“Never again,” I’d decided after a nauseating speed dating experience three years ago. Where I’d expected cute, dateable men; instead I found a lot of desperate wife-hunters with mental checklists in tow. “Do you eat meat?”, “Are you religious?”, “Do you smoke?” were the sorts of questions fired my way, along with the bog-standard, “Where do you work?” Boring.
I’d also made the classic errors of a) failing to tick ‘yes’ or ‘no’ straight after each speed date, and b) failing to make any notes to distinguish each man from the next. As a result, by the end I’d confused myself entirely as to who was who and had a banging headache, so I hastily ticked a few boxes on the scorecard before handing in my slip – only to regret the entire thing the next morning, when I emailed the organisers and asked them to remove my scorecard from the count. WUSS! But in my defence, speed dating was a bit much for my 23-year-old self.
So, last night – three years on – and armed with another single friend, a new scorecard and a renewed sense of optimism, I gave it another punt. It was the same formula: women sit at tables around the room, men move from table to table every three minutes when the whistle is blown – and it wasn’t actually that bad.
I should interject before I go on that I do think speed dating should come with a firm caution along the lines of: ‘It is entirely possible you’ll have crap, awkward dates where the three-minute slot may feel like an eternity. This is perfectly normal. We cannot be held accountable for the shittiness of the talent on offer.’
I didn’t walk away from the night with the feeling that I’d met my Prince Charming, but I did meet an entire spectrum of men – from the weird one who gave off a serial killer-vibe (more on him in a second), to the beardy man who chatted to me for an extra 40 seconds after the whistle was blown. Aw!
This time around I was on top form: I made the ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘friend’ selection on my scorecard as the night progressed, and I made notes too. My notes mostly consisted of a word or sentence that reminded me of the date – for example, for the one mentioned above I wrote ‘big beard’, another I wrote ‘Egyptian’, and another I wrote ‘gay?’
Conversation flowed and some guys actually came prepared with interesting icebreaker questions – for example, one asked, ‘if you could host a dinner party, who would you invite?’ Even if he did use the same line on all the ladies, it did make it a more positive experience.
I also appreciated the fact that there was a ‘friend’ option on the scorecard of the Original Dating event, which meant you weren’t outright rejecting, just friendzoning.
Just as I was starting to relax and actually enjoy the night, the scary/weird/odd man, who I’ve decided to nickname the ‘serial killer’ came to my table. He had a stone-cold look on his face as he sat down, and when I asked his name, he grabbed my scorecard and wrote his name down rather than telling me it, and he asked me to do the same. He wrote his name in big angry capital letters too.
Next he said, in broken English: “I’m [insert name], I’m 31 years old and I’m looking for a girlfriend.” *Conversation killer!* I wracked my brain for a quick fire back, and came up with some generic questions about where he lives, what he does for a living and what brought him to London, etc. Bearing in mind he’d been talking at me for about a minute by now, there was a pause as I thought of something to try and continue the conversation. He rudely interrupted my thoughts with the question: “So are you going to ask me a question or what?” DEMANDING.
Ok, I came up with the topic of films: films should be the winning topic to save the day, I thought. “Do you like watching films? Films?” I asked as I wasn’t sure if he could totally understand me. “Yes, I like films with blood. You know, killing.” The background noise was getting louder and my expression may have suggested that I couldn’t hear him. At this point, he reiterated his point, saying “killing films” and made wild stabbing gestures towards me with an imaginary knife to illustrate. That was when I thought, “Errr, when’s that f*cking whistle going to blow? I’m about to die here.” I picked up my drink and took a long, long sip. The whistle still hadn’t blown. I took another sip, and did it again. Then I inquired as to whether this was his first time speed dating. No, he said – it was his third time because the last two times he didn’t get any matches. No bloody surprise! Then the whistle saved me. Hurrah.
That entire experience did, however, make me question the number of male speed daters who turned up to speed dating alone. Is that weird, or is it just a very female thing to want to take a friend everywhere you go?
Aside from the serial killer, there were 15 other men I met at speed dating – one I found really boring because he wanted to talk about politics, another piqued my interest as he revealed bits of his bucket list to me and asked me to do the same, and one offended me straight away by saying he thought my name was odd. Of the 15, I actually enjoyed talking to about 5 of them. It was a real mixed bag, and I think that with speed dating, ultimately you won’t know what you’ll find till you get there.
One cool thing about the Original Dating event was that you didn’t have to give your scorecard in to anybody at the end of the event – you could take it home and have a think before entering your choices into its unique smartphone app, Mixeo. This buys you time to make an objective decision the next morning. The app then tells you who you matched with and links your profiles so you can use its private in-app messaging system to chat to them if you want.
Would I speed date again? Probably not. But I met a serial killer and survived, so here we are.
PS Top trick for speed dating: one girl at the event revealed that she ticks ‘yes’ to every speed date to see who matches her before deciding who she’d actually like to talk to or date – I suppose it’s a bit like swiping right to everyone on Tinder. If you’re brave enough, you could do the same.
I’ve never heard the word “Wench” screamed out loud as much as I did last night.
I’ve also never witnessed so many people banging tables with their fists before – but at the theatrical, immersive dinner experience that is The Medieval Banquet, both are encouraged; this is part and parcel of the entertainment.
“Wench” is the medieval term for ‘waitress’, and as table service is the order of the evening, you’re encouraged to shout for your wench when you want something, and bang the table (instead of clapping) to express your delight. It’s all a bit raucous, noisy and mad – and young men seem to get a lot of satisfaction from the excuse to shout the word “Wench” at the top of their lungs.
Upon entering the low-ceilinged underground hall where The Medieval Banquet takes place, you’re shown to one of the long tables lining the alcoves, and given the chance to hire a medieval costume so you really fit in. Staff, who are authentically dressed, greet you in old English, and there’s the opportunity to have your picture taken with a real-life King Henry VIII by his throne.
The night’s entertainment kicks off once everybody is seated – medieval songs and sword fights are performed by actors, and performances from acrobats, contortionists, jugglers, singers are interspersed between courses. For the first half of the night, guests are mostly seated, but after the third course you’re encouraged to get up and have a little dance, before the entertainment ends and a mini disco takes place.
Ale and wine flows freely throughout the evening as it’s included in the cover price, and this makes for a very jovial atmosphere. There’s also a bar serving other alcohol that you must pay an additional charge for. It’s definitely not an event to bring children, and if you’re looking for a quiet, civilised night, this probably isn’t for you.
The experience would be best enjoyed in large groups (and there were plenty of stag dos, hens and birthday groups to prove it), although the communal seating arrangements do give the chance to mingle and make friends with those sitting beside you.
The four-course meal or “feast” was quite basic and a little disappointing – soup and bread was followed by a selection of cold meats and pate, and then mains were chicken legs and vegetables with apple pie and cream for dessert. The fact that the majority of the food was served in sharing plates encouraged conversation across the table but could mean that some people don’t get enough to eat.
The entertainment did, however, make up for the food, and the wonderful wenches really made a difference to the evening, encouraging us to bang, yell, play along and get involved with the experience as well as getting us up to dance.
We were lucky to be seated at the top of our table, closest to the central stage area, but I can imagine it being difficult to see the entertainment fully if you’re seated further down the table in the caves – so it may be worth trying to request seats closer to the stage if you are considering booking.
The olde-worlde setting, costumes, acting and entertainment combined nicely for an alternative night out in London, but it is debatable whether it’s worth the £50 fee.
I’d always hoped that someone would invent a soft play area specifically for adults – you did too, right? Well, the clever folk over at creative agency Pearlfisher have sort of answered our prayers… They’ve created a ball pit for adults in London to frolic in.
The 30-person pit is somewhere you can relive your childhood memories, play to your heart’s content, and have a right old balls-up! It’s for big and little kids alike, and what’s more, it’s totally free to visit!
After thrashing around in the 81,000 white balls for a good hour and a half, we were feeling content, albeit tired (it really does take it out of you!). We came away with enlarged smiles and lots of hilarious slow-mo videos to show for our activity.
The lovely lot at Pearlfisher are also donating £1 for every person that visits to nominated charity Right to Play, so you’ll be having a ball (excuse the pun!) for a good cause. The installation is only around till February, so get in there before it closes.
Jump in! is an interactive art installation that promotes the transformative power of play.
Studies have shown that play can bring about extraordinary results for creative thinking, which is why design agency Pearlfisher has partnered with charity Right To Play this winter to champion the transformative power of joyful play, in order to educate and empower children facing adversity.
Christmas movies are all over the telly, and I’m way over my self-imposed quota of one mince pie a day – but as we all know, ’tis the season to be jolly and indulge…
After a busy morning of last-minute shopping today with my sister, there was nothing I wanted to do more than to eat and relax – and so we did, at Lancaster London. We were booked in for the Champagne Festive Afternoon Tea – a delicious and filling afternoon tea with a Christmas twist.
We were greeted with a glass of Laurent Perrier champagne upon arrival at the hotel’s Lounge Bar, before our lovely waiter Monir proceeded to explain about the afternoon tea: the three-tier stand features a tier of sweet treats and two tiers of savouries, which can be topped up if you’d like more.
