welsh cakes & ianto jones // a spontaneous day trip to cardiff

Last autumn, my friend and I decided that we would take a spontaneous day trip to Wales. True to our word, we were off the next morning. To this day, we still can’t quite believe that we had the nerve to do it. Spur-of-the-moment trips like this are a relatively common trope in young adult novels, but to be the instigator of one in real life was something else.

The tale begins at approximately 7pm on a Thursday evening, when my friend and I were innocuously chatting over Whatsapp. But when we noticed that we both had the next day off from work, we began to see an opportunity. We began searching the internet for offbeat ways to occupy our day in London; whether it be a pop-up art installation, or a cafe with a quirky interior.

But we weren’t sure if these places were enough. The places we were looking at were the kind of things that took a few hours at most to see, but this time we had the entire day. We had plenty of time to be a bit more adventurous, and we began to cast our sights outside of central London. Quick as a flash, the original plans to go to a cute cafe morphed into something far more intrepid.

The golden hour hits Cardiff Castle

I can’t remember who suggested it first, but eventually one of us brought up, shock horror, leaving the boundaries of the M25, the ring road that encircles London. Passing this milestone felt significant; our Friday plans were now officially a Day Out™. This new development didn’t slow us down down one jot, and we embraced the new opportunities by devouring every Top Ten London Day Trips list that we could lay our hands on.

One of the perks of being in London is how easy it is to escape London, with a wealth of easily accessible day trips that don’t require a car. Cambridge and Oxford came up many times, but we had both been to these cities already. Saint Albans, Canterbury and Rochester were other potential options. But it wasn’t until my friend suggested Wales as a joke that we had an option that truly sang to us.

The idea instantly caught. Although, even though it would be hilarious if we actually went to another country for a day trip, I knew it was totally unrealistic. It would be far too expensive… or would it? Because I am not the kind of person to leave things like that hanging, I decided to actually look at prices. And you know what? It wasn’t actually that much. It would only cost us about £27 or so for a round coach trip, which wasn’t even much more than the tickets to more nearby cities. And hey, go big or go home, right?

Thankfully, my friend is also of a similar disposition to me, and it didn’t take long for us to actually decide to go. We weren’t going to let this rare shared day off go to waste! Besides, I think we almost as excited about the idea of doing a day trip to another country than we were about the day trip itself.

And so, less than 12 hours after we first began planning, we found ourselves at London Victoria coach station, blearily clutching hot drinks from Pret aManger and ready to board a bus to Wales.

There are many accessible day-trips around London, many of which only being an hour or so away on the train. (Un)fortunately for us, Cardiff is not one of these cities. The coach from Victoria Coach Station departed at 7am and arrived no less than four and a half hours later, just in time for lunchtime. But in the end, the timing worked out quite well. By the time we were due for our bus home at 6pm, we were sufficiently exhausted enough to not care about ignoring any places of interest that we might have missed.

Cardiff has always been one of these cities I had been meaning to go to one day. Accessible enough to be vaguely realistic, but far enough out of the way that it was always dismissed to the back of the line. On many accounts, it was reported to be a lovely little city. For me personally, there was also an attraction in that the city played a big part in Doctor Who and Torchwood, both beloved shows of my high school self. Plus, I’m a sucker for a new experience, and what better place to experience that than the Welsh capital?

Welsh Cakes – my friend insisted a trip to Wales was not complete without these. 10 for £2.90? Don’t mind if we do!

My friend, being Welsh, had of course been several times before. She was my tour guide! Not that we had a proper plan, really. We just wandered around, stumbling across food markets and strange Harry Potter knick knacks in stores. There’s some gorgeous shopping arcades dotted across the city, and we took great delight in admiring every inch of them!

We found the Ianto Jones shrine, which was a huge throwback to my Torchwood days. It was a little strange seeing a full blown memorial for a fictional character, but hey, what’s a fandom if it doesn’t make you feel things?

Despite Ianto Jones not actually being a real person, I still couldn’t help but feel a pang of sadness when I saw how neglected some of the posters were, with years of being left to the elements stripping the colours and curling the corners. Torchwood has been off the air for years now, and there aren’t a lot of new memorials going up these days. At one point, all of these people thought Torchwood important enough to make a pilgrimage to Cardiff, but now Torchwood is no longer a part of their lives, and these people have moved on. I feel old.

We spent quite a lot of time around the harbour front, which alternated between gale-force winds and cool and clear sunshine. At one point we were forced to retreat inside the nearest pub to escape the rain and wind, which was threatening to blind us with its wrath. The pub in question was an ever-dependable Wetherspoons, but it did offer us a lovely view over the harbour! Half an hour later, the sky was blue and the sun was shining. Ah, the joys of British weather.

