and Fishtail at sunrise on the right

After a hearty breakfast (a boiled egg, curried potatoes and pancakes) and a quick stretch and warm up to loosen the muscles from the previous day’s trek, we left Ghandruk at about 8.00am, passing many children getting ready to go to school in this little village. The trek ascended for an hour up to Ghandrukkot Hill where we had a mini-picnic over cups of black/ginger tea.

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A quick warm up before we set off

We prepared ourselves for a very steep descent down to the bed of Kimron River to our lunch stop. Having navigated almost 2,000 stony steps down to the river bed, almost everyone shared the view that downhill trekking was not much fun and strenuous on the knees.

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Steep climbs and descents greeted us on this day

After a couple of hours walking, everyone enjoyed the lunch served in a very pleasant tea house not very far from the river bed and valley floor. During lunch the discussion centred around the unexpected 600 metre ascent that we needed to ready ourselves for – so much for an easy trekking day that we had anticipated when we started off this morning.

Sure as night follows day, we were greeted by another steep ascent comprising of 2,500+ steps to Chhomrong, a quaint village located on top of a ridge.

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We frequently saw sheep, mules, monkeys and mountain dogs on our route

It was only day two – morale was low. The group was totally exhausted having laboured through thousands of steps and the mood for rebellion was in the air. There were no facilities on the trek so we’d all become accustomed to peeing in the wild or in a hole in the ground, and those trusty rolls of biodegradable loo paper were our saviours for the trip. Showers on this day were limited to a maximum of two minutes as there was not enough hot water for everyone, but very few people complained as it was just too cold to utilise the full two minutes – as soon as the sun went down, the outside temperature quickly dropped.

We got our first close-up silhouetted night view of the snow-capped Annapurna South and Machhapuchhare (commonly known as Fishtail Mountain) towering above the village of Chhomrong. It was a majestic sight, difficult to forget in a hurry. To warm up against the chill at night we decided to break open a bottle of local Nepalese rum to make a hot toddy. Before we knew it the beers and hot toddies were flowing and it became a party with everyone merrily singing and dancing around the dining table to local Nepalese songs, including the guides and porters. Letting our hair down allowed for a huge improvement in morale within the group.

DAY 3 (20 November) – Chhomrong to Bamboo 2,130m

It was 6.00am, dark and really cold outside but already the camp was stirring with a lot of activity. Everyone was out with their cameras and smartphones to catch their first real glimpse of the sunrise over Annapurna South and Machhapuchhare. There was a lot of excitement as people jostled for photo opportunities – it was a truly magnificent site. The temperature rose as soon as the sun was out; clear blue skies and 16°C were forecast today – perfect for the day’s trekking.

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The view from our room

Breakfast was another feast, consisting of a boiled egg, curried potatoes and the traditional Gurung fried bread with lashings of masala tea and black coffee – our tastiest breakfast yet. After breakfast, it was a challenge to get everybody to line up for a group photo but there was a distinct upbeat mood within the group today.

The trail out of Chhomrong descended via 2,500+ large stone steps to the Modi river bed which we crossed using a swaying suspension bridge. There was yet another uphill climb on a rocky trail to Sinuwa (2,350m) where we took a break at one of its tea houses to catch our breath over lunch.

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A chilly day of trekking under a deep fog in the forest

The trail continued uphill passing through a beautiful rhododendron forest to a place called Kuldi, which was once a British sheep-breeding project. It was all downhill from Kuldi across a long, steep staircase passing through a dense bamboo and rhododendron forest to arrive at a small hamlet called Bamboo.

DAY 4 (21 November) – Bamboo to Himalaya 3,000m

The trail continued to ascend through dense forests where we got to see troops of Langur monkeys jumping from tree to tree. Today we walked through thick fog so cameras didn’t see much action. We had not seen any motorised transport since we set off three days ago; the trail was littered with mule droppings, as mules are the main transport mechanism at this altitude; or sheer human strength.

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A local carrying a great load in his bamboo basket – and doing it in flip flops, mind you

After walking for 7 hours, and having ascended 900m in total today, we finally reached a collection of three tea houses in what appeared to be the hamlet of Himalaya. Our accommodation was grandiosely named the Himalayan Hotel but it was just another tea house with fewer facilities than yesterday. I hadn’t showered in three days – the thought of a freezing shower and stripping off in the cold was too difficult – so my biodegradable baby wipes saved the day.

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Time to chill after a long day of trekking

Although there was a chill in the air, we sat outside in the courtyard, under a corrugated roof shelter sipping tea and coffee; some of us playing cards over a beer whilst others content with having a chat about the day’s event. We were too tired to unpack our bags and freshen up before dinner.

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No room at the inn… our rooms only had space for beds – small ones

Dinner was the usual spread in a tightly packed and cosy dining area – 27 plates of Nepalese dal bhat thali, plus an extra 21 for the porters and guides. It is amazing what the chef was able to conjure up for dinner in such a small kitchen area in a remote location – but it tasted delicious.

Thali time again

DAY 5 (22 November) – Himalaya to Machhapuchhre Base Camp (MBC) 3,700m

We had been warned the night before, during the usual dinner briefing, to expect an uphill trek all the way to MBC which would be our highest overnight resting place on this trek. Today we had to ascend a full 700m. With heads slightly thumping (the first sign of altitude sickness), we set off towards MBC at 8.00am after the usual boiled egg and potato curry breakfast. The sun was out yet again to give us another gorgeous day, but it was not to last. The weather changed as we went up through the valley towards Hinko Cave with clouds rolling up from the valley floor making it very foggy. The trail passed over a couple of small precarious log bridges crossing a stream of ice melt from the mountains above.

