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Cats, Cathedrals and Ciders: The South of England: Day 16

Fri. May 27, 2016:
London

Biscoff cookies dunked in coffee for breakfast were becoming a regular thing now. We transited to St. Paul’s cathedral, which was easy as we just had to go to the station stop called St. Paul’s. We got there soon after open therefore it was not yet crazy busy. The first order of business was to climb to the top of the dome. It hurt that I was not allowed to take pictures, the cathedral was incredible on the inside. And the views looking down into it from the dome were amazing. The only picture I managed to take was from the top of the dome, looking down into the centre of the cathedral via a little porthole window which gave me slight vertigo. The whispering gallery was not exactly as I had imagined it but it was still cool to vaguely hear the people at the other end talking. It sounded like they were behind me even though I was facing them.  So much climbing, 119 steps, and we reached the edge of the dome exterior. Yet we were still not done, there was another 152 steps to climb to get to the top. We were well rewarded for the efforts. My legs and heart were dying, but the panoramic views of London and the River Thames were well worth it. Now that we had the stair-climb out of the way, we could explore the cathedral itself. The ceiling featured a gorgeous gold tiled mosaic. What it lacked however was a cathedral cat. Walking through the crypt, the sombreness of it got ruined by screaming children. The highlight was seeing a burnt tombstone that had survived the great fire of 1666.

It was tough to get the entire cathedral into one frame, the building was so big and I kept backing up until I was by a tree, and at this point the sun was behind the cathedral as well. We had enough time to walk, rather than transit, to The Ritz hotel for high tea at the Palm Court. Along the way we passed through the theatre district and Piccadilly Circus. It was a nightmare in the style of Times Square. So many tourists, walking so slowly and so many horrible places like TGI Friday’s (actually there were two within a block of each other). Then there was construction so we had to walk an extra block to get around it. I was glad to be out of there and once again able to enjoy the nice architecture without the gaudiness and tackiness. I saw a Twinnings Tea shop and I had to go in. There was no way I was not going and in coming out with armfuls of tea for everyone back home. I was immediately overwhelmed, so many choices! And nice boxes! I briefly considered buying the wooden box you get to fill with your choices of individually wrapped teas but I thought better of it, the idea of having to cram it into my luggage dissuaded me. I got a box of tea for each family member… and two for myself. One was a last minute impulse buy by the register.

As we walked we noticed a particularly nice looking building. We ducked down the alleyway to get a better view of it from the courtyard. Turns out we had found Courtald Gallery at Somerset, a part of the Art Institute. I wish I had known about this beforehand, the current exhibition featured one of my favourite paintings of all time, Bar at The Folies-Bergère by Manet. Outside of the hotel I changed into my heels, it was awkward as I was rushing because we were a few minutes late.

The name of the place did not lie. We were seated in a small section, which was atop a small set of stairs, a small court. And it was surrounded by potted palms. It was a literal palm court. Overhead was a domed ceiling and chandeliers. I had high expectations, as they were the ones who invented the afternoon tea tradition. My expectations were definitely met. Soon after we had ordered, Brent regretted not getting the champagne option. When the server brought our tea, Brent asked for the champagne as well. We were doing this all out of order. You are supposed to sip your champagne while they get your tea ready. Then while your tea steeps you finish it off and start on the food. Ah well, it worked out in the end because we did not end up scalding ourselves as the tea had time to cool down. The sandwiches, in order of best to worst were (surprisingly): ham with grainy mustard, egg salad, cucumber, cheese, smoked salmon and dead last was the chicken breast. No sooner were we done, they brought us another plate of sandwiches! But this time it was only one of each. It was easy to divide them up amongst ourselves as we had differing opinions of which sandwiches were good and which were not. Except the ham with grainy mustard. That was the clear winner.

The sandwiches were followed by scones with strawberry jam (it’s always strawberry) and clotted cream. Again the clotted cream was similar to butter. I was starting to realize that what I had been served at afternoon teas back home, more of a sweet cream, was not authentic. The scones were still warm and the clotted cream just melted. They got major bonus points as the scones were not covered in powdered sugar. This meant that I in turn was not covered in powdered sugar (an almost inevitable outcome whenever I tackle powdered-sugar scones). Finally it was time for the mini desserts. Except before we could dig in, a server came by with a trolley and offered us slices of chocolate hazelnut coffee cake and a rhubarb ginger cream pie. We split one of each and although it was close, I preferred the chocolate cake. As it turns out rhubarb is pretty darn good and I may have totally misjudged it in the past.

