Thursday, 13 September 2012

Dinner With Work

You've Got To Try It All
Where: Zeytoon, Cricklewood
When: August 2012

It's rare that I have a good or interesting dinner with my work colleagues, but on those occasions we have flexibility to spend our own money rather than vouchers we have always had a decent night out.  Zeytoon is a Persian/Afghan restaurant in Cricklewood.  We arrived around 8 PM and were quickly shown to our table.  The restaurant was around a third full. One of our party had been doing some additional fasts after Ramadan so he was pretty hungry and we let his enthusiasm for food get the better of us.  There was a wide choice of well-priced food on the menu and unable to decide we let greed get the better of us.

To start, we went with bread and mixed starters.  Strangely enough the items I was least looking forward to tasted the best and the normally safe hummus was pretty awful.  The Salad-e-Olvieh with chicken, egg and potato was good but my favourite were the two warm aubergine starters and I'm really not a big aubergine fan, Kashk-e-Bademjan which is a mashed aubergine dish and my unexpected favourite Burani Bademjan which was marinated grilled aubergine.

For our mains we started with a mixed grill with one skewer each of four kinds of Kebab, this was a great bargain as it worked out at around £11 each with loads of well marinated meat and lovely saffron rice.  In all honesty we didn't need the other dishes but I was more than glad I tried them.  I'll let the pictures do the talking.

To finish our gluttony we had two of the Afghan dishes and these were really nice and both something I'd not tried before.  The first, pictured below was Mantu, which is a little like an Italian ravioli with tomato sauce, but topped with yoghurt.  This was really tasty and reminds me once again how cuisine travels around the world.  The second which escaped my camera was Qabli Polow Lamb Shank which was a delicious lamb shank that had been cooked in fruity brown rice.  Wow, this was good and despite being full to bursting from the mixed grill I managed to eat my portion of the lamb.  We finished our meal £25 lighter of the pocket but most likely 25lbs heavier than when we came in.

Zeytoon 94-96 Cricklewood Broadway, London, NW2 3EL

Escape From the Carnival Part 1: A Trip to Salisbury

No Druids Here!
Where: Salisbury and Stonehenge
When: Carnival Weekend 2012

Every August we suffer with the same dilemma, do we embrace the Notting Hill Carnival or run to the hills, henges, and mountains or wherever else seems quiet, peaceful and relaxing?  The last few years we have managed to escape abroad but this year we stayed in the UK and after trawling the English Heritage website for things to do we settled on Salisbury as it was a cheap train fare and there was enough for us to do to keep us out of the house from morning till night.  We set off early in the morning to Waterloo where we arrived with plenty of time for our train and settled in with an M & S breakfast of fruit and pastries for the 90 minute ride into Salisbury.  Before we knew it we were there and after a squeeze through the crowded ticket gates we found ourselves at the bus stop for the tourist bus to Stonehenge.

The tourist bus is timed to leave shortly after the London train arrives and you can easily spot which bus it is from the sign and the queue of assorted accents waiting underneath.  The hop on hop off bus the goes from the station to Stonehenge, Old Sarum and back to town again.  The fare is £20 including entry to Stonehenge and a pre-recorded tour in English that 75% of the occupants talk over as they don't understand a word of it. Thankfully for the non-English speaking tourists aboard the bus the audio guides at Stonehenge had a much larger range of languages.  The bus takes the scenic route through town and the not so scenic stop at Salisbury Bus Station before taking the road towards Stonehenge.  One big advantage of the tour bus is fast track entry to Stonehenge which on a busy day is great as you bypass the whole queue and go straight through to pick up your audio guide.  It's not quite the stuff of VIPs but it is a great time saver.

To access Stonehenge you need to pass through a small tunnel under the road and on the other side you are treated to Stonehenge itself.  I'm not a particularly spiritual person but the effects of walking around Stonehenge are something special, contemplating the mammoth effort it would have taken to erect such a structure that still stands many thousands of years later.  The most amazing thing is despite all the examinations of the site nobody really knows what it was built for or exactly how the stones were transported to the area.  Although the area and Stonehenge itself is quite small we spent an hour wondering around the site listening to the audio guide and taking photos.

We then hopped back on to the hop on hop off tourist bus and headed to Old Sarum.  We weren't expecting much from Old Sarum as when we passed it on the way it just looked like a couple of ruins laid on top of a hill.  Thankfully this couldn't have been further from the truth.  Old Sarum was actually the town that was abandoned before Salisbury was formed.  Luckily for us there was also a theme day complete with Knights in armour, medieval cooking and activities and entertainment for those with young ones.  Additionally Old Sarum also provides amazing views out over the countryside and again, luckily for us we got to see some old fashioned aeroplanes fly over and people parachute jumping out of them.  After all that excitement it was time to head into town and pay a visit to Salisbury Cathedral.

