For the love of motorcycles, joy-riding England

first time bikerDo you have any mental defects? Wait, what? That question was asked and answered when I hired a motorcycle in London. Something we’d all like to inquire during the course of our day, such a time-saving query. I’d never ridden a motorcycle. Bikes are dangerous. In fact, bikes rarely capture my imagination unless there are two people riding. Then I may wonder who they are, where they’re going and why they don’t have a car. So here’s what happened. I had a friend in town who’s pretty much Zen-and-the-Art-of-Motorcycles. He suggested a ride to the coast, and since he has the required license which is an absolute prerequisite, I agreed.

open roadAs a novice biker, I’m compelled to relay some first impressions. Beware: either everyone around you is oblivious to your presence and therefore trying to kill you, or they are genuinely curious about what type of person is riding. Hope for the later, assume the former. Sunshine and warm days are preferable. On a motorcycle, you are at the mercy and whim of the weather. Closer to nature than usual. Feeling the glorious elements, without the deceptive safety barrier and comfort of a metal frame. You and the road, not a metaphor. Going fifty miles per hour feels like the wind is playfully trying to unseat you. Sixty-four and the bike is fighting the air, unclear if you’re being thrust backwards or hurled toward your destination. Why do those cars have their wipers going, is it raining? Can’t feel it. Can’t see either. Seventy-three miles per hour and the wind is gently but firmly punching your shoulders in rhythmic cadence, left, right, left. Every muscle is ready, awareness levels on high alert. Fatigue reminds you to rest, replenish your fuel-levels and maybe take the opportunity to investigate your locale.

ready to ride

Turns out, motorcycles are cool; they can take you to another world or offer a new perspective on this one. Off the motorways, beyond the A-roads, that’s where you find the extraordinary. The British Isles are beautiful, especially the countryside. Picturesque, quaint, charming. Inns and pubs, pastures and fields, plus endless opportunities to follow the little brown signs that indicate an attraction of some description. A road trip to Brighton turned into a stop-over in Bognor Regis. That is the beauty of the open road and having only an intention in mind.

My fluid itinerary started in Wandsworth hiring a Suzuki from About Town, taking some refreshment in Surrey at The Cock Inn Pub & Dining and then onwards to the walks and views of the National Trust’s Box Hill. Not just a scene location in Jane Austen’s Emma, Box Hill is a summit of the North Downs, a ridge of chalk hills in southeast England that stretch from Farnham in Surrey to the White Cliffs of Dover in Kent.

Box Hill

Carefully traverse the aptly named Zig Zag Road and cruise toward Denbies Wine Estate or Summer’s Place Auction Ltd, an auction house specialising in garden statuary and natural history. Don’t miss the pretty market town and civil parish of Arundel, situated in a steep valley in West Sussex. With an immense castle and lovely shops, Arundel offers an ideal setting for some respite.

Some may scoff at Bognor Regis, a traditional seaside town but the reasonably priced, no-frills restaurant in the Navigator Hotel is welcoming and surprisingly lively, and nothing compares to sunrise on the coast.

Moral of my story: Travel your path anew. Drive a different route to work, walk or cycle, take the train. Abandon your routine. Avoid the familiar. Experience the world in a way that’s unusual for you, and love the journey.

biker chick

 

 

 

 

 

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Great British Staycation; Fairy Cottage Weekend

If you are looking for a staycation in Britain and want to discover some less-travelled parts of the realm, I found an appealing alternative to holiday camps and hotels.

My usual accommodation preference is luxury boutique hotels but I wanted to try something new.

As for holiday camps and villages in the UK, like Butlins and Center Parcs, marketed to families as domestic vacation destinations, a definite no. Maybe they are strange to me because they don’t exist in the US; the closest equivalent would be timeshares, resorts with activities and entertainment available on-site. Or maybe strange because I’m not a packaged holiday enthusiast and always choose to do-it-myself over manufactured, seemingly generic experiences.

In searching for something different and wanting to combine local exploration with a comfortable weekend break, I happened upon Unique Home StaysLike many travel secrets, bountiful once discovered, I had no idea there are an infinite array of rental properties in all shapes and sizes, scattered across the country. I chose a cottage in Cornwalland so began my journey.

