In my effort to learn more about coffee, I took advantage of my time in London to try out as many of their different coffee options as possible. On a student/intern budget, this was difficult. But who needs real food anyway?
I had a huge list of events that I really wanted to get to on my stay in London, but because London is so huge and buzzing, I didn’t manage to get around to doing most of them! I am glad I got to go to this event though, it’s absolutely the kind of event you would not easily experience in South Africa, even in the middle of winter.
The London Ice Sculpting Festival was held on a particularly bright winters day in Wood Wharf. This posed a challenge for the sculptors participating because the glaring sun was melting their massive blocks of ice. The sun shining through the ice was beautiful though.
There were a number of countries participating, and you could tell which countries were able to get a lot of experience in ice sculpting: Russia and Canada were significantly good, while Africa seemed to have a slightly different style. All the participants were incredibly skilled – the sculptures they worked on were certainly not easy or basic.
The tools they used were quite interesting too. Electric chainsaws (plugged in to a power source, even in the puddles forming below them), soldering irons, and even your normal domestic clothes iron (it seemed like a normal domestic iron – I could be wrong, but it would probably work just as well anyway). Sculptors were required to wear chainsaw-resistant trousers – those are seriously hardcore trousers!
USA vs. UK? My friend went to the USA over the December break and she absolutely loved it, particularly when she got a whirlwind experience of New York just before the Polar Vortex hit (it’s quite a contrast to our Sunny South Africa Decembers). When she met me in London just afterwards, she was surprised at how less urbanised London was. Yet London is such a progressive city too, how can there be such a difference?
She was expecting more of the Starbucks on every corner (or Costa’s in UK) and big chain stores like Primark and H&M to pop up wherever you decided you needed one, but we ended up having to Google these places and then walk for ages (well, more ages than you would in NYC by the sound of it at least) just to find the shop you are looking for. One of my favourite things about the UK, particularly London, is how accessible everything is. One of my other favourite things about the UK is that they offer you this accessibility alongside all their rich history and heritage.
After the family festivities of Christmas, Kenilworth Castle opened their gates for free public access, as a Boxing Day treat. It was rather chilly, but the sun was cheerily brightening up the crisp blue skies, as it attempted to heat up frozen children noses. This may sound cute, but not when a particular “children” is moaning about how cold they are and how they want to go home because they have no interest in the ruins of a castle that held many royals (including PRINCESSES, sweet child!).
Thankfully, the organisers also hosted a duck race. We felt very foreign when we heard about this: isn’t animal racing like this considered to be animal cruelty? It turned out to be a really fun event involving thousands of numbered rubber ducks going downstream. You place a bet on a number, and if yours makes it to the end first, you win! It was all very novel, and definitely worth celebrating with some mulled wine.
Castles are definitely one of the things you absolutely HAVE to visit in the UK: each one has a pretty unique story, and to think that people actually lived in those freezing stone halls with no electricity, yet still managed proper grandeur – it’s a humbling experience (as in: how badly do we really need it?).
Christmas in the UK is quite a thing to behold. It is not necessarily about the religious aspect of it, but the tradition is still all there – the gorgeous Christmas lights, the Christmas puddings, the stockings by the fireplace. And the mulled wine, oh the mulled wine! In fact, the mulled everything!
Family time is always a good time: it gives you an opportunity to appreciate how lucky you are to have them. After all, family is forever, and it’s really hard to escape them. My gran is such a strong support and foundation in our family, and as tradition holds, she is a fabulous cook! I wish I had more of an opportunity to learn from her, but there’s only so many times you can be allowed to bake before your mother complains that there are too many cookies and cupcakes and brownies and the fridge and every other food storage space… Also, it’s far too cold in the UK to exercise enough to compensate for all that butter and sugar!