After a 4-hour ascent we arrived at a place called Deurali, high above the cloud-line, where we relaxed for a couple of hours to enjoy an al-fresco lunch underneath a clear blue sky.

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Sunglasses are out and we’re eagerly awaiting our lunch

We were in for a treat – this place was known for the Nepalese Momo (a steamed dumpling with different kinds of filling – a bit like dim sum). Whilst lunch was being prepared, the game of cards continued; others relaxed and watch the world go by.

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Nepalese dumplings, known as “momo”, with a side of stir-fried rice

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A quick game of Monopoly Deal

After lunch, the trail ascended gently through a fast-glacial river bed rising steeply over the mountain side. We found ourselves surrounded by giant snow-covered mountains. The sun rays reflected off the snow on the mountain to create a stunning view. But we had just entered the “Avalanche Risk Area” and the path was treacherous as we navigated across rocks covered by fresh snow fall from a recent avalanche. It was single file only. The mood was sombre. One wrong footstep and the snow beneath us could give way causing an injury or worse, making one slide right down the mountain side.

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Team work makes the dream work

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The scary sign we trekked past in silence

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Entering the avalanche zone

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Traversing the snow-covered ground towards MBC

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The uphill snow struggle

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The weather kept changing as we entered the clouds

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The most rewarding views of the mountain valleys

We all made it across safely but the effort and concentration of ploughing through lots of deep snow and icy sections was exhausting. Every now and again we heard the thunderous clap of an avalanche and snow falling down the mountainsides around us – it stopped everyone in their tracks to try to spot the white dust storm in the sky indicating the location of the avalanche.

The trek felt never ending. We asked the guides: “How much further? Are we there yet?” to which they gave their stock reply, “Not long to go now”. We finally arrive at MBC around 5.00pm and the view that rewarded us made it all worthwhile. We were completely surrounded by mountains, every way we turned; it almost looked pretend; like it was created as a backdrop for a theatre production. The humongous mountains (including Fishtail Mountain right ahead of us) had a way of making us all feel so small and insignificant. Despite the freezing cold and biting wind we posed and took lots of photos; staring in awe at the spectacle around us.

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Almost at Machhapuchhre Base Camp

Although we were at a place labelled a base camp, it is not technically a base camp as it is forbidden to climb Machhapuchhre (Fishtail) for religious reasons.

The plan was to start trekking very early at 3am the next morning in order to get to Annapurna Base Camp just before sunrise. Some people had a splitting headache brought about by the altitude; most had mixed feelings of both apprehension and anticipation for what tomorrow would bring. We got busy organising and preparing ourselves for the early morning start. There was a sense of trepidation too: all that snow we’d just traversed would surely turn to ice overnight, and soon we’d be climbing back up it, yet it total darkness. Everyone was in bed by 9.00pm (today we were 4-5 to a room) although a lot of sleep was not to be had due to altitude, cold, anxiety and the ever-present night-time orchestra!

SUMMIT DAY 6 (23 November) – MBC to Annapurna Base Camp (ABC) 4,130m

It was 3am – pitch black and freezing cold outside – in fact the temperature was about minus 10c but it felt much colder due to the wind chill. But we had no option – we had to get out of our cosy sleeping bags as today was the big day when we would meet Annapurna. There was no time for a cup of tea/coffee or breakfast before we headed of.

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The 3am struggle to get to Annapurna Base Camp – battling the freezing cold, darkness, snow and black ice

Although we had three layers of clothes on our legs, at least six on the top of our bodies, three pairs of socks, woolly hats, balaclavas and ski gloves, it still felt really cold standing in the biting wind whilst waiting for everyone to assemble before starting off.

To manage the safety of the group the guides split us into 2 groups, a faster pace and a medium pace group. Adorned with head torches we slowly made our ascent in a single file – wary as the path was covered with black ice – slippery and treacherous in some sections.

It was a full moon night with hardly any cloud cover to hide the millions of stars peppering the sky. Progress was slow on the icy surface and our ascent was c150m per hour. The wind chill made it feel colder, and our stops were limited to less than 2 minutes – to catch our breaths, clear our runny noses, grab a sip of water etc, so that we wouldn’t freeze – most finding it frustratingly difficult to accomplish these tasks in such a short time with so much clothing on!

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Just as the sun started rising, we entered an area called the Annapurna Base Camp Sanctuary. From here the views of the near-vertical south face of Annapurna towering above us were sensational. We had an unobstructed 360-degree panoramic view of Machhapuchhare, Annapurna South, Annapurna I, Annapurna III, Gangapurna, Hiunchuli and a few other peaks towering close to or above 8,000m. Annapurna Base Camp is a small area with a couple of tea houses, some research huts and expedition tents all on a cliff edge above a huge glacier moraine. We had finally arrived.

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Obligatory team photo at Annapurna Base Camp

Everyone was on a high – hugs and high-fives all around; for some it was a very emotional moment – it finally sunk in that they had just realised their goal of trekking to Annapurna Base Camp having spent so much of their time in the last 10 months training and preparing for it.

There were 27 of us who embarked on this trek. 26 made it to ABC. It was a shame that the last one could not make it as he was about 45 minutes away from ABC but succumbed to altitude sickness, serious enough for the guides to make a call that it would be safer for him to turn back. All in all a great achievement for the entire group and for many individually it was one of the most rewarding day of the trek and a significant achievement of a lifetime. We took our time to watch the sunrise over Annapurna Sanctuary in the lap of the Himalaya range and let this significant achievement sink in.