Now it was finally time for the mini dessert. Except I was already quite full. We each had our own lemon macaron with a lemon curd centre, but then the rest we had to split because we only got one of each: white chocolate coconut mango truffle with a mango centre, chocolate covered cinnamon cream puff. We sat there drinking cup after cup of tea. I had ordered the rose congou (rose sounds so fancy) and Brent had the traditional English. By the time we were on to the mini desserts we had about two cups left each. It was incredible, in total we must have had about 6 cups of tea each but damnit we finished the whole pot each. Looking at the bill it turned out they forgot to change it to champagne tea and charged us just for a regular afternoon tea- score! Even the bathrooms at The Ritz were ritzy. The womens bathroom had a couch, magazines and a pitcher of water. On the way out of the hotel I noticed some cufflinks in the hotel shop window, they were a whopping £3500, I could not believe it.

We walked back to the hotel via Oxford St. Brent continued on to the hotel, I got caught up in a last ditch attempt at finding my palm tree shirt, I had spotted another H&M. As was to be expected, I came up empty-handed. I went into what I thought was a mall, but turned out to be a few crappy shops and a subway entrance, not much of a “shopping centre” if you ask me. I was now on a mission to buy a FitBit. I don’t know why it had never occurred to us to get one to track how much we walk on vacations. Alas HMV didn’t have one. Debenham’s department store did, but for some reason it felt too expensive and I could not commit. I stopped in at Selfridge’s, reasoning that the FitBit could be my souvenir if I buy it from there.

In Selfridge’s I discovered the basement floor and it was amazing. There was a bar called Harry Gordon’s and next door they had a liquor shop. There was a Selfridge’s IPA, I saw it on the bar menu but they were sold out of bottles. They did have Bacchus Framboise but I was not sure if I would have time to drink it, we only had a few days of vacation left. In trying to figure out where to go to find the FitBit I found some store directory maps, these could count as souvenirs I thought. I went from one department to the next, getting closer to the electronics department (watches to electronic toys to electronics) and finally to a “FitBit expert” as he was called. It turned out that the warranty was regional and that was a deal-breaker for me.

I rushed back to the hotel because I could not remember for the life of me what time we were leaving for the Chelsea Flower show. I had just enough time to pack my teas in my luggage and write about the morning. We left a little bit early so we could check out Kensington Palace. It was just an old brick building with exhibits that we did not have time for anyway. As we got closer to the flower show we could see people with tote bags from it. There was a mass of people, it was unimaginable how many people were crammed into this outdoor exhibit space. We could barely move and the whole time we were shoulder to shoulder with strangers. More than once we had to push and shove. At the entrance I had noticed a booth that was giving away the tote bags, you had to buy a copy of The Telegraph to get the bag but it was less than a pound and so worth it as he only had a few left. There were beautiful sculptures made of flowers and shrubs and gorgeously designed garden spaces. The florist section was the best, it was the most interesting to look at. I was surprised at how many people were walking around drinking alcohol. This was the last place on earth I would dream of drinking: it was crowded and everything was making me sneeze. We did not last there very long, pretty soon I needed out, it was way too claustrophobic-feeling in there for me.

We headed back to the Victoria & Albert museum with the hopes of finishing it. First I needed a pit stop. My legs hurt and I was dehydrated and hungry. I chugged a cold Coke and ate some honey-roasted cashews. Now I was ready to tackle the rest of the museum. It was open late on Friday therefore we did not have to worry about running of time, only out of steam. There was set up going on throughout the museum, as it turned out on Friday nights they had live events throughout. My legs were so dead but we managed to get through it all. Well most it, parts were closed off so we could not see them. We saw some of Raphael’s giant paintings, and artists sketches in oil paints by John Constable. We saw a lot of great photographs, the V&A had an extensive collection (Weegee, Muybridge, Weston, Man Ray, Kertesz, Cartier-Bresson). Towards the end we were in a room of silver items and I could not care less, I was so tired. There was a 3D projection on a costume for which you had to put on 3D glasses that was pretty cool, but the lights started giving me a headache.