I really love recipes to be as simple as possible. Mostly this is because it’s easier to have all the ingredients on hand if there are fewer that you actually need, but also because often the extra ingredients don’t even change the flavour! Gran found these awesome (and illogical) cake tins online and decided that we absolutely HAD to make the Christmas pudding cake. No, not Christmas pudding or Christmas cake, it is a cake that looks like a Christmas pudding, kind of resembles the Christmas flavours, but different. The recipe was a pricey one, with lots of dark chocolate, dates, eggs, and brandy (which happened to be my grandfather’s mother’s!) and it turned out like a massive chocolate cake bomb/boulder. It was extremely heavy! It had a decent flavour, but it was far too large for such a rich cake. The greatest thing about it was the milk chocolate ganache between the two layers (note: the link to the recipe doesn’t give you the exact same recipe as the one we used).
The recipe called for brown fondant around the whole ball, but most of my family don’t like fondant, and buttercream frosting looks so much more delicious and appealing (because it is!), so we gave it a skip. Also because making brown fondant is a mission. I really don’t like fondants and marzipan though: they always look amazing, but taste dreadful!
Christmas was a little over 2 months ago already! That means less than 10 months until more family and food time!
Mom insisted that we had to do something cultural. We simply HAD to. But what educational things can you do in London when you only have 3 hours to spare? You simply can’t do museums and galleries any justice in that minimal amount of time. So we hopped on a train and headed down to Greenwich, on what was possibly the wettest day of my UK stay.
The wet weather didn’t deter, however, and we really felt empathy for the poor sailors who would have had to deal with so much worse when they were aboard and sailing the Cutty Sark itself, in her hay day.
She’s a recently refurbished old-school boat (tea clipper). She burnt down in the refurbishing process, and has recently been completed and opened up to the public again. She has an extensive history, that covers things from the tea and wool trade, coal delivery, and even served to educate new sailors. I couldn’t quite gather what made her so significant (apart from all that she’s been through), but I think this is also due to the fact that I am severely lacking in ship and nautical appreciation. I will work on that shortcoming soon.
Things that stuck out for me was that she seemed rather fast. The museum housed in the ship itself really do a good job of demonstrating what it was like to sail the ship using a number of multimedia platforms. It’s an interactive and fun experience; they even had a ship sailing simulator to give an indication of how fast she sailed from eastern Australia to London.
It is an interesting visit even if you know nothing about anything to do with the ship, though some kind of knowledge of it’s existence would have helped us. Most people would have some motivation to visit it, though I think I was a bit unprepared. It’s definitely something nice to do in Greenwich that is a little less conventional than just visiting the Meridian (which, granted, is worth a visit as well).
This is my year of being adventurous, doing different things, exploring, and challenging myself. I am a big wuss, so it is not too hard to find things to do. I also want to actually do things. There is so much out there, yet many of us stick so solidly to our routine, that we hardly experience anything new.
Take, for example, a trip to London: many people want to do the conventional sight-seeing – Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, the London Eye, yet you end up walking away with all the same photographs and experiences as everyone else, and you probably didn’t even learn anything by doing it. Yes, I did that too, on my recent trip, but we also mixed it up a bit by doing something Alternative.
There are some fabulous websites these days that make some terrific recommendations for activities to do in your city. It’s a real shame they don’t have one for Johannesburg (hint hint…). One of the top rated activities for London on one of these sites was an Alternative London Tour. They take a different look at the East End, the area around Shoreditch, Spitalfields and Brick Lane, with a specific focus on the Street Art that is apparently so huge in that area. Ever heard of Banksy? Apparently this was the area where he made his name, and inspired the revolution of Street Art (this is what I gathered from the tour). We didn’t get to see any of his work: the way that street art is run, pieces don’t seem to stay up for more than a couple of months, sometimes even just a few days. The fleeting nature of the art makes the experience special because you don’t actually know if it will still be there when you next see that particular wall.