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Spectacular view of the mountain ranges

Before setting off on our descent to MBC we enjoyed a most satisfying and much needed cup of coffee and a piece of chocolate each. As the sun rose in the sky, the trek down to MBC became even more treacherous as the ice had started to melt. There was little foothold for our boots on the icy path and there were many tumbles and falls on the way down – luckily there were no serious injuries or broken bones. We arrived back at MBC for a well-earned breakfast before packing our bags in readiness for the descent.

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Spirits remained high

The mood in the group was very different now – we were on our way down and everyone was on a high from a personal goal fulfilled! We still had a long day ahead of us in order to get down to Dovan (2,500m). We passed through the “Avalanche Risk Area” again to arrive at Duerali at around 2.00pm where we enjoyed another great al-fresco lunch under clear blue skies.

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Making our downward descent

We continued our downward trek to Dovan, having to don for the second time that day our head torches, finally reaching Dovan in the dark for our overnight stop at around 6.00 pm. We had been walking since 3.00am – 15 hours in our boots! At Dovan we all had hot showers – for many of us it was our first shower in six days – at a cost of 200 rupees per person (about £1.50). Today was also a special day as we had a birthday boy amongst us. We cracked open a few beers, exchanged animated stories of the day’s events and for the first time ate something other than dhal bhat for dinner; we got pizza and chips as a reward for our hard day’s work. Sadly, we were all so shattered and unable to keep the celebrations going for too long. Everyone was tucked up in bed by 9.00pm.

DAY 7 (24 November) – Dovan to Sinuwa 2,360m

After a leisurely breakfast in Dovan – our first fried instead of boiled egg; oh what a treat! – we continued our trail downhill towards Sinuwa. Spirits were high and everyone had a spring in their step. After a 3-hour walk we arrived at Bamboo for a lunch break. We reached our accommodation in Sinuwa in record time around 4.00 pm.

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Picturesque coffee/masala tea stop

DAY 8 (25 November) – Sinuwa to Jhinu Danda 1,780m

We decided to start off early today as we wanted to get to Jhinu Danda as quickly as possible so that we could relax our tired muscles in the natural hot springs there. We left at 7.00am and after a couple of hours arrived at a beautiful outdoor spot, high on a mountain ridge, with panoramic views of the valleys below.

We continued our descent to Jhinu Danda, arriving in time for lunch and beers. After lunch we got into our swimsuits and ventured down through the forest for a 30-minute walk to the hot springs to spend a couple of hours unwinding in style. The setting of these hot springs was surreal – to one side was the fast-flowing Modi River and to the other was a dense forest. The locals believe the natural hot springs would aid the healing of the aches and pains that our bodies had suffered in the last few days.

DAY 9 (26 November) – Jhinu Danda to Pokhara

This was the final day of the trek. After breakfast we had a short 2.5-hour trek down to Sauli. To get there we had to walk along the second longest, swaying suspension bridge in Nepal about 350m long – it felt like walking down the aisle of an aeroplane in turbulence – for some it was unsettling. At Sauli, we thanked our porters for their incredible support and hard work, followed by an emotional farewell, before jumping onto our transport for the journey back to Pokhara.

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The second longest, swaying suspension bridge in Nepal – walking along it felt like walking down an aeroplane when there is turbulence – it was unsettling

CLOSING NOTE

Everyone in the group is incredibly proud of their own personal achievement and journey over the last few months. We take away great memories forged along the Annapurna Base Camp trek together with countless stories and anecdotes to share with our friends and family. The best thing to come out of this trek are the new friendships and sense of camaraderie forged over the 9 days of trekking.

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Tibetan cloth prayer flags adorned many of our trekking routes. The practice of hanging prayer flags (which contain sacred text and symbols) pre-dates Buddhism. It was a shamanic medicinal practice to help bring balance and harmony to the environment. After some time the prayer flags will naturally fade and fray, symbolising the passing nature of all things

 

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Multi-coloured prayer flags sway in the wind above us

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A local carrying a bale of hay on his back

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Clothes drying outside a home in a village we passed through

Together, we have managed to raise an extraordinary sum of money, currently standing at £430,000, for the deafblind which would not have been possible without the immense generosity of our donors.

We left a small piece of our hearts in Nepal but taken with us a rucksack full of memories. Kaushik, one of the team members has composed this poem below which sums up our feelings at the end of this incredible trek.

ASCENDING ANNAPURNA

Step by step, rock by rock

Heart thumping fast, tick-tock, tick-tock

You gaze to the sky, crystal clear blue

There she sits, majestically, like few others do

She holds court, so begins the drama

As others pay homage, in humble panorama

The flags in colour, salute her and flutter

Whispering sweetly “Go in Peace”, they mutter

The sun rises, showering her in golden glory

So ends a chapter, in your life’s story

Your heart and soul in union, this is karma

It’s just amazing, Ascending Annapurna

 


What to pack for Annapurna Base Camp

The main bag (70-100kg), which porters carry (make sure it’s wheel-less) should be waterproof, and contain the following items:

I’ve highlighted in red the things that were absolutely ESSENTIAL and inserted a few web links.

