Category Archives: Travel Writing

Feast for pickpockets within sight of Big Ben

Tricky scams that target tourists

Bring your caution with you on your European city holiday. Don’t be a target for the increasingly creative petty criminals who plague places popular with visitors.

This is a great time of year to visit Europe. Nice weather brings everyone out into the streets to sunshine and relax at sidewalk cafes. But warmer weather also brings out the conmen, pickpockets and scam artists who prey on tourists. From all over the continent they arrive in Europe’s biggest cities – London, Paris, Rome, Madrid, Barcelona – for the rich pickings to be had from vacationers who  have left their everyday cares and their normal caution behind.

You can stay smart and avoid becoming a victim by wising up to a few of these latest and most common scams that target tourists 

The Key Drop Scam

Wherever crowds of tourists, travelers and students mingle, dine and drink, you can expect pickpockets, purse snatchers and all sorts of opportunistic grifters.

As an experienced traveler, I thought I could see a con game coming a mile away but recently I nearly became a victim in a neat and nasty little scam. Here’s what happened:

Dining alone in a popular, crowded square, I was seated near the edge of an outdoor café. “Watch your handbag,” the headwaiter warned and I stowed the bag safely on my lap, out of sight of passing pedestrians but where I could both see and touch it.

Just as the bill arrived, a well-dressed man, chatting on a cell phone, sat nearby and tossed his keys on  the table. They skidded across the white linen tablecloth and landed on the ground between his table and mine.

He didn’t seem to see where they landed so I pointed them out to him. He continued chatting on his phone, nosing about for his keys and speaking to me in a language I did not understand; he seemed to want me to pick the keys up for him.

Normally, I might have. But there was a structural column next to my chair that made reaching over for his keys difficult for me. And he seemed fit enough to get up and fetch his keys himself.

That’s probably when my wine and food befuddled brain finally kicked in. “I’m not going to get your keys for you,” I said and put my arm across my handbag just in time to prevent his accomplice, another well-dressed man, from nipping in behind me and snatching it.

Americans, with their lack of standoffishness an their instinct to be helpful as probably specifically targeted for this scam.

So if a well dressed man – or a beautiful woman – drops some everyday object like a set of keys or a magazine near you, think twice before you spring to their aid. Better to be rude than to be a victim.

Here are a few other scams and con games worth looking out for:

  • The Busker’s Accomplice– Street entertainers are called buskers in Britain. They can be a colorful and entertaining addition to the street scene. And some parts of London, like Covent Garden, where they are licensed and scheduled, are famous for them. But an audience focused on a street entertainer is a prime target for pick pockets. Be particularly careful if you come upon a busker with a minimal skill – juggling a few objects, singing with a karaoke machine, or delivering a line of not very comical comic patter. Some of these “entertainers” are just a distraction for their pickpocket accomplices.
  • The Shell Game – The shell game is a scam that has gone on forever, just about everywhere and no one ever wins. The performer hides an object – a bean, a coin, or a ten pound note perhaps – under one of three cups, then moves them around and asks you to pay to guess which cup hides the object or the money. It’s a slick illusion and usually the ordinary bloke in the crowd who does guess correctly is an accomplice whose job it is to draw the unwary in. But other, less obvious accomplices are the gangs of pickpockets who work the crowd at the same time. I thought you really had to be born yesterday to fall for this one. But on a warm,sunny day recently, as I crossed Westminster Bridge near Parliament, the shell game teams were so thick on the ground and surrounded by such big crowds that it was actually impossible to walk on the sidewalk. I bet a lot of wallets were parted from their owners that day. 
  • Pass the parcel – I’ve seen this scam on London’s South Bank and near an outdoor market in Northern France. Pickpockets work in teams of two. One lifts the wallet or the handbag or the smart phone, then quickly passes it to his accomplice. Even if a member of the public or the victim sees the pickpocket in the act of thieving, by the time the authorities are summoned, the stolen goods have vanished with the accomplice into the crowd. In the case I witnessed, the victim swore she had seen the thief take her phone and felt his hand in her handbag. Another member of the public had seen the crime taking place as well. The man accused volunteered to be searched and of course the missing phone was not on him. What followed was a performance of Gallic shrugging worthy of Jacques Tati.
  • The heavy ring Someone tried to pull this on me in Paris but I have since heard of it happening in Edinburgh during festival. It is apparently popular with Eastern European criminals operating solo. A man stops you to ask you if the ring he just found is yours. It is a massive man’s ring – often a wedding ring – and clearly quite heavy, heavy enough to be made of gold. The grifter says he doesn’t know what to do with it and doesn’t have time to turn it in at police station or lost and found. But he needs money for his train fare/dinner/shoes/hotel room etc. He offers to sell it to you for some ridiculously low amount, say £20 or £50 – ridiculous that is if it really is the two ounces of gold that it seems to be. Of course it’s not gold and probably isn’t even gold plated. It is just some other heavy metal – probably lead – plated with shiny yellow metal to look the part. Don’t be taken in.
  • The backpack hustle – You’re standing at a busy bus stop in a city center – especially in the popular entertainment areas. It’s the rush hour and occasionally people bump into you.  Then a bunch of lively teenagers surround you. They seem to be having a whale of a time and maybe they are drunk or a little high. One or two of them ask for directions. Either they pretend to be too thick to understand quite simple directions, or else they ask how to get somewhere really complicated. Meanwhile, their girlfriends and boyfriends are making a lot of noise and jostling you from behind. It’s not high spirits. They are trying, while you are otherwise distracted, to get their hands into your back pack. Fortunately, they never find a wallet, money or anything valuable in the accessible pockets of mine. If you do wear a back pack keep your valuables in the most difficult to reach and hardest to open compartment – the one right against your back is best. Or better yet, leave them in your hotel safe and carry a minimum amount of money or an insured credit card somewhere on your person where they cannot be snatched by a casual opportunist. 
Dome and stacks of the British Library Round Reading Room. Photo by Alex Watson ccl

Remembering the Round Reading Room at the British Museum

The British Museum plans to reorganize its collections and displays over the next ten years. Visitors to Britain’s number one visitor attraction can expect a gradual evolution of the museum’s gallery spaces, providing “more compelling and coherent stories”, according to museum managers. Perhaps that means they’ll unite the monumental Egyptian statues – now on the ground floor – with the mummies and ancient artifacts that are now several floors and a maze of corridors and galleries away.

The Round Reading Room

I’m glad to hear that the overhaul will include some serious attention to the Round Reading Room and its role in the grand scheme of things. The 19th century, Grade I listed room, with its beautiful blue, cream and gold dome and its halo of 20 arched windows, holds a special place for me and many other writers. I spent the better part of one intense and memorable summer studying there.

I’d been accepted, as a mature student, onto a famous, competitive Masters degree program. It had been decades since I’d last been in a classroom and the reading list that accompanied the offer might as well have been in Chinese for all the sense I could make of it. Writers I had barely heard of, subjects of which I’d only the slightest awareness, esoteric literary criticism, advanced semiotic studies. 

And to make matters worse, almost all the books and articles were long out of print. The only place to find them was the British Library. You can’t borrow books or journals from the British Library. You have to apply for a reader’s pass, then go there and read.

I have to admit, I felt very special on the day I got my pass. The British Library is not a public library in the usual sense. Members of the general public can only get a reader’s pass if they need something that is not available anywhere else. But, as a graduate student I was entitled to a pass for unlimited use of the Library for a year.

Clutching my pass, I headed for the British Museum where the British Library reading room was then located – in the freestanding, drum-shaped building that now occupies the centre of the museum’s Great Court. Some books were kept there but most were in storage facilities all over London and the southeast of England. Books had to be ordered in advance and then took up to 48 hours to be delivered to the reading room.

Entering the Round Reading Room for the first time was an intimidating experience. The dome, 140 feet in diameter and just slightly smaller than the Pantheon in Rome, hung over a whispering silence, teeming with literary spirits. The only sounds that intruded were the occasional scrape of a chair, a muffled footstep, a hint of conversation at the central desk or the hiss of pencil on paper (pens were not allowed in the Round Reading Room).

Around the walls, 25 miles of bookshelves contained thousands of reference books – most other books were miles away. Five hundred desks, arranged like spokes of a bicycle wheel, filled the space below the massive dome. Each desk had its own light, its own number and its own sound reducing blotter.

