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Design & Wonder at the V&A

V&A

I went to the V&A on Monday with my sister, ostensibly to check out some of the London Design Festival installations and exhibitions. But, box of wonders that it is, we ended up having a good root around some of its other corners – there’s always something new to find and admire.

V&A

My sister works at the V&A so it’s especially great to visit with her and be given a guided tour of some of the more hidden areas and her personal favourites.

V&A
V&A

I love Cornelia Parker’s work; ‘Breathless’, an arrangement of flattened brass instruments, sits in a double-height circular space allowing you to view it from above or below.

V&A

A 16th century ‘soundboard’ complete with a dazzling array of semi-precious stones.

V&A

Beautifully ornate floral chair

V&A

Canova’s Three Graces

V&A

A collection of puzzle jugs nestled in the ceramics galleries. I like how the V&A isn’t all priceless and important antiquities, there’s plenty of quirk in there too.

V&A
V&A
V&A
V&A
V&A
V&A

The contemporary ceramics gallery; many contenders here for my favourite game of ‘what would I take home with me given the choice’. I think today’s winner would be those gorgeous geometric vases or the perky pigeons.

Here’s some of the actual design festival stuff. I liked how it was dotted throughout the museum like a treasure hunt, with most pieces thoughtfully playing off the permanent exhibits nearby.

V&A

‘Ama’ by Michael Anastassiades, a tribute to Japanese pearl-diving women.

V&A

‘Double Space’ by designers Edward Barber & Jay Osgerby, two huge reflective structures resembling plane wings which slowly rotate around the ceiling of the Raphael Gallery, reflecting the vast cartoons.

V&A

‘Candela’ by Felix de Pass, Michael Montgomery and Ian McIntyre; a hypnotic rotating disc with light projections set up in the dim tapestry gallery.

V&A

Zaha Hadid’s ‘Crest’ across the garden’s pool.

V&A

We spotted Paul Smith and Terence Conran posing outside ‘Paul’s Shed’ by Nathalie de Leval. Cate has some pics of the inside of the shed.

V&A
Patchwork dress

The marble staircase made a pretty backdrop for my newest handmade dress too!

The Design Festival runs until the 21st Sept, so there’s still time to get down there and have look at it all.

A trip to Oxford

Oxford

I had the opportunity to take a little trip to Oxford last weekend. It’s always nice to have an excuse to see a new corner of the UK, and Oxford did not disappoint. It reminded me quite a lot of Bath, with the grand golden stone Georgian buildings, unspoilt high street and leafy avenues.

Oxford
Oxford

Oxford

I was pleased to find it quite compact and easy to get around by foot – my preferred method of exploring any new city. On arriving we (I went with my sister) walked from the train station to our hotel via the high street, taking in the covered market on the way. It was a Sunday so not everything was open, but as it was the bank holiday weekend it was quite busy with people anyway.

Oxford
Oxford
Oxford
Oxford
Oxford

We took a detour around some of the many university buildings dotted around the city, and the grand Bodleian Library. Can you imagine being a student here… in my head it’d be like a cross between Harry Potter (parts of which were filmed here) and the Secret History.

Oxford

Found a sewing shop, but it was closed – darn it, indeed :(

Oxford

We went to the Foodies Festival for lunch, which was quite small and non-eclectic by London market standards but I found a tasty samosa chat to eat, followed by tasty Purbecks ice cream as it was a nice warm day.

Oxford

Oxford is filled with meadows and streams (mostly owned by the colleges but open to the public), which makes for some lovely serene walking routes. We meandered up to the north of the city…

Oxford

…to the Natural History and Pitt Rivers museums. Both in the same building, the Pitt Rivers is an anthropology museum, which rather reminded me of some of the museums I went to in Ecuador as it carries much of the same ceramics, totems and textiles.

Oxford
Oxford

Oxford

Quite taken with this inuit outfit, reindeer skin codpiece and all.

Oxford
Oxford

Sewing stuff!

Oxford
Oxford
Oxford

In the Natural History museum part, I mostly enjoyed the animal skeletons and these beautiful mineral samples.

Oxford

Oxford
Oxford

We took another pre-dinner stroll down the canal, meeting a sweet kitty on the way.

Oxford
Oxford

We had a really nice dinner at Jamie’s Italian – I hadn’t been to one before but was impressed, would go back to try more as there were plenty of veggie options.