  • Sleeping Bag – a 4-5 season plus (delivering comfort at -5C to -9C)
  • Travel pillow (optional)
  • Sleeping Bag Liner (silk or cotton) for extra warmth
  • Comfortable shoes or trainers for the evening
  • Good walking socks (1 pair for every 2 trekking days)
  • Underlining socks (1 pair for every trekking day)
  • Spare socks and underwear
  • Warm thermal or base layer (2 pairs)
  • Light trekking trousers (each one should give you 4-5 days wear)
  • A couple of trekking shorts (or trousers convertibles into shorts)
  • A couple of warm fleeces
  • T-shirts & long-sleeved tops (1 for every two trekking days)
  • Comfortable bottoms or spare trousers for the evenings
  • A small wash-kit including any personal hygiene stuff
  • Quick drying travel bath and hand towel (microfibre is best)
  • Warm pair of wind and waterproof gloves with thin liner (ski gloves are excellent)
  • An extra pair of lightweight fleecy gloves for lower altitude
  • Padlock or means of securing/locking luggage
  • Ear plugs
  • Playing cards (Monopoly Deal is amazing), books, miniature travel games or something for entertainment
  • Hand torch with spare batteries
  • Mobile power bank for device charging (most tea houses charge you to use their electricity) – some in our group used solar chargers
  • 1 spare re-useable water bottle
  • Biodegradable wet wipes
  • Medicine kit (see below)
  • Spare chocolate bars, snack bars, trail mix, sweets or other snacks (the tea houses do have them available also, to buy)
  • Colouring pencils/books/stickers/toys for the young Nepalese children you meet on the trek

Medicine bag comprising:

  • Painkillers (avoiding those that include aspirin)
  • Ibuprofen or other anti-inflammatory (not for asthmatics)
  • Imodium or Lomita for diarrhoea
  • Dehydration mix such as Dioralyte
  • Antihistamines
  • Antiseptic wipes and cream
  • Plasters
  • Elastic knee support
  • Moleskin and/or ‘Compede’ for blister treatment
  • Tiger Balm or equivalent
  • Olbas Oil or Vicks breathing stick
  • Throat pastilles or lozenges

Day rucksack (size 25-35 litres), which will be carried by you while trekking, containing:

The best dosas outside of India at Chennai Srilalitha

Ever eaten something so incredibly good that you’ve caught yourself thinking about it days later? Guilty. I’ve been having daydreams about the crisp, moreish masala dosa at South Indian restaurant Chennai Srilalitha in Kenton, which were as good as the ones I had a few years ago while travelling through Kerala.

The spice-rich, sticky onion-laced potato filling that was dolloped into the firm golden-hued dosa (a large, crepe-like form made from lentils and rice), the liquid coconut chutney, the warm dal – bringing them together made for a meal that I would like to eat again and again. And again. All of this, presented in a thali plate, came at us for under six quid. For those who haven’t had dosa before, break off a bit of the crepe, pile on some masala filling and a few dollops of chutney, then dip it in the dal (or pour the dal over the entire dosa beforehand if you prefer) and pop in your mouth.

The menu at Srilalitha vegetarian restaurant is vast, with more than 10 varieties of dosa, which is their specialty. The spongy onion uttapam – a bit like an egg-free Indian omelette – was also delicately spiced and delicious. It came with the same condiments as the dosa, and oddly, it worked just as well. The crispy battered vegetables were equally good, with every bite delivering a brilliant satisfying crunch – no greasiness whatsoever. On our visit we also noticed that the restaurant creates special dosa for kids – ones with a little spinning top – so ask for those if you have little ones in tow and want to create a bit of excitement.

This restaurant, which has been operating for 13 years, has been added to my list of favourite places to eat in London. The food is fantastic, but a note on the place itself: some people might turn their noses up at the wipe-clean plastic table cloths, plastic covered seats and mixed levels of customer service, but once you taste the dosa, any doubts you have will be quickly forgotten. Trust me, they are worth venturing to zone four for.

A taste of Ethiopia in north-west London

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It’s best to give your hands a good wash before you sit down to eat at authentic Ethiopian restaurant Abyssinia, because if you’re embracing the dining experience, you won’t be getting any cutlery.

The restaurant in Cricklewood, north-west London, prides itself on being the first and oldest Ethiopian restaurant in the city. As first-timers to the cuisine, we took guidance from the smiley owner on what to order. Within seconds he’d decided on two dishes: the vegan combo and the meat combo (each about £26, and big enough to serve at least three people). 

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Soon enough, two extra large plates were placed before us. On one, mounds of colourful vegetable curries and stews were dotted atop a giant spongy sourdough flatbread (known as injera). On the other, a mixture of vegetable and meaty curries, following the same formula. Two baskets of extra injera rolls were also placed on the side. 

The idea is that you tear a piece of the injera and use it to scoop a mouthful of curry. It’s very much a hands-on, sharing experience, as you’re all eating from the same gigantic plate.

The vegan version was everyone’s favourite. It featured different mash ups of veggies, lentils and pulses, that were in turn spicy, nutty, creamy and delightful. The meaty mounds were well spiced and tender, and also very good, but the simplicity of the vegan combo really got our attention – and it tasted fresh and healthy to boot.

The soft, spongy injera had a great texture, so it was fun to touch. We kept picking at the food all evening – chatting and taking short breaks in between scoops. The beauty of it was that we felt very satisfied and full by the end – a ‘good’ full, not the sort where you’re in need of a lie down, which could be down to the fact that all the food was gluten free. After all that dipping and scooping my fingertips had received a good bathing in curry sauce, which reminded us of the similarity between Indian and Ethiopian food.

The portions were very generous – between the five of us we were shocked that we didn’t manage to clear either of the plates – and very well priced (the bill came to just £80, including two bottles of very good red house wine). We all thoroughly enjoyed the food and the relaxed service, and agreed we’d like to visit again. 