The scones are freshly baked on request – they take six minutes in the oven, according to Monir – so once you’ve finished your sarnies, you just have to let the waiter know you’re ready for the scones. The soft and light scones, smothered in clotted cream, were one of my favourite elements of the afternoon tea.
Just before the afternoon tea was served, we were presented with an extensive and unique tea menu to choose from. I went for the Persian Pomegranate tea, my sister went for the Spicy Chai. The waiter brought us each our own pot with a hourglass timer to ensure we gave the teas an optimum brew. A lovely touch.
The savouries in the tea included smoked salmon (with grain mustard & honey cream cheese – really nice), cucumber, egg and cress sandwiches as well as a coronation chicken tartlet and roast beef filled Yorkshire pudding with horseradish cream.
As well as freshly baked scones, served with strawberry jam and Cornish clotted cream, the other desserts included white chocolate and raspberry lolly pops (they have popping candy on top, and sort of explode in your mouth!), apple and honey cupcakes (yum), passion fruit and raspberry macarons, lemon fruit tarts and caramel and hazelnut tranche.
The afternoon tea experience in the cosy Lounge Bar was friendly and relaxed – it was the perfect way to continue the Christmas festivities.
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas! I’ve been busy crafting handmade gift tags and Christmas tree decorations – and I wanted to share the idea.
The ornaments – a great way to add a personal touch to a gift, or to a friend’s tree – are made from salt dough; a simple mix of salt, flour and water (recipe below).
It’s so cheap and easy to make salt dough ornaments – and the results can make lovely keepsakes.
How to make salt dough
Mix the flour and salt before gradually adding in the water until the dough is smooth (a bit like a biscuit dough), but not at all sticky. We used a mixer as it’s much faster, but you can use a bowl and wooden spoon too. Optional: add in food colouring to make the dough a particular shade.
Roll out the dough until it’s about a centimetre thick, before using cutters to create shapes. We used festive-shaped cutters including snowmen, gingerbread men, hearts and circles, but you can use any you like.
Pierce a hole in the top of the shape if you’d like for it to be strung up later, and consider imprinting designs – a baby’s hand or foot print, or an initial or a name using alphabet cutters – before leaving to set. You could even push some sequins or beads into the shapes if you like.
Transfer the shapes onto parchment paper and let them air dry for about 5 days in a warm room (we stuck them in the boiler room). The result is that the dough will be hardened and ready to paint.
You could immediately pop the shapes into the oven for about 3 hours at the lowest setting if you’re in a hurry. Wait until they cool before painting with acrylic paint. We used Sharpie pens to add minor details as well.
Once the paint is dry, smother the ornaments in PVA glue to finish (add glitter, sequins or beads at this stage, if you want) and once dry, string up and use as gift tags or hand out as Christmas tree decorations. Find lots more fantastic ideas on salt dough crafting, shapes and designs on Pinterest here.
The feeling of hot oil being trickled all over your body is like no other. The only comparison I can make is that of a chunk of Galaxy caramel slowly melting in your mouth. Mmm.
It is in an ayurveda abhyanga (sorry for throwing these two words at you so soon – I’ll explain in a second) massage that you are smothered in heated oil – and it is what makes the experience so very luxurious and relaxing.
I had no idea what ayurveda was or what an abhyanga massage would involve until minutes before I was about to settle in for one, but it turns out that it is actually really interesting stuff. Here’s why:
Ayurveda is an ancient Indian medical system that believes everyone has a different mind/body constitution, made up of three different types of energies: Vata (air), Kapha (fire) and Pitta (earth), which are determined by your genetics, diet and lifestyle.
What’s your type?
People who tend to be slim, light, enthusiastic, creative, friendly and energetic generally have a dominant Vata. If people have smooth, oily and warm skin, are intelligent, ambitious, fiery and goal-orientated, they have a strong Pitta. People who have a dominant Kapha are easy-going, calm, truthful, loyal, patient and nurturing.
Although each of us has all three forces or “doshas”, most people have one or two that predominate. But as conditions such as diet, weather, lifestyle, stress and emotion change, so does the balance of the doshas. If they become imbalanced, then illness or disease can result in the body and/or mind.
The goal of Ayurveda is to identify a person’s ideal state of balance, determine where they are out of balance and offer natural interventions such as meditation, diet, aromatherapy and massage to rebalance the doshas.
The Abhyanga massage
After arriving at Ayurveda Pura, a treatment centre in North Greenwich owned by award-winning Ayurvedic Doctor Deepa Apte, I was greeted by the soft-spoken entrepreneur herself, as she took time away from her busy training academy to give me a quick one-on-one “dosha” consultation. After quizzing me on my sleeping habits, diet, and illness history, she took a feel of my pulse and a look at my tongue before classifying my basic constitution as majority Kapha-Pitta. She diagnosed an imbalance in my Vata. Symptoms of a Vata imbalance, she explained, can include anxiety, insomnia, dry skin (tick), constipation (tick) and difficulty focusing (tick). She also said something that freaked me out a little: if there was ever to be a problem or disease in my body, it would likely be on the left hand side of my body (time will tell, I suppose!).
I bid the soft-spoken Dr Apte farewell before being left in the soothing hands of spa manager Colette. She told me to strip off and put on those weird paper pants, (they were surprisingly comfortable), before she returned to commence my Abhyanga massage.
First she slathered my whole body in heated herbal oil (the oil is specific to your dosha imbalance) before beginning the body massage, which involves long, sweeping strokes. It was incredibly relaxing and gentle – whereas sports, deep tissue and Swedish massages are more intense, involving cracking and de-knotting – this is much smoother and you don’t feel any pain the morning after.
Your whole body tends to be exposed throughout the treatment rather than under a towel. It was the first time I had my chest and breast bone massaged, too, which I wasn’t expecting. It was one of the most relaxing massages I’ve ever had though, and I’m tempted to sign up for another already.
An Abhyanga massage has a host of benefits too: it nourishes the body, increases circulation, calms the nerves, promotes better sleep and gives you softer and smoother skin.
You’re absolutely soaking in oil after the treatment – and it feels really nice, strangely – so you take a shower, before being welcomed back to real life with a herbal tea. You feel lighter emerging back into the Ayurveda Pura reception and Café, which serves a host of Indian curries and snacks, and the weight of the world isn’t as large as it was before you entered the treatment room. Bliss.
You wouldn’t think you’d be able to find a place of such tranquility within the hustle and bustle of Camden Market, but Tea & Crafting, located within Camden Lock, is just that.
A room where you can be creative and learn new crafts with the help of a lovely teacher, Tea & Crafting is intimate and hands-on.
I visited for a massively therapeutic one-and-a-half-hour-long needle felting class on Sunday morning, where I was joined by four other ladies to make Christmas tree baubles.
Needle felting, I learned, is a simple technique where you create a felt-like effect, using a sharp barbed needle and wool. Our teacher Holly gave us a quick introduction to the craft technique before letting us get stuck in. The needle stabbing motion we were required to do was great for letting off any steam we’d mustered up during the busy working week!
We were all served a cup of tea and a miniature cake, which we swiftly forgot to drink/eat as we became engrossed in the task itself. Holly kept a watchful eye on our progress and helped us through each step.
Time flew – as it does when you’re having a good time – and we all came away with a new skill under our belts, and something cute to hang on our Christmas trees.
I particularly loved the displays dotted around the Tea & Crafting room, featuring other homemade items that can be made in the classes, from crochet baubles, mittens and socks, cute amigurumi animals and snap purses.
The needle felting class was a vey satisfying, stress-free and enjoyable way to start to my Sunday, and it left me with a spring in my step all day.
When the cold, dark nights draw in, there’s nothing better than snuggling up indoors to watch a movie.
The makers of Hot Tub Cinema have timed their latest invention – Pillow Cinema – correctly then, as they invite Londoners to settle in for movie nights complete with comfy beanbags, pillows, blankets and snacks, at the former Shoreditch Underground Station.
Cosiness is guaranteed – snuggling is optional – at Pillow Cinema, which dubs itself ‘the cosiest night in, night out’. You’re essentially going out (to Shoreditch) but going in (as you’ll be indoors), and you’re encouraged to take whatever makes you feel at home, for example pyjamas.
It’s really roomy in the movie room, and you’ll be provided with a Fatboy beanbag, which comfortably sleeps/sits two medium-sized persons, but you can take pillows if you want, or hire them there. We cheekily just rolled up our coats and used them as head supports, so do the same if you can’t be bothered to lug a pillow out with you.
You might think that because Pillow Cinema is housed in a disused train station, it would have a cold atmosphere, but it’s actually really warm in the movie room, which can hold about 60 people in one viewing. You also get a blanket to snuggle under – a nice touch. Most of all, you don’t really get too many reminders of the old train station, other than a few exposed brick walls and some steps.
The venue is very close to Shoreditch High Street railway station, and so during the movie you often hear the sound of trains whizzing past outside – in our case, the noises only added to the eerie theme of the film we went to see (Black Swan). It’s also something a little different to your usual Vue or Odeon cinema.
But as with our every day cinemas, the venue operates a first come, first served policy on bean bags, so get there on time to secure your spot, and so you have maximum snuggle time!