Several full, 20-volume sets of the Oxford English Dictionary, with lecterns on which to read the huge individual books anchored the ends of some of the spokes. It may seem hard to believe but it wasn’t really that long ago when scholars had to look everything up in books. Given the inscrutable language of the academic texts I struggled through that summer, I spent a lot of time at those lecterns.

My Own Private Museum

I also spent a lot of time, exploring the British Museum’s main floor galleries in virtual isolation. You see, the Library was open later than the Museum (on late nights by as much as four hours later) and the only way into the Round Reading Room was through the Museum. So some of the galleries were always accessible.

I became a regular, visiting two or three times a week and staying as late as I could. On any given night, while waiting for books (helpers still deliver the books you order from storage and stacks right to your desk), or when needing a bit of a wake up stretch and coffee in the Museum café (which kept the same hours as the Library) I might visit the Rosetta Stone, or gaze up at the monumental pink granite head of Amenhotep III.

Along corridors 6 and 12, I lingered in the half lit galleries, studying cases full of Greek, Minoan, Mesopotamian and Phoenician jewelry and hair ornaments, (some of which made its way into my own book), game pieces, tiny gold or bronze boxes and urns for ancient ointments and salves. Sometimes a museum night guard would shadow me through the galleries at a distance; sometimes a couple of other scholars would pass on the way to café. But often I had the space all to myself.

Then it was back to work in the Library, honoured to use it in the company of distinguished ghosts – Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, H.G.Wells, George Orwell, Arthur Rimbaud, George Bernard Shaw, Bram Stoker, Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, Mahatma Gandhi and, yes, Lenin and Karl Marx, who spent 40 years writing Das Kapital in this very room.

When the new British Library opened in St. Pancras in 1997, the Round Reading Room lost its purpose and it has been locked behind closed doors, with the exception of a few special exhibitions, ever since.

Last summer when Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum, announced the reorganisation of its galleries, he said the plan was to use the room as a kind of introduction to the museum, “Rest assured,” he told The Guardian, “the Round Reading Room is at the centre of our planning … I can promise it will look absolutely stunning.”

I hope it will be more than just a pretty face.

The Great Court of the British Museum. ©Ferne Arfin. The round drum in the centre of the Great Court conceals the Round Reading Room. The double arched windows are the giveaway.

Visitor Information

The British Museum, on Great Russell Street, London WC1B 3DG, is open every day except December 24 through 26, New Year’s Day and Good Friday. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and Fridays to 8:30 p.m. Admission, except for special exhibitions, is free. Nearest London Underground stations are Tottenham Court Road, Russell Square or Holborn.

The New British Library in St Pancras, 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB, has several public galleries where permanent and changing displays of the library’s treasures are exhibited for free. These range from the original copy of the Magna Carta to handwritten lyrics by the Beatles. There are also special exhibitions that may be ticketed. In 2018/19, the Domesday Book, on loan from the National Archives, will be part of the Anglo Saxon Kingdoms Exhibition (from October 19, 2018 to  February 19, 2019). Tickets are available online. The exhibition is open during normal library opening hours.

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Luxury bathroom in Wales

25 Perfect Hotel Room Essentials

What makes the perfect hotel room?

As a travel writer, I’ve stayed in a lot of hotel rooms, from the bare bones basic to the breathtakingly expensive. And I’ve learned that the cost of a hotel room bears little relationship to how close it comes to perfection. In fact, one of my most comfortable nights was spent in a cheap chain hotel room at a motorway rest stop. 

Worrying that my standards might be unusually low, I conducted a very unscientific survey of my travel writing and blogging colleagues in the British Guild of Travel Writers. It turns out that, among experienced travelers, traditional luxuries fall pretty low on their lists of what makes the perfect hotel room.

Cost is no indicator of perfection. And, for purposes of this list, neither are views or destinations. Soft, powder sand beaches beside turquoise waters under reliably cloudless blue skies can make up for a certain amount of inconvenience or discomfort. 

And friendly, helpful staff are essential. Even the most seasoned traveler is more stressed by minor mishaps and inconveniences when away from home. Knowing you are in the hands of competent, knowledgeable, pleasant staff can make up for a lot of other shortcomings.

The top 25 requirements for hotel room perfection

In no particular order

1. Decent beds – It should go without saying that a comfortable bed, with clean sheets free of critters, is not negotiable. Sadly, some hotels do need reminding.

2. Reliable wifi – Hotels in remote areas where the only internet connection is via satellite have a get-out clause on this one. But if broadband or wifi is generally available in the area, in this day and age, it should be free.

3. An up to date directory of hotel services  – The most basic directions – how to reach reception, how to connect to the wifi, how to work the television and clock, should be on the first page.

4. Convenient power points or electrical outlets – This is such a big topic it deserves its own special section, so here goes:

  • Sufficient outlets for several chargers and small appliances
  • Power points beside the bed, even better, power points above
    Power outlets above the bedside table.

    the bedside table so you don’t have to crawl around on the floor to find them.

  • Power points within reach of a mirror so guests can use their own hairdryers or curling irons.

5. Separate bath or shower – Or even both. But not showers over bathtubs. Not only are they old fashioned, but they’re messy too

At the Hotel du Vin in Bristol the showers and baths are separate  and some showers are big enough for a cocktail party. ©Ferne Arfin/

. Glass enclosures are nicer and more sanitary than shower curtains. And while we’re on the subject of baths these also make a big difference:

  • Enough towels for the number of guests
  • Conditioner as well as shampoo – with labels that can be read without a magnifying glass.
  • Real soap not liquid soap. It’s…. well… nasty

6. Adjustable mirrors – Shaving or makeup mirrors that can be moved over the bathroom basin (where, we hope to find the best light) are a real plus.

7. Bathroom light – Reasonably bright is essential, near the mirror and flattering gets extra points.

8. Smooth, safe floors in bathrooms – Bathroom carpets are almost always mildewed in the corners, damp and disgusting in no time. Shiny, highly polished marble floors can be killers. 

9. Full tissue boxes – What’s with the artfully folded tissue paper flower that fills the top of an empty box? Tissues are not room decor they have a function.

10. Easily adjustable heating, lighting and air conditioning – Guests shouldn’t need an engineering degree to turn off the lights but some trendy modern hotels have to provide a 50-page manual just to come to grips with the room electronics.

11. Bright enough lighting – The first generation of energy saving light bulbs take about twenty minutes to reach full brightness. By then, you’ve stubbed your toe, mistaken the TV remote for a portable telephone and carried all your shirts into the bathroom, one at a time, to see what colour they are. Because those bulbs last for years – getting dimmer and dimmer all the time – some hotels still have them. Replace them with newer, brighter bulbs otherwise the number of lights guests need to turn on and the length of time they have to be on to warm up cancels out any energy saving.

12. Bedside reading lights – Two separately adjustable lights with little light spill in double rooms.

13. Window coverings that let in daylight but protect privacy – Ground floor rooms are a particular problem. You have a choice of putting on a show for passing pedestrians or spending your time in perpetual gloom.

14. Plenty of tea and coffee – This is something that even the best North American hotels still have not cottoned onto.  Most British and European guests expect to find an electric kettle or other coffee making system and plenty of teabags and packets of coffee. And please, instant coffee tubes that can be easily opened without scissors, milk packets that can be opened without squirting.

15. Invisible pest control – I understand that country hotels in farm country or beside rivers may have to keep rodents under control. But really – do the rat bait boxes have to be in plain sight, right outside the door?

16. Human-friendly dog bins at dog-friendly hotels – If you expect me to clean up after Lulu, I need someplace to deposit her gifts without climbing through an evil smelling convention of dumpsters behind your kitchens. One otherwise lovely dog-friendly hotel in Devon expected me to take the stuff back to London with me in my car. No thank you – I’ll leave it to nature.

17. A few lighter choices for breakfast – If a hotel offers breakfast as part of its room price, a full English/Scottish/Welsh/Irish fry up is lovely once in a while. But it’s nice to have a choice of lighter options beyond mini boxes of cornflakes. And while we’re on the subjects of breakfasts, please label the elements that can be confused, such as:

  • Juices – Is that cloudy yellow drink grapefruit, cloudy apple, pineapple or even papaya juice? Is that pinkish, reddish stuff pink grapefruit or blood orange juice? 
  • Dairy products – Is it yogurt, sour cream, double cream or quark? Is the milk skimmed, semi-skimmed or whole?

18. Soundproofed rooms –  Whether it’s the couple next door having a really good time, or the drunken revelers staggering home on the streets under your window (ah Inverness), I don’t want to know about it. The perfect hotel room should be soundproofed. For airport hotels, even at the budget end, this is an absolute requirement.

