Sri Suwoon is the Thai gem hiding in Pimlico

thai-restaurant-pimlico-victoria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

EL PARADOR MORNINGTON CRESCENT TAPAS

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

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

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

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

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

Party to the sound of live music at Piano Works

piano works farringdon london

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A night of mayhem at Bogan Bingo

bogan-bingo-london-night

Bingo has shaken off its granny rep in recent years thanks to the likes of Rebel Bingo and Musical Bingo et al, and with live comedy game show Bogan Bingo it takes another entertaining and rowdy turn.

Presented by a couple of awesome bogan (derogatory Aussie term for an uncouth, poorly educated person) bingo callers, the focus here isn’t on handing out life-changing amazing prizes, but on amusing (and sometimes embarrassing) the players.

Bring a brave and unserious face, for the bingo callers are brash and there are no shortage of crude jokes and sexual innuendos to be heard – no wonder it’s dubbed “bingo with balls”.

This is a noisy affair that quickly descends into a messy drinking game – and it’ll have you lol-ling all night.

You’ll find yourself making friends with strangers beside you (many of whom are Aussies and Kiwis) and singing along to anthems from the Eighties and Nineties. There will be people dancing on tables, drinks will get spilled and it will get chaotic, so this isn’t for the weak. And at the end of the mad bingo session, the benches are pulled aside to make way for a party.

It’ll be easy to get into the spirit of it all if you’re a little sloshed – and it’s best enjoyed with a bunch of friends or workmates sat by your side.

P.S. Don’t be the dude who mistakenly ticks off a wrong number and claims to have got a winning row, because if the crowd’s anything like it was last night, you’ll be booed off the stage and have things thrown at you. He probably won’t forget this night in a hurry – and neither will I.

On cloud nine with candy floss and ice cream in Covent Garden

Candy floss ice cream London Covent Garden

After the hype of ice cream cookie sandwiches (Blu Top, Chin Chin Labs) and ice cream macaroons (Yolkinmacice), now Londoners can get soft serve ice cream – basically posh Mr Whippy – served in a candy floss cloud, thanks to new dessert cafe Milk Train.

Located just behind Covent Garden, Milk Train offers three flavours of the ‘premium’ soft serve (£3.50-£3.95) – vanilla, chocolate or matcha – and charges £1 extra for the candy floss cloud. There are lots of toppings and sauces also available at extra cost, (50p) or choose from the menu for a pre-selected combination.

It might all get a little bit messy, but it sure is a lot of fun. In one bite I was transported back to the days of cheerily scoffing candy floss at the funfair as a child. The soft serve was really tasty too, however it does melt very quickly so don’t spend too much time taking pictures for your Instagram feed.

The lovely thing about this place is that everybody leaves clutching their ice cream with an even bigger grin than usual!

Find the Milk Train on Bedford Street, WC2E 9HA.

Warning: queues possible and sugar overload very likely.

A chocolate lover’s paradise: Said in Soho

said soho hot chocolate best in london

Word on the street is that Said serves up one of the best hot chocolates in London. It’s true. A cup of heavenly thick, rich molten chocolate, it is best devoured with a spoon. The taste of pure, melted, quality chocolate comes through with every mouthful – and between them it’s so satisfying to dip and swirl a spoon in the gooey liquid before you.

Said Dal 1923, as it’s officially known, is the London branch of a well-established chocolate shop in Rome, so it uses real handmade chocolate in its drinks – there’s not a trace of that powdered or watered down stuff here. And while the hot chocolate deserves to be shouted about, there’s another hidden gem here that shouldn’t be missed.

Chocolate bubbles behind the counter of this cosy little boutique shop-cum-café on Broadwick Street in Soho, and slabs of chocolate line the window and shelves. When we arrive at 8.45pm on a Monday evening, every seat is taken. To reiterate, it’s Monday evening, and it’s a full house.

said soho chocolate london

It’s clear to see that Said’s hot chocolate is popular – looking around at least 60% of customers have an empty cup in front of them, but there are also quite a few people forking cake into their mouths, sipping on coffee and munching on chocolate.