Destination: The civil parish of Warleggan on the southern edge of Bodmin Moor, Cornwall, England. Population: 203

Getting there, on the roads less travelled:

 Accommodation: The Fairy Cottage

Officially named Pixie Nook, this one-bedroom cottage whimsically decorated in floral pastels has a cozy fireplace and a private cedar hot tub. Whether you enjoy cooking your own meals in the quiet country kitchen, or prefer to patronise a local pub, there’s a perfect balance of accessibly secluded. 

Locale: Bodmin Moor, Cornwall

Explore this amazing, picture-perfect landscape and create an adventure of your own. Take a walk in the woodlands, cycle the countryside or drive to the Cornwall coast. Other activities, culture and entertainment include: Bodmin and Wenford Steam Locomotive, an old slate mine and subterranean lake at Carnglaze Slate Caverns, Bronze Age stone circles known as the Cheesewring and the Hurlers, grand houses at Lanhydrock (National Trust) and the Georgian house of Pencarrow, plus miles and miles of footpaths and trails for both serious walkers and amateur hikers.

In short, private home rentals, luxury self-catering accommodation, regional local colour. I’m hooked.

To view properties and plot your own close-to-home escape, visit Unique Home Stays

Stourhead House and Gardens, Wiltshire ~ Idyllic England

grounds of Stourhead

grounds of Stourhead

The National Trust is a UK conservation charity protecting some 567 historic houses and buildings, gardens and parks, coasts and countryside, sites and monuments throughout the country. If you live in Britain, you should become a member.

My favourite National Trust property is Stourhead, an 18th century landscape garden and Palladian mansion in Wiltshire. Designed by Henry Hoare II, the house holds treasures for period-lovers including the Regency Library with a magnificent lunette painted window based on Raphael’s Vatican fresco, The School of Athens, while the manicured lawns brim with temples and other elaborate follies that visually delight in any season. Enjoy Stourhead for the day just a few hours from London via the M3 motorway. View the great-house, gallivant the grounds at your leisure and imagine it’s your very own home-sweet-home (or perhaps that’s just me). Check out the gardens:

Palladian Bridge

Palladian Bridge

the Grotto

the Grotto

Pantheon

Pantheon

Temple of Apollo

Temple of Apollo

Stourhead's colourful environs

Stourhead’s colourful environs

February 22nd: Post dedicated to my dear old Dad, Happy Birthday Pop!

A very British Christmas

This year marked my first Christmas away from a familial home, instead deciding to remain in my English domicile. Upon relaying this intention to friends, the oft-reply wished me glad tidings, “you’ll be having a Charles Dickens Christmas!” Somewhat confused by this comment because I intended to stay in posh North London, not removed to the 19th century Victorian era. Nevertheless, I decided to ponder the prospective meaning of an English Noël.

One lovely aspect of Christmas in the U.K. (a nominally Christian country) is the unabashed awareness and unreserved “Happy Christmas” that passes many lips. Most everyone celebrates the holiday in some fashion regardless of religious persuasion, largely due to the cultural importance and inclusivity of the day.

My Christmas-day dawned with midnight Mass at St. Dominic’s with excited chirps of children blended into carols and Latin sung choruses. Evergreen branches sparsely decorated the church’s towering columns with vaulted ceilings compelling the eye toward enormous stained glass windows rising above the ornate gothic altar. When the pipe organ bellowed the closing hymn, Adeste Fideles, the church bells gracefully began to chime and I instinctively reached for my iPhone to capture the uplifting experience. Suppressing the notion, I momentarily chastised myself, closed my eyes and continued singing.

Somewhere betwixt the quaintly illuminated High Street decorations, a BBC special showcasing the nation’s best loved Christmas food and my own feast finale of flaming traditional pudding, I realised the magical merriment of Christmas in Britain – a truly Dickensian* Yuletide.

*Dickensian [dɪˈkɛnzɪən] b.  characterized by jollity and conviviality a Dickensian scene round the Christmas tree

Joyous sentiments of British Christmas culminate in New Year celebrations and fireworks over the Thames ~ for those observing the Gregorian calendar, best wishes for 2013!

London Nightscapes: Parliament, Big Ben, River Thames

London puts on a show for Christmas. We have Trafalgar Square’s giant Norwegian Spruce, the glamorous glitz of Oxford Street bursting with lights, a Winter Wonderland extravaganza in Hyde Park, and various “traditional German” Christmas markets. Multi-cultural Londoners universally wish each other “Happy Christmas” bidding glad tidings and good-will to one and all. When I recently visited the Christmas market held on London’s South Bank, it was one beautiful night in the capital. Here are my seven favourite photos.