A note on the restaurant itself: it’s small, simple and basic looking (and probably in need of some loving). There’s no extensive wine list – just a house white, house red and house rosé – and there’s not really a need to reserve a table in advance or dress up. 

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PS Sorry for the silence lately, I’ve been busy scoffing food for Time Out – you can read my latest restaurant reviews here.

 

Got a head for heights? Abseil down the ArcelorMittal Orbit in Stratford

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Urban thrill-seekers will be able to abseil down the ArcelorMittal Orbit – the tallest sculpture in the UK – from Saturday 31 March.
Abseilers can take in the panoramic views across the city as they step off the tower’s viewing platform in the heart of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford for the 80-metre descent.
Instructors are on hand to guide every step of the way and abseilers have the option to record their experience on a GoPro helmet camera.

The 114-metre tall tower became a recognised landmark after opening as part of the 2012 London Olympics and is now also the site for the world’s highest slide.

To book an abseil experience and to find out more, go to wireandsky.co.uk.

Step into London’s Bake Off tent: could you be crowned star baker? Plus, speed dating meets baking

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Have you always wanted to take part in the Great British Bake Off? You’re in luck – a baking tent has popped up in Tooting and you can head down and compete for the chance to be crowned star baker.

As well as baking competitions, the tent is also the setting for something a little more unusual: a speed-dating baking event, First Bakes. It’s a bit like First Dates meets Bake Off, and it’s a laughter-filled evening – much less intense and cringe-inducing than bog-standard speed dating.

You don’t need to be a pro baker to sign up – you’re provided with the recipe, ingredients and equipment, and there are helpers floating about all the time to give you a hand if you need it. The ladies stay at their stations and the men rotate every 10 minutes. While I don’t want to give away too many details, it’s a formula that does work: there are rarely awkward silences because you’re both focused on building a brilliant bake. As you’ve instantly got something to bond over the conversation flows easily and by the time the 10 minutes are up, you’ve also got a sense of your date’s culinary prowess. If you’ve dabbled with online dating apps previously, think of this as a good way to cut out days of swiping/sending introductory messages back and forth, as you can decide straight away whether you feel there’s a connection.

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Just like on the television programme, the competition really heats up at the end: time’s up and you have to bring your bakes to the head table for inspection. The judges – sadly no Mary Berry, but some bubbly hosts – sample the delights and pick a star baker. The lady chosen must then pick her best male helper (plot twist!) and both get to take home a lovely little gift. You can taste each other’s bakes and take the rest home. Plus, there’s all of the mess and none of the washing up – whoop.

The love bit: after the judging you submit your scorecard – stating who you would consider going on a date with, who you’d like to be friends with, and who you wouldn’t want to see again. It’s all calculated there and then, and you get a lovely handwritten note with any mutual matches and their contact details.

I headed down for the launch event on Valentine’s Day, and although it suffered the same problem that most speed dating events do – too few men and too many women (8:10) – it didn’t matter too much. Although learning that the organisers had to ship in their housemates/friends to fill spaces was a tiny bit annoying, considering the £47 ticket price. Having a cameraman pointing his screen at you during sections of the evening was a bit unsettling but on the whole it was a brilliant night – and I may or may not have come away with a hot date match and a friend match…

Big London Bake takes place in the garden section of the lovely Castle Pub in Tooting.

Going loco for Lobos Tapas in Borough Market

Paul Winch-Furness / Photographer

Tucked away in a corner of Borough Market, this tiny Spanish tapas restaurant is in the heart of foodie land – and its offering tantalises the taste buds just as you’d hope.

Lobos Tapas brings a meat-heavy menu and a good wine list to boot. Considering that the restaurant was started by former Brindisa employees (another one of the great tapas joints in London), you know to expect great things.

Walking into the dimly lit eatery without a booking on a Saturday evening was risky, but we were lucky that a table had freed up after a last-minute cancellation. We were shown to our seats on the second floor in an atmospheric little cave, which gave Lobos points for ambiance, although the waitress’s immediate request that we return the table within an hour and a half was a little jarring.

We kicked things off with the brilliant croquetas – six balls of deep-fried joy stuffed with creamy ham, chorizo and smoked bacon ­­– and savoured every last one. Also outstanding was the baked tetilla cheese (pictured above), which arrived in a little frying pan. Bits of roasted veg poked out from the bubbling cheese, and pieces of crusty bread were laid down beside to dip and dunk. The creamy cow’s cheese was pleasingly stringier than Cheesestring and great fun to disassemble.

The mixed mushrooms, with truffle oil and broccoli, were a delight – the subtle truffle flavour was on point and the mushroom pieces slid down my throat in glee. Although the one dish we didn’t bother to finish was the Spanish specialty known as arroz con costra – basically crispy saffron rice with chicken, chorizo and egg combined together to look a bit like an omelette. The taste was bland and the chunks of meat were barely visible.

Thanks to its high quality food, swift service and stylish setting, this little restaurant, which has one other site in Soho, is definitely giving Brindisa some serious competition. As there’s so much choice on the menu, I’m certain to go back for more.

Misato’s chicken katsu curry is better than Wagamama’s

 

The long queue outside Japanese eatery, Misato, suggested that the food must be good, yet, looking inside, my confidence waned. Diners were crammed tightly together on basic wooden tables and chairs, and the plain beige walls lining the small space desperately needed some cheering up. It seemed to lack ambience, especially for a Chinatown restaurant. Still, every table was full and diners were chowing down on bountiful portions of sushi, noodle and curry dishes. I decided I had to leave my preconceptions at the door.