A short bus ride on the hop on hop off bus later and we were back in Salisbury town centre.  The town centre is typically quaint and English filled with plenty of pubs and tea & cake places that reminded us a lot of Canterbury.  The cathedral is not hard to spot as it has the tallest spire in the UK!  We arrived a little later than planned but thankfully we had enough time to have a quick look around the cathedral but not quite enough time to catch the Magna Carta exhibit as it was closing just as we had arrived.  The roof and colour of the cathedral interior was quite special and although we had to rush we managed to get a few nice pictures and soak up the atmosphere before evensong started.  We then had a short walk in the cathedral grounds and took a few more pictures before heading back into town.  As it was too early to eat we had a walk through the town centre and along by the river.  It really was a perfect early evening for a relaxing walk.

We then headed towards the pub we had picked out from Trip Advisor, The Cloisters.  It was set in a nice old fashioned building but was very quiet on arrival.  We actually ended up getting table service which I always find a bit odd in a pub.  We started off with a couple of much needed pints whilst reading the menus.  A while later our waiter came back to take the orders, he was nice and polite but there seemed to be an air of the disorganised and unkempt about him, something I can be equally guilty of myself.  I ordered the lamb shank with veg and my partner ordered the burger and chips.  After a reasonable wait the food came.  The lamb was nice and tender and fell right off the bone.  However, for me the meal was spoiled slightly by the inexplicable serving of some over boiled, unseasoned canned vegetables on the side.  They were completely unnecessary and took away a lot from a decent piece of pub food.  Apparently the burger was pretty good as well.  We also ordered dessert and coffees which seemed to throw our waiter a bit but we got two large and rather lovely warm slabs of chocolate fudge cake and some decent coffee.  It was a really nice way to finish the meal.  We were accidentally double billed for one of the items but it was instantly taken care of without question.  Overall it was a good meal to set us up for our trip back home to London.  It was a shame the pub was so quiet and lacking in atmosphere, maybe we were just there too early in the evening as there only seemed to be a table with tourists and two men that spent more time going out for a cigarette than eating or drinking.

We took the short walk back to Salisbury train station along a road filled with sweet little houses and after managing to avoid the drunk patrolling the platforms we were on the train and headed back to London to see if our flat was still in one piece.  Walking back from White City the signs were not too bad, just a few groups of harmless drunks until we turned into the road near home with a large crowd spilling out into the road from both sides thanks to the take away and the pub.  Thankfully the noise didn't really spill over at all and it was nice and peaceful by the time we got home.  With the first day of the carnival successfully avoided we needed to catch some sleep as tomorrow we would hit the town tourist style!

Stonehenge Tour Bus
Salisbury Cathedral
The Cloisters 83 Catherine Street, Salisbury, Wiltshire SP1 2DH

Sunday, 2 September 2012

A Royal Day Out

A Royal Day Out
When: August 2012
Where: Buckingham Palace State Rooms, The Royal Mews and the Queen's Gallery

Visiting Buckingham Palace was something I'd been looking forward to for a while.  Whilst I'm not a monarchist by any stretch of the imagination, the chance to walk around a modern day working palace located right on your doorstop is something too big to turn down.  So on an Olympic day of sunshine and showers we began our Royal Day Out.  Buckingham Palace is just a short walk from Victoria station and the ticket collection office is easy enough to find, though if coming from the station you have to walk past the other parts of the palace that you will be visiting later on to get your tickets.  The whole complex is highly staffed with lots of friendly uniformed guides that somehow remind me of the temporary staff you see during Christmas at Fortnum and Mason.  The staff left a good first impression with no queuing required to collect our tickets. On leaving the ticket office we made the short walk to the first stop on our Royal Day Out ticket, The Queen's Gallery.

The Queen's Gallery

Tickets for the gallery are for a specific time, so it makes The Queen's Gallery a good place to start the tour.  The current exhibition is Leonardo da Vinci: Anatomist on the study of human (and animal) anatomy.  Before going up to the gallery proper you have your tickets checked and pass through "airport style security" which is basically no metal objects in pockets and bags and electronics through the x-ray machine.  There is also a free cloakroom before entering the main exhibition where staff will stamp your ticket for free re-admission to the gallery for the next 12 months.  The main gallery area is upstairs and there is a desk for free multi-lingual audio guides.  The first room of the exhibition contains a short video explaining the background behind this exhibition and placing it into historical context as well as how the contents of the exhibition came in to the possession of the Royal Family.  The exhibit is a series of anatomical sketches made during da Vinci's life as he hoped to better understand the human body.  The exhibition places da Vinci's sketches alongside the beliefs at the time and compares them to what we know today.