19. Adequate space – Rooms don’t have to be enormous to be perfect, but they should be big enough to move around in without constantly bumping into the furniture.

Even a hotel room crowded with furniture can have a place to unpack a bag.

20. A place to put luggage – A small folding luggage rack  is all that’s needed. It’s annoying to have to run an obstacle course around your open suitcase on the floor.

21. Real hangers – When I find those two part hangers in the wardrobe of an expensive hotel, it affects me the same way as finding bottles of liquid soap or printed notes reminding me to please leave the toiletries. Is that birdsong I hear – cheap cheap cheap?

22. Drinking water – If the water that comes out of the tap is warm or unpalatable or in short supply, guests should not have to pay for bottled water. 

23. A chair and table – An alternative to the bed for having a cup of tea, getting some work done or letting the kids play with their colouring books.

24. A clock – Ideally, a radio alarm clock. Not everyone carries a smartphone and hotels can be unreliable about wake-up calls. It’s nice to have the reassurance of an easy to read and easy to set alarm clock.

25. An absence of places for bedbugs to hide – so no flounces and ruffles and upholstered  headboards please. I’d really rather take home happy memories of a hotel than a zoo in my hair.

What makes a hotel room perfect for you?

Even though I interviewed traveling colleagues, this list is still somewhat personal. Have I left out hotel room features that spell perfection for you?  Please let me know. Click here, scroll to the bottom and share your suggestion in the comments box. 

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Tewkesbury Park Hotel and Golf Club

A Dog-Friendly Short Break in Tewkesbury

We dog lovers are really not that hard to please. For the ideal dog-friendly break, we only require a few things:

  • A comfortable, grown-up hotel where dogs and their traveling companions are not made to feel like pariahs, relegated to the smelly room next to the laundry.
  • Lots of outdoors to run around in; fields, forests, or sandy beaches will do – we’re not fussy.
  • A good choice of attractions, at least some of which welcome dogs as well as people

A few dog-friendly coffee shops or pubs don’t hurt either.

Last month Lulu the Westie and I, along with her Westie pal Darcy and his human chums, discovered Tewkesbury, a medieval market town at the confluence of the Rivers Severn and Avon. Just two and a half hours northwest of London, the Gloucestershire town beneath the Malvern Hills sits on the Northern edge of the Cotswolds.  It has, we discovered, everything needed for a dog-friendly break and then some.  

Where to Stay

Tewkesbury Park , was named”Fido’s Favorite – Best Pet Friendly Hotel”  in the 2017/18  bestlovedhotels awards. What better recommendation for a Westie outing?  We went (at the invitation of the owners) to check it out.

The family-owned hotel in a converted 18th and 19th century manor house has been undergoing a dramatic programme of refurbishment.  In late 2017 a series of glamorous “heritage suites” (lovely but not dog-friendly) and a wing of ground floor, dog-friendly rooms were launched.

Public areas, including an informal reception, a dog-friendly piano lounge, a bar and several comfortable sitting areas, are spacious and airy, decorated in soothing combinations of French blue, mellow yellow, grey and taupe. Have a look:

Photo courtesy of Tewkesbury Park Hotel
Photography at Tewkesbury Park Hotel, Spring 2016
One of several cocktail bars.

Rooms in the dog-friendly wing are comfortably furnished in a contemporary, country house style – tartan carpets, memory foam beds (one for you and a memory-foam doggy bed for Fido). Ours had plenty of closet and drawer space, two comfortable chairs, a table and a dressing table with enough power points for all my chargers and devices.

Dog friendly rooms at Tewkesbury Park overlook the golf course
Dog-friendly room overlooking the golf course. ©Ferne Arfin 2018

The hotel sits on what seems to be the highest hill in Tewkesbury, with views of rolling countryside in all directions. It’s surrounded by an 18-hole golf course which is  “Highly Recommended” by Golfshake and gets good marks from UKGolfGuide and Leading Courses.

Great for golfers but less so for travelers with pets. The dog-friendly rooms are all on the ground floor with French doors onto the golf course (which are unusable, as you can exit but not re-enter through them).  As soon as we arrived, Lulu found the doors to the grassy lawns madly exciting.  And the golfers, who pass frequently in close proximity to the hotel, found Lulu – her nose pressed against the glass – entertaining as well.  So much for rooms with views, privacy or morning daylight.  The curtains had to remain firmly shut through our entire stay.

On the plus side:
  • the staff are universally helpful and welcoming.
  • the hotel’s peaceful spa has a reasonably-sized, heated pool, steam room, sauna and outdoor hot tub (a bit of a challenge to get into on a wintry evening though) as well as a gym. A variety of treatments are available too.
  • the breakfast buffet is generous and varied (but leave Fido in your room because the buffet is laid out in a separate room, down a corridor and a short flight of steps, from the piano lounge where dogs are allowed. It makes for a bit of a juggling act and someone has to stay behind with your pooch).
  • if you opt for a dinner bed and breakfast package, Fido gets a special meal, cooked to order in the hotel kitchen.
Chef prepared meals for Fido at Tewkesbury Manor.
Party manners – Lulu is attentive and on best behaviour as food and beverage manager Leon puts the finishing touches to her room service meal of chicken, rice and gravy.

The Canine Retreat package costs £199 for two plus one pampered pooch and includes a welcome pack of doggy treats with suggested walks, bed and breakfast accommodation,  a traditional afternoon tea, a £25 spa voucher and a three-course dinner for two as well as a dog’s dinner. Lulu enjoyed her generous chicken, rice and gravy supper. As is common in the travel industry, we were guests of the hotel.

Where to Eat

The Tewkesbury Park Hotel  has a competent restaurant with a menu based as much as possible on locally sourced ingredients as well as a varied, reasonably priced and well-chosen wine list.  Quite a few wines – including champagnes – are available by the glass and the selection of moderately priced bottles is very good. Most of Europe is represented on the list as well as a few New World wines from South America and South Africa. 

But my oh my what gorgeous desserts. Go if only to finish your meal by sampling the genius pudding efforts of Chef de Patisserie Dinesh.

White chocolate and passionfruit panacotta with blood orange sorbet, gels, meringues, nuts and bits of greenery. Divine.

A white chocolate and passion fruit panacotta, topped with tangy blood orange sorbet, was wobbly and sweet yet interestingly astringent. A companion’s dark chocolate and praline mousse looked both light and rich – how is that possible? He reported that the balance of flavours worked very well.

The restaurant at Tewksbury Park is fully licenced, so you don’t have to be a hotel guest to dine there. Elsewhere in the town, pickings are pretty slim though we have heard good things about My Great Grandfathers and The Abbot’s Table.

Things to do in Tewkesbury

We don’t know if Tewkesbury is trying to attract dog lovers but there certainly seemed to be a lot of “dogs welcome”  signs on the doors of coffee shops, cafes and pubs around the town.

Other things to do with your canine companion:

  • Visit Tewkesbury AbbeyMore than 900 years old and a Benedictine Abbey before the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII,  the Abbey Church was saved from total destruction when the townspeople bought it from the King for the price of the lead in its roof. It’s now a monumental parish church with seven impressive medieval stained glass windows and, at 14 metres square and 45 metres high, the largest Norman church tower in existence, anywhere. Remarkably, it is completely dog-friendly. Your well-behaved pet is even welcome during services and concerts.
  • Explore this ancient market town. It has 379 listed historic buildings, a photo op around every corner. There are at least 30 interesting alleyways worth a look including Old Baptist Chapel Court, leading to the 17th century Old Baptist Burial Ground and Meeting House.
  • Enjoy the rivers. The upper reaches of the Severn and the River Avon come together here. There are peaceful, dog-friendly walks along the mighty Severn, Britain’s longest river, and boat trips on the Avon with views of medieval cottages and an ancient mill.  Severn Leisure Cruises offer ferry services and half hour pleasure cruises around the town and between Tewkesbury and Twyning from April to September.
  • Follow the Battle of Tewkesbury Trail – The Battle of Tewkesbury in May 1471 was a turning point in the Wars of the Roses, putting the House of York in power for the next 14 years. Much of the battlefield remains undeveloped rolling meadow and woodland, perfect for dog walking leavened with a bit of history. Pick up a map leaflet in the Tourist Information Centre on Church Street, near the Abbey, and head out.

