Ah, summer. Long days, bees buzzing, flowers opening up for us to delight in their world of glorious colour. There is a good reason that millions of tourists flock to Kent in Southern England each year, from the UK and further beyond.
It is peppered with stunning gardens, all imaginatively created and beautifully maintained. I am the most dedicated of non-gardeners but even I feel a stirring of desire to be green-thumbed when I stroll by the abundant borders of an English Country Garden.
I know, I’m waxing lyrical and sound like a dotty old dear. But that’s the character that I became down in Kent last month. First on the agenda on my second day was Hole Park. Two minutes’ down the road, there was a summer fair, consisting of dozens of tents filled with delightful but expensive home lifestyle goodies. Did that and then after a gorgeous smoked salmon lunch, we meandered around the gorgeous gardens.
After a wee rest back at base, we headed off to Chapel Down, the Winery. Wow! Amazing wines. I was really blown away by the quality. The sparkling was stunning and I was taken aback at how delicious the Chardonnay was, given that it’s not mine wine of choice. I highly recommend a trip there – friendly and information people, pretty vines, fascinating processes and superb tastings.
It has been decades since I spent a break down in Kent. At the beginning of June it was stunning. So many different flowers were out in bloom and I had – for the most part – brilliant weather.
We bought my Dad shares in a winery for his 70th (or a share of a vine in a winery), so he and his wife have been going down every June for the annual ‘thank you’ and wine pick up. This year they invited to join them and it was fantastic (more of that in Day 2).
I had a strong recommendation from my garden-loving friend Heather to visit Pashley Manor Gardens and it she hadn’t undersold it. Absolutely stunning – anywhere that balances flora and sculpture gets my vote. And the cakes were great too.
Here’s my edited highlights from the hundreds I took.
I tend not to look back too much. Just the occasional nostalgia session with a friend when we reminisce about a holiday, a gig or party.
This afternoon I have found myself in a time warp. I’m taking part in an alumni Q&A tomorrow evening for an organisation called UNIQ. It organises summer schools for state school pupils who might find the idea of applying to Oxford daunting and / or out of their reach.
Nearly 30 years ago I was in that boat and nothing like UNIQ existed, so I’m happy to help out.
A politics teacher said I should have a go at applying for Oxford and my immediate reaction was ‘no way – definitely not bright enough, posh enough or rich enough.’
Despite feeling that way, I went for it and loved the whole process. Writing my notes today for my presentation tomorrow has reminded me of it all. What I intend to say to the 14 young men and women I’m meeting tomorrow is that I had a real fear of not fitting in. And for substantial chunks of time at Oxford I felt I didn’t – but it wasn’t a negative feeling. On the contrary I felt as if I had landed a starring role in my own movie. I was transported to a magical world that contained eccentrics, ancient buildings, fantastic minds and enriching friendships. Terms were short (just eight weeks), intense, and filled with escapades – drinking, acting, singing, debating.
The intensity brought with it anxiety (am I good enough? am I fun enough? am I anything enough?) but the good times will be with me forever and I am forever shaped by them. And it was, after all, a bit like a film, set against one of the most beautiful backdrops imaginable.
Academically, I am grateful for that part of my education. I put my mind through an intellectual pencil sharpener to emerge with a set of skills that I draw on constantly. I’m not a politician. I don’t earn a huge amount. On paper, I’m not the ‘success’ that might be expected of an Oxford student. But throughout my career I’ve used my ability to reason, argue, analyse and present time and again with huge success. The rigor of the tutorial system did that for me.
Writing my notes today I realised that I did absolutely fit in. Everyone did, that’s the point. The shy ones, the socialites, the socialists, the sporty ones, the aristocrats, the future politicians, the geeks, the true academics, the state school kids; we all had a place in the madhouse of Oxford, whether we could appreciate it at the time or not.
So, in a avalanche of nostalgia, thank you Oxford. You gave me three years I wouldn’t swap for all the money in the world!
Finally, I’ve had a chance to edit some Sydney photos. I realise that out of the many I took, only a few merited editing. It’s one of those cities where the finger is on the shutter almost constantly when the bridge or Opera House are in view. Whittling down the many to the elected few is a tough task.
So here they are – my Sydney Selection 2014.
Must start with a pano of the view from The Macleay, proving my point (from the previous post) that paying a wee bit extra for a view is very much worth it.
[warning: this post is tip-heavy - I apologise to anyone not planning to go to Sydney any time soon. Photo gallery will follow once I'm done editing!]