On a whim, we decided to pop into the interactive science centre, which was actually a lot of fun. We spent a good few hours channelling our inner children and messing around with the exhibits pretending to be airbenders.

After living in London for nearly two years, I had almost forgotten that people are capable of talking to strangers unprompted. Despite having the technical definition of a city, Cardiff really did give off some small town vibes. Everyone was smiling, and I even found my usually shy self chatting to a few people. A young mother with her toddler at the station even offered a ride back to the station if we didn’t want to walk it.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you necessarily want every conversation that comes your way. One memorable moment was in a souvenir shop, where we were treated to a conversation with the shopkeeper that rapidly the devolved into a woe-is-me rant about how his wife left him for his boss. But really, even an awkward encounter like that was just something to giggle over later.

One thing I was most excited to see was the bilingual signs, with many places displaying both English and Welsh languages. I myself am a firm advocate of New Zealand doing the same with Māori and English, so I was delighted to see a country, similar to NZ in so many ways, still representing its indigenous language today.

Usually the excitement of booking a trip becomes dulled down after the weeks or months of anticipation, but in the case of this particular trip to Wales, I found that there was no time for this to happen. Because we had so little time to mentally prepare ourselves to go, I actually found myself more excited to go here than I had been for a trip in a long time.

It’s become a fond memory now, and I can still barely believe that I’ve managed to find friends who is equally enthusiastic about spontaneous explorations. Here’s to many more such adventures!

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canary wharf // inside a concrete jungle

Canary Wharf is quite a funny area of London. In the eighties it was essentially an abandoned dockyard, yet today it is home to one of the most important financial centres of Europe, if not the world! It’s the textbook example of ‘regeneration’.

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View of Canary Wharf from Greenwich.

I work quite close to it, but I don’t go in very often. Although I’ve never been to New York, Canary Wharf is what I imagine Manhattan looks like. Everything in Canary Wharf is very Fancy and New™. The Canary Wharf underground station looks like a spaceship, with all of its glass panels and long strip lighting. So much like one in fact, that it is featured as such for a small moment in the Rouge One film.

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In this station at rush hour you can view a spectacular case of British queuing at its finest. 

I’ll be honest, I prefer the main City of London, with its mish-mash of old and new architecture and ancient streets. Still, they certainly knew how to impress with their massive towers here. I see them every day, but I’m still in awe. It’s crazy to believe none of it existed a mere 40 years ago!

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Obviously if you aren’t a Londoner this will not be relevant to you at all, but we’re getting a brand new underground railway running straight through the heart of the city, named ‘Crossrail’. I won’t bore anyone with the details, but it’s pretty exciting, and more transport links are definitely needed! It’s not due to open for another year or so, but we already are reaping the benefits in many ways, namely the new Canary Wharf station, otherwise known as ‘Crossrail Place’. It’s not a functioning station yet, but there is a choice roof garden!

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The Garden is located directly on top of the prime meridian stemming from the nearby Greenwich, which in layman’s terms, is the line that divides the world into the eastern and western hemispheres. This directly influences the garden’s design, which intends to play into this division, and is split into two sides; east and west, both showcasing the best of the exotic plants from their respective hemispheres.

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The juxtaposition of the towering glass and steel monoliths and the messy greenery of the garden pack quite a punch. I couldn’t help but feel a little excited at spotting some fauna from my very own New Zealand featuring in the Western side! A slice of nature and bit of nostalgia in surrounded by the tallest towers in the country, what more could you ask for?

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berlin // grunge, graffiti and architecture

Much like London, Berlin is one of these iconic cities with a history and culture leagues above other cities. It’s been on my bucket list for years, and this December I was lucky enough to finally visit! And actually, it reminded me of London in more ways than one.

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Changing trains at the central transport hub of Alexanderplatz was almost surreal, because it felt just as busy and chaotic as an interchange station in London, but it was actually in a whole other country altogether. I’ve been lucky enough to visit many different cities in my time, but Berlin was the first time that I felt like I was in a place as big and exciting as London. Of course, they call their trains the U-Bahn’s, not the tube, and they just use ordinary titles for the various branches (the U1, U2, etc), as opposed to odd proper nouns like the Piccadilly Line and the Victoria Line. The station architecture is quite different too, and the platforms were much more spacious than London’s ageing Victorian infrastructure. Despite these differences. I might as well have been standing at Oxford Circus or Liverpool Street station, because the atmosphere felt exactly the same.