Romantic cobbled streets, narrow lanes, little bridges and canals greeted us as we arrived in the charming little medieval city of Bruges.
It was easy to see why Bruges is often known as the ‘Venice of the North’ after ambling the canal paths, and it felt like we’d stepped back in time as horse-drawn carriages navigated the small streets, and intricate architecture and antiqued buildings flooded our view.
We were particularly impressed by the ultra-romantic Lake of Love (formerly Minnewater Lake), and its elegant resident swans.
The many lace shops dotted around the city – reminiscent of the city’s lacemaking tradition – were bursting full of intricate homewares, and, of course, Belgian treats were at every corner: chocolate, waffles, frites (chips, double fried, with mayonnaise squirted on top), mussels (‘moules’), beer, and more.
And it was in Bruges that I discovered the real way to enjoy hot chocolate – the best hot chocolate I’ve had yet – at The Old Chocolate House.
‘The place to be to drink the best hot chocolate’ is the slogan for this cosy little old fashioned cafe and chocolate shop, and I’m so thankful for stumbling upon it. When you enter, you walk straight into a chocolate shop, but a set of stairs leads to a lovely antiqued tea room upstairs, complete with stained glass windows, dim lighting and vintage table covers.
The hot chocolate is an experience in itself – first you choose a combination, for example, the type of chocolate (white, milk or dark) and then the combo you want with it (chilli, ginger, marshmallows).
A huge mug of steaming milk then arrives, with a mini whisk, and a separate tray full of chocolate drops to mix in – as well as a biscuit and a selection of individual chocolates from the shop downstairs.
You whisk in the amount of chocolate you want before slurping away. We were full up after drinking half the mug, so perhaps order one to share. I cannot recommend this place highly enough, and what’s great is that it wasn’t even expensive.
A horse-drawn carriage ride is a common mode of transport to navigate the small streets – and it is one of the best ways to get a glimpse of the city. Boat tours along the canals are equally popular, and also another great way to see all the beautiful architecture. We chose to spend the day on foot, however, and got ourselves lost among the tiny streets – but that’s how we discovered some of the prettiest spots.
There were a variety of museums dotted around, such as a lace museum and beer museum, along with various canal-side eateries and drinking holes where you can dine with a view.
Getting there: We took the ferry over from the port of Dover to Calais, and then got a coach to Bruges. The ferry ride took about 2 hours, and the coach from Calais to Bruges took about 2 hours, too. A quicker and simpler way to get there would be to jump on the Eurostar.
Beautiful Bruges is easily doable in a day – but for a more relaxing experience, consider an overnight stay.
Tip: wear comfy shoes (there’s lots of walking on cobbles!) and perhaps something with an elasticated waistline (there’s so much to eat!).
I’m off to try and get hold of the film In Bruges, to see if Bruges looks as pretty on the big screen as in real life.
After 13 hours of movie-watching, boredom-eating and dozing on an aeroplane, we were relieved to exit Changi International Airport so we could begin our 4-day adventure in Singapore.
The humidity struck us first. The 28-degree heat was suffocating and we were thankful to clamber into an air-conditioned taxi. During the journey to our hotel, we noticed the trees, plants and lawns lining the roads were pruned to perfection; public places were immaculate; and super cars such as Ferraris and Aston Martins whizzed past. This set the tone for the next few days: Singapore was clean, efficient and flashy.
Driving through Orchard Road – the main shopping street in the city, a bit like London’s Oxford Street fused with Knightsbridge, but 10 times larger – we were flanked by mall after swanky mall. Stores for big-name brands including Gucci, Prada and Chanel cropped up every two seconds, as did restaurants offering a variety of cuisines. It was a shopper’s paradise, and you got a real sense of wealth and modernity in this small city island.
There was tranquility on the streets. Ladies shielded themselves from the heat of the sun with umbrellas. Pavements were clean, and – as you’d expect – chewing gum-free as the city banned the sale of chewing gum a few years back. Taxis were everywhere (and they all accepted card payments – win!).
Arriving at our hotel and tucking into the breakfast buffet, I was amused to discover sushi, dim sum, noodles and rice dishes at such an early hour. It was something I’d have to get used to, and be tucking into soon enough. I devoured the exotic fruits on offer, including mangosteen, rambutan and longan, before we stuck our middle fingers up at jet lag and set off for a day of exploration.
We headed first to the malls along Orchard Road. We walked from the hotel – although locals we bumped into to ask for directions advised getting a cab or the bus. It was a wise suggestion, the heat was unrelenting and we arrived at the first mall wet with sweat. We learned our lesson, we’d be taking cabs from now on. The Westfield malls we have in London have got nothing on the malls in Singapore. We made it through one mall, which, in Singapore terms, you’d consider ‘small’, before resigning for lunch at one of the many eateries.
Later that day, on our quest to visit one of the many hawker centres in Singapore – which are basically open-air, lively food courts, with stalls serving food that reflects the cultural diversity of the country – we hailed a cab to the Newton Food Centre. Hawker centres are famed for their cheap, authentic food, and apparently locals eat dinner there every night because it’s better value for money than cooking at home.
It’s a basic sort of experience: you pick a table (they’re a bit like picnic tables), select food from a stall (it’s harder than it sounds; there are so many stalls and the majority serve similar food, so it can be difficult to pick) and tell them your table number. It’s served to your table with in plastic plates and cutlery, and you pay the bill at the end.
What we later discovered from a local taxi driver is that the price of the food is adjusted so it’s much lower for locals, and inflated for tourists – and we were left with a hefty bill after ordering crab, prawns, sting ray, and various other dishes. A sign by the stall priced seafood per kilo rather than giving a set price – and we ended up paying way more than we would for a proper sit-down meal in a restaurant, with proper napkins. Tip: clarify prices with the stall owner before you order. And try to barter with them, it might get you a little discount.
We had booked a tea appreciation ceremony and tasting class with a dim sum lunch at Yixing Xuan Teahousenext to Chinatown after a recommendation from a friend, so that was our first stop. We were joined by a few other tourists and a couple of Singaporeans. The Chinese owner, Vincent, and his daughter Charlene, both had an infectious passion for tea. They shared facts, myths and tips for preparation, and provided various tea tastings too. It was a random, but highly enjoyable experience, followed by an authentic dim sum lunch, which was simple but very tasty. We had some vegetarians in our group and the tea house catered perfectly for them as well.
Full from that lovely lunch, we took a short stroll through nearby Chinatown. Towering above us was the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple. We weren’t appropriately dressed to enter (legs, shoulders and arms must be covered) but there were items available for us to cover up with. Apparently every level in the temple has something worth seeing, from the orchid garden on the top tier to the free museum on the third tier, but we didn’t make it up. We scoured the market that runs through the heart of Chinatown next, which sells everything from Chinese tea pots and jewellery to magnets and t-shirts, and picked up a few kitsch bits and bobs and souvenirs on the way.
Next we jumped on the train to Marina Bay as we’d been eager to check out the iconic Marina Bay Sands hotel, and the rooftop view it offered. The underground system, known as the MRT, was easy to navigate, and, as you’d expect, very clean and efficient. In comparison to the chaos you’d find on the London Underground, in Singapore, locals wait for all passengers to get off the train, and make a orderly queue to board. The priority seats for pregnant women, the elderly and parents with little children were humorously depicted (see pictures, below). It was also funny to see notices that banned the local, smelly fruit durian on the trains.
When we arrived at Marina Bay station, we found ourselves in the Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, one of the largest malls in Singapore. It was luxurious, super-modern, and to top it all off, there was a mini canal running through the centre, on which you could take a gondola ride to the other side. I was awestruck. Just outside the mall we spotted the Helix Bridge, before making our way to the entrance of the mammoth Marina Bay Sands hotel.
We took the lift up to the top, having chosen to go up to the Ku De Ta bar for drinks, rather than spend the same to visit the observation deck. The impressive rooftop infinity pool was located beside the bar, which was a bonus, (although only hotel residents can use it or access the area around it) but the outside deck offered an extensive view over the Singapore skyline and its shores, the pool as well as Gardens by the Bay, which was our next stop.
Gardens by the Bay is a vibrant horticultural oasis of lush greenery and floral displays. We’d timed our visit to coincide with the free light and sound show, which takes place right after dark. Many people lie down on the ground to watch the show, and I think it’s a wise thing to do to really take it in. We paid to visit the Flower Dome, Cloud Forest and other attractions in the Bay before it took place, too. We weren’t overly impressed by Gardens by the Bay, and thought the Singapore Botanic Gardens were much more worthy of a visit.
Sticking with the theme of heights, that night we went up to the highest rooftop bar in Singapore, 1-Altitude,to enjoy cocktails and a mesmerising view of the city. The bar has a strict dress code, and you have to pay a flat-fee to enter, but this includes a free drink, and it really is worth it for the 360-degree view of Singapore by night. There’s a relaxed vibe up top, and cocktails are surprisingly tasty. A must-do.
We put on our nicest clothes and hopped in a taxi to the palace-like Raffles Hotel, one of Singapore’s most famous hotels – and the birthplace of the legendary Singapore Sling (it was invented by one of the hotel’s bartenders a long, long time ago). Raffles, which has been around since 1887, was once a place where the upper class British colonials would stay, and many famous names have inhabited its many rooms, including British poet Rudyard Kipling and actor Charlie Chaplin.