Following a twenty-minute wait in the queue, we were seated and quick to order. As the chicken katsu curry promptly arrived at our table, I was alarmed at the presentation. The rice was piled up messily and there was a huge breadcrumbed chicken portion resting on top with a generous drizzle of thick curry sauce. A mixed salad sat beside it all. The meal looked like it had been hastily thrown together by someone eager to clock off from their kitchen duty, but as I looked around, I noticed fellow diners’ dinners appeared in the same fashion.

As I got stuck in, I was pleasantly surprised. The fried chicken was crisp on the outside and tender on the inside, and the curry sauce was flavourful. The salad was dressed well and complemented the flavours with every mouthful.

Misato gives Wagamama’s much-loved chicken katsu curry a run for its money – plus you get almost double the portion for less money (£6). Now the rice did not arrive in a perfectly-formed mound as you would get at Wagamama, but the salad portion was sprawling, and the overall taste of the meal was as good as, if not better than that you get at the restaurant chain.

At Misato, it seems the food is cheap and tasty and the portions are big. Our meal for two came to just £18 (payment is cash-only), with drinks and service included – something that’s often unheard of in London. The queue outside Misato is worth the wait and, as that old saying goes, looks can be deceiving. 

All-you-can-eat sushi in Soho

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Now that you’ve seen the words “all you can eat”, I bet you’re fired up and ready to go. Before you do, here’s the small print: the bill at Sushi Eatery must be paid in cash, you’ve got an hour and a half to be in and out and drinks are paid on top. Now off you go.

It’s the same premise here that you get with the sushi buffet at Sushimania, where you’re given a small card on which to score a tick beside the dishes you want. You can get up to six rounds of the sushi and sashimi dishes, and only one for the hot dishes (featuring tempura dishes, gyoza, calamari and noodles etc), so make your choices wisely – and fast, the clock is ticking.

When we visit on a Thursday evening the place is packed to full with mostly Asian clientele. The food is decent – perhaps not the freshest or the best you’ll taste – but a good way to sample a lot of different things. I tasted something called Japanese butterfish and enjoyed the tuna sashimi and salmon and avocado sushi, washed down with a cup of Japanese tea.

The portions are generous and we just about make it to the fourth round. I don’t think it’s possible to get through more than four rounds, but if you do, you deserve a pat on the back.

The menu is fairly extensive and obviously fish- and meat-heavy. If, like me, you like raw salmon you’ll be happy.

Service is brisk at this small restaurant, which is set over two floors. The seating downstairs consists of long communal tables sunken into the ground – you almost feel as if you’re sitting on the floor (soft cushions are provided) – and it is difficult to elegantly enter or exit the seats; you have been warned.

Sushi Eatery doesn’t accept reservations and the cover price is approximately £20 per person.

If you can’t quite move at the end, you’ve probably got your money’s worth. Good work.

Win a gift card for London’s new “Free Willy” extreme water sports experience

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Thrill-seekers will be able race across London’s Victoria Dock in a high-powered whale-shaped watercraft – a hybrid of a speedboat and submarine – from February next year.

The extreme water sport experience takes place in an 18ft Seabreacher vessel (call it Free Willy, if you like), and can reach speeds of up to 60mph on the surface, and 40mph submerged underneath the water.

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Adrenaline junkies can experience tight turns, doughnut spins, jumps above water (up to six metres above the surface) and more – just tell your pilot how wild or mild you’d like your ride to be, and do put in a request for that Free Willy jump.

The Seabreacher is a millionaire’s toy – costing upwards of £40,000 to buy – so this is your chance to take the plunge and experience a whirlwind ride.

Passenger rides start on 1st February. To win a gift card worth £99 so you can be one of the first to get a ride, simply provide your name and address below by 12th December 2017.

 

One gift card worth £99 is available to win. The winner’s name and address will be shared with Predator Adventures, who will post the voucher to the address specified.

“Dope” times at hip hop brunch

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Don your chunky gold necklace, snapback hat and bandana headband for this daytime party with a hip hop twist.

It’s dubbed “brunch” but what you actually get is a five-hour party session comprising an hour of bottomless booze, a three-course sit-down meal and endless entertainment in a club venue.

Old and new hip hop beats, including the classics from Biggie and Tupac, blare out the speakers as you enter the location, which is kept secret until a few days before the event for added mystique.

There are inflatable boom boxes, microphones, and cardboard cut-outs spread across the venue, which you can stick your head through for Instagram-worthy shots.

The bar is crammed, especially for the first hour, as everybody gets their fill of bottomless booze. Just don’t go overboard and sink a few too many, such that you need to be Ubered home within half an hour (as I have done on a previous occasion).

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Join the queue at the temporary tattoo station where artists will draw hip hop icons on to your body, or sit back and enjoy the music. There’s a talented magician doing the rounds with his tricks to leave you gob-smacked, a beat-boxer comes up on stage, and you all crowd round in awe at his skills. The lively hosts keep things moving: if you’re brave enough to step up to the mic and do some hip hop karaoke, you better get your name down on the list.

Meanwhile, food is being served to your table. We were served a quiche Lorraine for starters, barbecue chicken, fries and slaw for mains and a brioche bun and ice cream for pudding. It was okay – not outstanding – but good. As you may have realised, while most brunches are designed around the food and eating experience, hip hop brunch definitely isn’t – you won’t find any avocado on toast on the pre-set menu – it’s all about the entertainment.

Go in a group and you’ll have your own dedicated area and table, so it really feels like a unique celebration. Go for your birthday and you’ll have your name screamed out by the hosts numerous times, and be called up for  shots on-stage.