~ Season’s Greetings from merry old England 

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Cornwall ~ Britain’s surf capital

I road tripped to Cornwall in September 2010 to surf in Polzeath and dine in Padstow. Just one hour from congested London and you’re driving into countryside and patchworks of variable green fields. Breathing easier and gazing towards evergreen and leafy oak trimmed pastures bespeckled with grazing sheep and cows.

Let me start with this, I lived in Los Angeles for eight years so where else but England would one learn to surf. A short walk from my hillside B&B to the Surf’s Up Surf School van and in minutes I’m screeching myself into a damp-chilled-tightly-fitted-full-body wetsuit like some sort of human sausage link. The staff is friendly, relaxed, and helpful and the group lessons are cheap and cheerful. A few on-land techniques and in no time you’re off to ride the waves. I am not sure if my favourite part of the day was thinking I had hypothermia in my left big toe or the fact that after hours of ingesting sea water, chattering teeth and exhausted muscles, it started to rain, rain hard. We are still in England after all.

Do you know what happens when you mix sand with water? Yes, mud. That constant state of muddy-dirt is my impression of Polzeath beach life. I now understand the concept of Wellingtons aka “wellies” because of course in London they don’t actually make sense. I’ve yet to be in anything ankle-or-more deep inside Regents Park. With pruned, frozen fingers and rain-soaked knotted hair, I nearly quit the surf lesson. When you’re tired and cold at some point you’ve simply had enough. Sheer determination made me stay, and at the bitter end I got-up on the board and rode a wave, dude. I even have photos where I appear to be smiling although I don’t remember doing that even once.

After an amble through Polzeath, I know where the other half lives and what they do; they live in this state of chillaxation. The beach vibes from Polzeath to Padstow are polar-type opposite, much like Venice to Malibu in California.

I cleaned up with a party dress and sea-water mangled hair (hey, it’s a look) for dinner at Padstow’s quintessential restaurant, Rick Stein’s The Seafood Restaurant. I would have eaten anything to be fair after a five hour drive and two and a half hours of mastering or rather being schooled by the Cornwallian waves. From the round stainless steel seafood bar centerpiece of the room, you can watch merry fellow diners and the expert fish preparation while surrounded by cool and bright tones, reflective glass, and sunlit rooms. It is a striking ambiance and work from local artists’ adorns the walls. The early dinner scene on Saturday night hosts a variety of clientele from posh locals to up-market holiday makers. I am seated next to a pig’s foot secured in a vice, attached to the rest of the pig-leg which is “making” prosciutto. The hoof is kind of dirty and scuffed up like it had been running, perhaps. The tasting menu is tempting, and considered despite the wave of exhaustion at only 7:15pm. Instead my thick slate placemat anticipates the full-monty of starter, main, dessert, and coffee to come.To begin, lobster salad with avocado and foie-gras (wait, I’m a vegetarian I internally protest, and it’s very wrong). What to say but holy-h-e-double-el-batman, that melts in your mouth. Halibut is perfection. Can’t say no to strawberry pavlova with crème chantilly and vincotto, yum. An aside yet must mention, Moulton Brown’s Rose Granti soap and lotion is so nice in the loo. Not bothered to leave, so a chat with the chef closes our show. Finally headed back through tiny towns where stone houses have living rooms pushing into the road path; driving towards a destination called blissful sleep.

Twelve hours later and I groggily awaken with unsurprisingly sore arms and injured pinky fingers, more accurately red, raw, shriveled digits. The B&B has a corner-window table to enjoy a beach view with a bit of breakfast and the high octane coffee served in Cornwall. Yesterday surfing on day two seemed impossible and although it is physically possible, the happier course is to avoid being battered by the surf again. Instead a walk on the beach past surf school. A toe-tip dipped in the sea touches morning fresh and arctic cold water; dry and warm decision confirmed. Walking on and thinking, strange how the earth feels like it is moving out from under your feet as the tide sweeps in and out. This feeling is even more surreal when you are pulling against water laden gravity trying to egress the ocean with a long-board in tow. Is the earth itself working against you at odds with your person? This and other pondering followed on a beautiful day in Cornwall while breathing in the sun-rays and stroking the sea air.

Note to self: please buy a beach house.

Now at the end of another British summer, surf’s up dude.

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