Once upon a time, before the arrival of Starbucks and Pret a Manger, there were local coffee shops peppering the British high street, each with their own distinctive style… Now and again, when I’m not shamelessly stocking up stamps on my Caffe Nero loyalty card, I try to make the effort to seek out the smaller companies, many of which focus on high quality coffee and a huge range of speciality teas, catering to an audience that wants more than a one-size-fits-all approach.
On a recent trip to Bristol, a city which is something of a mecca for independent businesses (and formerly the home of Carwardine’s coffee, where my mum once worked), I decided to boycott the recognisable chains and discover the best locally-endorsed places to grab a drink. Three very different shops stood out for me, and I hope some of them will stand out for you.
There are some travel experiences just begging to be dropped into conversation, like the times when you bump into famous people staying on your remote island (oh wait, that’s never happened, except on an episode of Poirot). Or how about the times when you get into hilarious situations involving animals on safari? (That has yet to happen to Poirot, correct me if I’m wrong, and it hasn’t happened to me either). Ok, so my anecdote isn’t going to cover any of those topics, but it’s hopefully good enough for someone to buy me a drink down the pub.
After my recent look at the centenary of WWI, I felt the need to carry on the theme when I found out about a statue in London that I’d walked past hundreds of times recently without ever realising its true significance. The monument to British nurse Edith Cavell has stood opposite the National Portrait Gallery for years (it’s right outside Pret, to be precise, in St. Martin’s Place) since 1920, but I’d honestly never noticed it before.
Yet my mum came back from a London adventure the other week, having seen a remembrance ceremony taking place on the anniversary of Cavell’s death, and she got me thinking. Were both a bit embarrassed to admit that we’d never even realised this statue existed, let alone stopped to look at who was being commemorated, in all the times we’d hurried past to get to the NPG, Leicester Square or Trafalgar Square. How had we managed to walk by time and time again?
Saucy seaside postcards might look a bit tame these days when compared to today’s pop culture references (Miley Cyrus’ twerking and sledgehammer licking antics, anyone?) but, back in the 1950s, the tongue-in-cheek images produced by artist Donald McGill were seen as risque and even borderline offensive. Most of the British public – readily stereotyped as sexually repressed and a bit dull – couldn’t get enough of his work and they lapped up the puns, however the heavy-handed censors of the 1950s weren’t far behind.
Funnily enough, I arrived at the College of Psychic Studies, on the first day of the Open House London initiative (a.k.a. legitimate house and public building snooping), through a set of unforeseen circumstances. Well, unforeseen to the staff at Open House London, who failed to anticipate the crowds of 18,000 people wanting to roam the gutteral insides of Battersea Power Station before it’s refurbished. Not like that would be a big deal to the general public or require any kind of sensible ticketing system whatsoever… anyway, I digress in my bitterness.
How much of an island can you see in a day? This was my challenge as I headed over to the Isle of Wight, determined to cram in plenty of cultural sights and loads of postcard-worthy views during my trip ( thanks to Red Funnel ferries for getting me there!). Armed with a hit list of places to visit, and a car to get around, I had nine hours to spend soaking up the atmosphere.
I’ve been to the island a couple of times as a child, so it wasn’t totally new to me, and this did affect where I chose to spend time. Having ticked off Blackgang Chine, Shanklin, Godshill Model Village and Osborne House years ago, I had to be ruthless and cut them from my schedule, in favour of experiencing something a bit different. As I stepped ashore at 10am, I knew I wanted to see a mixture of nature, history and the arts, with a dose of island quirk.
For the morbidly curious (that’d be me), the words ‘death’ and ‘tour’ in the same sentence are like music to the ears; throw in the word ‘debauchery’ and I’m easy like Sunday morning. So, when the kind people at Insider London offered me the chance to experience one of their quirky tours, this option immediately jumped out from the list.
As it happened, I couldn’t have made a better choice, because Death and Debauchery is the ultimate experience for anyone with an anatomical fixation, an interest in social history or a desire to know about the grimier side of life in one of the world’s most famous cities.
Having been pretty ill in recent weeks (to paraphrase Gok Wan in the new Activia ad, I haven’t been ‘feeling good on the inside’, though it’s nothing Activia and Gok can fix), this weekend it was time for a cheering up treat, in the form of a visit to Britain’s only bone chapel. There’s nothing like checking out 700-year-old skulls to help you put your own health issues into perspective… or to act as a nice distraction.
St. Leonard’s Church is in Hythe, which is a fairly nondescript town in Kent. Strangely enough, there’s no specific reason for its bones to be on display – no devout monastic order at work (as in the case of the Capuchin Crypt in Rome), no prominent case of severe overcrowding in the churchyard (as was the case at Les Innocents in Paris, later forming the backdrop to Andrew Miller’s novel, Pure). Nobody really knows why the bones are stacked so neatly and not interred in the ground, which just adds to the intrigue for me. I’m also relieved that they haven’t been discarded or removed by over-zealous authorities at some point.
Having visited north Cornwall regularly for more than a decade, it’s fair to say that I know the place pretty well. However, the majority of tourists seem to think that the county consists mainly of Newquay and the Eden Project, but there’s far more to it than that. Here are your more laid back and often less crowded alternatives in the land that the locals call Kernow, from Lusty Glaze to Padstow and beyond, where you can genuinely relax.
Our first stop is just a stone’s throw from Newquay – in fact, you can walk there in a few minutes along the coastal path, before traipsing down the narrow steps to the beach, complete with cafe/restaurant and beach huts. Fact fans should note that it featured in an edition of Blue Peter, where the finer points of lifesaving were discussed in a digestible, child-friendly manner, obvs. More obscure fact fans should also note that I once went in the sea here on Christmas Day and it wasn’t as cold as I’d anticipated.
The other night I fulfilled one of my long-term travel goals: to take a Ripper tour around Whitechapel and see where the shocking murders of 1888 took place. I’m not a fan of horror in the entertaining sense (stick me in front of a slasher film and I will develop psychosomatic symptoms of distress within a few minutes), but the case of Jack the Ripper is terrifyingly real and gives an insight into the harshness of East End London life.
Maybe it’s because he was never caught, and because there are so many theories surrounding his true identity, I’m left with plenty to mull over, and a tour seemed like the ideal opportunity to match the history with the streets themselves.