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.

lavender field london

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!

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Step into the home of Charles Darwin at Down House

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A visit to the gorgeous, sprawling estate in Downe, Kent, makes for a wonderful day out.

Once home to Charles Darwin and his family, the beautifully restored, classically English Down House is a short journey from London.

Whether you know much about the father of evolution or not, it doesn’t matter, for you will leave enriched with interesting insights about his life – from the voyage across the globe that inspired his evolutionary theory, to his marriage to his cousin Emma.

Set aside a minimum of two hours to explore the house and the grounds: upstairs is like a museum, with display rooms and artefacts about Darwin’s early life as well as the restored main bedroom – complete with dress-up room and four-poster bed. The ground floor of the house contains the restored living room, Darwin’s study (where he wrote The Origin of Species), billiard room and dining room – hosting a dinner party here would be dreamy.

The upstairs is a thought-provoking self-guided tour but downstairs you can pick up an audio-guide – which is included in the entry price – and hear David Attenborough narrate about what life was like in Darwin’s day and how he and his family used the space for the 40 years they lived there.

 

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Head outside and you can explore the extensive gardens where Darwin carried out various experiments, and the greenhouse, laboratory (with live bee hive), tennis courts and orchard – a lovely amble on a pleasant day. The audio guide extends to the outdoor spaces with Andrew Marr narrating.

A tea room is located in the corner of the house but don’t count on it being cheap or on you bagging a seat. You could take your own picnic and snacks, although there are limited places to enjoy it as you’re not allowed to picnic on the grounds.

Don’t fret, as down the road there are a couple of pubs, the Green Dragon (pies, mostly) and The Queen’s Head (pub grub) where you can stop off for food before heading home.

Ample free parking is available at Down House. Entry is free for English Heritage members.

Time to play at the board games café

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Fed up with hearing about gimmicky hipster cafés? Me too.

But here’s one without the gimmick that’s worth hunting down: London’s first (and only) board games café, Draughts. If the thought of Monopoly, Cluedo, Hungry Hippos, Articulate, Scrabble, Game of Life and 400 other games excites you, you’re well overdue a visit.

This place isn’t just a pub with a few games thrown in; it’s a dedicated gaming zone with a bar to boot, and it’s bloody good fun.

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The premise is simple: for just £5 per person, you get a four hour slot and a table to play any number of games you wish. There’s food and drinks to keep you going (at extra cost, of course), so take along your buddies and make a night or afternoon of it.

The dedicated games corner has everything you could wish for, from the family favourites such as Doddle, Jenga, Articulate and Pictionary to more difficult strategy games such as Ticket to Ride. Everything is organised according to the games genre, too, so there’s no need to scramble through boxes.

What’s more, the staff AKA the ‘games gurus’ can help you pick a game if you’re unsure, or talk you through the rules.

I visited with a group of colleagues and it made for a fun-filled, alternative night out, perfect for those of us doing Dry January. We munched through sandwiches and sharing plates, and washed them down with soft drinks, wine and cider, and it ended up costing about £20pp.

Nestled under the arches in Haggerston, the board games café is a warm and cosy place to hide away in these cold months. If you are planning to visit on a weekday evening, try to book in advance as it is a very popular time. Booking isn’t required for the weekend but gamers are allowed in on a first come, first served basis, so if you’re eager to get a space you will have to get there for 10am sharp.

Bring your best game face – but maybe leave your overly competitive friends at home.

Tired of adulting? Head to the grown-up ball pit bar BallieBallerson

Ballie Ballerson Stacey Hatfield October 2016

When you feel tired of adulting in London, there’s an amazeballs place you should go. It’s where you’ll find all the big kids (note: actual kids aren’t allowed), and it involves a DJ, retro-sweet-themed cocktails and, most importantly, a ball pit for grown-ups… Very fitting for a #throwbackthursday, this bar and underground ball pit goes by the name of BallieBallerson.

Disclaimer:

1) You’ll get hit in the face with a flying ball.

2) The pictures you take will turn out blurry.

3) The balls in the pit are waist-deep: you’ll fall in and have trouble getting up again. This will be 10 times more challenging if you’re intoxicated.

4) You might lose things, such as loose change, a shoe, a ring, a phone.

5) Skip the gym: wading through the ball pit can feel like a workout in itself.

6) On your way home you’ll find a squashed up ball in your shoe. Leaving present!