We’re soon seated next to a roaring fire in the centre of the café, it’s the epitome of cosy. Browsing through the four-page menu, it is full of sweet and savoury delights. As well as chocolate-coated strawberries, homemade cakes, profiteroles, tiramisu, ice cream, cheesecake, chocolate pizza (yes, it’s a thing, coated with Said’s own version of the popular Nutella spread, jars of which are available to buy), there are teas, coffees, and savoury items available.

There’s so much to tempt us that we can’t quite make up our minds. I quickly decide that this will become my new dessert spot so I can work my way through the entire menu.

After much umming and ahing, we opt for one milk hot chocolate (£2.50) and one dark hot chocolate (£2.50). It quickly arrives, and as we’re trying to scoop up every last drop, a plate of profiteroles arrives at the table beside us. There are three large profiteroles, each respectively drenched with warm white, milk and dark chocolate. The guy seated opposite me is about to take a bite and sees me eyeing them up. “They’re really good,” he says. I put an order in for them.

said soho chocolate shop

The profiterole-eating man couldn’t have been more right. I’m so deeply grateful for his tip-off. The profiteroles (£8) are a MUST – the best I’ve ever tasted in all my 26 years on this planet. But eat them quick, while the chocolate is still hot. And eat them in this order: the white, the milk and then the dark, so you get the optimum flavour from each. If there are two of you and you only order one plate as we did (it’s plenty!), cut each one in half so you get to sample every chocolate flavour. You can thank me later…

Bar spy: The Blind Pig, Soho

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You might have walked right past The Blind Pig before without batting an eyelid. It’s one of those unmarked speakeasy-style Soho bars hidden behind a secret door. The mystery! Search for an optician’s sign, and below it, a door with a knob resembling a pig’s head. Got it? You’re in, if you’ve made a booking that is…

Head up the stairs, past the entrance to owner Jason Atherton’s Social Eating House restaurant, and a doorway adorned by dark velvet curtains leads to its bar, The Blind Pig.

the-blind-pig-soho-londonCharacterised by dark, woody tones, the bar is dimly lit and charming, with comfy leather booths and smaller tables. Here, cocktails are concocted from the most original ingredients such as jalapeño syrup, pea cordial and smoked salt. And it’s a place that’ll have you drinking cocktails out of a milkshake cup, with customary striped straw. Table service means you don’t have to waste time standing at the bar.

Start with the refreshing Dill or No Dill cocktail, a refreshing mix of gin, cucumber, elderflower. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, go for the the Kindergarden Cup – an exciting mix of Skittles vodka, Aperol, lemon, egg white, “Wham Bar” syrup and vanilla bitters. It’ll have you squealing (sorry).

Peckish? Pig out (sorry, again) on the dishes from the “Bites and Jars” menu, which are made by Atherton’s expert chefs in the restaurant below: the duck fat chips are said to be great.

The Blind Pig is a great place for a date – stylish, intimate and relaxed, and you can hold a conversation without having to scream. Plus any date would be flattered to know you’ve sought out such a hidden gem… Just promise me you won’t make a pig’s ear of yourself! (Apologies, might have overdone it.)

Can you keep a secret? Weekend film club at The Soho Hotel

Soho Hotel film club

There’s nothing better than kicking back for a movie on a Sunday afternoon – except, perhaps, doing it in style.

Think comfy leather seats, free popcorn, and drinks delivered directly to your seat…

Intrigued? A well-kept secret is that The Soho Hotel runs a fantastic ‘Weekend Film Club’ where you can watch the latest releases in the luxury surroundings of its state-of-the-art screening rooms.

With twinkling ceiling lights, and chunky smooth leather seats, the intimate screening rooms do not attract the likes of youth who spend the entire length of the movie on their iPhones, but a well-heeled audience, many of whom are carting around their shopping bags from Oxford Street – and you don’t have to be a guest at the hotel to take advantage.

Tickets for the film screening alone are £15, but most people make an evening or afternoon of it (as we did) – for £35 you can enjoy afternoon tea, lunch or dinner in the hotel’s Refuel Restaurant before making your way down to the screening room for the movie of the week.

What’s great is that as you enter the screening an air of calm descends, and you’re invited to pick up a free box of popcorn and take it to your seat. Seats are not pre-allocated – it’s a choose-as-you-arrive situation.