Tewkesbury  Gallery

Tewkesbury Abbey, a 900-year-old Abbey saved from destruction by the locals and now a parish church.
inside Tewkesbury Abbey
The vaulted ceiling of the nave of Tewkesbury Abbey.
Ceiling above the high altar
One of seven medieval stained glass windows at Tewkesbury Abbey.
17th century courtyard in Tewkesbury, site of a historic Baptist Chapel.
Old Baptist Chapel Court. Courtyard in Tewkesbury, site of a historic Baptist Chapel. The town was a center for nonconformists in the 17th century.
Old Baptist Burial Ground at the end of Old Baptist Chapel Court. The court is one of 30 ancient lanes that wind through the town.
Listed historical buildings in Tewkesbury
Evocative of 17th and 18th century – or much earlier, these houses are a typical sight around the town. Tewkesbury has more than 370 listed historical buildings.

Explore the region on a two-day tour of the Cotswolds with Get Your Guide

Things to do nearby

Toff Milway and visitors at his Conderton Studio
Potter Toff Milway explains his working methods to visitors at his Conderton studio, near Tewkesbury.
Visit the Conderton Pottery 

Shop for beautiful and original salt-glazed pots, jugs, platters and planters at ceramic artist Toff Milway’s studio in Conderton,  about 6.5 miles on the B4080 from Tewkesbury.  Milway is friendly and generous with his time.  If you are genuinely interested he will take the time to explain the mysteries of salt-glazing and how the subtle colours, gentle iridescence and interesting textures of his work are achieved. The Old Forge, Conderton Near Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire GL20 7PP.

Both sides of a salt-glazed jug with fish handle, by Toff Milway of Conderton Pottery. Ceramic artwork shown with permission of the artist. ©Ferne Arfin 2018


Admire Roman interior decoration in Corinium 

After Londinium,  Corinium, was the second largest city in Roman Britain. Today it’s known as Cirencester and it’s a 40 minute drive from Tewkesbury but well worth the effort to see the national collection of Romano-British mosaics at the Corinium Museum. 

 If you get the munchies, stop off along the way in the spa and racing town of Cheltenham, where local girl turned world traveller, Emma, of The Gap Life Diaries, recommends a handful of tempting, relaxed, all day eateries.

Above and below, details of mosaic floors at Corinium Roman Museum in Cirencester.

 The mosaic floors, most discovered in Cirencester but some brought from other Roman sites, offer a fascinating glimpse into the lives of first and second century  Romans in Britannia.

There’s a small admission charge to the Corinium Museum which, unfortunately, is not dog-friendly.  But medieval Church of St. John the Baptist, nearby, is.

Porch of Church of John the Baptist in Cirencester’s market square. The English perpendicular Gothic church is what is left of an Augustinian monastery destroyed by Henry VIII

The 900 year old church, built in the English Perpendicular Gothic style, is all that remains of a former Augustinian monastery (yes, Henry VIII at it again).  Cirencester’s ancient street plan includes twisting passages and alleys lined with independent shops. In one of them, The Stableyard on Black Jack Street, we stopped for coffee at Jesse’s, an interesting looking dog-friendly bistro that we later found out has two AA rosettes and is listed in The Good Food Guide, Hardens and the 2016 Michelin Guide. So a return visit is probably in the cards.


Jewelry from prehistoric times to yesterday in this hidden away gallery at the V&A

The Victoria and Albert Museum – A Between the Holidays Treat

I’ve only just discovered the Jewellery Rooms at the Victoria and Albert Museum and I cannot wait to head back there to explore them at leisure. 

The galleries, rooms 91-93, showcase items from the museum’s permanent collection ranging from precious metals to plastic, raffia and rubber and spanning millennia – from prehistory right up to yesterday.

As soon as you enter the first, darkened room, a large, beautifully worked embossed gold collar, alone in its glass case,  casts a warm glow across the entrance to the gallery. Is it from ancient Egypt? A piece from Agammemnon’s treasury? No, this stunning Bronze Age object, made between 800 and 700 BC, is the Shannongrove Gorget, found in an Irish bog in Co. Limerick.

The Shannongrove Gorget, An embossed gold collar made between 800 and 700 BC and found in a Co. Limerick bog.
The Shannongrove Gorget, An embossed gold collar made between 800 and 700 BC and found in a Co. Limerick bog. © Ferne Arfin

If it’s bling you’re after, there’s plenty of that to see. But what really makes these objects so fascinating is the craftsmanship and creative imagination, as well as some of the poignant stories, behind them.

There’s a Fabergé letter opener given by the doomed Tsarina Alexandra to her former English governess and lifelong correspondent, Margaret Jackson, for Christmas. The clear slice of rock crystal, simply adorned with gold and enamel was given to the museum along with a note of Christmas wishes to Miss Jackson dated 1900. The Tsarina,  Queen Victoria’s granddaughter,  was later among the members of the Russian imperial court shot, bayoneted and clubbed to death by the Bolsheviks in 1918.

Another object, the steinkabinett – an 18th century box by  Johann Christian Neuber, the court goldsmith at Dresden – is a kind of pocket natural science museum with 77 stone samples, identified on a paper map kept inside it. The “pearls” are particularly clever. They aren’t pearls at all but flat pieces of rock crystal, the underside carved into domes and then silvered.

Fabergé letter opener in rock crystal, gold and enamels. © The Victoria and Albert Museum
18th century Steinkabinett by Johann Christian Neuber. © Ferne Arfin



These objects and hundreds more are part of the museum’s permanent collection and you can drop by any time to see them, for free – maybe something to do before moving on after dark to see the London Christmas Lights in Piccadilly and Regent Street.

Before you go, you might want to book tickets to the V&A’s current special exhibitions: Opera: Passion, Power and Politics in the new Sainsbury Gallery until February 25 and Winnie-the-Pooh: Exploring a Classic. on until April 8.

Christmas at Waddesdon 2017

Winter Light at Waddesdon – Christmas 2017

Christmas festivities at Waddesdon Manor in Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, are always extravagant fun.

This year, they’ll have a hard time topping the wonderful installations and events of 2016, when the grounds of the former Rothschild estate positively glowed with the Field of Light. But, in 2017, they’ve had a good go and they’ve given the video design students of the Guildhall School of Music & Drama a real chance to shine. 

In creating Waddesdon Imaginarium, seven Guildhall students experimented with 3D scanning and video projection technology to cover the entire front of Baron Ferdinand Rothschild’s faux French chateau with an animated parade of dancing clocks, 18th century portraits, fluttering butterflies and moths, flowers and porcelain animals – all scanned from objects in the Waddesdon Collection. 

The performance, accompanied by an original score and synchronized lighting effects, used 14 large format projectors to cover the1,700 square metre facade with a dazzling 12-minute display. The score was created by 111 Guildhall students in the BMus (Hons) programs in Electronic Music and Jazz.

My jittery videos should give you a taste of the spectacle.

Inside Waddesdon, artists and designers were invited to design decorations around the theme of an Enchanted Menagerie, drawing on the artworks and objects in the rooms for inspiration.

Enchanted Menagerie in the Smoking room
Imaginary animals decorate the Christmas tree in the Smoking Room.
Noah's Ark at Waddesdon Manor
Noah’s Ark on the Billiards Table

Meanwhile, The Electric Menagerie – neon animals, created by American multi-media artist Lauren Booth, lit up unexpected corners of the estate.

Electric Menagerie by Lauren Booth. The Aviary. Photo by Mike Fear © The National Trust, Waddesdon Manor.

And because it wouldn’t be Christmas without an opportunity to stock up on holiday gifts, this year’s Waddesdon Christmas Fair is arrayed along the front promenade leading to the house. The fair features food, drink, produce and crafts from local artisan producers and national independent traders. Lots of it is very tempting.  We left with shopping bags full.

Waddesdon Christmas Essentials

  • Christmas festivities at Waddesdon are on from now to January 2 (except December 24-26), 11am to 6pm 
  • Waddesdon Imaginarium, the sound and light show, begins at dusk every evening during the holiday opening hours.
  • The Christmas Market, with 80 decorated wooden chalets is open until December 10.
  • Visit the Waddesdon Manor website to find out more. 
Sideboard, Georgian House, Slave Owners House, Bristol

The Georgian House Museum – The story of a Bristol Fortune Built on the Backs of Slaves

Bristol’s Georgian House Museum is a surprising and sobering glimpse of an 18th century slave owner’s home.

If  you’ve toured in the UK or anywhere in Western Europe, chances are, you’ve walked around more than one historic house. You can expect collections of fine antique furniture, china, silver, porcelain and, depending on the original owner’s wealth, old master paintings or more primitive ancestor portraits. 