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Berlin was also ridiculously photogenic. It was a credit to the city that it actually took me a while to reach the proper tourist sights. Of course, I was always planning to head to the main attractions, but I definitely got distracted by the areas that weren’t even in the guidebooks. I fell particularly in love with the neighbourhood’s of Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain, the latter of which my hostel was located in. Much like London, the best part about Berlin is how much there is to see. Stumbling around a random corner could be just as exciting as the major attractions.

That being said, the main sites weren’t half bad either. There really was some stunning architecture there!

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Here’s a little list of highlights of my trip:

1. Getting to see the remnants of Cold War Berlin.

Well, of course I had to mention the wall first. That’s one of the first things that springs into mind when you think of the East/West Germany divide, isn’t it? The East Side Gallery was my first look at the wall, running parallel to the river. The murals and graffiti are really cool, but you can’t help but just notice the impossible scale of the Wall.

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It’s just that; a wall. A massive, inelegant concrete wall, and it split up an entire city, an entire culture. It’s mad to believe that it’s only been gone for barely 30 years. Most of it was ripped down soon after the fall in 1989, for understandable reasons, but there are still segments remaining around the city. The East Side gallery is the longest remaining stretch, and is now covered in a diverse array of murals, some abstract, some clever, and some just pretty to look at.

 

You could still feel the divide between East and West Germany in many sides, with the eastern side of the city being noticeably more run down than the west side. That being said, I definitely found the eastern side to be more interesting! Maybe that’s because I prefer East London as well.

2. Wandering around Kreuzberg.

The easiest way to describe the neighbourhood of Kreuzberg is Cool, with a capital ‘C’. I felt trendier just walking around it. There were posters, everywhere, and the events they were advertising all sounded so cool! Graffiti and street art turned the beautiful old buildings into canvases, and it really felt like it was a neighbourhood occupied by people, not by corporations.

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I found so many cute shops and cafes here, and the entire area just exuded creativity. You can easily see how this area became one of the musical hubs in the 1970s, with venues frequented by the amazingly talented David Bowie and Iggy Pop.

3. Shopping in the biggest charity store in Europe.

Usually I’m not one to travel just for the shops, but in this case I made an exception. I’ve been op shopping all of my life (that’s the New Zealand word for thrifting), and basically all of my clothes are second hand, so when I learnt that the biggest charity shop in Europe was in Berlin, of course I had to go. It didn’t disappoint!

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Five floors of glorious second-hand goods, and the icing on the cake was that it was actually reasonably priced as well. My eyes practically bugged out of my head when I saw the €1 sale racks! In the end though, I only came out with a 70s knitted waistcoat for a steal at €2.50. Having an already full suitcase was a very good deterrent!

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4. Exploring the Christmas Markets

People don’t exaggerate; Germany really does come alive in December. Even though I don’t really like wine, I do love the smell of it, and you could smell Glühwein (mulled wine) around almost every corner! There was one huge one right in the centre of the city at Alexanderplatz which wasn’t my favourite, mostly because it felt quite similar to Winter Wonderland in London (yes, I’m spoilt for choice).

However, the beauty of Germany in December is that they take Christmas markets rather seriously, and there was a market around the city to suit just about anyone’s needs. I found so many good ones, hidden away in side streets, or put right in centre display!

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My favourite market had to me a medieval themed one that I came across in Friedrichshain on my very last day. I needed to burn some time before leaving for the airport that evening, so I decided to just explore the area around my hostel, and I came across this beauty in the middle of an abandoned industrial site.

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True to its medieval theme, it was more traditional than the other markets I had come across, and they even had activities like archery, or even donkey rides! It was a great way to finish off my holiday.

5. Just enjoying the history and culture of Berlin.

I already touched over this a bit before, but Berlin is such a fascinating city. Over the centuries, Berlin has gone through world wars, being split in two, and has emerged into the 21st century as a global hub of politics and the arts. You truly get the feel of a city that has grown and evolved organically.

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I fell in love with Berlin in my short visit, and I can’t wait to return one day, perhaps in the summer where the sun doesn’t go down at 3:30pm! Berlin was the kind of place where I could even see myself living there, one day. Maybe when my German is a little better.

notting hill // antique markets & pastel hues

One of my friend’s was returning home to her home country, and this was basically our final chance to spend some time together before she left. Notting Hill was an easy choice in deciding how to spend our final day together! Notting Hill is a small neighbourhood in West London, adjacent to the rich and impressive streets around Hyde Park and Kensington. Although still rather posh in its own right, it’s got a much cosier vibe, and there’s a bustle and sense of excitement in the area that its more expensive neighbours lack. Even if I can’t afford anything on the shelves, no one minds if a girl in scuffed shoes and an oversized jacket wants to window shop!