Oxford
Oxford

The next day was the bank holiday Monday and as is traditional, was pissing with rain. We popped back to the Bodleian to have a look inside – only the reading room was open but it was pretty stunning.

Oxford
Oxford
Oxford

We dodged the rain the rest of the morning at the Ashmolean Museum which was luckily open. There’s loads to see – again, owls and textiles mostly caught my eye – so it definitely provided a good diversion until the train home. At only an hour from London, what a nice city to have a little staycation in.

My trip was sponsored by the Mercure Eastgate Hotel, Oxford. Thank you!

Alexandra Palace History tour

Alexandra Palace history tour

A couple of weeks ago now, we went up to Alexandra Palace to take a history tour, which we quickly booked up after joining the email notification list. Perched atop a big hill overlooking North London, it’s not far from us though quite a shlep on a couple of twisty bus routes to get there. You’re rewarded with quite a lovely view from the surrounding park though.

Alexandra Palace history tour

The tour promised never-heard stories from Ally Pally’s very interesting history as well as offering behind the scenes glimpses into the parts of the palace that are rarely seen by the public. In its time it’s been a Victorian theatre and entertainment venue, BBC TV and radio studio, railway station, exhibition hall, concert venue and ice rink amongst quite a lot else.

Alexandra Palace history tour

Our guide explained that the palace is in the process of securing funds from the council and Lottery to restore and make public even more of the palace to bring it back to its original function as a wide-reaching entertainment venue.

Alexandra Palace history tour
Alexandra Palace history tour
Alexandra Palace history tour
Alexandra Palace history tour
Alexandra Palace history tour

The tour started in the old Victorian theatre, which was definitely also the highlight of the tour. The theatre was amongst the first to use mechanics to move scenery and allow for special effects like actors ‘disappearing’ into the floor. A project to restore the machinery is currently underway; there are also long-term plans to level out the sloped floor to allow the space to be used for a wider range of events.

Alexandra Palace history tour
Alexandra Palace history tour

We wandered down some fairly spooky back corridors, passing the artists’ entrance where bands show up to play concerts.

Alexandra Palace history tour
Alexandra Palace history tour

The old railway station is at the back of the building. Sadly just a few weeks after the palace and railway station opened in 1873, a fire destroyed nearly the whole building and the railway services stopped. Restoration work began in the 30s, but the war stopped it again and the line was eventually made defunct. (Part of the same disused line makes up the lovely Parkland Walk now.)

Alexandra Palace history tour
Alexandra Palace history tour

The final stop was the Great Hall, where concerts and exhibitions take place – from All Tomorrow’s Parties to the Knitting and Stitching Show. This part of the building also burned down in another fire in 1980, so the grand organ and its surrounds are all new but reproduced as they would have been.

Alexandra Palace history tour

The tour was okay: I felt like we didn’t see all that much that wasn’t open to the public anyway. I would have liked to have seen some of the old BBC studios as well, but they are apparently unsafe to actually be in and are awaiting restoration funds. But it was worth it to see the old theatre and to have an ice cream in the park on a nice sunny day. You can sign up here to be notified of future tours.

Afternoon tea with Truly

Tea at The Capital

Picking special presents year after year can be a bit of a pain, especially when you’re like us and have no room left in your flat for any more physical objects! That’s why I love giving and receiving ‘experiences’ instead: dinner, cooking classes, something that you can enjoy and/or learn from rather than accumulating more stuff. So when Truly contacted me I was pretty excited. Their premise is great: you pick from a fantastic range of do-able gifts – especially strong on restaurants and food experiences but there are spa days, city breaks and outdoor activities too. Put in your recipient’s address and they get a lovely smart box in the post with a simple number/email to contact Truly’s concierge and make the reservation. No messing around booking something and hoping they are free on the date (or ruining the surprise by asking), but you can still pick out something personal.

Tea at The Capital

Truly kindly gave me the chance to try one of their experiences out, and I opted for Champagne Afternoon Tea at the Capital Hotel. I invited my wonderful mum along because she’s a little envious of all the nice things Josh and I do in London, so it was great to be able to share something with her. She was delighted to get the box in the post and phoned me immediately to say thank you! She was down in London last weekend so we got the chance to book it up.