In a rare turn of events, Brent took off for some shopping while I headed back to the hotel through Hyde Park. I was fairly certain I knew where I was going, I had to head straight north, in a straight line that was not actually a straight line. I was walking on the path and I saw a statue that I was trying to pass, rather than continue on my path and turn right and head to the statue, I cut diagonally through the grass. My legs were dead and I needed to sit. I knew I was trying to get to the Italian Fountains, and so rather than going “straight” I went a little bit to the left (barely), following the signs to the Italian Fountains. I passed an obelisk dedicated to Speke. I was very confused, I had never seen this before, where was I?? Turns out the sign led me to a path that said the Italian Fountains were to the right. That initial sign had misdirected me at the fork.

I stopped at the corner store for a Daim bar, some more Haribo mix and the prawn cocktail flavoured Walker’s crisps. We had been avoiding them for far too long now. They were actually not that bad. The No Brainer cider by the Cotswold Cider Co. was delicious. We were too tired to go out to a pub for dinner, so instead I cracked open the Sandford Orchards Devon Red, another delicious cider to go with my snacks for dinner. My legs were lifeless.

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Cats, Cathedrals and Ciders: The South of England: Day 8

Thurs. May 19, 2016:
Bath

It was so hot in our room, I barely slept all night. We saw the fellow Canadians from the day before at breakfast. We had seen them checking in the day before. We both had almost the exact same breakfast as last time: Brent with the full English breakfast, me with the fruit, yogurt, granola and strawberry jam toast. But this time around the bacon was way better and the beans were optional.

Apparently at our afternoon tea the dress code specifically said no jeans, therefore we would have to be in our dress clothes for the morning. The plan was to visit the Roman Baths and then visit Bath Abbey. There was no way I would survive in my heels. I really did not want to have to carry them around in my bag all day, but I did not want to risk not being able to find a crappy pair of sandals at Primark or H&M. The idea of showing up to afternoon tea in my running shoes was too much, I packed my heels and lugged them around. At first I was wary of being seen in public in a black maxi skirt with a dressy top and running shoes, but I quickly forgot, I was so comfortable.

We started at the Roman Baths because we figured that was the more popular of the two attractions and it was only going to get busier throughout the day. We got there just after 10:30am and already there was a huge crowd. Oh no, I thought, we will have to wait forever to get in! Luckily It was just a tour group amassing outside. It was still really busy inside. More than once we found ourselves in a human traffic jam, barely able to see the exhibition cases. The audio tour guide was partly to blame. A mass of people would be walking and then suddenly everyone would halt. I did not really see the point of the audio tour guide, all the info was right there on the panels. From what I could hear (there was one lady who did not have headphones) it was a narrative presentation, with fake actors. It was so cool to see that the mineral and hot springs were still active, the surface of the water periodically broken by bubbles. Some of the original stonework was also preserved and the stuff that had been thrown into the spring was presented in cases. The coins were kind of neat. But the real interesting display was about the notes written to the gods. There were some hilarious complaints of thefts and insults carved on pewter. At the end of the self-guided tour we got to try some of the mineral water. It was awful. It was warm, slightly salty and metal-y with a sulfur end note.

Bath Abbey was not as cool to see. It was rather ordinary and nothing really stood out. I had to wait for communion service to finish before being able to take pictures. The abbey took way less time than had been expected. We now had two hours of time to kill before afternoon tea at the Royal Crescent Hotel. Primark and H&M did not have any crappy sandals that met my standards. The sandals at Marks & Spencer were way too expensive for non-leather sandals. While there though we picked up some crackers, as our next stop of the day was the Fine Cheese Co.

I was overwhelmed by the amount of cheeses. I asked for a recommendation along the lines of a nice camembert. He suggested the British version of camembert, how could we go wrong? This sounded great! For a second he seemed taken aback that I took him up on the offer. I wondered just how expensive this cheese was going to be. It wasn’t. Why was he so surprised I wondered?

We still had some extra time. What to do? Go to a pub for a quick pint of course! We went to the Star Inn, it had been on the list of potential pubs to visit from the previous night. It was a great pub, nestled in an old hotel, it was very cozy. At first I was worried, it seemed they only had Thatcher’s Gold cider on tap, and I had already tried that one. I was about to order a bottle of Reveller’s cider, the one with the pig on the label when Brent noticed that they also had Thatcher’s Cheddar Valley cider on tap. Thus saving me from having to drink more than a half pint (it was barely noon). The cider was citrus-y and almost sour, much less fizzy than other ciders I had tried before. We read the Times of London and tried to do the crossword puzzle. It was impossible, the clues were so difficult and I was not having it.

