Category Archives: Travel Writing

Strawberry Hill – London’s Little Suburban Castle

When it comes to visiting historic houses, it’s rare to find an empty one as interesting as one that’s full of antique treasures. Strawberry Hill is an exception.

This mini-castle in Twickenham, one of London’s western suburbs, is a true jewel box of a house — but its collections were sold off in the 19th century and it’s completely empty. 

It hardly matters.

Horace Walpole, an 18th century dandy, Member of Parliament, collector, world traveler and writer (his novel The Castle of Otranto was the world’s first Gothic novel) was enamored of Medieval Gothic. So much so that he kickstarted the fashion for neo-Gothic architecture decades before it really took off.

His house, built to show off those now vanished collections, was the first in the style and one of the only examples of it in domestic architecture, inside and out.  And Strawberry Hill’s very emptiness adds to the Gothic romance, the ghostly whispers that follow when you walk from room to room, armed with the guidebook Walpole wrote himself.  Gilt ceilings, gothic windows, stained glass, mirrors and the most amazing fireplaces and chimney pieces are everywhere you look. 

And it’s just a Tube and bus ride from Central London.  Check out the pictures below, then click here for more pictures and to find out more about English eccentric Horace Walpole and how to visit  his fantasy house, Strawberry Hill.

Strawberry Hill House
Pictures of Strawberry Hill often make it look like a substantial mansion. In fact, as castles go, it’s really tiny. It was built from two suburban cottages.

The Long Gallery at Strawberry Hill

All the rooms at Strawberry Hill have gilt details but the Long Gallery, with it’s elaborate ceiling, has more gold than any other room in the house. It was inspired by a chapel ceiling at Westminster Abbey.

The Holbein Chamber
The Holbein Chamber once displayed a collection of copies of Holbein drawings. The chimneypiece was inspired by a tomb in Canterbury Cathedral and the red hat of Cardinal Wolseley (hounded to death by Henry VIII) was once part of this room’s collection.
Walpole's gothic chairs.
The black, gothic style chairs in the Great Parlour were designed by Walpole and his friend, Mr. Bentley. These are copies – the originals are now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
Gilt frame at Strawberry Hill
This picture frame combines 18th century Rococco style with very modern technology. It was made by creating 3D photographs from 2D drawings, then printed in plastic as a template from which the gilt plasterwork frame was finally made. It was put together from more than 30 pieces.

Plan a visit to Strawberry Hill.

Read traveler reviews and find a place to stay near Strawberry Hill. 


The Mary Rose Unveiled in Portsmouth

Henry VIII’s lost flagship, The Mary Rose, has finally been revealed at the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth.  More than 50 years after her rediscovery in the Solent and after 34 years of undersea archaeology and preservation,  the wraps are finally off. Visitors to the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard, can finally breathe the same air as this 500 year old ship.

Watch the moment of her unveiling and then find out more about The Mary Rose and how you can visit her.

Spreading a Little Sunshine Because We Need It

Saturday the sun finally made its London debut and the temperature rose to real summertime levels at last.  The sky was almost sapphire and striped with jet stream clouds.

© Ferne Arfin
© Ferne Arfin

It seemed like a great day for an aimless walk around the neighbourhood, ending up at the wonderful Chelsea Food Market at Duke of York Square for some international nosh.  After the miserable few weeks we’ve all had,  the

© Ferne Arfin
© Ferne Arfin

relentless bad news, the cold and rainy weather,  the topsy turvy politics, the insanity and death, I needed a moment to turn it all off and just enjoy a day full of light.

I’m thinking some of you may be feeling the same, so no big messages today, no information laden travel advice – just some nice pictures of a beautiful day to remind you that we really still do have them once in a while.


Stopped off first to watch people messing about in boats on the Serpentine in Hyde Park.  Then up the King’s Road for the Chelsea Food Market.

From Upmarket Groceries to a People’s Feast

Partridges, the very upmarket grocer, started it all with about 15 stall holders – mostly small producers – selling cheeses, handmade sweets and baked goods.

food stalls in Chelsea
© Ferne Arfin

Now there are 70 who set out their wares every Saturday selling everything from Mexican and Argeninian food to fish and chips, fresh pasta, farm-assured meats and rather unusual Scotch eggs.

Chorizo eggs
© Ferne Arfin

There’s even a Philly cheese steak stand for homesick tourists and Brits with adventurous tastes.

Philly cheese steak stand
© Ferne Arfin

I stopped to watch some girls making Chinese dumplings and could not resist buying a box of five, freshly made, for myself.

Artists painting street scenes seemed to be all over the King’s Road on Saturday and several of them were trying to capture the buzz of the Market.