The vibe is great: everybody is there to dance, drink and party like it isn’t just 3pm. What’s great is everybody also gets dressed up. You may ask, as I did, what to wear to hip hop brunch. You can always simply rock an all-black ensemble, but if you want to get in the mood, put on a baggy tee or crop top, chunky gold hoop earrings, dungarees, leggings or sweatpants and trainers, if you like.

By now almost everybody is up on their feet, singing and dancing together. A dance troupe puts on a performance, then it’s time for the closing hip hop karaoke, perhaps one of the highlights of the brunch.

The event sadly wraps up at 5pm, although it feels more like 5am as you exit the venue bleary-eyed and struck by daylight. Brave souls carry on the party elsewhere until the early hours. I only made it till 9pm.

Tickets start from £45, and you have to pre-book online.

 

Sri Suwoon is the Thai gem hiding in Pimlico

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Discovering an excellent independent Thai restaurant hidden alone in the quiet residential streets of Pimlico was a bit like finding treasure – I was pleasantly surprised, yet uncertain about who else knows it’s there.

You probably wouldn’t find cosy two-floor restaurant, Sri Suwoon, if you weren’t looking for it (or without Google Maps). It appears that the locals are in on it though, because shortly after we arrive on a Monday evening, the restaurant is nearly full.

Visiting with a bunch of cousins meant we got lots of dishes to share – my favourite way to eat out. For starters, the chilli oyster mushrooms and chilli squid tempura were outstanding – the seasoning is just so and they both had a good crunch. The appetiser selection was generous and included all the classics: chicken satay, prawn toast, spare ribs, prawn tempura and some sort of bean curd patty which was very tasty.

The food crept closer to five-star with the mains: the drunken sea bass was mind-blowing (and that’s coming from someone who isn’t the biggest fan of fish). The chargrilled steak salad was refreshing; the beef pieces melted in my mouth. The vegetarian Thai green curry was perfection in a bowl; it’s as good as that from nearby Thai chain Mango Tree, and £4 cheaper too.

On that note, Sri Suwoon is pretty good value for money: our two-course meal for five people came to £110, approximately £22 each, and it’s just a seven minute walk away from Victoria station. Despite its proximity to this commuter hub, the independent restaurant has a relaxed atmosphere with a local feel.

Our meal really surpassed our expectations; Sri Suwoon is suddenly up there as one of my top five Thai joints in London.

A colourful, feel-good vegetarian dinner at Casita Andina

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Friends and colleagues always swoon at the mention of Peruvian food, so Ceviche and Andina have been knocking around on my restaurant list for a while. I’ve never visited South America and have no knowledge of the cuisine, so I’m not sure what to expect as we arrive at Casita Andina in Soho. It’s a cute and homely little spot, which comes from the makers of both Ceviche and Andina.

We start with a Pisco sour – Peru’s national cocktail – to get us in the mood. Sweet and smooth, it sets us up nicely for what’s next.

To nibble on, we get aubergine fries (good), and avocado fritters dipped in chilli and anchovy salt (outstanding).

The mains are served tapas-style, so we pick a mixture of hot and cold vegetarian dishes. The stand-out is the vegan Puka Picante. It’s a warm beetroot sauce with potato chunks, smoked cheese and herbs. I don’t think the description quite sells it, but it is brilliant and moreish. I also sample the pan-fried hake, which is flaky and light.

Ceviche [raw fish marinated in citrus juices] is perhaps Peru’s most famous dish, and features prominently on the menu, but as my dining companion is vegetarian, we steer clear.

Vegetable-based dishes dressed up in various flavours and marinades soon arrive at our table. All are colourful and have a satisfying mouthfeel. The ceviche de alcachofa, which consists of artichokes, sweet potatoes and black radish in tiger’s milk, has a good kick. But we can’t stomach the gemmas de los Andes, with lettuce and cured radish. It’s an acquired taste.

I feel I may have missed a trick by not trying the real deal ceviche, so I decide I’ll come again.

Our meal comes to £65 for two – in all a nutritious and fresh tasting dinner from which you come away feeling good rather than guilty.

*Swoons*

El Parador is the veggie-friendly tapas joint you’ve been searching for

When a friend suggested we dine at an “insanely good” (his words) family-run tapas restaurant in Mornington Crescent, I didn’t need much more convincing. Giving it a hasty Google a couple of hours before visiting, I was excited to see that El Parador was winning in the reviews too – always rated at four out of five stars, or higher. Needless to say, I arrived with high expectations.

Open since 1988, the restaurant is cosy, split over two floors, with basic décor, and located just a few steps away from Mornington Crescent station. There’s an outdoor terrace, but on the evening we visited in the middle of August (hello, summer?), it was pouring with rain (*rolls eyes*), so it was out of action, but this didn’t dampen my spirits.

EL PARADOR MORNINGTON CRESCENT TAPAS

The restaurant only accepts bookings for groups and there were some reservations so we were seated downstairs. Down a narrow staircase, we found a dimly-lit dining room with no actual windows – it felt a bit like a casino as we were oblivious as to when the daylight gave way to darkness, but it’s nice if you want a bit of privacy.

Peering at the menu, I was amazed at how many vegetarian options there were – as many or more than the options for meat eaters or pescatarians, which you don’t get often in tapas joints. Even better, for such a small restaurant, the menu was full of variety.

We started with the house red, which was very good, and came highly recommended by the friendly waiter. We indulged in deliciously garlicky aioli with crusty bread, followed by patatas harra, flavour-packed roasted butternut squash with oregano, garlic and feta (yum), and spinach and cream cheese puff pastry parcels (really good). Whatever you go for, be sure to try the show-stopping pan-friend artichoke hearts. I’m still thinking about how to recreate that at home. For afters, we devoured a slice of creamy cheesecake.