The grand, elegant hotel really does make you stop in your tracks, and its colonial, old fashioned appearance – reminiscent of the city’s history –takes you back in time. We took a walk around some of its terracotta-tiled courtyards, and admired the classic detail in its architecture, before slipping into the Long Bar to relax with a Singapore Sling – it’s like going to Manhattan and having a Manhattan cocktail, it’s got to be done!
The bar has an earthy decor, with rows of wicker fans lining its ceilings, and creating a breeze thanks to an ingenious contraption. I was a bit confused as to why monkey nut shells crunched under my feet as I entered the bar, but it seems that it is tradition to eat monkey nuts and throw the broken shell right onto the floor where you sit. Odd, considering how strict Singapore is generally with littering.
We were all set for a relaxing afternoon of tea and cake, but there had been a mix up with our afternoon tea booking at Raffles – tip: call them to book as the online booking system doesn’t clarify what you’re booking in for – so we wasted a couple of hours under the lovely air conditioning at Raffles City Shopping Centre before returning for our tea in the hotel’s Tiffin Room.
There was a harpist elegantly strumming tunes, and the high ceiling-ed room was impressive and tranquil. It was a lovely setting and scones, pastries, cakes and finger sandwiches were served in tiered stands. There was also a dim sum buffet with extra cake that you could help yourself to. The service was impeccable – the waiters kindly brought us out a special cake as there was a birthday in the group – but the food, on the whole, was not amazing. The afternoon tea came to around £35 per person. A bit of a tourist trap, but nice to do.
That night we made our way to the Arab quarter, and the sweet smell of shisha instantly filled our nostrils. A local we had spoken to earlier in the day recommended visiting from 7pm onwards, as this is when it comes alive. He wasn’t lying – people spilled out onto the pavements from shisha bars and restaurants on the streets surrounding the Sultan Mosque.
We took a walk around the quarter, stumbling on Haji Lane, a narrow, colourful street filled with quirky, independent fashion boutiques, cafes and restaurants. It had a hipster vibe, and graffitti-strewn walls – it reminded me of London’s Camden Town. With unique homeware and clothing, it was really different to the standard stuff we’d found on Orchard Road. Throughout the Arab quarter there were also a lot of Persian-style carpets for sale, traditional fabrics and clothing, as well as leather goods.
For dinner we could choose from Middle Eastern, Malaysian and Turkish restaurants, and we opted for a Turkish meal at Alaturka on Bussorah Road. Seated outdoors in the humid air, we munched on everything from kebabs, humous and freshly cooked naan to mezze, salads and falafel.
As it was officially our last night in Singapore, we were determined to make the most of the evening, and so we ventured to the area of Ann Siang Hill and Club Street on the fringe of Chinatown where there are lots of bars and drinking holes clustered together. The area is really lively come sun down, and filled with merry post-work drinkers. We started off at The Screening Room’s rooftop bar, La Terraza, which is cosy, dimly lit and has a romantic ambience, before wandering to Toca Me Bar across the road. Come 2am, all the bars began to close and taxis filtered in to the main street that had been pedestrian-free until this hour, to ferry us all on our way. The efficiency of this system was splendid.
We had a few hours before we were to depart for Singapore airport, so we made a quick dash back to Haji Lane to perhaps do a bit of shopping. As it was before 11am only a few shops on this street were open. We then visited one of the most ‘fragrant’, colourful and untidy places in Singapore – Little India. The smell of incense wafted in to the taxi as we pulled up, and the cab driver warned us that if we wanted to take a taxi home we’d have to go a little way away from Little India as many taxi drivers weren’t keen on coming down these streets. The main things to do in Little India include eating, shopping or visiting the Sri Veeramakaliamman temple.
We were impressed by the Mustafa Centre, a 24-hour mall-like store that basically sells everything you could ever wish for, from electronic gadgets to jewellery and Indian sarees. Every single wall in this multiple-floor store was stacked high with products, piled high and untidy. A sight to see.
We collected our bags from the hotel and headed off to Changi International airport, where we stopped off at the butterfly garden inside terminal 3 before fluttering off onto the plane.
Craft salon Homemade London has unveiled a string of new workshops for the coming season – and I went down there to give them a try. What followed was a therapeutic evening of crafting and creativity, while sipping on swoon-worthy cocktails (recipes below) and munching on yummy treats.
We created embossed greetings cards (a really simple concept, with a professional-looking finish), Homemade London’s expert perfume tutor Nicola taught us about aromatherapy-based perfume blending – an intriguing insight into base notes, middle notes and top notes – and we even got to make and take away our own perfume.
General manager Nancy helped us make pretty crepe paper flowers, and finally we made block-printed cocktail napkins – perfect for all those Christmas parties coming up in a few months.
The Homemade London team made us feel right at home, and it was fantastic to mingle with the other ladies who had also turned up for the workshops, to reconnect with my inner crafty side, and to spend an evening free of ‘screen time’ from smartphones, iPads and computers.
It’s distressing to consider the thought of losing your sight, vision, or sense of balance – when I’ve got a mild ear or eye infection I’ll moan and groan – but for some people, living with visual and auditory impairments is a part of every day life.
Today is World Sight Day, a day that draws attention to and celebrates people who live with visual problems and blindness. There are plenty of services available to help people cope with sight loss, and guide dogs help to give freedom of movement and companionship to almost 5,000 people in the UK right now. I’ve always been intrigued by guide dogs when I see them about on the street, and so in aid of this special day, I caught up with former guide dog trainer Mark Richards from UK charity Guide Dogs, to ask him all about them, and what training involves.
Mark Richards, 50, worked as a trainer for 18 years, and is now an Events Demonstration Officer for the charity.
One of the questions we often get asked is ‘how does the dog know when to cross the road?’ It’s one of the common misconceptions that people have about guide dogs: the fact is, the guide dog doesn’t work alone – it works in partnership with its visually impaired owner. So a guide dog may walk the owner to the curb, but then it will stop. It’s up to the owner to say ‘forward’ when they think it’s acceptable to cross the road. The dog will be on watch to see if it’s safe to cross – if the dog sees a car, it will disobey the command and turn away from the curb, and proceed only when it is safe to do so.
As one of 17 trainers at the Leamington Guide Dogs site, I’ve got a pack of four dogs to teach (each trainer has four or five dedicated dogs), so my day is broken up into four ‘journeys’ as we like to call them – I spend a couple of hours with each dog individually, every day.
The dogs are about a year old when we start working with them. Before this, they’ve been working with volunteer puppy walkers who’ve introduced them to the sights, sounds and smells of the world in which they will soon play an important part. This could mean taking dogs on buses and trains and into shops and restaurants, so they slowly learn what’s expected of them.
To start the day, I have a training session from 9 to 10.45am. I’ll head over to the on-site kennels and collect the dog I’ll be working with. They’re cared for round-the-clock by dedicated carers who check them daily from nose to tail to ensure they are at optimum health – for example, to make sure they aren’t carrying too much weight. Some days a dog may be ill, so we won’t train.
The dogs typically spend 16 weeks in training with us, before they graduate to more advanced training with instructors, who will introduce the dogs to their new owners and get them used to their new environments. So, as trainers, we specifically focus on perfecting the dog’s behaviour. We’ve got a checklist of things we need to achieve with a dog before it graduates to that level, so each one has its own training schedule.
There are three main stages to the training: we start off by teaching obedience responses, for example, ‘sit’, ‘wait’, and ‘down’ etc. After these have been established, we’ll introduce the dogs to a harness walk, where the dog is put into its harness and taught basic guiding skills such as navigating a kerb and avoiding obstacles. A smaller dog will start off in a quiet environment where there are fewer distractions, but as it becomes more obedient and less distracted in its decision making, it will be taken to a more challenging environment. At this point you may discover that a dog is distracted by other dogs – he may keep pulling you toward them to say hello – so you may get a head collar for him to steer him away and break this habit. The final stage of training is blindfolded training – where the trainer wears a blindfold to test the dog’s guiding skills. It’s the ultimate test.
After training with the first dog, I’ll return it to its kennels before coming in for a warm up and a quick tea break before heading out with the next one.
Each dog has its own strengths and weaknesses; they’re a lot like us. So a dog could be fantastic at picking up the straight line principle – where it must follow a straight path, avoiding obstacles (both stationary and moving, such as trees and pedestrians), and pick up a straight line on a route indented with a kerb, perhaps – whereas when you attempt to teach it something else, it fails.
Teaching a dog the height obstacle is perhaps the most challenging part of training. This is when the dog is able to successfully judge the height and width of obstacles such as low-hanging trees or scaffolding so that its owner does not bump their head or shoulder. We have an obstacle course set up on site, and all the obstacles vary in height, to practice. For a dog to be able to take into account its own height as well as yours, it can be difficult.
We primarily use positive reinforcement during training – where you reward a dog for displaying the behaviour you want it to. Rewards can be in the form of treats and toys to start, but we quickly wean the dogs off this – instead using vocal praise, or perhaps a free run at the end of the day as a reward. Repetition is important too, as dogs are creatures of habit so the more you do something with them, and reward them for it, the more likely they are to remember and do it again.