From the cocktails (crafted around retro sweets such as Dib Dab; our favourite was the Bounty Colada) right down to the colourful painted balls and walls, this place has fun at its heart, and the bartenders are a good laugh.

The DJ bangs out tunes as you play/dance in the underground ball pit, and so it feels like a rave when you’re in it. With the low ceiling and dimmed light, it can seem a little dark and dingy down there, however, and the ball pit isn’t huge so if you go at peak time and find more than 18 people in there, it’s a bit of a squeeze. 

The postcode of the venue did catch me off guard. I have FOFOP (that’s fear of far-off places) and BallieBallerson is in that faraway place up north where the Tube doesn’t go: Stoke Newington. But it’s worth the trek – and proving to be so. “The place is just as packed on a Tuesday or Wednesday evening as it is on a Saturday,” the general manager Daniel says. When we visit on Wednesday evening, it’s almost at full capacity by 8pm, and it’s only been open a few weeks.

“Every week we have people lose engagement rings, watches, phones in the balls… One day a girl lost her shoe, so we have to clean the ball pit out weekly to find them!” So before you jump in and release your inner child, dump your belongings in the cloakroom to be safe – or hold on to them really tight.

Daniel says the venue will remain in its current home for another three to six months, and may then relocate, so if you also suffer from FOFOPOCO, watch this space.

Book tickets here.

Beer and Buns in Liverpool Street

hirata buns beer and buns liverpool street london

Japanese beers (and sake) and fluffy buns (and wings) are the order of the evening at Beer & Buns. And they come with an extra side of fun – foosball and pinball tables… and sake bombs.

sake bomb beer and buns liverpool street london

Sake bombs (pictured left) require a little bit of explanation – a shot of sake arrives balanced on chopsticks above a glass of beer. You’ve got to knock on the table to get the sake to drop into the beer [*splash*] before downing it.

If that doesn’t sound like your kind of thing, the frozen margaritas are highly commended, and there’s whisky, cocktails and lots of beer available too.

Food-wise, buns are the obvious choice – the signature chicken bun was our favourite – and there are also duck, roast pork and veggie options. The menu is quite meat-heavy: the fried chicken wings are great, but super messy (thankfully they give you hand wipes), and there are a selection of sides. The beauty of dining here is that it’s all very informal and hands-on.

Beer & Buns is a cheap mid-week eat (there are offers on food and drink and the foosball tables are free to use). It also works as a casual date night spot and is buzzing with suits on a Friday night.

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For both food and drink it’s a pay-as-you-go bar service. The service was really quick when we visited, which had me questioning whether the food is pre-prepared and reheated, but nonetheless it’s a cheap meal and it does hit the spot.

 

Anyone for a crafty surprise?

Craft has become cool again. What was once resigned to the classroom has been reinvented and given a grown-up twist thanks to the likes of Drink Shop & Do, I Knit London, Print Club London, Homemade London and co.

For those wanting to dip their little toe in the craft revival, Homemade London has recently unveiled a string of £10 ‘Mystery Workshops’.Homemade London activities hen do idea party workshop

What sets these sessions apart is their spontaneity – you won’t know what you’ll be making till you arrive on the day! Each hour-long event takes place on a weekday evening, and in that time you’ll create something to take away with you, no matter what your skill level.

I’m allowed to divulge that the first few workshop activities have included jewellery making, personalised mugs and drawstring bags and machine-stitched notebook covers.

Founder and owner of Homemade London, Nicola Barron, says: “It’s a pleasant, intimate evening with a party spirit. People love the sense of mystery and the workshops provide instant gratification as you come away with something you’ve made with your very own hands. It’s a 60 minute session, so it’s not full-on, either.”

Homemade London craft workshop

Nicola is very hush-hush about what the coming workshops will entail, so I can’t give you any clues, but each week there is a different activity and theme, and dates for future sessions are only released a couple of weeks in advance.

What started off as an experiment, Nicola says, has turned into something quite popular. “On the whim I just posted on our website that we’d be doing a few mystery workshops and within two days they were fully booked, so we started to arrange a few more! It’s great because we can trial new craft techniques – we even test new cocktail recipes so people get drinks, and they come away with something they’ve made.”

A mid-week pick-me-up, and something to take home and show off to friends? I’m in.

Find out more and book a place here.

This article is also published on Londonist.com.