After a while, you know pretty much what to expect, which is not much that you haven’t seen before.

The 18th Century Warts and All

What you aren’t often confronted with are the sometimes tawdry stories, the unpleasant side of the 18th century New World fortunes that built these elegant homes.

The Georgian House Museum in Bristol is very different. This upstairs/downstairs glimpse into the lives lived in an 18th century Bristol townhouse tells a story that alternates between swashbuckling adventure and grim reality. It’s like wandering into someone’s private home and admiring the fine china before peeking into the closets to rattle all the skeletons.  And it’s fascinating.

In the 18th century, Bristol was one corner of the triangular trade route over which cloth, guns, manufactured and luxury goods were shipped to Africa to buy slaves for the plantations of the New World. Sugar, rum, tobacco and cotton came back. The sugar plantation slave owners, sugar merchants and shipbuilders of Bristol grew rich from this trade.  

The house, at 7 Great George Street, now a free museum, is an  upstairs/downstairs look at life in a sugar plantation slave owner’s home, circa 1790.

From Disgrace to Respectability

As you tour the 11 rooms, arranged on four floors, from kitchens in the basement to elegant upstairs salons.  enthusiastic on-site guides bring the history of the house to life.

Georgian House, Slave owners house, Bristol Museum, Bristol England
“Eating Room” in the Georgian House Museum

The story begins with family black sheep, Azariah Pinney.  Azariah chose the wrong side in a shortlived rebellion against James II . Saved from the gallows – or worse – when his family ransomed his life. He was banished, exiled to the West Indies for ten years. 

In the early days of the British Empire,  impoverished young men of good families could go adventuring after their fortunes in the colonies. Criminals could be transported to them to make a life in far off corners of the world or die trying.

The fate of the first Azariah Pinney was a little of both. After his disgrace, he fetched up on the Caribbean island of Nevis, eventually becoming a wealthy sugar planter and slave owner there. Several generations later, a younger cousin inherited the family plantations, wealth and name. By the time John Pinney retired to Bristol from his Nevis plantations, in 1783, he had massively increased the family’s wealth. In Bristol he became a sugar merchant, founding a company that made him many times wealthier than he was in Nevis.

Not only was his fortune built on the labours of slaves, but John Pinney actually brought a personal slave, Pero, back to

Bristol, England, 18th century slave
Pero’s Bridge in Bristol remembers John Pinney’s slave.

Bristol. It’s, perhaps, poetic justice, that John Pinney’s name is largely forgotten, but one of Bristol’s most striking modern landmarks is the sculptural Pero’s Bridge, linking Queen’s Square and Millennium Square across Bristol Harbour. 

A small but thoughtful exhibition about the Pinney’s involvement in the sugar trade, the treatment of plantation slaves and the life of Pero adds an important layer of context to this house. In the Georgian period, roughly corresponding to the Colonial and Federal periods in American history, many of the wealthiest families on both sides of the Atlantic were supported by the slave trade and took it for granted.

Upstairs Downstairs

Upstairs rooms in the house give clues to the life led by the family. There is a breakfast room and an “eating room” for more formal dining. Downstairs there’s a beautifully equipped 18th century kitchen, laundry room, housekeeper’s room and large china cupboard. In the housekeeper’s pantry, alongside some of the valuable copper pans, a cone of sugar would normally have been kept under lock and key.

One of the downstairs surprises is the plunge pool used by the master of the house. In an age when few people bathed regularly, John Pinney enjoyed a daily, cold water bath and had apparently become accustomed to the practice while a young apprentice in the family business.

The UK’s Most Complete 18th Century Townhouse 

The nearby city of Bath is known for its avenues and terraces of Georgian houses. But Bristol probably has just as many, if not more. They tend to be a bit less monumental only because Bristol, an important port and aircraft manufacturing city before WWII, lost so many of its buildings in the Bristol Blitz, when the city was heavily bombed by the Luftwaffe. The Georgian House may be less famous than 1 Royal Crescent in Bath but it is probably the most complete 18th century townhouse in the UK. It’s definitely worth a visit to this quiet corner of Bristol, Great George Street, off Park Street, to see it.

  • Where:The Georgian House Museum, 7 Great George Street,Bristol, BS1 5RR
  • Telephone:+44 (0)117 921 1362
  • Opening Hours:The house is open year round though not every day of the week in winter. Because of seasonal variations it’s best to check the website for opening hours and days.
  • Admission:Free
  • Visit their website.

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Bangers and mash - A variation on the pub classic that you can make at home.

Bangers and Mash – A British Pub Classic To Cook at Home

The autumn nights are closing in. Halloween and bonfire night are just around the corner. It must be time for some warm and comforting bangers and mash.

No trip to the UK is complete without at least one meal in a pub. And bangers and mash – or sausages and mash as it’s usually called these days – is standard pub grub on traditional menus.

The good news is that poor quality sausages, packed with tasteless fillers and drowned in gluey gravy from a packet are definitely on the wane. You are much more likely to get a generous portion of three, fat, well-seasoned butcher’s or artisanal sausages on creamy mash with classic British onion gravy. 

So do the British really love their sausages?  

You’d be hard pressed in the British Isles to a find a more universally popular food – though in our diet conscious times they are more of an occasional guilty pleasure than a family staple.

Still, they do eat them for breakfast, lunch and dinner (according to some sources, 44 per cent of British sausages are eaten at the evening meal).

There are holidays when sausages are so traditional they are practically required. At Christmas, small ones, called chipolatas, are wrapped in bacon and arranged around the family turkey. On the 5th of November (Guy Fawkes), when the English gather around gigantic bonfires to remember the foiling of a 17th century plot to blow up Parliament, they often eat baked potatoes and sausages. At one time, they roasted them on sticks in the community bonfire themselves. Today, health and safety bureaucrats have stepped in and it’s more common to find local organizations raising funds by selling bangers cooked over a grill at Guy Fawkes fireworks displays and bonfires.

Even vegetarians indulge – in meatless sausages of course.  In fact, the average Brit eats about 4.5 kilos (that’s about 10 pounds) of sausages a year.


Sausage facts to bang on about
  • According to consumer research company Kantar World Panel,  86 per cent of British households buy British bangers at least once a month.
  • In 2014, the British polished off 181,853 metric tonnes of sausages.
  • Every day in Britain, 3.7 million meals of sausages are eaten at home. Annually, that’s an unbelievable 1.35 billion home cooked sausage meals.
  • And there are at least 470 different sausage recipes around. Among several traditional pork sausages, the most popular are peppery Cumberland, presented in one long coil; Lincolnshire, seasoned with sea salt and so much sage the raw mixture can look green; London sausages with ginger, mace and sage and Oxford sausages that combine pork, veal and lemon with savory herbs.
  • Boutique butchers combine pork with leek, apples, chestnuts, stilton and port, ale, chives. And lamb sausage recipes are popular, combined with mint or rosemary. Then there are the exotic sausage recipes — chicken and lemon, mango and duck, venison with smoked ham, pork and juniper berries.
  • Glamorgan sausages, from Wales, are made with cheese and have no meat in them at all.


Why Are British Sausages Called Bangers?

British slang can often be suggestive but, despite it’s shape and other associations with its name, there’s a completely respectable reason that sausages  are sometimes called “bangers.”

It dates from World War I when food shortages meant very little meat for sausages was around.  Producers filled them, instead, with scraps, cereals and water. When soldiers in the trenches cooked them, on hot shovels, they popped, snapped and sometimes exploded, thus the name bangers.

Today, only the cheapest sausages are fattened up with fillers. Consumer pressure has changed all that. The skinny, shriveled-up breakfast sausages we regularly consume in the USA bear little relationship to the classic butcher’s sausages that are taken for granted in the UK. Whatever the filling, British sausages are thick, generous (at least an inch in diameter and sometimes an inch and a half, 4 to 5 inches long) and juicy. Two, accompanied by mashed potatoes and onion gravy (the classic bangers and mash), make a very filling, man-sized meal.

Sausages with Cider and Apples – A pub meal to make at home

About 20 per cent of all sausages eaten in the UK are eaten as part of a pub meal. If you’ve enjoyed good bangers in a pub on your UK vacation, Sausages with Cider and Apples is a recipe that will bring back good memories and help you create a little taste of England at home.

Sausages and Cider
Sausage and Apple Stew with Cider

It’s a Lincolnshire variation on the classic bangers and mash that’s equally good with beef or pork sausages ( but not frankfurters or hot dogs). Just make sure you buy the best, fattest sausages you can find and treat them with respect. Slow browning prevents sausages from bursting and retains juices. Whether you cook your sausages in a fireproof pan or over an open grill, turn them frequently and avoid the temptation to rush.