Some dogs can be a real difficulty to work with – particularly those with a low concentration or low motivation. But it’s up to us to discourage these behaviours by building up a specific behaviour in steps with rewards.
It’s a real ask for a dog to go out and guide. In this role, they’re making decisions for a person: whereas everyone else’s dog is waiting for a command, this dog is in charge of commanding and negotiating a situation, so not all dogs make it through the guide dog training (about 20%). This could be because they are highly distracted, have health issues or confidence issues.
It’s always disappointing when a dog doesn’t make it through training. We put in so much effort. As a trainer, you often take it personally. You develop an attachment to a dog. But making a decision on whether a dog is not suited to this career path is important.
Dogs that do not progress through training go off on to other services such as hearing, dogs for the disabled, the police, army or prison services. We have a new scheme called Buddy Dogs where people who are interested in being guide dog owners can take in the dog and find out what it is like having it about the house.
At 1pm I’ll take an hour’s lunch before beginning training with the third dog in my pack. It’s non-stop, but a lot of fun.
A guide dog takes on a different demeanour when it’s got its harness on. It’s trained to think ‘I’m working now, no messing about’. We teach the dogs guiding tasks when in harness, and make sure there’s no silly behaviour – it’s time for the dog to be a decision maker. When the harness is off though, as a trainer you are more relaxed and so is the dog; you’re not asking anything of it – and that’s how it distinguishes between being on and off duty.
When on duty and in training, other dogs are the biggest distraction for our dogs. Dogs that are running around or playing with a ball are particularly interesting to our training dogs, who are encouraged to say hello but that’s it. Our dogs have little contact with balls from when they are young – they are purposefully not introduced to them, so those owners with ball launchers in the park are a big distraction. Our dogs think, ‘that looks fun, what’s he running after?’ when they see dogs playing with them. But we teach the dog to stay put (and not go after the ball) – and positively reinforce this behaviour.
Crowded places can be overwhelming for dogs too – they can make them stressed and result in errors, so the dogs are primed early by being introduced to busy in order to habituate them. As pups, dogs may also be taken into restaurants. When we later take them to these places for training, we ensure we are consistent – we ensure they are always obedient and quiet, and we don’t go into a restaurant encouraging bad behaviour one day, perhaps by saying ‘yes you can go and crawl and eat that chip someone’s left on the floor’, and the next day teaching the dog to sit quietly under the table.
We train in all weather, so we wear jeans and a Guide Dogs branded polo shirt as uniform. It’s particularly pleasant to train when the sun’s out in the summer, less so in the winter, but nothing deters us. We have to have the dogs prepared for all-weather conditions for when they go out with their owners. My day would usually finish at 5pm but sometimes I do night walks with the dogs, depending on whether or not they are ready for them.
I still get a buzz and bags of enjoyment when a dog performs something for its new owner that I taught it, and what I love most about working with dogs is that even when you’re having a bad day, they still treat you like you’re the best thing since sliced bread – they love you no matter what. I love being around dogs and have a good rapport with them. I fell into this job – I used train my collies for agility and flyball competitions as a hobby, when someone suggested I apply for the job. I got it, and I haven’t looked back since. I’m being paid to work with dogs – what could be better than that?
When you hear the word ‘biscuit’ what’s the first thing that comes to mind? A digestive? A cookie? Perhaps a good old HobNob or gingerbread man? I’d always thought of the humble biscuit as a comfort food, something to satisfy my sweet craving or to dunk into my tea, but when I discovered Biscuiteers, a London-based biscuit gift business and boutique, my entire outlook changed.
Biscuiteers has reinvented the idea of the biscuit, as something that’s glamorous and something that should be cherished. It has, basically, pimped biscuits – all Biscuiteers’ hand-iced treats are not only yummy, but beautiful, too. The collections are spectacularly inventive; there’s everything from superhero-themed biscuits to designs featuring cats, flowers, butterflies, cupcakes, tiaras, balloons, high heels, teddy bears, tea cups, wine bottles and more (plus personalised ones on request).
Ever since Biscuiteers opened its biscuit boutique and icing café in Notting Hill back in 2012 – a gloriously cute shop where you can browse and buy the biscuit collections, enjoy them over a cuppa, or ice your own – I’d told myself I’d make time to visit, or take a friend for a special occasion. [Regular readers will be well aware of my fondness for girly, cute places to hang out in London, such as Homemade London and The Doll’s House.] Shamefully, I didn’t make it down to Biscuiteers till this week – two years too late – but I visited for a special two hour vintage birthday icing class and came away with a pretty box filled with biscuits I’d iced, a big cheery smile and a desire to make sure all my friends knew about it.
The icing class
I arrived at Biscuiteers bright and early to browse all the pretty collections they had in the store. I was welcomed with a hot cup of tea before being led downstairs to the ‘School of Icing’ where the class would be taking place. All I knew before I arrived was that I’d be icing a variety of jellies, french fancies, doughnuts, sundaes and a battenburg or two, and I couldn’t wait to get stuck in.
There were four other ladies also taking the class – a tourist from Japan, a mum planning to make cookies for her kid’s birthday, on the hunt for inspiration, and the other two ladies were sisters celebrating a special birthday – and by the end of the two hour session we’d all had a good laugh and I’d made a couple of new friends.
We were each given a lovely cotton Biscuiteers apron to wear (which we were able to take home with us) and our teacher – and head icer at Biscuiteers – Lorena, was a great coach. She whizzed us through simple and slightly more advanced techniques, and taught us the correct way to hold a piping bag, and how to do ‘flooding’. She was always happy to lend a hand or answer our questions and it was great to get to know her too; she told us her background was graphic design, and that she mainly resided at the Notting Hill boutique to work on any bespoke orders, while the rest of the Biscuiteers icers are based at a bakery in Kennington, and they usually get through about 150 biscuits a day.
We each iced 10 biscuits and one gingerbread man in the workshop, and we got to take them all away in a lovely collectible tin and decorative box.
The workshop required a good amount of concentration, and it was fairly quick paced, but it was a thoroughly enjoyable couple of hours, and – after my perfectionist tendencies were put to the side – I found it quite relaxing. The group size was perfect as Lorena was able to pay us all attention and correct any mistakes we were making. We all came away really satisfied and proud, and with a few surprisingly simple decorative techniques up our sleeves. The certificate we were given at the end, along with the gift bag, apron and tin, were nice touches and make for great keepsakes.
In the spirit of the Great British Bake Off, I’m pleased I can now say I’ve got in on the action and had my turn at creating a few mini masterpieces! But equally, the classes are ideal for special occasions, or rainy days!
If you don’t want to push the boat out and go for a full on icing class, you can drop in to the Biscuiteers icing café, where you get to ice three biscuits unaided for £15 (probably ideal for days out with kids, or a quick pick-me-up) – it’s a great way to switch off from the world for a little bit, except at the end where you’ve simply got to Instagram your beautiful creations! Find out more at biscuiteers.com.
Biscuiteers, 194 Kensington Park Rd, London W11 2ES
Biscuiteers icing cafe
Chocolates at Biscuiteers
Pretty tins at Biscuiteers
The superwoman collection of biscuits at Biscuiteers
It’s not often that you find yourself locked in an underground chamber near London Bridge on a Friday evening. But at Escape Rooms, the latest real-life escape room game after HintHunt and clueQuest, that’s exactly what happens to you — as you’re challenged to escape Pharaoh Khufu’s chamber within 60 minutes. If you fail to work through a series of riddles, codes and puzzles to get out, you risk being “cursed forever and sucked into Khufu’s tomb to act as his guards for eternity”.
The concept of Escape Rooms is based on the Japanese online game Takagism, in which players have to find their way out of a virtual locked room by manipulating their surroundings. Armed with a torch, clipboard, pen and a walkie talkie (in the event that we needed to call on the host to use one of the three clues available to us) we were informed that we were the 100th raiders of this tomb — the 99 who came before us were believed to have perished in the chamber.
We had to find the treasure and escape in an hour and, in order to do this, we were simply told we had to “light the flame of the Gods” before being imprisoned in the themed room. The unforgiving red countdown timer on the wall quickly ticked down; 59:59, 59:58, 59.57, as the six of us explored the room in excitement, finding mysterious props, most of which would eventually come in handy, but others which would create confusion.
15 minutes in and we still hadn’t managed to crack the first challenge. We radioed the host, who gave us a somewhat obscure clue. Still, it had us on our way.
The experience is engrossing. Challenges are far from straightforward and two are particularly mind-boggling — we really did need to harness the power of the entire team to get through. The hour goes by in a flash — and we were shamefaced to escape 10 minutes into extra time, with additional prompts from our host after having used up all three of our clues. The quickest escape time from the Pharaoh’s Chamber since its opening in August is 43 minutes, 5 seconds. *Covers face in embarrassment*
There are two themed games to choose from at Escape Rooms: the cursed Pharaoh’s Chamber, or the newly opened Room 33, where you’ll find yourself in a fictional room in the British Museum containing a precious piece of Chinese porcelain, which you must steal to return to its owner.