The screen is large, sound quality is as good as you’d expect, and there’s a generous amount of leg room. The cherry on top is that you don’t have to sit through a row of adverts before the film begins – and it starts bang on time.

Also, note that if you want a specific drink and you place your order before you enter the room, a waiter will bring your beverage to your seat.

Film screenings take place on both Saturdays and Sundays – see the line up for The Soho Hotel and the Charlotte Street Hotel, which runs the same thing.

So if you’re looking for something a little different – but relaxing – for next weekend, this might just be it.

Rock climbing in Bermondsey

arch climbing wall bermondsey rock climbing

A quick Google before we set off to The Arch Climbing Wall revealed bouldering to be “a form of rock climbing that is performed without ropes or harnesses.” *GULP*.

What had I signed myself up for? I reassured myself with the fact that I’d be joining a group introduction session (£20) at one of London’s biggest indoor rock climbing centres, so surely I’d get the hang of it…

Turns out that I was able to do it, and I actually quite enjoyed unleashing my inner Spiderwoman once I got into it. I did, however, manage to take a 4-metre high drop from the rocks immediately after yelling down to the instructor, “I can’t dooo it, I’m going to die. I’m going to die!”

As it was my first ever time bouldering, the introduction session was essential. The session includes the hire of climbing shoes, and an hour with climbing instructors who show you the safest way to climb and navigate the walls before letting you loose on them. They explained why the climbing shoes are so uncomfortably tight (to give you good grip on the rocks), and also showed us what to do if we felt like we were about to fall – you’re supposed to jump backwards away from the wall and squat and roll as you land. I seemed to have trust issues with the crash mats and found it difficult to nail this landing, despite multiple tries.

As a newbie, you look up at the walls with all those multi-coloured notches and you think, “this will be easy, I’ll show them!” That is until you realise that you’re only supposed to follow a particular route that’s marked out by hand and footholds of a particular colour or pattern – and if you’re strict with yourself, you only complete it using those corresponding pieces on the wall. Routes are set out in difficulty levels, and when you get past the first few easy ones, life gets hard.

It takes a lot of strength, coordination and technique too – it’s a big of a juggling act and I often got hot and flustered up on the wall because I couldn’t figure out where next to put my foot or hand. It also made me realise that this was much more than just a day out – bouldering is a sport in itself, and you’ve got to practice to get good at it.

Things got exciting when the instructors took us over to the overhang walls, where the rock slopes more than 90 degrees and you’re kind of clutching for dear life. This was where people – myself included – started dropping like flies.

The overhang wall was much more difficult to navigate, and the challenge induced a bit more adrenaline. Somehow I made it to the top, but I was too scared to come down. I was screeching to the instructor, “I’m going to fall” as I tried to figure out a way down, but then I lost my footing. Just as the instructor was saying: “You’re not going to fall, you can do it,” I’d dropped. Thankfully I fell gracefully, somehow did a little twirl and landed on my feet, but others landed in odd positions, one on her chin. Ouch. So this was why they made you sign those ‘if-you-die,-we’re-not-responsible’ forms at the start, I realised.

After the introduction session, I climbed for about half an hour with a friend before we decided that we were too drained to continue. It was definitely a full body workout, and I came away with sore, red hands and an aching body (the pains lasted for three days afterwards, WAH), but it was great to try something new. #ThisGirlCan

 

Introduction session

The introduction group was quite large (about 20 of us) so you had to wait your turn to have a go on the walls, but the atmosphere was really great, with others cheering you on and helping you navigate the routes, and instructors giving you tips on how to improve.

I turned up in leggings, trainers and a t-shirt but it was super chilly inside the centre so I’d recommend a fleece or an additional layer or two if you’re visiting. There are lockers for your belongings, and rather basic changing rooms (they are literally just rooms with a bench inside).

Judging by the number of other climbers turning up to have a crack at the walls, it’s a very popular pastime and the centre has developed a great community of regulars. There’s music playing in the background and it seems to be very much a social setting, where people get fit and socialise at the same time, so it’s a good chance to make friends too.