We took a long round-about way to get to the Royal Crescent Hotel and managed to get there right on time. I changed into my heels and immediately started pining for my running shoes. By the time we sat down my feet were already hurting. We ordered the traditional afternoon tea service that had sandwiches, scones and mini-desserts. It was too early in the day for champagne. Once again, I got to choose both teas. For Brent I selected the Golden Assam because it sounded super fancy. For myself I ordered the superior oolong, the clue as to why is in the name. The description also called it a rare tea. We started with the scone and “Bath bun” (which was really just a scone with raisins and orange peel) because they were warm and therefore the butter would melt. Up next were the sandwiches, providing us with a much needed break from the sweet, in order of best to worst: salmon, egg salad, roast beef, chicken). The macaron was way better, not nearly as dense as at the Pump Room. The guy at the table next to us was in jeans, what is the point of a dress code? Why was I suffering through wearing heels?! I was annoyed from early on because I got strawberry jam on my finger and it was sticky throughout the meal. At the other table next to us was a family with an infant. When I looked back, the child had fallen asleep in the high chair, with his head resting where his food would have been. I changed my shoes in the bathroom, rather than outside of the hotel, there was no way I was going to spend one extra minute in those damn things. As we walked we passed a girl who was walking barefoot and carrying her shoes, the cobblestones being a bad mix with high heels. I felt smart for my less-than-fashionable shoe choice.

The drive to our next hotel, the fancy Ston Easton was not great at times. There were small tight roads, one of which had the speed limit of 50mi/h! We passed a field of cows near the hotel, I wished I could photograph them but they were far from the main entrance and there were no sidewalks and it would be too far to walk anyways. As we unpacked the car I could hear a rooster off in the distance, I really wanted to go find it. The hotel had a resident cocker spaniel named Oscar, I was anticipating a lot of cute. Alas he was not there when we checked in, someone had taken him for a walk.

There were rain clouds looming overhead, but that did not stop us. Once I changed out of my dress clothes and into jeans we went for a walk around the grounds to see the estate. There was a nice little creek running behind the house, with lush rolling hills and even a mini forest. We could hear a sheep bleating like mad. We went to look and we saw him peering down at us from the top of the hill. We could not tell if he was stuck in the fence or just being loud. We could not get any closer as the hill was steep and full of trees. Further along the trail we saw the rest of the field. It was full of really loud sheep. Turns out this was just a really vocal flock. We could not find the old icebox but we did find the ruined grotto. A cat emerged from the bushes, he was a beautiful grey but it looked like he had a tumour on his right shoulder. It was a sad sight to see. He was so friendly and cute and lovable, he followed us around, rubbing against our legs. He stuck with us for the rest of our walk, even going so far as to venture alongside Brent into the estate’s pet cemetery. He enjoyed making biscuits on our feet as well. Eventually we came across an old building that had a water dish, a food dish and a kennel cage. This was a cared-for outdoor cat it turned out. The cat stopped short at the edge of the parking lot, he seemed to be afraid of cars. At least we did not have to worry about him following us back into the hotel or getting hurt.

At the front desk we asked for a butter knife and a beer opener. They brought it to our room instead. The guy opened our beers for us, because this was the only beer opener in the hotel. For some reason they included a plate of butter with our butter knife.  As we unpacked our bags we noticed a rather funny smell. Turns out it was the cheese and it dawned on us that without a fridge we would have to eat all the cheese that afternoon. The Turnworth Soft Cheese was only like a camembert in texture, in taste it was like a camembert but with a lot of corn flavour to it. It was weird and I could only eat so much, washing it down with the Stella Artois raspberry cider.

Apparently the hotel had a helipad but I had not seen it on the walk. Maybe it was the grass lawn beside the parking lot? We had time before dinner, so we settled in and watched TV, periodically complaining about the cheese. It had started stinking up the whole room. The internet was being wonky, so we alternated between streaming Silicon Valley on the computer and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on the iPad. It was a brilliant plan, watch one while the other buffers and alternate.