© Ferne Arfin
© Ferne Arfin
artist at Chelsea Market
© Ferne Arfin

The team from Maldon Oysters were busy shucking oysters for the crowds. They looked spectacular but after a particularly bad bout with an oyster a few years ago, I couldn’t risk it. Still, you really can’t get them any fresher than these unless you pull them out of the oyster beds yourself:

The selection of mini-doughnuts at Cakehole was mind-boggling. I couldn’t resist the tiny ones filled with salted caramel cream and, as a matter of fact, I am polishing off the last of them right now.

The Cakehole
© Ferne Arfin
salted caramel
© Ferne Arfin

The Chelsea Food Market, organised by Partridges, takes place every Saturday, year round, rain or shine, from 10am to 4pm.  If you’re shopping along the King’s Road in London it’s a great place to people watch, to stop for a quick bite or to pick up some treats to take home.

Find a place to stay and search the best London deals on TripAdvisor.

Another Chelsea Morning – With Apologies to Joni Mitchell

Woke up, it was a Chelsea morning and the first thing that I saw…

…was a pair of well dressed ladies in red and pink silk and chiffon day dresses worn with stilletto heels and architecturally impossible hats.  Helped by a gent in full formal morning suit, tails and dove grey vest, they are moving folding chairs, a portable lawn marquee and a box with his top hat from a blue Maserati Ghibli to a Porsche Cayenne hatchback.

They disappear around a corner.

Next comes a supermarket delivery van, double parking as normal to drop off someone’s groceries.                                                                               And behind it, a Kensington & Chelsea Enforcement vehicle – aka a big, flatbed tow truck. The driver of the tow truck must be hung over because he thinks he can pass the double parked delivery van with its big, sticky-out wing mirror.

Something’s gotta give.

Re-enter the well dressed party of three, bearing square, blue chiller bags from Carluccio’s Al Fresco and heading for the Porsche Cayenne.

Just in time to see it taken out – as well as the Maserati and the sticky-out wing mirror -by the K&C tow truck. So much for their Closing Day at Royal Ascot outing. Might as well comfort yourselves with the champagne now.

And, from the likely insurance bill, so much for the tow truck driver’s job too.

Just another Chelsea morning, folks.

Read guest reviews and find a boutique hotel in Kensington and Chelsea on TripAdvisor.



A Café for Windsor Castle at Last!

Windsor Undercroft
The 14th-century Undercroft at Windsor Castle will be developed into a visitor cafe as part of the £37 million Future Programme developments at Windsor Castle and the Palace of Holyrood House. Royal Collection Trust / (c) Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016

April 5, 2016 – The Royal Collection Trust, the charity that makes the UK’s Royal Palaces available to the public, has just announced it will spend £37 million in the next two years on improvements to Windsor Castle and the Palace of Holyrood House in Edinburgh. The plan, rather unimaginatively to be known as  Future Programme, will:

  • add more welcoming entrances and learning centers to the palaces,
  • open up previously unseen and private areas of Windsor Castle,
  • create themed pathways through the castle and palace, offering visitors more choice and
  • create the first ever café for visitors in Windsor Castle….Hallellujah!

If I seem overly excited about the prospect of a café in the stony Undercroft of the castle, pictured above, it’s because it is about time this long overdue and much needed facility was added.

Starve, Die of Thirst or Just Leave

Windsor Castle is huge and fascinating; the sort of place most people can easily spend a whole day visiting. Unfortunately, it has never had any place to take a break, to relax, to look over your  brochures or your pictures and to fuel up for your next foray into a gallery, exhibition or series of fabulous rooms.

The most the Queen ever offered members of the public was the chance to buy a bottle of water and, in winter, to stand outdoors on the windy castle hill to drink it.  The alternative was to leave the castle at lunch time, try to find something besides a Big Mac in the unpromising retail precincts of Windsor town, and then return to the castle to continue your visit – permitted with your ticket but inconvenient and unrewarding.  So the prospect of a casual café by 2018 is very encouraging.

Appropriately, the Undercroft, where the new cafe will be located, was used for centuries as the refectory where the royal household staff took meals. We hope there will also be some space for families and groups to bring their own packed lunches.

Works Getting Underway

Designs for Future Programme are getting underway now and construction is set to begin in 2017 with completion planned for 2018. Windsor Castle and Holyrood  will both remain open to the public as normal during the works. Financing for the £37 million project is coming from admissions to the castles, palaces and houses in The Royal Collection as well as associated retail sales.

Book a Windsor, Bath and Stonehenge Tour with Rail Europe

Find out More About Visiting Windsor at United Kingdom Travel:

Windsor Castle under a moody sky.
Photo by Craig ccl


Short Breaks in UK Landmarks

My Latest for United Kingdom Travel

© Ferne Arfin
© Ferne Arfin

Step Across a Threshold into The Past

 Step across a threshold into the past. Don’t just imagine staying in a medieval house; rent a quirky, restored landmark from the Landmark Trust.