During the exhibition we see how da Vinci continually struggles to bridge the gap between his observations and his beliefs, some of the things he observed and documented were not fully reproduced until hundreds of years after his death.  Of particular interest are the sketches of the brain, human reproductive systems and the way in which our muscles work.  We also see by comparison how da Vinci's sketches were very close to what appears in the anatomy books of today.  As we learn, da Vinci never fully completed his work on human anatomy and the sketches from the exhibition are taken from a book made of his collected works and notes on the subject after his death.

 In all this was not the most exciting of exhibitions but it was interesting to see how da Vinci battled between his existing beliefs and his discoveries.  It is fascinating to think how much more advanced the fields of medicine would be today if someone had continued da Vinci's work after he died and had seen it through to completion. Instead all we can do is marvel at his inquisitive mind and his fantastic drawing and presentation skills which are near unmatched to this day.

The Royal Mews

In some way this middle part of the trip was much like visiting the royal car park.  However, being a royal car park you have custom Rolls Royce as well as horses and carriages to contend with rather than the odd motor bike or Ford Mondeo.  Again a complementary audio guide is provided to help understand the history of the Mews.  The tour starts off by explaining the history of the Mews and how it grew as Buckingham Palace grew and that even today it is a fully working area complete with live in staff, not just a museum for tourists.  The tour starts by looking at some of the carriages. There is also a small exhibit on the use of motor cars.  Only Bentley or Rolls Royce will do for the Royals, custom made of course to give the best view of the Queen. There is also information on the change in role of the royal chauffeur over the years.  We then enter the stable area and learn all about the horses and the training and preparation they go through as well as the Royal Family's love of horses and riding.  There is also an interesting riding related gift from US president Obama on display here.  As we move through the stables the end point is the magnificent golden carriage which is truly a special sight.  On the way out there are a few horses you can take a look at, they appear well trained and oblivious to flash photography.  Overall the Royal Mews is an interesting diversion but not something that I would have paid for separately.

The State Rooms at Buckingham Palace and Diamonds Exhibition

The grand finale and for me the real reason for this mini-adventure; to step inside Buckingham Palace and follow in the footsteps of ambassadors, dignitaries, celebrities and possibly some corgis.  Once again it's through security and into a small holding area where we get a quick explanation of what to look forward to.  Then it's time for the audio guide again and on to the Palace!  The tour starts along a corridor that leads out on to the inner courtyard of the palace, the corridor is lined with some more modern pieces of art and the platform overlooking the courtyard contains lots of information on the history of the Palace.  After this there is a trip up a magnificent staircase to the upper floors filled with room after room of precious art and antiques, at the end of the series of rooms is the throne room.  After that there is a room filled with the masters of art from France, Italy and Holland.  It is quite amazing to see such works of art altogether without being in an art gallery or museum.  We then go through some more rooms which overlook the gardens and includes many more famous and fascinating pieces of furniture and decoration.  There is then an exhibition Diamonds: A Jubilee Celebration which was the only part of the day that felt crowded and a little rushed through but again there were some amazing pieces that you may never get to see that close up ever again.  After this it was back to the final leg of the tour, down the staircase and into the sculpture gallery before leading out through what looked like a tea room and into the gardens to complete the trip.  It is only after it's all over that you can truly take in the size and scale of Buckingham Palace, the tour covers but a quarter of the building and only a brief glimpse of the gardens and yet takes a good few hours with the assistance and information from the audio guide.  Each room has a wow factor and it proved a fitting end to our Royal Day Out.

In Conclusion

Whilst it was not the cheapest way to spend an afternoon it was certainly worthwhile.  It was interesting to catch a piece of living British History and one of the reasons people from across the planet come to London.  Whilst I don't think the Royal Mews and Queen's Gallery are worth the individual admission costs, the combined ticket is great value as it is only around £10 more than the state rooms alone and £5 for over an hour of entertainment is pretty good value these days.  It's also great that there are complementary audio guides for all three parts of the day out as they really add some depth to various carriages, clocks and other works of art.  The other great thing is that you can visit again as many times as you want for the 12 months after your first visit just in case you want to see it all again...  and you never know, perhaps we will!
Royal Day Out Tickets £31.95
Buckingham Palace , London SW1A 1AA