  • 1 lb. (about 8) fat, coarse ground pork or beef sausages
  • l lb. yellow onions, peeled and cut in rough chunks
  • 1 tsp. prepared English mustard
  • a pinch of thyme
  • 1 cup apple cider (fresh, unpasturized cider or unfiltered apple juice is the best, if you can get it)
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 large red eating apple.


Prick the sausages once or twice with a fork, then lightly brown them in a medium sized cast iron or other heavy-bottomed skillet for about five minutes, turning often. The skillet should provide just enough room for ingredients to fit tightly. Pack the onions in around the sausages, giving the pan a few shakes. Stir in the mustard, thyme and apple juice.

Cover and simmer (do not boil) over medium low heat for about 30 minutes. The apple juice will combine with other pan juices to make a rich gravy. Season to taste with salt and fresh ground black pepper.

Core but do not peel the apple. Divide into 8 to 10 slices and arrange over the top of the dish. Cover and simmer for another five minutes. The apples should soften but keep their shape.

To serve, arrange two sausages on a generous portion of creamy mashed potatoes and top with apples, onions and gravy.


London’s Blue Plaques: A Chelsea Walk

Spend a morning or an afternoon discovering the London Blue Plaques of Chelsea. For more than 150 years, London’s blue plaques, on buildings scattered around the city, mark the homes and achievements of the famous and infamous of the past. 

It’s a kind of massive “George Washington slept here” scheme, except you won’t find George Washington anywhere; though you might find Benjamin Franklin. Hundreds of others – writers, artists, performers, musicians, composers, teachers, politicians, inventors, explorers, philosophers, engineers, heroes and heroines are commemorated all over the city.

The Oldest Blue Plaques in Britain

London has the oldest blue plaque scheme in Britain. The plaques surprise and educate  passersby who come upon the discreet reminders of people from all over the world who lived and worked in  London. I was inspired to find out more about the blue plaques by the plaque to an unknown (to me anyway) poet on a house across the street from my flat.

Today there are about 900 blue plaques in the London scheme administered by English Heritage. The first was put up in 1866 honoring Lord Byron. The oldest still existing commemorates a short stay by an exiled French king, Charles X.  

Up to 20 plaques a year can be added. In 2017, six will go up to honor Francis Bacon, Charlie Chaplin, Sir John Gielgud, Rudolph Nureyev,  early 20th century working women’s champion Mary Macarthur and volunteering pioneer Stella Lady Reading.

About This London Blue Plaque Chelsea Walk

This walk will take you through Chelsea, north and south of the King’s Road. About two miles long, beginning and ending near King’s Road bus stops, the walk is flat and should take you less than two hours walking at a snail’s pace.

To start, take the 11, 19 or 22 bus from Sloane Square Underground Station, up the King’s Road to Carlyle Square. It’s then a five minute stroll to Mallord Street where the walk begins.

From Winnie the Pooh to Count Dracula


A.A. Milne London Blue Plaque1. 13 Mallord Street in Chelsea is the house where both Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh were born. A.A. Milne moved there with his wife in 1919. His son, named Christopher Robin though called “Billy”, was born here and while living in the house, Milne wrote When We Were Very Young, Winnie the Pooh, Now We Are Six, and The House at Pooh Corner. Christopher Robin’s toys became Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga, Roo, and Tigger. Few people realize that Winnie the Pooh himself was inspired by a real bear named Winnie after the city of Winnipeg in Canada. Canadian Army vet, Harry Colebourn brought the bear to London. Eventually, when he could no longer keep it on military expeditions, it ended up in the London Zoo. There, he was a favorite of the real Christopher Robin who changed the name of his toy bear from Edward to Winnie. Colebourn’s great-granddaughter, Lindsay Mattick has written a children’s book about it, Finding Winnie.  

The film Goodbye Christopher Robin is based on the life of Milne’s family and son while the author lived in this house. Watch it on Amazon Prime.

To see the houses featured in this blog, click on the matching numbers on the map below.

2. Augustus John London Blue PlaqueCross Mallord Street and turn left. At number 28 you’ll find the home and studio built for Welsh Painter Augustus John, brother of artist Gwen John. The house was finished in 1914 and he lived there with his second (common law) wife and their children. John painted some of the most recognizable portraits  of literary and artistic celebrities between the wars – notably Lawrence of Arabia, Dylan Thomas and several portraits of W.B. Yeats. He was also a notorious libertine with parties at the house said to end in orgies. He had at least 10 children by five different women. Eventually John tired of this house, calling it a “damned Dutch shanty”, and sold it to British entertainer Gracie Fields.
Continue left down Mallord Street, turning left onto The Vale and left again onto The King’s Road. Across the street, you’ll find Paulton’s Square. Turn right into the square.

Samuel Beckett London Blue Plaque

3. Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, usually associated with Dublin or Paris, underwent several months of psychoanalysis in London in 1934. A friend found him lodgings with a married couple at 48 Paulton’s Square. He was a regular at two local pubs, the Six Bells and The World’s End. While here, he published a collection of short stories, More Pricks than Kicks.  

Just in case you think you might like to drink where Beckett drank, you are probably about 40 years too late. The Six Bells, at 197 Kings Road, went through several incarnations before becoming The Ivy Chelsea Garden – which bears no resemblance to any pub Beckett might frequented – though you might pick up his vibe in the beer garden if you can get in to this very popular, Made in Chelsea kind of place.  The World’s End Pub, which was a real traditional boozer from the days of Charles II to about 10 years ago, is now an upmarket restaurant with a pretend 1930s ambiance. It’s now called the World’s End Market. 

Continue to the end of Paultons Square, walking toward the Thames. At the bottom of the square, turn right, then left into Danvers Street.

Alexander Fleming discoverer of penicillan London Blue Plaque4. Sir Alexander Fleming was living at 20a Danvers Street, a modest basement flat in a large house, when he made his breakthrough and changed the whole direction of modern medicine with the discovery of penicillin. From his first discovery in 1922, through refinements and clinical trials to his Nobel Prize in 1945 and until his death in 1955, he lived in this flat. In later years, he also had a country house in Suffolk.

Now, continue to the end of Danvers Street to Cheyne Walk, beside the Thames. Turn right and continue in that direction. Cross at the set of lights at Beaufort Street – Battersea Bridge is on your left. Just past this intersection, you’ll see large cast iron gates, with a garden and a big yellow house beyond.

Home of Whistler and Whistler's Mother, London Blue Plaque


5 and 6. You’ll need X-ray vision to see the plaque that is alleged to be at 98 Cheyne Walk. It’s behind a high brick wall. But just so you know, this was the home of Sir Marc Isambard Brunel who built the first tunnel under the Thames, the world’s first underwater tunnel through soft ground. He started it in 1825 and it wasn’t finished until 1843. While living here, he also worked on the education of his young son, who became the much more illustrious 19th century engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel – designer of the Great Western Railway, the Clifton Suspension Bridge over the Avon Gorge at Bristol and the giant screw propeller, sail-assisted steamship, the SS Great Britain which you can still visit in Bristol. The lovely yellow house next door at 96 Cheyne Walk belonged to James Abbott McNeill Whistler and his mother – you’ve no doubt seen her in his painting, Arrangement in Grey and Black No.1, usually known as Whistler’s Mother.

James Abbot McNeill Whistler's London home.
Lindsey House, once home to James Abbot McNeill Whistler – and his mother. © Ferne Arfin

Bring along a pair of binoculars if you really want to see this plaque. It’s not blue and it’s at least 50 feet from the street, set back behind gates. Judging from the yellow house, you might think Whistler was probably pretty affluent when he lived there. But actually the house is just one quarter of a larger house built in 1674 by the Earl of Lindsey on land that was once Sir Thomas More’s garden. It was divided into four units about 100 years later and among the other rental tenants of this large villa were the Brunels mentioned above.

Now turn and retrace your steps past Danvers Street. Continue along Cheyne Walk, looking out for the statue of Sir Thomas More, at the site of his house, in a small park beside Chelsea Old Church on your left. At Oakley Street, opposite the Albert Bridge, turn left.