What I found really interesting was the fact that many of the pieces we saw are not done illegally: the artists are often asked or given permission to create their fantastic pieces on the buildings by the landlords themselves. This tour was great because you learn to notice what constitutes street art, and what is just graffiti. For some, it’s all graffiti. The difference is that graffiti is all rebellious and anarchist (mostly also done illegally), whereas Street Art really is about creating something significantly visually stimulating (not necessarily appealing… like most art). Most of the time, the pieces are making some kind of statement – ‘stop climate change’, for example – and there is a social aim in them. It makes you appreciate how it’s more than just a couple of unruly school kids, and you take the time to admire their work (and figure out what on earth their message is…).
We had a really great tour guide, Ben Slow, who was charismatic, well-informed, very friendly, and particularly enthusiastic about both Street Art, and the gentrification in the area that is threatening the integrity, history, and culture that has developed into something very unique over the years. While he completely acknowledged the fact that some gentrification can be good (growing business and growing economy generally benefits everyone, right?), he also emphasised how this process doesn’t need to be at the expense of the area. Watch the video for his take on the matter, but also remember that he is not entirely against it. We all need to acknowledge the damaging role that commercialisation and corporations can play if they are not kept in check.
What was great about Alternative London, was that they don’t only cater for Street Art or graffiti enthusiasts: they include proper history of the area, how it developed into what it is today, and they look at some of the social aspects as well. I learnt a lot about Street Art and I learnt that we all need to be more observant.
My only complaint, which is really somewhat negligible, is that online they say they try to keep the groups small, but when we arrived, there were over 50 people. They split this between two guides, though I initially felt it was still rather big, but in the end it didn’t make a difference. Just note that when they say ‘small’, it’s not as intimate as the sub-12 you may be expecting.
They offer summer bicycle tours, which sound like they would be a worthwhile experience. You pay by donation as well, which means that you can decide how much you think the tour was worth, or just pay according to your own means – everyone is able to get involved.
I can see why it has such a high ranking on tourism and activity sites. It is definitely worth it to do something different when in London.
… because I’m a serious browser! I love to shop, but when I say “shop” I don’t actually buy anything, so it’s definitely more of an aggressive and distracted browsing…
I came to London, knowing very well that I would be shopping quite a bit, but somehow forgetting that I had experienced a lot more of the Internet than the last time I was here, somehow. I have been in my absolute element, and I have pretty much only scoured Oxford Street in the West End. Below is a collection of some of the funniest and some of the most interesting things I have found so far.
I nearly bought that dress for a Christmas party, but as you can see there was a little problem, and I didn’t have time to buy heels to make up for it. Why don’t they make short long dresses yet? The PJs would be appreciated by many students at Rhodes, and the panda skirt would be purchased in a heartbeat for a lovely friendle of mine who is mad about pandas. Pity that I come from South Africa, and the Rand is depressingly weak at the moment. Also: leggings absolutely everywhere! I still can’t decide if people should be allowed to wear leggings as pants (it depends if the way I wear them counts as wearing them as pants or not).
Some of these are appropriate for my four-year-old cousin, some of them she would absolutely love inappropriately. Either way, this is a really fun shop.
Quotes on posters, quotes on money tins, quotes to buy for your house, and quotes as graffiti. Everywhere you turn there is someone offering up their own piece of wisdom. I guess that’s just the world today, right?
It took me ages to find boots! It turns out there were quite a few unanticipated purchases that have been made since arriving…
Not to worry about all these sweet things though, I am off to gym today (the first time since I’ve been here, how shameful!), which also means I’ll need new gym gear. I optimistically brought along some running clothes. Unfortunately, it really is cold here, and I don’t much fancy running in this unfamiliar area in the dark. So, gym for me! I will also get the added benefit of attending spinning classes which means I won’t completely die on the 110km cycle race that is the Argus in early March 2014.
I have many more hidden shopping districts to attend to shortly, but for now I have done one of the bigger and more important streets. I’ve got that out the way, now I can learn to be less of a tourist and find all the local spots to save some cash and still look as fabulous as everyone else here does.