Tea at The Capital

The Capital hotel is literally around the corner from Harrods. I’d never ever been in Harrods before, so a nose round the food hall was mandatory (wow, it’s busy in there). Tea is served in a pretty and cosy sitting room – with wallpaper and books lining the walls and a window open to the pleasant day outside it was a lovely place to spend the afternoon. We started with a glass of champagne while browsing the extensive tea menu.

Tea at The Capital

Before long a tiered stand laden with goodies arrived. Delicate finger sandwiches on the bottom and a whole plate of sweet things for each of us – treacle tart, passion fruit tart, lemon sponge, baby trifle and a hibiscus maracon. They were all delicious – the moist sponge and creamy tart especially. If you run out or particularly enjoyed anything, the waiters will gladly restock it for you.

Tea at The Capital

There was only one vegetarian sandwich but I didn’t even think to ask for a replacement; I’m sure they would have switched one of the others for a veggie option if requested. Never mind, more room for cake!

Tea at The Capital

Just when we were reaching peak cake, freshly baked scones arrived with cream and jam. They were so buttery and flaky – my Devon-raised mum approved. You can even pack up anything you don’t eat into takeout boxes.

Tea at The Capital

One happy mum and some serious daughter points for me! This was a great experience and my mum really appreciated it. Truly have this and loads of other luxurious gift experiences on their site including lots of Michelin-starred restaurants like The Square, L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon (which I reviewed here), Hakkasan and La Manoir. Any would do for my birthday present, in case you’re wondering. Thanks, Truly! Anyone else love to give or receive foody gifts?

Truly supplied my afternoon tea experience for review; views are my own

Ecuador Day 5: Otavalo & the Rose Farm

Ecuador: Hacienda Cusin

My last full day in Ecuador! I was feeling a bit emotional by this point in the trip: a little homesick and lonely (this was a solo press trip so no lovely travel gang like in Panama) but also unwilling to leave this beautiful country.

Ecuador: Hacienda Cusin
Ecuador: Hacienda Cusin
Ecuador: Hacienda Cusin
Ecuador: Hacienda Cusin

Ecuador: Hacienda Cusin

I woke up early so I had time to pad around the Hacienda Cusin‘s grounds before checking out. It was so peaceful, all you can hear are birds and frogs chirping away in the post-thunderstorm dew. Generally though, I’m not sure I’d stay here again. My room was a bit dank and musty and I didn’t like the log fire (mild pyrophobia, but cold without it!). It was also a pain to have to walk outside between the room, restaurant and reception in the dark and rain, and the food at dinner and breakfast was very bland. As I said though, the grounds are calm and pretty and if you’re into the rustic farmhouse-outdoorsy vibe you’d probably like it. The hacienda can organise horse treks and various other local visits and outdoor activities, so maybe it’s better suited to more adventurous types.

Otavalo

I was excited about today’s visits: with a huge crafts market, a waterfall and a rose farm on the agenda it promised to be a fittingly magical final day. First stop was the town of Otavalo which is known for its daily market, selling everything from spices, grains and meat to Andean textiles and bags, wood and leather goods and typical tourist souvenirs. The market is on every day but Saturday is the biggest and busiest day.

Otavalo
Otavalo

Otavalo

Otavalo
Otavalo

The market was a real treat to browse. I especially liked it because it wasn’t entirely geared up for tourists: plenty of locals were shopping too and I didn’t feel hassled by any sellers. It was also so big that it wasn’t overly crowded and there was plenty of shade to dodge the hot sun. It’s centred on a main plaza but continues down the side streets over a 3 or 4 block radius. Naturally I had to do a lap of everything once before deciding where to spend my cash!

Otavalo
Otavalo

You could also grab regular refreshments from street sellers – coconut water, iced pops, sorbet and fruit juices – for 20-50 cents when the heat got too much. I also got a great iced coffee from the friendly chap above.

Otavalo
Otavalo

There was a dizzying array of goods and it took me a little while to get into the swing of haggling in my very weak Spanish (I made a note of how to say numbers and ‘how much is it’ before visiting!). It wasn’t a problem as the prices are pretty cheap anyway. I spent about $40 and came home with some carved wooden spoons, two small Andean blankets and two lengths of fabric, and a nice bag bag to transport all my new acquisitions home in.

Otavalo

It’s just a short drive from the market to another Otavalo treat, a stunning natural waterfall, Casacda de Peguche.