Oscar Wilde's mother, London Blue Plaque
Lady Wilde

7. 87 Oakley Street was the home of Jane Francesca Agnes Lady Wilde, Oscar Wilde’s mother. A larger than life character in her own right, she came to London from Dublin after the death of her husband, Sir William Wilde. As a poet and essayist in Dublin, she wrote under the pseudonym “Speranza” and supported the cause of an armed Irish rebellion against Britain – which got her in no end of trouble. In London, she continued writing for fashionable magazines and eked out a slim livelihood. But she died penniless in 1896 while her son Oscar was imprisoned in Reading  Gaol. Oscar paid for her funeral but there was no money for a headstone until the Oscar Wilde Society erected one more than 100 years later.

Cross the street and head back toward the river to number 56.

Scott of the Antarctic London Blue Plaque

8. Doomed antarctic explorer, Robert Falcon Scott left for his last polar expedition from 56 Oakley Street and never returned. Scott identified the polar plateau, on which the South Pole is located, on a previous expedition, the Discovery expedition. But it was the second expedition, The Terra Nova Expedition, between 1910 and 1913, when all were lost. He moved to this house in 1905, on the return from his first expedition, and he wrote his famous account of that journey, The Voyage of the Discovery, while living here. In the late 20th century, his reputation took something of a blow with some historians saying his incompetence and lack of preparation led to his death and that of his entire team. But recent discoveries about the weather have restored his reputation as a doomed hero. Continue down to the river and turn left on Cheyne Walk.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Algernon Swinburne London Blue Plaque

9. 16 Cheyne Walk was the home of Dante Gabriel Rosetti, painter, poet and one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Movement. He moved here after the death of his young wife and model in 1862. Some of his finest paintings, including 

Beata Beatrix by Rosetti

Beata Beatrix, were done here and he published his collected works of poetry while living in this house. The decadent poet and sometime hysteric Algernon Charles Swinburne rented a room from him for about a year. 

George Eliot London Blue Plaque

10.  The entire facade, including the blue plaque at 4 Cheyne Walk was covered with scaffolding for refurbishments when we visited. But we’ve been reliably told that this with the brief, last home of Mary Ann Evans, known to most of us as the 19th century novelist George Eliot. She moved in with her new husband (20 years her junior – good for her) on December 3, 1880.  Shortly after, she caught a sore throat and by December 22, she was dead.

Now, bear slightly left into Royal Hospital Road, turning right at the corner of Tite Street.

11. 34 Tite Street was the home of Oscar Wilde, his wife Oscar Wilde London Blue PlaqueConstance and their two sons. He lived here for 10 years, writing The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lady Windermere’s Fan and The Importance of Being Earnest. 

Now retrace your steps, cross Royal Hospital Road and continue along Tite Street to the corner of Tedworth Square.

Samuel Clemens - Mark Twain - London Blue Plaque12. Samuel Clemens, who wrote as Mark Twain, took his lecture tour on the road in Europe between 1891 and 1900. During that time, his base was 23 Tedworth Square. After the death of his daughter Susy in 1896, the creator of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Prince and the Pauper, The Innocents Abroad, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court and many more classic works, maintained virtual seclusion, with the rest of his family, in this house.

Next, continue right, past Mark Twain’s  house, to Ralston Street. Turn left on Ralston Street, then right on St Leonard’s Terrace. 

Bram Stoker wrote Dracula here - London Blue Plaque

13. How fitting that number 13 on this Chelsea Blue Plaque walk was the birthplace of one of the most terrifying creatures in literature. Dublin writer Bram Stoker was living in a pretty Chelsea cottage at 18 St Leonard’s Terrace when he wrote his classic gothic horror novel Dracula.  Stoker had come to London to manage the Lyceum Theater for actor manager Henry Irving. 

Now that you’ve completed the walk, it’s time for some refreshment and what would be more fitting than to have lunch or a snack at another listed building with a blue plaque.  Just beyond Stoker’s house, turn left on Royal Avenue and continue to the King’s Road. Then cross the King’s Road and turn left again. Look for an arched entryway, protected by two bronze birds of prey.

14. Pizza Express was the studio of a famous dancer - London Blue Plaque152 Kings Road, The Pheasantry, was the studio of ballet dancer and teacher Princess Seraphine Astafieva. The Russian princess, daughter of Prince Alexander Astafiev, came to England as a dancer with Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe in 1910. She retired from the stage to teach and in 1916 established her school, the Anglo-Russian Ballet, here.  Most of the leading lights of early 20th century ballet visited her or took classes here, among them Margot Fonteyne; Alicia Markova, one of the founders of the Festival Ballet which became the English National Ballet;  Anna Pavlova and Marie Rambert, founder of the Ballet Rambert. And in case you are wondering about the lunch or snack I mentioned earlier, these days The Pheasantry is also a Pizza Express.

English Heritage who now administer the scheme, publish the Guide to London’s Blue Plaques. It lists 800 blue plaque locations, all over the city that can form the basis of many an enjoyable London walk. It’s available online from English Heritage or from Amazon.



Le Touquet, France's most glamorous Channel beach.

Seven great reasons to choose Pas de Calais for the weekend

Pas de Calais, for too long overlooked and underrated, turns out to be a great place for le weekend. 

On my first trips to France, my guide was a little red, white and blue (now out of print) book called “French Leave” by Richard Binns. He offered all sorts of irreverent observations about short, off-the-beaten-path visits and quick, cross Channel hops. With my copy of Binns’ latest book tucked in my pocket, I traveled by ferry to the closest French ports then drove on to discover most of Normandy and a bit of Brittany.

As I recall, Binns didn’t much rate Pas de Calais so neither did I. It was Flanders, a featureless landscape flattened by two world wars and centuries of conflicts before them; a place to race through along the way to Paris and beyond. With the arrival of Eurostar and cheap European flights, I never gave Pas de Calais nor, frankly, the ferry another thought.

Then, at a travel industry gala, I bought a raffle ticket that changed my mind.

Taking a chance on France 

The raffle prize, provided by DFDS Ferries, Pas de Calais Tourisme and Najeti Hotels, was a ferry crossing, accommodations and meals for a few days exploring this region of Northeast France…and yes, I won.

Westies and boat trips in France go together like love and marriage.
Lulu on her first trip to France.

In May, joined by an American friend and my new best mate, Lulu the Westie (France is mostly dog-friendly), I set sail from Dover on the short crossing to Calais and discovered what I should have known long ago. Pas de Calais is a great, easy to get to short break destination.  Here are seven reasons why:

1.Glorious beaches and seaside resorts

La Manche may be just another name for the same English Channel, but somehow the water looks more blue and inviting on the French side. It must be the beaches. At both Le Touquet-Paris Plage, pictured above, and Wimereux, below, endless stretches of soft golden sands are irresistible. We had to kick off our sandals and wiggle our toes in it.

Le Touquet, southwest of Boulogne was founded in the 1880s and was a turn of the century magnet for wealthy Brits, Belgians and Parisians. It had its Jazz Age heyday in the 1930s and it shows in the many Art Deco homes  that mingle with the rest of the feast of fantasy architecture – Belle Epoque, Empire, Napoleanic.

Beach house with coloured tiles
Colourful houses by the sea give Wimereux a frivolous, holiday feeling.

H.G. Wells once eloped here and it’s where the new French president, Emmanuel Macron has his voting address.

You can ride a horse through coastal forests and along stretches of beach here, bet on the horses or gamble at a casino said to be Ian Fleming’s inspiration for Casino Royale. On a short break like ours, the pedestrianized crosshatch of streets around Rue St Jean, crammed with chic little shops, patisseries, chocolatiers, cafes and bars, is very satisfying and a good place to celebrity spot in season.

Peaches and apricots
In Le Touquet, even the greengrocer is elegantly turned out. © Ferne Arfin

Wimereux, northeast along the coast toward Calais, is smaller but a bit more crowded with its wall of apartments and hotels along a promenade facing the enormous sandy beach. Go inland a block or two and you are back in architectural fantasyland  – mock Normandy-style half timbered cottages, bright pink Victorian gingerbread or shiny, multi-colored ceramic tiles. Stop for a drink on rue Carnot – also good for shops selling regional produce – and watch the passing scene.

For the best variety of coastal towns, steep wooded hills and long Channel views, give the A16 Autoroute between Calais and Boulogne  a miss and take the more scenic D940.

2. Forests and marshes to explore

It is surprising how much and how varied the forest environments of Pas de Calais are. This once heavily industrialized area is the least forested region of France. Only about 8% of the land is covered in woodland. Yet what there is, is wonderful. Pockets of dense pine and deciduous forests break across grass covered dunes surrounding the towns of the Opal Coast and stretch inland along steep river valleys.  Château Cléry, our hotel in the village of Hesdin-l’Abbé on the edge of Boulogne, was surrounded by a woodland park, screaming with birds.