After a wonderful trip to Australia in 2011, I wasn’t sure when or if I would get back there, so it was a great bonus to go for work the other week. Flight paid for, I was able to tag on some annual leave so that I could catch up with dear friends.
It was a nail-biting, sweat-inducing couple of weeks leading up to the trip. I fell foul of the great Passport Office scandal and got my passport 24 hours before flying. So I packed in a hurry and scuttled off with great relief. [Quick LHR T4 tip: if you're looking for breakfast, don't settle for the nearest café (something straight out of tourist central). Instead, walk right down to Gates 11-17 and you'll find Comptoir Libanais - great food, wonderful services, andquiet.]
Onto Sydney….the great thing about returning to a city is that you’ve usually done the headline tourist tick offs, so your second visit can be about getting under the skin of the place, exploring neighbourhoods you didn’t have time for before. I think the best city trips are the ones where you get to wander at leisure, soaking up the culture and atmosphere that is unique to that particular metropolis. There’s nothing quite like sitting at a pavement cafe in so-called ‘Winter’ (20°C, blue sky with fluffy white Simpsons clouds, which is a summer’s day to Britfolks) watching the locals comes and go.
My first time round recommendations are:
Unless you are truly phobic about heights, do the Sydney Harbour Bridge Climb. It’s absolutely brilliant – knowledgeable and interesting guides and a cracking view. Money well spent and pictures in my head that I will treasure forever.
Early evening (or anytime!) drink at The Opera Bar – perfect views of the bridge and the Opera House while you slurp wine. Tip: order your wine inside, where’s there’s a better selection, rather than from the outside bar.
Botanic Gardens – the gardens are utterly gorgeous and added bonus comes from watching the super fit suckers do lunchtime boot camps.
Sydney Fish Market – photographers’ paradise.
Here are my second time around recommendations:
I was staying in Darling Harbour (avoid on your trip unless you are a sucker for cheesy tourist activities like Madame Tussauds) for the business bit of my trip and had an evening alone. I don’t like the big, noisy tourist traps of Darling Harbour, so turned to Concrete Playground to find a bar that was more ‘me’. I found The Small Bar – does what it says on the tin, folks. It’s small. It’s a bar. It was fantastic – great wine and simple but decent nosh. Note to whoever run Concrete Playground: sort your search function out – the map is amazing but sometimes you want to get straight to your bar of choice, not a geo location!
If you’re beyond backpackers but before big budgets, I have the ideal place to stay. The Macleay in Potts Point (28 Macleay Street) has proven perfect two times running. If you’re willing to pay $20ish extra a night, you can snag an Opera House and Bridge view. It’s well worth it, as waking up and going to sleep with two icons is a magical reminder of where you are. The hotel staff are really friendly (from coffee recommendations to a cheery ‘hello’ when you come and go), it’s spick and span clean and the rooms have mini kitchens in case you do get to the stage where you simply can’t afford to eat out. There’s a Woolworths opposite too. For any Brit who hasn’t been to Oz, Woolworths is a supermarket, not the failed ‘sells a bit of everything cheap store’ we knew and loved. My only quibble would be that Wi-Fi isn’t free. Is this the same in UK hotels? I think it’s time people sorted that out – it should be part of the price not an optional extra.
Speaking of Woolworths, you can buy your travel card there, so that you’re sorted from the first hour of arrival. Daily cards are $22, so if you’re in town for more than three days, buy a weekly card at $63, which covers all ferries, buses and trains, including journeys like the Manly Ferry ($14.80).
Potts Point is a great place to stay. It’s well connected by the 311 bus to Circular Quay, Surry Hills and a five minute stroll up to Kings Cross connects you to buses for Watson’s Bay, Bondi and of course the metro. It’s the posh elder sister of Kings Cross, filled with art deco buildings, cutesy coffee shops and beautifully groomed gay guys with sweet dogs. And there’s a great walk down McElhone Stairs, to Woolloomaloo Bay, up through the Bot Gardens and onto the Opera House, which I recommend as the ideal first day orientation.
[note on the 311 - at Circular Quay there is conflicting and confusing info about where to catch the bus back to Potts Point. Ignore the info booth guy, who doesn't have a clue and head for the corner of Pitt St and Spring St - that's where it starts!]
For anyone who has heard tell of Kings Cross being a really dodgy, scary place, it’s not. Well, I guess if you’ve never stepped out of your tiny hamlet in rural Britain to head for London, it might be… but to most of us Brits, it’s Soho-lite but tiny and without the theatres. Nowt to fear – just a bit scuzzy.