Otavalo

When the sun shines on it, you see a beautiful full-arc rainbow in the spray. Just when you think Ecuador can’t throw any more natural beauty at you, this happens!

Otavalo

The waterfall is surrounded by a pretty forest where you can camp overnight in a tent or one of these guest lodges.

Otavalo
Otavalo

Just outside the forest you can visit a little workshop of traditional musical instruments from Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. We had a demonstration of the main instruments from the owner and he made a set of pipes from bamboo right in front of us in about ten minutes.

Otavalo

I bought one of these little ceramic critters for Josh – you make notes by blowing into his mouth and covering the holes to make notes.

Ecuador: Hacienda Pinsaqui

We stayed nearby for lunch at the Hacienda Pinsaqui, an old texile-weaving centre and stopping-off point on the road between Ibarra and Quito. Dating from the early 18th century, Simon Bolivar was a famous guest and it’s now a restored hotel. It was even prettier than the hacienda I stayed in, and the lunch was probably the best food of the trip.

Ecuador: Hacienda Pinsaqui
Ecuador: Hacienda Pinsaqui
Ecuador: Hacienda Pinsaqui

Ceviche of heart of palm followed by a platter of veggie corn-based treats. We were serenaded by a band as we ate which was really nice.

Ecuador: Compañía de Jesús
Ecuador: Compañía de Jesús

On the road back to Quito, we made our final stop at the Compañía de Jesús Hacienda, a really beautiful place with a fascinating story. It was originally a Jesuit church and grain farm, but the Jesuits were expelled from Ecuador amidst fears they were getting too powerful, so this land and its buildings were bought by a wealthy Ecuadorian family. It’s been owned by the same family now for five generations, and the son-in-law of the current owners showed me around.

Ecuador: Compañía de Jesús
Ecuador: Compañía de Jesús

The land is now a rose plantation which busily exports to mainly the USA, Europe and Russia. It was a quiet time for my visit because Mothers’ Day had just passed so production was slowing down for a bit. In higher season you can actually see the rose farm and processing methods. Instead I saw the permanent showroom in the old grain store building, which showcases some of the 70 varieties of rose grown on the farm. My guide explained that new varieties are cultivated in the lab, and the shapes and colours change with fashion and demand.

Ecuador: Compañía de Jesús
Ecuador: Compañía de Jesús

Ecuador: Compañía de Jesús
Ecuador: Compañía de Jesús

Ecuador: Compañía de Jesús

Aren’t these lilac ones dreamy?

Ecuador: Compañía de Jesús

We then saw the old Jesuit chapel, where five generations of the same family have been married. The restored interior features paintings and sculptures dating from the time of the Jesuits.

Ecuador: Compañía de Jesús
Ecuador: Compañía de Jesús
Ecuador: Compañía de Jesús

Finally we got to look in the estate house. Dating from 1919 and built in the neo-classical French style, the interior has been immaculately designed to fit the age of the building. Some furniture was shipped over from Europe; some was reproduced in the same style by local Ecuadorian craftspeople.

Ecuador: Compañía de Jesús
Ecuador: Compañía de Jesús

The beautiful wallpapers are French originals, as are the moulded tin ceilings from Germany.

Ecuador: Compañía de Jesús
Ecuador: Compañía de Jesús

From the gramophone to pillar box hats hanging by the door, the attention to detail makes this house like stepping back in time. However it’s very much a lived-in and loved house; the owners spend a lot of time here and the whole family descends at weekends.

Ecuador: Compañía de Jesús

Roses are a permanent feature, of course. We were treated to some freshly-baked bizcochos (a local specialty, crumbly corn biscuits), local cheese and blackberry juice as we admired the house. You can stay at the hacienda or tour its grounds by appointment only. I can’t find a website but here’s some more info in Spanish.

This was my last stop of the whole trip, so after the journey back to Cafe Cultura in Quito I spent the evening re-packing all my souvenirs and resting. In the morning there was just time for the tasty hotel breakfast, and another stroll to Eiji park, which on a Sunday had a lovely relaxed vibe with kids playing football, families on bike rides and a small craft and paintings market. A fitting way to say goodbye! Adieu Ecuador, I hope we’ll meet again one day.

My trip was sponsored by KLM and Branding Latin America / Quito Turismo UK; views as ever are my own