Escape Rooms co-owner Dee Zou gives one piece of advice for those attempting the challenges. She says: “Use your team working skills. Split into two teams and solve the puzzles simultaneously, that way you’ll save some time”.
Teams of three to six players are required to participate; prices range from £19-£25 per person, depending on team size. Book in advance online at escaperooms.co.uk. Escape Rooms is located at 134 Tooley Street. Nearest station London Bridge.
While I was working at a women’s magazine about 4 years ago, I was recommended by the beauty editor to invest in a skin cleansing balm. I didn’t quite get the idea of cleansing balms at the time, but after work that same day I picked up the Eve Lom cleanser (the beauty editor had suggested the Eve Lom, Emma Hardie or Liz Earle one) from Space NK, and went to the till to pay. I was flummoxed when the shop assistant told me the price. ‘Why would such a little pot cost so much?’ I thought. Nevertheless, I went ahead with the purchase – it was recommended by a beauty expert, after all – and excitedly rushed home to give it a try.
For someone who was used to removing her make up with wipes or Johnson’s Baby Lotion and cotton wool, the cleansing balm ritual was a revelation – the first time I learned to properly wash my face – and it was then that I banished those wipes to the bin.
Cleansing balms are basically oil-based cleansers that effectively remove make up, as well as grime and impurities, without drying the skin. They usually come in a solid form (although some are liquid), and are designed to be massaged on to clean dry skin (on top of make up), and removed with a hot muslin cloth or flannel for best results. The outcome is that all traces of make up are removed, and the skin is left soft, conditioned and hydrated.
There are so many cleansing balms on the market that it can be difficult to choose which one to get – and considering the prices of some of them, you don’t really want to get this wrong.
When the Merumaya Melting Cleansing Balm (£14.50 for 100ml, available at John Lewis) landed in my hands earlier this month, I was unsure of it, as I hadn’t heard of the brand (it’s a bit of a newbie, having been around for two years this October, while Eve Lom has been around for over 25 years). But considering that beauty guru Caroline Hirons had recommended it as a much more affordable alternative to the much-loved Emma Hardie cleansing balm, it had to be good, right?
From the off , I wasn’t too drawn to the simple, somewhat boring packaging. Yet the squeezy tube was really convenient, and more hygienic than other cleansers which come in a pot, such as Eve Lom, and result in you sticking your fingers inside to get at the product. I was pleased to discover that appearances can be deceptive: the packaging gave way to a really lovely, gentle and effective product. The balm glides onto skin (and literally does melt in, as the name suggests), and it has the beautiful trademark Merumaya scent, which induces a feeling of relaxation and luxury, and creates an essence of a spa in your bathroom.
The cleanser contains RevitElix, a source of Omega 3, 6 and 9, that’s proven to regenerate the skin, reduce lines and wrinkles and make skin smoother and softer, and it really does the latter. It removes make up properly, and leaves you feeling clean-faced after use, without any greasiness. Skin also feels really comfortable after use, not at all dry or tight. The balm can be removed with either splashes of water or a flannel (I prefer to use a flannel as it offers a deeper cleanse), but both work really well. I also seem to prefer this cleansing balm to my usual Eve Lom, which costs almost double the price, and feels a little bit more grainier than Merumaya (but perhaps offers more exfoliation).
How to use: At the end of the day, massage the silky product over dry skin in circular movements, including eye lids and lashes. Add a touch of water to turn it into a milky consistency, and either remove with splashes of water or warm a muslin cloth or flannel under warm water and use it to remove product from the skin in circular movements.
Once you move to cleansing balms, you won’t look back…
Other cleansers worth considering for sensitive skin:
Móa The Green Balm: Made with 100% natural ingredients, this little pot of green goo does everything, from healing bites and soothing dry skin, to giving it a good clean. It works just as well as a cleanser and moisturiser – would you believe – on the hair, face, skin… you can even gurgle it as a sore throat remedy, although I haven’t tried that yet! (£4.99 for 15ml)
Cetaphil Cleanser: Soap and fragrance-free, it’s made for people with conditions such as eczema and acne. It has a medical appearance, and offers a squeaky-clean finish. Comes in a handy pump form, so is hygienic too. (£8.99 for 236ml)
Eve Lom Cleanser: This gentle cleanser contains Clove Oil that encourages clear skin as well as Eucalyptus Oil, which helps drain away toxins. The little beads in the balm provide mild exfoliation too. Although it’s a little pricey, it lasts a really long time as you don’t need much every time you cleanse. The signature massage technique is a good one to learn, to apply whenever you use any other cleanser. (£55 for 100ml)
Aromatherapy Associates Renewing Rose Cleanser: Smells heavenly (key ingredients are damask rose, jojoba and geranium), and has a creamy consistency. Leaves your face feeling fresh, hydrated and fragrant. Occasionally tingles a little bit when you’re massaging it in. (£25 for 200ml)
Whether it’s your friend, daughter, cousin or nephew going off to university, you’ll want to send them away with something useful and meaningful. A student survival hamper, packed with all the items they might not have thought about – but will likely need – does just that.
It will be gratefully received – and they’ll thank you for it when the time comes to use the bits and bobs packaged inside, whether that’s after a heavy night of drinking, or when it comes to cleaning or cooking something from scratch…
The trick is not to overload the hamper with things that they’ll already have packed. Here’s some inspiration for things to include:
Ear plugs: Halls can be lively places, which can make it hard to get some rest. Help your university starter cope with a pair of ear plugs.
Command Hanging Strips: So they can put up their photos and memories from home without marking or ruining the walls.
Post-it notes: In cool shapes and colours, for memorable note-taking, like these (pictured above).
Wet wipes: Just because they’re convenient for doing a spot of cleaning, whether it’s shoes, sticky hands, or the kitchen counter.
A Safecan – yes, it looks like a tin of Baked Beans, but it’s actually fake – and your student can use it to hide their stash of cash or jewellery inside. The last place a burglar is going to look is in a tin of Baked Beans! Linked here.
Toaster bags: So your fresher can whip up a quick lunch using just the toaster.
Disposable camera: A nice touch, so they can snap all their Freshers’ Week memories using this retro camera, and have the suspense of not knowing what they’ll come out like till they get them developed!
Dry shampoo: To fight any signs of greasy hair, or a lack of hair washing. Batiste is ideal: it refreshes locks in minutes. Bad hair days, be gone!
Plasters: For sticking over any drunken or sober injuries. This fresher will be considered the saviour of the group, and with funky, grown-up and amusing plasters like this, you can’t go wrong.
Cook books: For inspiration in the kitchen, and to encourage your student to venture beyond the ‘safe’ choices of beans on toast, soup and cheese on toast. The Hungry Student Cookbook (pictured above) has rave reviews.
Cards: For drinking games, such as Ring of Fire, or for filling up the time in between lectures in the student union.
A closet organiser: to keep things tidy and remind them to separate their pants from their socks
Coloured pens: For making lecture and revision notes lovely and bright, and for doodling fridge notes, such as: ‘My parents are coming to visit today, please be on your best behaviour’, or for labelling food in the fridge.
Personalised photo calendar: They’ll be able to see your face every month, and it might encourage them to note down deadlines and stick to them, or give you a call once in a while.
Blu-Tack: For hassle-free sticking, from putting up posters and pictures to displaying work at revision time, Blu-Tack really is the oldest university desk drawer essential.
Fairy lights: To adorn their room and make it feel a little more homely/magical! These fairy light let you hang photos to them, adding an extra personal touch.
Nando’s Peri-Peri sauce (or alternative): To spice up a bland meal.
Vicks VapoRub: This multi-tasker soothes everything from a headache and cold to foot fungus… Yes, you heard me! It’s got a number of uses, details are here.
Pot Noodle: In the event that your fresher fancies a change from beans on toast.
Sweets: To share with new flatmates – what could be better for breaking the ice and bonding, than a packet of Maltesers? Challenge your new friends to a ‘who can keep make the Malteser levitate the longest’ contest (where you blow the Malteser in the air, like this.
Scissors: Whether it’s cutting into a packet of noodles or the cellophane on a multi-pack of toilet roll, they are going to come in handy.
Loo roll: An emergency bog roll for when supplies run low.
Washing up liquid: For sliding down corridors of course. Joke. To encourage dish-washing.
Candle: When your fresher has friends over and they are all watching a movie, lighting a candle can be a nice (sometimes romantic) way to set the mood. It’s even a lovely way to relax when enjoying some me-time. Personally, I’d always choose something that gives off a strong scent.
Hot water bottle: When Freshers’ Flu strikes, they’ll have something to snuggle up with.
Bottle opener: Someone will need it at some point. You’re better off giving them a ‘cool’ one that fits nicely onto their keys, like this (pictured above).
Wardrobe tidy: So they can organise their bits and pieces nicely.
Berocca: Infused with vitamins, this is a quick, pre-lecture pick-me-up after a heavy or sleepless night. A great hangover helper too. The best bit is it makes urine a radioactive colour! If you’re not too keen on this, pack them some multivitamins.
Microwave popcorn, Pop Tarts: and any other quick-fix snacks for settling hunger pangs at an odd hour.
I appreciate that many of the items above are very female-centric.