And a huge part of the region, where Flanders, the Opal Coast and the Artois hills come together is the UNESCO-listed  Audomarois marshes,  a biosphere reserve of wetlands, reclaimed land and canals. It was originally dug by monks about 1,200 years ago and has grown over the years so that today it covers more than 22,000 hectares. With its market gardens and floating gardens, it is the only cultivated wetland in France. It’s also the protected home of hundreds of species of birds and mammals.

Amazingly, the town of Saint Omer sits right in the middle of its core marshland area. From Le Maison du Marais Saint-Omer, a newish interpretation center, you can board a traditional boat, a bacôve, and, for about 10€, spend an hour touring a few of the 700 km of canals. 

Windmill in the Audomarois Marais in France.
Windmill beside a canal near the Maison du Marais in St Omer. At one time this waterscape was dotted with hundreds of windmills. ©Ferne Arfin 2017
Flood gate on the Marais Saint Omer.
Traditional methods of water control keep the cultivated land from flooding in the Marais.

3. A rebirth through art

The decline of heavy industry and mining hit Pas de Calais hard. But it is fighting back with art and culture. Ever since the selection of Lille as European Capital of Culture in 2004 revitalized that city, communities across the region have recognized the energetic boost a lively art scene can create. 

Part of that includes cooperative efforts with some of France’s greatest cultural institutions. In 2012, the Fine Arts Museum in Arras began 10 years of cultural sharing with Versailles. The arrangement required the museum, located in the former Benedictine Saint-Vaast Abbey, to strengthen its floors with steel to support the huge marble sculptures from Louis XIV’s palace.

While in Lens, once a major mining center, the Louvre brought tons of glass and steel to the site of a former colliery to create its first provincial gallery, the Louvre Lens. And it’s wonderful. Cool, modern and spacious – the Grand Gallery is a single, 3000 square meter space – it houses a curated selection of Louvre treasures – a kind of Louvre-lite – that will change every five years. In its first year it attracted nearly a million visitors.

We just loved getting within touching distance of  Roman statues; Indian and Islamic art, carving and calligraphy; Renaissance, 16th, 17th, 18th and 19th century paintings, even an imposing statue of Napolean posing as a classical Caesar.  I was especially taken with an amazing pietra dura table from 17th century Florence.

The museum is open every day except Tuesday, from 10am to 6pm and the Grand Gallery is free. If you are racing down to Paris on the A26, take a quick side trip from the motorway to see it. 

Louvre Gallery in Lens, Pas de Calais
Gallery Entrance at the new Louvre Lens. © Ferne Arfin 2017

4. History written in blood

There is no getting away from the fact that one European and British army after another marched across this northeastern corner of France, fighting for pieces of it.  At the Centre Historique Médiéval d’Azincourt, you can pursue the story of the Battle of Agincourt and search for the battlefield (for enthusiasts only. Really).   

Or you can visit La Coupole, a huge dome-covered bunker from which the Germans intended to launch a massive barrage of V2 rockets on England in WWII. The Allies took it in 1944 before it was operational. Now the dome is a 3D planetarium.

We were most moved after we donned WWI “Tommies” helmets and descended 20 meters underground into the La Carrière Wellington, or Wellington Quarry on the edge of Arras.

The quarries were underground military tunnels and living spaces – including kitchens, space for 700 hospital beds, an operating theater and sleeping quarters – carved out of Arras’s historic chalk quarries by the New Zealand Engineers Tunneling Companies, many of them Maori miners. It was here that almost 24,000 British and Dominion troops lived in hiding for ten days before emerging on April 9, 1917, Easter Sunday, for a surprise attack on the German front. 

The site serves as a memorial to those who built the tunnels and those who lost their lives in the Battle of Arras, in the end a battle with little gain and hundreds of thousands of deaths.  The name, by the way, comes from the street names of Wellington, New Zealand, that the tunnelers assigned to the different spaces and underground chambers.

Realistic tour of the Wellington Quarries, WWI battle site in Arras.
Underground in the Wellington Quarry; 24,000 Commonwealth Soldiers waited beneath enemy lines to launch a surprise attack in the WWI Battle of Arras. © Ferne Arfin 2017

Visits are by guided tour, with audioguides – available in English. The site is open from 10am to 12:30pm and from 1:30 to 6pm. The tour takes about an hour and is wheelchair accessible.

5. A Feast of Medieval Flemish architecture

Arras has two massive Flemish-Baroque squares, la Place des Héros and la Grand’ Place, and a late Medieval Gothic Hôtel de Ville (town hall) with a belfry tower known as the le Beffroi. They are all listed UNESCO World Heritage sites and were extensively reconstructed after WWI. But you’d never know it and it’s worth traveling across Pas de Calais just to see them.

Now I could bore you with lots more architectural and historic boilerplate that you can research as easily as I can. But, since this is my blog and these are my photographs, why don’t I just show you.

Continue blog post below slide show

6. Markets

Wherever you are in France, there’s probably at least one market day a week with fresh produce, household goods, clothes, odds and sods on offer. This region has two particularly good ones. We missed the covered market in Le Touquet on this visit but were in Arras in time to catch the market that spreads beyond the  two great squares and also fills Place de la Vaquerie behind the Hôtel de Ville and stretches along rue de Justice and around Eglise Saint Jean-Baptiste.

You can buy almost anything. For me that meant some cheap socks, a rather chic French shopping basket, ripe peaches, dazzling red perfumed strawberries, dried serpolet – a Provencale herb, fat white asparagus and a big bunch of fresh cut chives. I could also have stocked up on plants, sewing notions, sweets, gadgets, meat, poultry, fish, cheeses, eggs and – had I been so inclined – horsemeat. 

Arras Market basket seller.
At the Arras market, a tempting array of baskets to fill up with market goodies. ©Ferne Arfin

The Arras market runs from about 8:30 Saturday morning until around 1:30pm.

7. Regional food and drink

  • Cheeses  It wouldn’t be France without a good selection of locally made cheeses, would it?  The cheeses of Pas de Calais seem to share two characteristics – relatively mild taste and incredibly smelly rinds.  Some to try include Maroilles, Coeur d’Arras – a heart shaped cheese with an orange rind, and Vieux Boulogne, according to the Independent, the world’s smelliest cheese – yet remarkably mild.
  • Beer  With its proximity to Belgium and its Flemish heritage, it’s no surprise that beer is probably more popular here than wine. There are at least 30 artisan breweries within the region.
  • Chips If you have a hankering for chips, french fries and other batter-dipped fried foods, this is the place for you. Again, the Belgian influence is at work here. Whether they are food vans or small cafés,  frîteries are everywhere. Les Friteries, a French web portal that lists  frîteries all over the country lists 835 places in Pas de Calais. The nearest competitor is neighboring Picardie, with only 33. 
  • Flammekueche –  Technically this is an Alsatian or southern German specialty, but it is widely available in the casual
    tarte flambee with creme fraiche and lardons.
    Alsatian specialty now widely available in Northeast France. ©Ferne Arfin

    brasseries of Northeastern France and makes a tasty, quick meal with a local beer. A bit like a pizza, with a much thinner, crisper crust, this is a flame-cooked tarte covered with crême fraîche, thinly sliced onions and lardons.

If You Go:

Getting there

We sailed on a recently refitted and immaculate DFDS ferry from Dover to Calais, the so-called short crossing. It has been a while since I did that and I can highly recommend it. The vessel was comfortable, the coffee and munchies pleasant and the smooth crossing only took 90 minutes to the heart of the action. And it was fun to wave goodbye to the white(ish) cliffs of Dover. There are 15 crossings each way on weekdays. Prices start at £39 each way for a car and up to 9 passengers, though prices vary by season and time of day.


Najeti operates several luxury hotels with nearby golf privileges. We stayed in several and particularly enjoyed the Najeti Hôtel Château Cléry. The 18th century country estate is set in a woodland park in Hesdin-l’Abbé, on the edge of Boulogne-sur-Mer. Rooms and suites spread across the chateau as well as several cottages and “fermettes”, or little farmhouses. Prices are relatively reasonable with the “demi-pension” option – or dinner, bed and breakfast – in a luxury room going for about 225€.

Do you have any recommendations for things to do, places to stay, things to eat in Pas de Calais? We’d love to hear them so do share your ideas by clicking on the comments link at the top of this post.