Imagine a getaway in a historic landmark that’s all yours for a few fantastic days. You might spend a while living like a medieval knight – the steward for a local nobleman, perhaps. You could host family and friends at your grand country house in the Regency/Georgian style. Or maybe you’d fancy locking yourself away in a solid fortress by the sea while outside the waves crash and seabirds call.

The Landmark Trust, a charity that celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2015, gambled that a lot of people would like to take their fantasy vision of historic Britain literally by staying in a lovingly restored and domestically scaled piece of it.

Since their foundation, they’ve acquired and restored manor houses, castles, follies, towers, forts and cottages – just under 200 in England, Scotland, Wales and the Channel Islands …


London’t Top 5 Shopping Spots for Christmas

My Latest for the Heathrow Express

London’s Top 5 Shopping Spots for Christmas

  • 12 Nov 2015
  • Things to do in London

Each month we ask a London expert to give us their Top 5 for the best in the capital’s shopping, dining, nightlife and more. With the holiday season fast approaching we asked travel journalist and inveterate shophound Ferne Arfin to pick her favourite shops for gift inspiration.

1. Boxpark

Shopping - Boxpark 448x250

What’s it like? Forget pop-up shops. Shoreditch claims the world’s first pop-up mall, set up in a double layer of recycled shipping containers. About 30 compact shops and 15 food and drink outlets occupy the site, each decorated to enhance its tightly curated merchandise and target “tribe” – from a minimalist outlet selling nothing but hip wrist watches to a fragrant branch of a Parisian perfumer where you can drop £50 on a single scented candle. Dip into one mini-shop after another for moderately priced one-offs from international designer start-ups, jewels, kitchenwear, clothing and trendy street style.

Who to shop for? All the Gen Z’ers and Post Millennials on your list

Why I love it: It’s bursting with energy and after shopping, the urban views from the bars and cafes on the upper level are smashing.

How to find it: 2-10 Bethnal Green Rd, London E1 6GY. 020 7033 2899

READ MORE At Heathrow Express Travel

German, Victorian or Dickensian – The UK’s Best Christmas Markets

My latest article on United Kingdom Travel

As November and December nights draw in, the best Christmas markets spring up all over the UK. Think flickering candlelight, the smell of evergreens, the aroma of holiday goodies.

Glowing market booths and stalls fill to bursting with tempting, exotic goods. Visit one of these for original gifts, delicious foods, mulled wine and entertainment.

Check out 18 of the best holiday markets all over Britain.

Birmingham’s Frankfurt Christmas Market

Birmingham stages one of the biggest and longest German Christmas Markets outside of Germany. The West Midlands city is twinned with Frankfurt, and the Frankfurt traders go all out to bring real German gemütlichkeit to Britain. It spreads across most of the city’s important squares and continues for more than a month. Alongside the German Market, a Christmas crafts fair highlights regional producers and artisans as well as more exotic gifts from Asia and Africa. Add in ice skating, a big wheel and a jewellery market and Birmingham is a very festive place indeed for most of the winter.

  • When: 10am to 9pm, Nov 12 to Dec 22 (in 2015).
  • Where: Victoria Square, Centenery Square and New Street

Find a place to stay in Birmingham, England


Featured photo by Guy Evans, Creative Commons

Riverside museum

The Riverside – A Big Splash on the Glasgow Waterfront

My latest article on United Kingdom Travel

Glasgow’s Riverside Museum of Transport and Travel is wonderful. It’s tremendously entertaining even if you always thought that walking around a museum looking things on wheels and rails wasn’t your cup of tea.

Believe me, I know. I have dutifully slogged after enthusiastic pals in transport museums hoping they’d soon tire of marveling at double decker buses so the ordeal would be over.

The Riverside has nothing whatsoever in common with those experiences.

It is simply sensational.

It begins with the building

Award-winning, Iraqi-born British architect Zaha Hadid met the museum’s requirement for a column-free, flexible display space with a deceptively simple structure (actually one of the most complex structures built in the UK when the museum opened in 2010). It flows between the city and Glasgow waterfront on the River Clyde like a giant wave….READ MORE

Photo by Ferne Arfin

View from Kirkstone Pass ©Ferne Arfin

Ten Steps to a Perfect UK Tour Itinerary

If you’re a free spirit and an independent traveler, planning your touring itinerary in advance might seem dull. What about spontaneity?

Yet, without the framework of a plan, you are more likely to have confusion and stress than spontaneity; without at least a loosely organized plan, you can end up using up all your energy rushing from one place to another on motorways with no time to enjoy anything. Or you might waste precious time seeing a boring attraction when the one you would have really enjoyed was just five minutes down the road – if only you’d left time visit it.

These ten steps will allow you to plan a touring vacation that suits your style and leaves your free spirit plenty of space to fly.

…Read more