For a male going off to university, you might want to throw in an inflatable footballand inflatable football netfor some fun in the communal living room, some paper cups and a table tennis ball for beer pong (or get this beer pong set), some homemade meals that can be frozen at university, and maybe some condoms! If you can think of any other items to include, let me know in the comments below.
Remember the days when Safeway still existed, and the best phone around was a Nokia 3310? I’ve been feeling nostalgic lately, and it’s got me thinking back to the old-school days.
If you’re an 80s or 90s kid, prepare for a throwback. Back in the 80 and 90s…
1. Patterned fabric wrapped around a piece of metal? Hell yes. A slap bracelet was the in thing.
2. The coolest item to wash with was a Body Shop animal soap. Or else, if you were anything like me, you’d just collect them on your shelf.
3. Friends’ birthday parties would be held at soft play centres, and when you entered the ball pit, you knew sh*t was about to go down!
4. Other than going to the library and getting out a book, our only digital resource for research for homework was Microsoft Encarta.
5. Penny sweets actually cost 1p each. You could come away with handfuls of jelly strawberries, foam bananas, cola bottles, pink shrimps, snakes and laces for under 40p. If you were pushing the boat out, you’d stock up on Irn Bru bars, Dib dab and Nerds.
6. An Ellessee jumper was the thing to be seen in.
7. You’d go home from school and log in to MSN Messenger, and continue conversing with your friends, even though you’d seen them all day.
8. Forget Oreo or Ferrero Rocher milkshakes, we had Coke floats.
9. Returning home from school, you’d get in front of the television and prepare for Jumanji, Art Attack, The Chuckle Brothers or Goosebumps to come on. Or else you’d flip on the video recorder and push in a tape of Home Alone, and recite all Kevin’s lines aloud before he said them (a personal favourite was “Keep the change you filthy animal”).
10. Everyone believed the rumour that the aliens could have babies. Apparently you had to rub a girl and a boy aliens’ backs together. It was a lie.
11. Teachers used a projector that looked like it belonged somewhere else, away from a classroom.
12. Teletubbies was tainted by the claim that Tinky Winky was gay, because he had a hand bag.
13. You’d get a spring (or slinky) for your birthday and play with it for hours on end, especially on the stairs.
14. As the years went on, the toys did get more elaborate though: remember these? View-Master Slide Viewer, Polly Pocket, stickle bricks, hama beads, Game Boy, a Guiness Book of World Records.
15. The one thing every kid coveted was a Blue Peter badge.
16. Spice Girls, Steps, Aqua (“I’m a barbie girl, in a barbie world…”), Sisqo: those were the sounds of our childhood
17. You could enjoy a fun day out for less than £10,inflatable rucksack in tow. It’d cost 40p to jump on the bus and only £4 for a cinema ticket.
18. We’d play with toys that had unexplainable purposes, like these water slinkies.
19. You’d try and eat just a little of your push pop at a time, storing it in its plastic tube for the rest of the time.
20. The toy trends ranged from marbles (remember the game Marble Run?), trolls and pogs to Tamagotchis and Furbies. No iPad or ianything necessary!
Can you think of anything else? Leave me a comment with it if you can… It’s always fun to reminisce the good times.
In an age where we nearly always apply enhancements or ‘filters’ to photos we post on social media networks, it’s like a breath of fresh air to arrive in Hvar – a picture-perfect land where rich blue skies merge with calm, clear waters, and where snaps don’t need modification before they reach Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
That is what strikes you most when you arrive on Croatia’s sunniest island – it is naturally beautiful.
I arrived in Hvar as a result of a 7 day road-trip with my girlfriends through Croatia, starting from Split. We’d devised an action-packed itinerary: two days in Plitvice to visit Plitvice Lakes, one of Croatia’s 8 national parks; followed by a night in Zadar; and three nights in Hvar, one of Split’s nearby islands. Our final night was in Split.
As it was my first ever visit to Croatia, here are a few things I discovered:
In Croatia they drive on the right hand side of the road, which took a bit of getting used to.
Food prices vary according to where you are: restaurants in the Plitvice area were relatively cheap (£2 for a soup; £2 for fries) but as you get closer to the coast, it becomes more commercialised and expensive – in Zadar a pizza was £7 and fries were £4; on the island of Hvar it was about £7 for a pasta dish, and £6 for a Jägerbomb. As you get closer to the coast though, as you’d expect, there’s lots more fresh sea food.
Take mosquito repellant. We got bitten!
Croatia is a safe place: as four ladies travelling through the country, we didn’t ever feel like we were in harm’s way.
The Croatian currency is the Kuna. Card payments were accepted at some places, not all.
The mix of mountainous regions and beaches means you get the best of both worlds here.
In the high season (June/July/August) ferries are very busy and often get booked up so try to book at least a day in advance to secure a spot.
Croatia’s beaches are mostly all rocky and pebbly, which makes it a bit painful walking around barefoot, especially when getting into the sea.
Beware of the jellyfish when swimming in the sea – you don’t want to tread on one of those.
If you’re planning a trip to Croatia, try and get these on your list.
1. Plitvice Lakes. This stunning national park comprising 16 lakes interconnected by waterfalls surrounded by plush greenery, really is as good as the pictures make it look. The green and blue hues of the water are so vivid. There’s plenty to explore in the park – it spans well beyond the few lakes shown in the picture above. It took us a good 3 hours to get around the trail at a leisurely pace. Advice: pack snacks and drinks in your bags if you get peckish or thirsty, and a hat, particularly if it’s a hot day. Wear comfortable shoes as there are lots of uneven surfaces and a few climbs, and take a camera: there are plenty of opportunities for great pictures!
You can’t swim in Plitvice lakes unfortunately, but if it’s a swim you’re after, pay a visit to Krka National Park instead where you are allowed to take a dip in the water. At Plitvice, you have to pay for car parking, but if you don’t fancy driving, jump on a bus. Try to get to the park early though, because as the day progresses, large groups from tours start to take over the place.
Plivtice is at a high altitude in Croatia so it is cooler than Split or the islands – something we weren’t prepared for. We needed a light hoody/raincoat, even in July. Our accommodation in Plitvice was super cosy – we were staying at a guesthouse known as Accommodation Plitvice. It was a 15 minute drive from the lakes, and although the owner’s English was sketchy, she made us feel at home.
2. Hvar, Croatia’s sunniest island. Prince William’s been there, Beyoncé and Jay-Z have been there… and now I can tick it off my list. Super yachts line the harbour and bars line the promenade, while Venetian towhouses nestle together in the distance.
It’s not the cheapest place for a cash-strapped Brit – prices are inflated, particularly at eateries, shops and bars nearer to the harbour – but Hvar is a great place to mingle and party with young American, Australian and English travellers. It was very hot when we visited Hvar in July; the sun was out every day and temperatures were in the high twenties.
Sleep: The hostel we stayed at was great fun. With free pancakes for breakfast, organised fun such as a bar crawl and sailing trips on offer, Earthers Hostel was welcoming and homely as well as enjoyable. The first day we arrived the owners sat down with us and went through all the local spots, telling us how to get to the supermarket and the clubs, etc. The hostel wasn’t particularly plush, but it was clean, and had a really relaxed vibe where socialising was easy.
See: Robinson Beach was a nice spot to swim and it was jellyfish-free, although it took a long (and scenic!) coastal walk to get there. Take a break from sunbathing with lunch at the restaurant that’s located right on the beach – we had salads, burgers, fries and fresh fish. In comparison to Hula Hula beach, Robinson Beach was much less pretentious, more laid-back and cheaper (in terms of sun bed hire and food).
Eat: For delicious local sea food, try Lungo Mare. When a restaurant is packed out with locals, it’s always a good sign: and that’s what we discovered when we visited. We were recommended by our hostel to try it, and it was so good we went back, twice. Generous portions, a hospitable, chatty and hilarious owner and tasty food awaits.
Nightlife: Hvar is renowned for its party scene. One night you could take a taxi boat to Carpe Diem beach island to rave, or go in the daytime for a mellow adventure. For a more relaxing evening head to the Jazz Bar, which is hidden away in the back streets of the town. Or join the other party animals at Kiva, a bar/club tucked away in a side street next to the town. Kiva closes at 2am so we headed to Pink Champagne afterwards, a basement club with a very cool entrance – I won’t give it away (entrance fee is payable on the door), which is open till the early hours. Veneranda club is meant to be epic although we didn’t squeeze it in, as is La Struya – a club with expansive views.
Sightsee: If you’re into history, visit the fortress. It’s quite a walk, but we went simply for the views across the island (see picture above).
Lavender is one of Croatia’s biggest exports. You can get lavender oil, cream, soap, dried flowers, lavender honey; basically everything which is made of lavender from local vendors on the streets. We missed out on going on a lavender tour to visit the copious purple fields, but it looks like an amazing opportunity to take great creative pictures. The olive oil and wine you get at the restaurants are also likely to be made fresh locally, so another worthy excursion could be a wine tour.
3. Bar crawls in Split. Unfortunately we were too tired to make it to them, but judging by the number of people we met who raved about them, we missed out.
With over a thousand other islands scattered off Croatia’s stunning Adriatic coastline, as well as 8 national parks on the mainland, there’s reason for repeat visits. I’d like to visit different islands and Dubrovnik next time around. Have you been? What was your highlight? Tell all!