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Ask just about anyone, and they’ll tell you Notting Hill is an incredibly pretty area. Looking around at the late Victorian houses in bright colours, and you’ll instantly see why. Window boxes and potted plants are on almost every doorstep, and I can’t help but wish that the rest of London would follow suit! They certainly know how to make their surroundings photogenic.

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IMG_3908 Portobello Road is home to the market of the same name, the biggest antique market in the UK. The weekend is the real time to go, when the entire market is open and the street is clogged up with patrons. However, despite that fact that we visited on a gloomy Tuesday in the middle of winter, we found ourselves plenty occupied by the ordinary shops still open on the street! We had a lot of fun exploring the shops here.

I absolutely love basically anything vintage, and I couldn’t help but wish I could decorate my flat (and wardrobe) with the entire contents of some of the antique shops! They’re the kind of place where you could imagine finding just about anything for sale. Goods of all ages and uses were stacked haphazardly on tables and shelves. My friend and I were a bit terrified of accidentally knocking something over, so we ended up taking off our backpacks and just carrying them!

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Funnily enough, I had just happened to see the film called ‘Notting Hill’ just a few days earlier. For the uninformed, it’s a classic 90s rom-com starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts, and makes a strong point of being set in the neighbourhood of Notting Hill. Although cheesy, I enjoyed it very much, and was a little bit excited to look at the area with a new light.

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Spotted the flat with a blue door, but unfortunately there was no Hugh Grant?

The great thing about Notting Hill is that you feel almost like you’re taking a holiday from the city when you’re there! Of course, just around the corner is Shepherd’s Bush and Hyde Park which definitely feel like you’re back in London again. If you want something a bit different from the usual tourist hustle and bustle of the central city, Notting Hill is there waiting for you.

whitby: a day on the yorkshire coast

While staying with some Yorkshire relatives this week, we decided to take a day trip out to Whitby, a seaside town famous for Dracula and Captain Cook. I have a real soft spot for this town. I’ve only been here a few times, but whenever I come back I’m filled with nostalgia. I came here as a child with the aforementioned relatives, and I have memories of eating fish and chips and playing with 2p coins in the amusement arcades.

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Bram Stoker took most of his inspiration for Dracula from this striking seaside settlement, and you can easily see why. With its sleepy harbour, moody grey clouds and dramatic cliffs, it’s basically a recipe for a great story. Also, Captain Cook reportedly learnt most of his sea craft here as a youngster before his later voyage to settle New Zealand, so that’s pretty cool.

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I came here once in summer, and Whitby was right in the middle of a Goth Weekend, which meant that the town was absolutely packed! It was quite a cool time to visit, seeing people wearing goth fashion wandered the streets, weaving in between the ordinary tourists dressed like a generic H&M advert. It was a glorious juxtaposition. Today though, the streets were empty.

Let’s set the scene: the sun was beginning to set, and the Christmas lights were starting to switch on. There was a grey and stormy sky, and and the remnants of the wet morning provided a muted reflection of the sunset on the pavements. The streets were just how I like them; all higgledy piggledy, with messy, alternating shopfronts and colours.

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There were so many cute looking shops around here! If I had the time and money, I would have spent all day inside them. Alas, I could only enjoy from the outside. The people in this town certainly know how to coordinate a shop display.

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After wandering through the cobblestones of the town centre, we had lunch inside a lovely cafe called the Monks Haven, because of course it was. I had fish pie, because a trip to the seaside is not complete without some form of fish in a meal! I didn’t take photos inside because our food was distractingly good, but the interior was very nice.

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We climbed the 199 steps to the Abbey, which is situated on a dramatic clifftop perch, overlooking the entire coast. With it’s weathered gravestones and ruined silhouette, you can easily see why Bram Stoker was inspired by this image. The views from the climb were stunning.

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From the bottom of the steps.

Following the climb, we headed off to the beach for a quick wander. I spent my entire childhood living next to the ocean (although ironically, I never went), but I’ve only seen the sea a handful of times since moving to London. I really miss it. To stand there, on that English coast, just for a moment, was amazing.

The sand was getting all over my boots, and the dying pastel hues of the sun were reflected in the waves. Seagulls flew overhead, and the water stretched as far as I could see. I just stood there for a bit, feeling the cool winter wind on my face and gazing out into the Yorkshire sea.