Dining in the downstairs capsule, we lost track of time and managed to while away three hours without noticing.  Despite being tucked away from the main action, we weren’t forgotten about, with attentive and friendly service throughout. The bill came to £66 for two, including service, a worthy price to pay for such a delicious vegetarian meal in central London.

El Parador seems like a bit of a local secret, and yes, it’s definitely worth the hype – just don’t go telling your friends.

Party to the sound of live music at Piano Works

piano works farringdon london

Pop your dancing shoes on and have some song requests ready for Piano Works, the warehouse bar with an exceptional live band in Farringdon.

It’s not often you walk into a bar and everyone is dancing and singing at the top of their voices, but that is what you find on a Friday at 9pm at Piano Works.

Yes, it gets loud and a little cramped (despite the 400-person capacity), but the atmosphere is great. Plus, the musicians only play the songs requested by the audience, so the playlist is in your hands.

Two pianists are accompanied by a saxophonist, drummer and guitarist on the night we visit, and they play everything from 80s classics to R&B. They don’t shy away from the trickier requests – despite not being familiar to the song, they managed to give a rendition of Trap Queen by Fetty Wap because it was requested by a guest.

This is more than just a piano bar, and it’s buzzing. If you’re after a quiet bar with a pianist tinkling in the corner – probably a better option for a first date – you’re better off going to Piano Kensington.

The drinks at Piano Works are on the pricier side and there are long queues at the bar as the night goes on, but if it’s a feel-good night of music you’re after, this is the place for you.

As soon as you get there, look for a napkin [they double as song request forms], jot down the song you want to hear and perhaps a little message, and pass it on to the band – the earlier you get in your request, the more chance you have of hearing it played. When it comes on, be sure to sing like nobody’s listening…

Pick your own lavender in Hitchin

hitchin lavender field hertfordshire

As the wind blows, the calming scent of lavender pours in through the open car window. We’re close.

We drive a good few metres forward and then we see it. A gigantic field speckled with the colour purple.

Rows of lavender roll on for miles. It looks even better than the pictures on Google.

We’ve just pulled into the entrance to Hitchin lavender farm and soon enough we’re parked up and making our way through the sea of purple.

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At the entrance we pay a small fee (£4.50 for adults, £1 for children) in return for a pair of scissors and a roomy brown bag. It’s time to get cutting.

But of course, first things first: pictures! We can’t help but whip out our cameras and get clicking.

We decide to trek all the way to the top of the hill to get the best view (comfy shoes are recommended).

As we walk amongst the lavender rows, the sound of bees buzzing fills our ears, and the small black and yellow creatures are everywhere (you might want to wear clothing that covers your shins and ankles when you visit, just in case).

pick your own lavender london

The view is spectacular from the top, with the lavender immersed against the great British countryside. We take a long rest and soak up the view.

On the way down we begin cutting. It’s harder than it looks, and we are surprised by how long it takes to build a bundle.

Lavender picking is a great alternative to strawberry or vegetable picking, and it’s only available to do for a limited time of the year (call ahead to the lavender farm to check it’s available before you visit). If you’re closer to south London, you may want to try Mayfield lavender farm instead.

lavender london

It’s lovely to see people of all ages getting stuck in, and on the sunny day we visit, the field is filled with visitors. One newly wed couple has even come to get some snaps for their wedding album.

After a couple of hours in the field we have picked to our heart’s content, but there is still room in our bags to fill!

Tired and thirsty, we head for the farm shop and café where we sip lavender lemonade and feast on cake. On the menu I spot scones with lavender jam, and make a mental note to return to try them. There are also sandwiches, jacket potatoes and lots of cake so you can make a day of it. All sorts of lavender products are also available to buy.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the hustle of city life in London, so a day out in the fresh air in the suburbs, within a beautiful field of purple is ever so refreshing. Give it a go, especially now that the sun is out!

Aim for bullseye at darts joint Flight Club

flight club london bloomsbury

Darts just got cool. For a long time it’s been a game associated with old men and dated pubs – but that’s all been thrown out the window now thanks to Flight Club.

This fairground-themed bar brings fancy computerised score-keeping and exciting team-based knockout games to make darts fun and social.

Think of what Top Golf did for golf; that’s what Flight Club has done for darts.

flight club darts london fun

Add inventive cocktails, tasty tear-and-share food (that’s brought straight to your area at the touch of a button), a buzzing atmosphere and feel-good music to the mix and you’ve got a winning combination for an alternative experience in London.

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Choose from four different games on a slick, touch-screen system, and it doesn’t matter if you’ve never played before, you’re likely to be hooked after a few turns.

The smallest details have been thought of, from engraved throw lines, also known as ‘oches’ – marked ‘rookie’, ‘regular’ and ‘pro’ so you can match it to your ability – to coat hooks in every area, and the capability for every player to take a mug shot at the start of the game, which will flash up every time it’s their turn.

Hire an area well in advance, and we’d recommend booking for a minimum of two hours to give yourselves sufficient time to get through all the games. It is perfect for a group of friends/colleagues/family members – we had 10 people in our game.

The carousel-themed bar downstairs in the Bloomsbury branch is vibrant and inviting, so even if you don’t go to play, this is a cool place for drinks.

While ping pong has had its moment – proving popular for team building events, dates and birthdays – now’s the time for darts.

…And it’s not just for boys.

Flight Club has two venues in central London – Shoreditch and Bloomsbury.