Approaching Hackney Wick station on the Overground, we’d noticed a few people dressed up like us – felt fedora hats draped over men’s knees, and women with headbands and vintage circle skirts were the giveaways. We gave each other the eyes and a nod. Our stop arrived, and as we disembarked the train, that’s when we saw them – hundreds of others in 50s attire. It was like we’d been taken back in time, and that really was the essence of the evening to follow: we were about to enter a parallel land – a recreation of 1955, Hill Valley in California for the Back to the Future Secret Cinema.
We were met by American-accented Secret Cinema attendants who guided us down the road, to the next attendant – who then proceeded to give us directions to the next attendant. We walked from attendant to attendant for a good 15 minutes – they were making us work for this. Finally we reached the secret destination, and on the way we’d been mobbed by a couple of men in tight jeans and denim shirts, who made crude jokes and sniggered a lot, before running off. At first we didn’t quite get it – who were they? Were they also part of the audience, like us? It turned out that they were actors in character – a couple of baddies from Biff’s gang in Back to the Future, and it was a taster for the experience to come.
How to describe what Secret Cinema actually is? It is an outdoor interactive cinema experience, where you have about 3 or so hours to explore a recreation of the set of the film (it’s like a whole new world, and it isn’t small – it’s the size of about four football pitches), interact with actors who are portraying characters from the movie, take part in a parade or stunt, and buy food and drink. In the Back to the Future Secret Cinema, you can go into Marty McFly’s house and see what’s in his room, write a postcard at the Post Office, get cash from the cash machine at the Bank of America, have a boogie at the Under The Sea dance, or order food from Lou’s Diner.
There’s even a Ferris wheel, a petting zoo, rides to go on, and memorabilia to buy. Every minute detail has been thought of to take the audience back to another era, and give the feel that they’re in another country – right down to the accents of the actors, to everything being priced in dollars. It’s a creative masterpiece. To top it all off, the film is shown on a big screen – and the movie is brought to life with real on-stage stunts.
I don’t want to give away ‘secrets’ of Secret Cinema the film, but here are a few things to know before you go, and some dos and don’ts.
Do dress up – if there’s a theme, make an effort to dress the part. The majority of people who go are also in full character and it helps to make the experience even more authentic.
Do prepare for your mobile phone to be confiscated. When you enter the experience, your “calculators” or “communication devices” are confiscated – you hand them over upon arrival and get them back at the end. But it might take a while to get it back – especially if you leave at the time everybody else is leaving.
Don’t take a camera, you’re not allowed to take it in. The experience does however have disposable cameras on sale (£6) so you can buy one inside. It really takes you back – somehow you’ve got to go back to an age where you take pictures and can’t actually see what the picture looks like until you eventually get the film developed!
Do take something to sit on, and something to cover you if it gets chilly – you’ll be outdoors the whole evening. A blanket will do.
Don’t assume there will be a cloakroom to leave your bags. There isn’t.
Don’t take any food or drink – you’re not allowed to take anything in. You have to buy it once you’ve entered.
Do take cash. Card payments aren’t accepted at the bars or foodie stalls. There are a couple of cash machines inside, at the Bank of America, though. Price-wise, a hot dog is £6, a can of beer is £4, and a can of Pepsi is £3. The choice of food is great – there’s everything from burgers and chips to crepes, apple pie and sweets and popcorn. There are plenty of pieces of memorabilia to buy, too.
Don’t just enter the experience and then go and sit on the grass to bag a spot for the film – you have a good few hours before it begins and there’s plenty of exploring to do.
Do talk to the actors – one of the highlights of my evening was meeting Dr Emmett Brown (the mad scientist). We also enjoyed talking to an actor in the character of a journalist from the Hill Valley Telegraph. She asked me who my character was (they tell you who your character will be before the event) – and we got into a full-on conversation, both in character. It was mind-boggling but amusing.
Don’t jaywalk on set – the cops in character will scream at you or come and mob you! In fact, do it, just for the reaction…
Don’t be afraid to take children. It is a family friendly event.
Don’t wear uncomfortable footwear – you’ll spent most of the time on your feet, so avoid high heels or footwear which pains after a while.
Secret Cinema is an incredible immersive experience – I’ve never before seen anything like it. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! Better go and find a place that actually accepts old-school photography film to process…
9am. My stomach was growling so I wolfed down a bowl of cereal before rushing out the door. Big mistake. Arriving in Spitalfields Market an hour or so later, I was greeted by Ollie, my friendly and amusing guide for the morning. We were joined by 9 lovely others – a family of four from Sheffield, a couple from South Carolina in the States, another American and a young couple from London. We went around the group and everyone introduced themselves before we set off to our first food stop on Eating London’s East End Food Tour. There were seven more stops to come, and my belly really wasn’t prepared.
Four hours of eating, talking and walking later, I was feeling super stuffed (and regretting that bowl of cereal I’d scoffed down earlier), but very content. My head was buzzing with new information about the East End’s remarkable history, which I’d learnt thanks to my knowledgeable and passionate guide, and I had sampled some of the best-loved foods in the area. Having leisurely strolled through the most popular and quietest streets and sights of Spitalfields, Brick Lane and Shoreditch, stopping off at restaurants and eateries every 20 minutes or so, I was feeling enriched and I’d even made some new friends.
Without giving too much about the tour away, here are 5 cool things I discovered in this time:
You can still get fish and chips served in newspaper
Fish and chips are a national institution, and there are about 10,500 chippies in England, but very few still serve chips in the good old-fashioned style because of a law that came into effect in the 1980s which ruled that it was unsafe for food to come into contact with newspaper ink without grease-proof paper in between. Enter Poppies. A chippie with a distinctive 50s style, which even has custom-made newspaper wrapping specially for its chips, with edible ink! Voted Best Independent Fish and Chip Restaurant in the UK for 2014, it has got a nostalgic interior, with a jukebox, staff in retro uniforms, and old cockney slang printed on the walls. We enjoyed cod, chips and mushy peas here. Fish and chips together as a dish, we learned, was invented in the East End – a young Jewish boy in the 1800s who began selling them both from a basket hung around his neck.
Real bagels are boiled before baking
…to give them a tender chewiness inside, but a glowy medium brown crust. I found this out when we visited Beigel Bake on Brick Lane. It’s a Jewish-owned bagel shop that’s been there since 1977, tracing back to a time when East London was inhabited mostly by Jewish families. Open all the time (24 hours a day, 7 days a week) Beigel Bake makes over 7,000 bagels a day, and has become incredibly popular because it is cheap and its produce is so fresh. We tasted the salt beef bagels; the beef was so soft it melted in the mouth, and the bagels were really light – no wonder there are queues at every time of day. Beigel Bake has its own great story – read about it here.
Fact: mass-produced bagels that you get at the supermarket are often machine-rolled and baked in steam, producing a doughy and often sweet interior. If you see raised dots or grate marks on the next bagel you eat, it’s a sign that it came from a big factory rather than a bagel shop.
Wedding cakes made of cheese do exist
One of our pit stops was Parisian cheese shop Androuet. Makers of cheese since 1909, the variety on offer in the Spitalfields shop is astounding. Androuet served up some English cheeses for us to try, which were paired with dried fruit and nuts. Did you know that blue cheeses such as Stilton or Gorgonzola are injected with penicillin as part of the cheese-making process? Me neither. A large poster in the shop caught my eye too, as it was advertising giant cakes made of cheese for weddings.
All bread and butter pudding isn’t yucky
Stopping off at the independent, family-owned English Restaurant was my highlight of the tour. I was pleasantly surprised by its bread and butter pudding with rum custard. The English Restaurant is housed in a listed building; and until the demise of the Spitalfields wholesale fruit and vegetable market, in 1991 it was used as a trader’s warehouse and store. Prior to that, it was famously known as the Percy Dalton building, a nut house.
There’s an eatery in London that makes its ketchup using apples
St. John Bread & Wine, that is, which is famous for its delicious bacon sarnies – made using all parts of the pig, served in homemade bread along with a secret-recipe ketchup (which we were told contains apples). The meat is cured in brine for two weeks and the bread is char-grilled and buttery. St. John Bread & Wine is also housed in a former bank – so it was really intriguing to learn about the history of buildings as well as restaurants in the area on the tour.
It is amazing to hear and see for yourself how different cultures have made their mark on the East End – from the Bengali curry houses on Brick Lane to the newer hip joints nearer to Shoreditch. You even visit a site where Jack the Ripper once committed a murder, and taste a locally-brewed ale. In an area once known for its crime, poverty, overcrowding and grimy industry, it’s great to see rebirth, a cultural fusion and many independent companies flourishing.
Whether you’re a Londoner looking to discover more about the East End (it really is fascinating), or a tourist looking to explore this incredibly diverse area of London, this tour is a lot of fun, and it’s really insightful. Just don’t have breakfast beforehand!
Things to note:
It’s an intimate tour – a small group means you can get to know each other and your guide
Our guide Ollie was really knowledgeable and enthusiastic, not to mention funny
It is s a 3.5-4 hour tour in all
Having feasted for 4 hours until 2pm for the tour, I didn’t eat again until 8pm – that’s how full I was.