Friday, 30 September 2011

Drinking up life in London town

I am sitting outside a cafe opposite Liberty in London and it's a glorious day. The department store with its Elizabethan-style facade and leaded windows is an impressive sight to anybody viewing it for the first time. It's not bad for shopping either.

It has a character not often seen in retail buildings - Fenwicks in Newcastle had it at one time, but it has been modernised in the last few years and I'm not sure if they have killed off its individuality in the character stakes - which suits its location as it's just around the corner from 60s mecca Carnaby Street. That style icon is still one of the most fashionable places to shop in the capital and a must visit, if only to try and understand what everybody was going mad about in the Swinging Sixties.

Sitting here sipping my coke, I can see changes since I left London that have enhanced it - more pedestrianisation for a start, which makes walking around less of a battle (though you still take your life in your hands if you try to cross Regent Street against the lights).  There's also more dining and drinking opportunities outside, so you can soak up the atmosphere of the place and people watch - something that has been the norm in continental Europe for years but was sadly missing here for the most part. A welcome change as far as I'm concerned, especially on a warm, sunny day like today. And it's almost October!

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Dancing in history in Covent Garden - Royal Opera House

Photographer Rob Moore

Oh my stars, I have just had the most fabulous visit to the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden! It was part of a launch for a new skincare collection (more about that on, which has as its face the beautiful and extremely bendy ballet dancer Olivia Cowley.

As part of the product presentation a group of us were taken on a tour of the to the Royal Opera House and shown around the magnificent building. It is a place of two distinct halves: you have the original hall, built in 1858 and once host to the nobility of London including Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, then you have the glass-dominated modern part, which was built at the end of the 1990s.

The original hall is the third Royal Opera House - the first two were destroyed by fire - and it is all opulence: rich dark wood, deep red silk lampshades and gold leaf. By contrast, the modern part of the building is light, airy and fantastically minimalist; both though are equally striking in their own way.

Photographer Rob Moore
I can't believe I have never visited this cultural landmark before (despite having lived in London for 17 years) and I totally loved the tour. Our guide was a scream, a genial chap who kept us all amused with his anecdotes and jokes. He led us from the huge horseshoe-shaped theatre to the ballet rehearsal room where the dancers were taking part in the first class of the day; from there we looked in at the costume department where a team of just six people create the thousands of costumes used by the company every year. Amazing.

To my surprise I also learned that tickets start from just £5 for the 'slips' - the highest part of the auditorium, in the gods and nearest the ceiling. Standing room only I think there! I don't know how much of the action on stage you'd see but it would be quite an experience - especially if you have a problem with heights. I do but I'm seriously thinking of booking up just to see what it feels like.

What I also didn't know is the two restaurants and cafe situated in the building are open to the public - next time I have a meeting in London I'm going to suggest meeting up there.

For culture vultures, history buffs, dance fans or never-do-anything-like-that novices, it's a spectacular location and I'd recommend a visit if you're in the capital.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Smooth operator – Burton Agnes Jazz & Blues Festival 2011

Well it wasn’t what I expected at all. Not having been to a music festival before (yes I was a festival virgin until this summer), I did my homework before leaving home.  Into the car went the wet wipes and antiseptic hand wash I had been told was vital in case of overcrowded and overflowing toilets, games and books to keep the children amused in the traffic queues and between acts on stage, and of course the wellies – four pairs – for the inevitable mud.

I didn’t need any of it.

Claire Martin wowed the crowd
The Burton Agnes Jazz & Blues Festival was the most civilised and enjoyable event – and I loved every minute of the time I spent there. To my dismay we were only able to attend on the final day, so we missed much of a great bill that included Jacqui Dankworth, Matt Smith and Oli Brown.

What we did see though was fab: singer Claire Martin was a revelation – her vocals were sublime and the music lush, while eight-piece East Yorkshire band Octopus played out a set of classic swing that transported me back to my childhood. (I grew up listening to my dad’s jazz and swing records). 

Swing out with Octopus

As the music rang out around the grounds of Burton Agnes Hall, several people started to dance; others watched from blankets or deck chairs, sipping wine or drinking freshly brewed tea. No shouting, no screaming, everybody had a great view and the hours slipped past quickly as we all chilled to the sounds from the stage.

With me were my daughter, my brother and my niece. The girls are aged 10 and 5 so they weren’t for sitting still too long, but it didn’t matter. The gardens surrounding the great hall led to a woodland walk where we had fun spotting carved wooden creatures in the trees and hedges. The vegetable gardens led to a maze that the girls mastered admirably, leaving me stranded trying to find my way to the middle as they ran off.  There were outdoor games – giant chess boards, drafts, hopscotch and snakes and ladders – to hold their attention and we played all of them. These were definitely a big attraction for the many young visitors at the festival, and the great thing was, even while playing, we could still hear the music clearly.