Glamping: how to survive and what to take camping

Glamping is camping with added glamour and luxury. It combines the fun and freedom of camping with a few home comforts, so it’s great for ladies who can’t do without their hairdryers, and fellas who can’t go a night without their electric toothbrushes. With glamping, you can bypass the long, fiddly process of setting up a tent, and you feel less like you are slumming it for the night because you’re staying in a stable, ready-constructed, cosy tipi, cabin or yurt. Plus, you have the added peace of mind that you’ll be able to kip comfortably (hopefully!), rather than on a potentially uneven grassy plot.

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Our glamorous abode

Popularised by some of the cast from The Only Way Is Essex, glamping is ideal for days when it might be rainy or cold, because you have the little niceties including a stable roof over your head, a full-length mirror (phew!), a bed with a mattress, power supply and kettle. I’m really selling this, aren’t I? But, I should add, however, that glamping doesn’t guarantee that creepy crawlies will be kept at bay!

First-time camper

Having never attempted camping before, glamping was a positive introduction to the concept. The toughest part was preparing for the trip, i.e. deciding what to take and what kinds of meals to cook – but thanks to advice from friends and family, and a little bit of Googling, we managed to over-pack, which, in my book, is better than being unprepared! I’ve compiled a camping checklist for those considering a trip.

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The inside of our cabin

I was slightly weary of using communal showers and toilets, but thankfully the facilities at the campsite we stayed at (Lee Valley Campsite, Sewardstone) were very clean and just a short walk from our cabin. Still, I’d recommend you take a pair of flip-flops for when you go for a shower – you don’t want to catch any verrucas! I’d also keep some toilet roll handy, just in case – and a torch, if you’re the kind to need the loo in the middle of the night. The campsite even offered a laundry service; provided taps for drinking water and shared sinks for washing up, so it felt like all bases were covered on our stay!

Meals for camping

You have to plan your meals in advance if you’re not intending on leaving the campsite once you arrive, so we did a big supermarket shop the day before we left, and stuffed all the bits into cool bags. We decided on:

Lunch: Vegetarian and meat sausages and burgers. We’d cook the sausages and burgers on the barbecue, and caramelize some onions on the stove.

Dinner: Gnocchi and crusty bread. As gnocchi is vacuum packed, it’s ideal. All we needed was a tin of pasta sauce and an onion to cook and then mix through it.

Dessert: Raspberries, strawberries, banana and chocolate for fondue. We had mini fondue sets at home and seeing as the chocolate only required a tea light candle to warm up, the fondue was very self-sufficient, albeit a little messy!

Breakfast: Eggs, beans, waffles, mushrooms and pancakes. We bought bottles of ready mixed pancake batter, into which we only needed to add cold water, and then shake. A little bit of a cheat but minimum fuss and mess – highly recommend!

Snacks: Mini cheese and onion and sausage rolls, dried fruit and crisps.

We’d packed a camping stove and also managed to get our hands on an electric, plug-in cooker, which was very practical. While some of the others in the group were tempted to nip off to a local café for lunch, the cooking part of the glamping was one of my favourite and most rewarding experiences – I felt self-sufficient and rather proud!

Piñata make your own ideas inspiration shape

Make your own piñata

Entertainment

The week before we went camping, we made our own piñata to play with. It was very easy to do; all you need is flour, water, newspaper, some coloured paint or tissue paper – instructions here.

We also took some board games and were lucky enough to have balmy weather so we spent the majority of the evening outside our cabin, on our own picnic tables and blankets and the large picnic tables already provided by the camp. Our campsite did not allow us to have open fires or else we would have enjoyed roasting marshmallows. As the night became chillier, we took our games indoors, into the light of the cabin.

After a great day in the outdoors and evening around the barbecue I was looking forward to a warm, comfortable night’s sleep in my sleeping bag. As much as I would like to say I had a pleasant night’s sleep, I didn’t. We had a few incidents with bugs falling on our pillows, gigantic spiders and disturbingly loud noises from creatures scratching or scurrying outside of our cabin keeping us up (you can tell I’m a city girl at heart, can’t you?), but the other half of our group in the other cabin slept fairly well.

Even though I enjoyed convenience and little luxuries provided by glamping, not being able to get to sleep at night was a big put off. I’m left wondering whether I would have had a better kip in a tent, and should try ‘proper’ camping before I made a judgement. That might just have to be my next challenge, if I’m brave enough…