While we’re in Kings Cross/Potts Point, there’s a great little side street filled with cafes and eateries, Lankelly Place. Friends who live round the corner took us to a friendly little Japanese sake bar. Try the grilled miso eggplant – gorgeous!
Potts Point has no end of great breakfasts on offer and having tried a lot of them, I’d say the best is easily La Buvette. Full of locals – always a good sign – and a fab range of breakfasts. It’s billed here on Facebook as veggie but I’m sure I saw meat options on the brekkie menu. Everyone says Fratelli Fresh is the best but the menu at La Buvette had more choice and was definitely livelier with locals on a Sunday morning.
Top tip for coffee drinkers who take it black: Sydney has possibly the strongest coffee in the world. It’s great quality but sometimes the strength can wallop you. I took to asking for a one shot long black and it was perfect. [Thanks, Bree, for that tip - why didn't I think of it before!!!]
My first day off I took the ferry to Manly. Pretty much any ferry leaving from Circular Quay will give you fantastic views of the bridge and Opera House, so make sure you sit outside at the back rather than the front – tourists tend to pile on at the front, as that’s where the view is when you’re sitting in dock but of course the minute you leave, you lose the view!
I was in a jet-lag haze when I went to Manly, so I can’t really tell you much about it. It’s a lovely long beach so I meandered along thinking that surfing looked like a lot of effort for very short rides. I’ll leave it to someone else to stick some recommendations in the comments!
That evening I met with an ex-colleague. How we laughed when we remembered her anxiety that taking a break might harm her career. Within days of being in Australia, she had multiple job interviews and is now working for a super hot PR agency. We went to The Winery in Surry Hills. Absolutely lovely place, full of fairy lights and a wine list to die for. Gorgeous. I think the food options are a bit limited, so the next time I was in Crown Street for a night out, the Japanese restaurant, Zushi, next door proved a much better option. Amazing food and very reasonable (this matters when you’re a Brit who is shocked by Aussie prices! Sorry Bree!).
The next day my dear friend Bree arrived from Brisbane and we bimbled around and caught up on 18 months’ worth of life – Surry Hills and Paddington were the destinations de jour. This included essential shopping at Dinosaur Designs, purveyors of simply delicious resin jewellery and objects. That evening, we trooped off to The Opera Bar for a drink and then headed over to the new bit of the MCA for another. Great views from both!
Bree took me to two superb art galleries on Friday. Carriageworks in Redfern is a disused rail carriage workshop and is an absolutely gorgeous space. I would love to see a dance performance here.
The White Rabbit Gallery was a recommendation from our friends in Kings Cross. A collection of contemporary Chinese art, curated into three different shows per year. I’ll be honest – even better than the art was the Chinese tea room on the ground floor. A bewildering and utterly fantastic array of tea, stunningly good dumplings and friendly staff. I highly recommend a visit.
Something I can’t recommend as it was an exclusive… my lovely friend Bernadette had organised a charity auction for the Aboriginal Literacy Foundation last year and friends of hers had won ‘dessert by Annabel Crabb’. For non-Aussies, Annabel is a political columnist and has a highly successful TV show called Kitchen Cabinet, where she has lunch with a politician and brings dessert. The date fixed for the prize was the Friday we were in town and the only time we could see Bernadette and Peter John, so we were invited along. A fantastic evening. Annabel was charming, funny and entertaining and I for one will be reading her forthcoming book, The Wife Drought. And here’s the dessert she brought to dinner….health warning, cut veryslim slices, as this contains 750g cream cheese and 250g mascarpone!
Finally, a name check for my friend Peter John’s incredible book, which won an award when we were with him on the Friday evening. Public Sydney: drawing the city is ideal if you want a gift for someone who loves architecture and loves Sydney. Ten years in the researching and five years in the making, it ‘sets a new benchmark for navigating the historic layers of Sydney’s original CBD‘.
I loved my return to Sydney. If anyone needs a kick-ass communications strategist for a year, I’d definitely be up for a sabbatical in your glorious city!
I had a great billy work bonus the other week – I was invited out to take part in a communications workshop by a sister organisation in Sydney.
It was a fun and interesting trip and I’ll post with all my top tips and experiences in Sydney itself but first, my day trip to the Blue Mountains.
Our host from The George Institute, Rich, organised a day trip out to the Blue Mountains and I was thrilled, as I didn’t get there on my last trip.
It was winter, so the sun wasn’t consistent and it did get perishing cold at times but it was stunning. We went to Scenic World – a great way to get a slice of the area in one day and I never say no to a cable car ride or two! If you click on the first photo, you’ll get a full screen gallery.