Where The Pancakes Are: Hackney’s latest pop up

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Guilt-free pancakes on Pancake Day? #Winning!

Where The Pancakes Are – which specialises in serving up healthy pancake stacks made with gluten-free buckwheat flour and fresh, organic ingredients – has popped up for a quick stint in Hackney before its permanent central London residency later this year.

The brainchild of self-taught cook and mum of two Patricia Trijbits, the Where The Pancakes Are brand has been a year in the making.

“I wanted to regenerate pancakes: to make them healthy, but accessible to all,” Patricia tells me.

Whereas normal pancakes are stuffed with white flour, baking powder and sugar, Patricia has developed a unique organic flour mix consisting of a minimum of sugar, and 50% buckwheat – a gluten-free flour made from seed rather than wheat.

The pancakes themselves are really yum, thick and filling (substantial enough for a meal!). And as an advocate of ‘clean eating’, I’m sold.

Upon Patricia’s recommendation, we sampled the sweet pancake topping of poached kumquats and tangerine Cointreau cream, which was very refreshing, but the standout (and Patricia’s personal favourite) was the savoury pancake made with cumin, scallions, green chilli and served with a lime-coriander butter. It’s left such a good impression that I’m still thinking about it three hours later…

My suggestion is to order one savoury and one sweet pancake from the menu – the portions are really generous so you can go halves with a friend and get the best of both.

The Where The Pancakes Are pop up is open until 22 February at The Proud Archivist on The Regents Canal, 2-10 Hertford Road, N15ET.

Find out more at www.wherethepancakesare.com

Add a handmade touch to Christmas gifts

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

You’ll need:

  • 225g flour
  • 112g salt
  • 100ml water

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.

Merry craftmas!

 

You may also be interested in:

Getting into the Christmas spirit at Camden’s Tea & Crafting

A therapeutic evening of craft and creativity at Homemade London

A blissful Ayurvedic massage at Ayurveda Pura

ayurveda pura spa greenwich abhyanga massage

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.

 

Ayurveda Pura offers a host of ayurveda treatments, products and teas designed by Dr Apte and her team. Find out more at ayurvedapura.com.

Cosy up for Pillow Cinema

pillow cinema hot tub cinema shoreditch

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!

Find out about future screenings and book here: pillowcinema.com

A day in beautiful Bruges

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.

lake of love bruges

The Lake of Love (Minnewater Lake)

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.

hot chocolate bruges belgium the old chocolate house

A unique hot chocolate experience at The Old Chocolate House, Mariastraat 1, 8000 Brugge

‘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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Beautiful Bruges is easily doable in a day – but for a more relaxing experience, consider an overnight stay.

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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.

Dag! (That’s good bye in Flemish, FYI.)

A day in the life of a guide dog trainer

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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.

guide dogs charity day in the life

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?

Icing with the experts at Biscuiteers

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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 icing cafe class workshop london

IMG_3653Biscuiteers 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.

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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. biscuiteers icing cafe london

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.

Escape Rooms: will you make it out in time?

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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.escape rooms london bridge

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.SONY DSC

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*

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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.

This article was originally published on Londonist.com.

To be continued…

No amount of explaining, leaflet-reading or support could’ve prepared me for the moment I saw him.

He looked pale against the white walls of the hospital ward. The left side of his face appeared to have drooped, and his left arm and leg were basically foreign to him. He tried to speak – the sounds which managed to escape his mouth were familiar – but his speech was incomprehensible and slurred. It took him a lot of effort to utter a single word, not that it meant anything to us at the time. In return, he would only hear us if our voices were raised, and this would be predominantly through his right ear. It was like someone had gone in and tampered with certain functions in his body, and hit the ‘off’ switch. Many other problems would soon arise for my 87-year-old granddad – this was only the beginning.

It was hard to digest. He’d had a massive stroke, he was paralysed down his left side, and his life had crumbled within a few minutes.

The first time I saw him, I quickly averted my eyes to the floor, hoping that he couldn’t see the tears streaming down my face. I looked back at him every few seconds, to check that this was actually reality; that it was actually him sitting there before me. I shook and shivered and hoped he couldn’t sense the quiver in my voice as I tried to make bland conversation to fill the silence. “How are you?” I asked dumbly.