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It was a long drive back to my relative’s place. We were all exhausted from our long day out, and my headphones provided a soundtrack to the drive as I leaned on the window, staring up at the stars over the bleak moors. It was a good day.

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Whitby is of my favourite places in this country, and I don’t think that its just the nostalgia talking. It’s a lovely town, with friendly people who also happen to have excellent taste in decorating. If I had more time I would have delved more into the historical background of this town, but I know I’ll be back at some point! If you ever get a chance to visit Yorkshire, I highly recommend coming over to the east coast and spending some time in Whitby.

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impressions of oxford

It’s hard to describe exactly what makes Oxford, England so great. Perhaps it’s the obvious sense of history and sense of curiosity exuding from the gaps between the well-worn flagstones, or perhaps it’s just the small things. Flowers spilling out over bicycle baskets, books haphazardly piled along window sills, reflections of the past in store windows.  It’s just as much about the little things as it is about the obvious, big historical attractions.

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I have been there on two separate occasions; once in a rainy spring day in May, and another in a mild autumn day a few weeks ago. I don’t think it matters what the weather is when you visit though; Oxford’s appeal is not consigned to one particular climate. Here are some photos I’ve taken during my two visits.

 

 

I’m not a particularly studious person, but it is difficult to avoid the gentle influence that Oxford University has had over this city for so many centuries. I’ll be honest – if I had to describe my ideal student life it would be in Oxford! I almost could have imagined myself trawling through one of the bookstores looking for an obscure volume, curled up in a coffee shop with my laptop, or studying with friends in the wide lawns of the colleges. Or to be more realistic, running through bucketloads of tourists in the cobblestoned streets because I slept in and don’t want to be late to my class. Dreams need a bit of a reality check sometimes as well, don’t they? I’m almost jealous of the students studying there. Academic results aside, you can easily see why Oxford is one of the most prestigious universities in the world!

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Oxford has a certain timeless feel to it. Sometimes it feels like any modern urban centre, and other times you could have stumbled into the mediaeval times. Students tap away at their MacBook keyboards with their headphones in, but then sometimes you will stumble into a deserted street and it will strike you that this street probably hasn’t changed in centuries.

 

 

Oxford is also home to one of my favourite museums, the Pitt Rivers/Oxford Natural History museum. It’s got an amazing collection related to anthropology, and it’s situated in a gorgeous Victorian building. I’ll write a more detailed post about the museum soon!

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Oxford is barely an hour away from London on the train, and a return day fare from London is only £26.00 (or less if you have a railcard!) which isn’t too bad as rail fares go. If you buy in advance you can get return fares for just over £10 too! You can walk literally everywhere in Oxford too, so there’s no need to worry about getting around once you’re there. So, if you are ever in London and feel like taking a day away from the city’s hustle and bustle, maybe you’ll consider Oxford.

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This is something a little different for me, so I hope it turned out okay. Thanks for reading, and I hope you liked my photos.

an ode to brutalist beauty

The emergence of Brutalism in the ruins of post-war Britain is one of the most fascinating parts of modern design. The name suits it; brutalist architecture knows what it is and doesn’t care if you like it or not. Done wrongly, it can look rather depressing. Think of 60s era council flats with dirty, water stained concrete. However, done correctly, it can be powerful, unassuming, and beautiful, all at the same time.

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The other day, I had the pleasure of wandering around the Barbican, a massive complex of buildings in central London. I was meeting some friends nearby in Old Street, and the route I found on Citymapper told me to walk from Barbican station. I never really visit this side of the city, so I didn’t really know what to expect.

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It’s impossible for the Barbican to not catch your eye. It’s there, blocking the horizon in its brutal, brutalist way, as soon as you exit the station. I had time to burn before meeting my friends, and my curiosity was piqued. I decided to enter this cavernous sprawl, one so important as to lend its name to its very own train station.

IMG_0362As soon as I walked in, I was greeted by grey; lots of grey. Massive concrete monoliths rose forebodingly into the skyline, and balconies bedecked with small potted plants greeted my eyes in every direction I looked. It was stark, unapologetic and in-your-face. It was beautiful.

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In a way, it’s even more true to the nature of the concept of a building than anything. Brutalism doesn’t pretend to be anything else, to integrate into the environment around it, because that’s impossible. There’s no paint or glossy facades, it just is. It’s simply a building, built for and by humans.

If you were describe an ideal building on paper, it would not be a brutalist one. It’s too easy to enjoy bright, smooth surfaces and big windows, but then again, that’s what we’re conditioned to like in a way.

Bold, unapologetic, and undeniably urban; people are quick to dismiss brutalism, but it’s just another type of beauty.