We were having dinner in the hotel and I had to get all fancily dressed up again, even though they had seen me wandering around in jeans and a sweatshirt earlier. Again I was mad about having to wear heels. My feet were throbbing as soon as I had put them on. We were seated at a small table facing the windows, looking out onto the back lawn of the house with the forest and the creek in full view. It was only after ordering that we were walked into the main dining room, to a more reasonably sized table for dinner. It was a tad confusing. We had quite the debate over the menu. We had two options: a 5 course prix-fixe or a la carte with a two (starter and main or main and dessert) or all three. I had wanted the quail, but that was a starter and with a main (there was no way I was passing up dessert) it would be too much food. Brent ended up ordering the 3 item option with the quail starter, of which I stole a few bites. His main was the lamb shanks, so I did not trade him the pork cheeks and belly main halfway through. For dessert I had the espresso-based sponge mousse option, who can say no to coffee-based and with a side of ice cream? Brent went with the 5 Somerset cheeses. I was still not convinced that England was any good at making cheese. Brent gave me two to try. The first one was goat cheese, an immediate flop. One was OK, and the other three looked so unappetizing I could not even sample them. Alongside my dessert I had a small glass of Bristol cream sherry. The dinner was delicious, one of the best of the trip so far. Plus we had made a bet with the wager being a bag of Skittles, dinner is always more exciting that way.

We tried to check out the library but there were people in there having dinner, making it really awkward for us to play chess. We never did end up finding the billiards table. On our way back to the room we stopped in the front hall. Oscar the dog was resting in a chair, the perfect opportunity to pet him.

The internet was still being crappy, we weren’t sure if we would be able to watch Game of Thrones online. I wrapped the stinky cheese in a plastic bag and threw it in the garbage. I was so mad that it tasted so bad and had now stunk up the whole room. I walked into the bathroom and realized that before we left for dinner I had not turned off the light in there. And the window had been re-opened. Apparently the hotel does turn-down service without leaving a treat or a note on the pillow. I had to settle for reading my book without a snack.

 
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Posted by on June 27, 2016 in Adventures of Pinka!, Travel

 

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Pinky’s Out At The Windsor Arms!

I was really excited about going to the Windsor Arms for best afternoon tea– you know, once the “OH MY GOD WHAT AM I GONNA WEAR?!” anxiety had passed. Turns out the panic was all for naught, as there were people at high tea in jeans (were this a real high tea, a lady would have said “my word!” and fainted ever so gently and a fancy man would say something about society going downhill and his monocle would then pop out and fall into his tea).

We were the stragglers, the last to show up because when we arrived the hostess knew the name of the reservation. Clearly we were the last people to show up to high tea. At least we were dressed nicely. I was  in tea heaven: they gave us each a small book with listings of tea, like a wine list but better. The passion-fruit green tea won my fancy, there was no contest even. Even Brent, the non-tea drinker, managed to find a tea to his liking: lemon mint.

We could hear the service staff whispering that they would not serve us our food until we had our tea so it was a bit of a wait but well worth it. The tea was delicious. We were each given our own teapot. Looking around the tea room, it was cute to see that each teapot was different, it made the place seem less intimidating and more inviting.  We were presented with a tiered serving tray of food, ever so fancy. There were even tongs for serving the food ourselves. The fanciness was interrupted by Brent’s teapot dribbling tea on the table, but I told him to just keep his teacup and saucer over the spot, worked like a charm, everything was back to fancy.

Windsor Arms- high tea (1)

The bottom tier was two different types of scones. I do not generally like scones, they remind me of stale rock-hard baked goods, but these were soft and fresh. Alas, a person can only eat so many scones, and two full-sized scones is a bit much. No amount of homemade jam could make me eat that last half. The sandwiches were the tiniest little things I had ever seen. They were made all the more fancy by being rolled up. There were four sandwiches of each three types. In the first round the salmon with roe was the best, but the second time around I preferred the chicken with apple. The cucumber and something one was the least tasty.

Windsor Arms- high tea (3)

With the sandwiches gone all we had left was dessert. There were four different ones. At first I was less than thrilled at the idea of eating four halves of dessert bites. I soon realized why the small amount: these delectable treats embodied quality over quantity to the highest degree. Even half of the chocolate flour-less cake proved to be a lot, there was no way I would have been able to eat a whole one on my own. Ditto the white chocolate ganache one. The red velvet cupcake had a raspberry flavoured icing on top, thankfully it was not a buttercream (bleh).

Windsor Arms- high tea (6)

Apparently high tea was not over yet. There was still a raspberry sorbet to finish it off. It was delicious, you could taste that it had been made with real raspberries.

How many cups of tea were in my teapot? About four and a half.

 
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Posted by on October 2, 2013 in Fooding

 

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