Warm tears pricked the corners of my eyes as I realised I was asking him questions, the replies to which, I could not understand because of his deep slur. I’d been used our a language barrier; he spoke and understood Gujarati, and a little English, and despite my GCSE in Gujarati, I still had some issues when communicating with him – often I’d forget a specific word or phrase and its Gujarati translation, and had to discard the conversation topic or think of an alternative way of explaining it, which didn’t require the use of the troublesome word! Having trouble understanding what he was saying reminded me of those instances.

From the world’s most active granddad, who couldn’t sit still for more than half an hour, he had become bedridden and incapable of doing anything for himself – all of this happened overnight. He was unable to do anything for himself at all, and became dependent on the nurses in the ward. A lot of his time was spent waiting for them to do things for him – whether he wanted to have a sip of water, have his clothes changed, or simply have his bed covers pulled up over him.

Within two days, the frustration was evident – he desperately wanted to get out of his bed so he could go to the toilet, he wanted to come home, he wanted things to go back to the way they once had been, and kept asking why this happened to him. He couldn’t accept what had happened to him – he wouldn’t accept that he’d lost his ability to use one side of his body, his coordination, or that his back was weak and that was why he could barely sit up straight. He insisted that he could walk and claimed to walk around the ward and do allsorts when we’d all gone home! I wished that was true.

Day in, day out, he sat or lay in his bed, which he’d called his ‘prison’. He found it hard, sometimes, to ignore the need screaming out from inside him to get up and run from his imprisonment, and would shout in Gujarati, “Get me out”. He’d been robbed of his independence, his dignity (as the nurses forced a new nappy around him every few hours), and he was robbed of his mobility. We still don’t know if any of these will be restored.

He developed bed sores and various other rashes from the constant sitting and lying down. He was often in pain, complaining that his muscles were aching, and complained about his lack of sleep and restlessness. He developed a chest infection and MRSA during his 8 weeks in hospital. Bouts of diarrhoea complicated things further as he was often uncomfortable and needed constant changing by the nurses. There were days where his blood pressure and haemoglobin levels were worryingly low and he was being pumped blood through a drip. As a result, he was often angry, tired and in agony during visiting hours, I couldn’t blame him. He could barely swallow, and any food had to be mushed to liquid.

He had his good and bad days. Some days he would sit there silently, not wanting to make any conversation, seemingly consumed by his own thoughts. Other days he would ask some questions, about what I did during the day, how I was feeling, where the family was. And on the worse days he’d be spouting all kinds of unpleasant things about wanting this to end and wanting to leave this world. But what he never said or accepted was that he’d lost his ability to walk and do things for himself.

His great resilience was admirable but conflicted with his ability to accept the consequences of his stroke. This made some days difficult – he would want to climb out of bed, and sometimes make a failed attempt, but there was no way we could let him out as the physiotherapists had already said that he’d be unlikely to walk again and his recovery, if any, would be small. Nevertheless, he still put up a great fight, asking each time I visited, to get me to help him out of bed. Each time I had to politely refuse, and could sense that this wasn’t going down too well with him. It didn’t stop him from trying each time he saw me! How much I admired his strength and determination.

Rather than a necessity, showering and having a clean shaven face became a luxury for my granddad. He was weak and couldn’t support himself, so the nurses decided it was a risk to give him regular showers.

Last week my granddad was discharged and admitted to a nursing home. The hospital claimed that bringing him home wasn’t really a possibility as care at own home would be impossible. They said that needed my granddad’s hospital bed for another patient, so he had to be moved, even though he wasn’t completely better – he had a cough and chest pains. He was still bed-ridden, and showed few signs of any full recovery. But he was still adamant that he’d walk again, that he’d show the nursing home staff that he could do it.

This week, he’s back in hospital. He was readmitted after experiencing breathing difficulties and has developed a nasty chest infection. I visited him today – he lay there, with an oxygen mask strapped around his head. He drifted in and out of sleep and barely acknowledged I was there. I can’t help but feel sorry for my poor granddad, and it breaks my heart to see him like this.

Each day presents a new turn – we can only wait until tomorrow to see what will happen next.