Spot the woodland creatures kept the kids amused
We had taken a picnic to eat while watching the performers on stage, but there was loads of food on sale for non-picnic lovers, including burgers (my daughter had one of those and gave it the thumbs up), salads, hot dishes and homemade cake. The beer tent sold soft drinks as well as alcohol and for shopaholics there were two gift shops, plants for sale from the hall’s gardens, and a display of work by local artists to buy.  Importantly, none of the queues were too long either.

Now for the venue itself – I cannot fault it. The beautiful manor house and grounds have been in the Cunliffe-Lister family for around 900 years, and the performances took place on a stage set on the  beautiful lawns in front of the hall, as well as inside the building itself. Camping facilities were located in a field next to the gardens and though we didn’t bring our tent, by all accounts they were fine.

Beautiful Burton Agnes Hall
Burton Agnes Hall is a tourist attraction in itself, so it is
well served with proper loos (no smelly plastic toilets). It is situated between York and Bridlington on the A614 and offers free parking. 

All in all we really enjoyed our day and are definitely going for the entire festival next year – tent and all. And I’ll take the wellies just in case, though the other stuff can stay at home.

Burton Agnes Jazz & Blues Festival
5-7 August 2011

This review was prepared for the Family Festivals website, check it out on

Friday, 23 September 2011

A Geordie Gem - North East England

If you've never visited the North East of England then you have missed out. It's where I hail from, but I'm not biased - some of the most beautiful scenery and historic buildings in the country are found in Northumberland, Tyne and Wear, and County Durham.

Here the historic melds with the contemporary: Hadrian's Wall, built in the days of the Roman Empire and once the country's northern border is still visible (and walkable), while the massive metal statue, the Angel of the North, graces the entrance to Gateshead from the south; Bamburgh Castle on the Northumbrian coast guards against invasion from the sea, while the latest bridge over the River Tyne, the Millennium Bridge gives pedestrian access to Gateshead and the city of Newcastle.

Extensive redevelopment of both the north and south quaysides have attracted prestigious hotels, restaurants, cafes and bars to the area, providing a great base from which to explore town and country.

For me, I always know I'm home when I see the Angel of the North as I drive into Gateshead on the A1 and nothing makes me more proud than seeing the historic Tyne Bridge over the river.

I'm coming home Newcastle - The Tyne Bridge

The River Tyne's iconic bridges: the Tyne Bridge, Swing Bridge and High Level Bridge

Looking along the Newcastle quayside towards the bridges. The Sage art and music venue is on the left (Gateshead quayside)

Millennium Bridge (pedestrian) links Gateshead and Newcastle (The entire bridge seems to lift up to allow boats to pass, there is a name for it but I'm not sure what it is. It is an amazing sight though)

Grey Street, Newcastle, the architecture is beautiful and the shopping is out of this world

The Angel of the North guards the entrance to God's Own Country from the south

Bamburgh Castle was a strategic fort built to defend against attack from the sea. This is a lonely but beautiful part of the coast with some of the best beaches in England. The fishing port of Seahouses lies to the south while Lindisfarne (Holy Island) lies to the north. The Farne Islands, renowned as a bird and seal colony, is off the coast and accessed by boat from Seahouses.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Legoland Florida - new destination for themepark lovers

Exciting news for Lego fans, Legoland Florida opens its doors next month - and I have to say it sounds good.

I attended the press launch for the new park this week and the video presentation made it all look very exciting. Mind you, I haven't visited the park in the UK yet, even though it has been on my list of things to do for years (and my daughter keeps bending my ear about it), so I don't know how different Legoland Florida will be or if it will offer something the Windsor park doesn't.

A colleague at the same event who has been to Windsor several times couldn't see anything new in the film but we wait to find out.

So, a few facts about the new attraction and its surroundings...
** It is situated in Polk County, Central Florida, within easy drive of Oralndo (about 30minutes drive from Kissimmee), Tampa and the airport.

** Ideal for families and children aged from 2 - 12.

** More than 50 rides and attractions.

** Ten Lego lands are located on the 150-acre site.

** Attractions close by include Bok Tower Gardens, water skiing, airboat rides and rodeo.
If my past performance on visiting Legoland Windsor is anything to go by it will be a long, long time before I get to the Florida park so if anybody can add to what I've said - how the development is progressing, how it is being received by the local community, and of course what it's like once it opens, I'd love to hear it.