Mooching Around Maldon, Essex

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Maldon is a smallish town (population roughly 14,000 people) with a lot of history and fun current shops and restaurants. Plus they have world famous salt! UK Sarah and I spent a few hours mooching around Maldon one March day. It isn’t far from where Sarah lives and one of the most charming towns in Essex. It is situated on the Eastern coastline with marsh flats and tidal fluctuations that strand boats in the River Blackwater for hours at a time. On my last visit we had explored the Promenade Park.

This visit was more practical with a stop at Tesco for dinner ingredients and then a leisurely stroll in downtown with a bit of shopping (for salt) and lunch at Mrs. Salisbury’s Famous Tea Rooms.

Apparently you can buy the Maldon salt at Tesco, but I didn’t think to look for it there. I was able to find it at the Marks&Spencer mini mart. It is the same box you can buy at your grocer. Perhaps like me you’ve been watching Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat on Netflix or read the book and it peaked your interest in Maldon salt. Here are a few excerpts from Samin Nosrat’s book: Sea salt is what’s left behind when seawater evaporates. Natural sea salts such as… Maldon are the less-refined result of gradual, monitored evaporation that can take up to five years… Maldon salt crystals… take on a hollow pyramid shape, and are often referred to as flaky salt. (p25) I recommend buying Nosrat’s book if you’d like to know how to use Maldon salt and at what quantities. Very helpful.

I’ve also been watching Great British Bake Off and purchased a cookbook by Mary Berry when I was in London. I wanted to sample a Victoria Sponge or Victoria Sandwich to see what I’ve been missing. Mrs. Salisbury’s Victoria Sandwich was quite tasty although very sweet. I enjoyed the Victoria Sandwich at The Loft in Tollesbury more. And on Sunday’s the Loft plays vinyl records and creates a laid back vibe perfect for a Sunday afternoon.

I love the go-go of London and Harry Potter world, but there is a lot to be said for relaxing at the English seaside and experiencing a bit of modern English culture.

Harry Potter Appears Real at Warner Bros. Studio

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Hogwarts stairway and portraits at the Warner Bros. Studio in Leavesden, England

When I first read the Harry Potter books I found myself imagining the characters and the magic, and of course Hogwarts, but many aspects were fuzzy. That is, until I watched the first film. Suddenly the actors cast became what I saw in my head when I read the dialogue. The details were beautifully filled in by the elaborate costumes and props.

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The lounge of Number 4 Privet Drive is filled with Harry’s letters.

Sometime after the movies began debuting, I was in Chicago and there was a special exhibit of the Harry Potter film props and costumes. I loved it so much I was even inspired to copy the knitted blanket on Ron Weasley’s bed. I had toured movie studios and I knew that seldom do they spend so much time or money on getting to this level of reality!

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Ask at the information booth for the Passport so you can get stamps along the way and find the golden snitches throughout the tour. 

So when we were planning our Harry Potter adventures in London, I was enthusiastic about taking the train to the outskirts of London to the Warner Bros. Studio in Leavesden for the “Making of Harry Potter” tour. It is around $60 a person for a ticket to enter the world of Hogwarts, Diagon Alley and No. 4 Privet Drive. The greeter tells you that it takes about 3.5 hours to walk through (at your own pace) with a lunch stop about 2/3 through. In fact, we explored most of the sets and exhibits and stopped for a quick lunch and it took about 5.5 hours. Not that we are complaining! Plus there is shopping at the end of the tour.


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The graphics firm designed 20,000 individual props for the Weasley’s joke shop on Diagon Alley.

We got some great advice: ask the interpretive hosts if they have a favorite fun fact for the room they are stationed. All of the hosts were very enthusiastic about all things Harry Potter and usually gave us more than one fun fact. This is how we learned that 17,000 wand boxes were created for Olivander’s wand shop. And that many of them are still charred from the scene when Olivander’s shop explodes–a shot they only had one chance to capture. Or that Rupert Grint who played Ron asked to keep the number 4 from the house on Privet Drive.

We went on a weekday and there were lots of school trips. The staff said it is actually less crowded on the weekends. It was a fantastic day.

Harry Potter Play Anything But Cursed

IMG_7094Our Harry Potter holiday was planned around the Wednesday performances of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts One & Two.  The tickets said Part One starts at 2:00 p.m. and to arrive an hour early to get through security.  We met up at my hotel, Mimi’s Hotel Soho. We had a short walk to the Palace Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue. We didn’t know what to expect but we thought it might be best to eat a light lunch to avoid feeling sleepy or hungry. I suggested the cafe at Foyle’s Books and we had a yummy kabab with salad. When we arrived at the theater it took a few minutes for us to realize the line to get in already wrapped round the building. Good thing we had assigned seats!

The play is based on JK Rowling’s story. I’d read the script when it first came out and didn’t remember the plot. UK Sarah had just read it. We both were most curious about the staging and how the director will portray the magic.

IMG_7100The play is now in New York City as well. The Palace Theatre is a beautiful older stage with steep rows in the balcony. We got to know our neighbors well as we helped each other navigate to our seats. In our row everyone was committed to both parts on this day. We all bought our tickets for March 13 at the end of November.

I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, so I’ll just say that it was a hugely satisfying experience. We loved the staging and the special effects. The play was well-acted and much more entertaining when performed (than when read as a script).

Some actors stole their scenes–Ron and Moaning Myrtle–overall it was very entertaining. The break in the middle was about 2.5 hours, and again we had to return an hour early to go through security again. We had about 1.5 hours to sort out dinner.

IMG_7104UK Sarah was craving soup so we walked 15 minutes to Shoop Soup. We had a lots of choice and we were able to score two seats on the limited bar seating at front. There is also outdoor seating for fair weather. The soup was yummy and the sourdough bread just right. We enjoyed a conversation with a taxi cab driver who regularly stops here for dinner.

We returned for the second half and cheered for the performers at the end. The walk to our hotel was easy and we were full of happy chat over Harry Potter characters.

I recommend this play for any fans of Harry Potter. I am not sure how it’d go down if you had not read the books. I also am not sure if children under 11 would find it too scary. We were frightened a couple of times ourselves (and we are too old to politely ask our age.)

It was an excellent start to our Harry Potter holiday.

Darjeeling Express Delights

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Darjeeling Express is on the 3rd level of the Kingly (food) Court in London

I just ate the most wonderful lunch of comfort Indian food at Darjeeling Express. I made the reservation for the day I arrived in London. The only time available for a lunch for two was at 2:00, 2:15 or 2:30. That suited me because I was arriving at 10:30 at Heathrow and would need to drop my bags in Soho. Fortunately my hotel was just an 8 minute walk from the restaurant (plus a few minutes for finding Kingly Ct–Google maps got me there but the entrance to the courtyard feels positively secretive.) I selected 2:30 and subsequently learned that this is the last seating for lunch service. The reservation form didn’t give an option for solo diners so I hoped they’d forgive me for saying I was two people!

I came in out of the rain and shed my coat and umbrella at the door. The restaurant was still mostly full when I arrived. It is more casual dining and very comfortable. Within a few minutes the three tables for two closest to the kitchen were full and I was at the middle table. I sat facing the kitchen so I could watch the women preparing food. I have not eaten Indian food often and when I have it has been mostly at the type of place where there is a buffet or a more limited menu. The beverage was an easy decision as the Tamarind Spritz sounded so refreshing. As I studied the menu and the specials of the day I noticed that the young couple next to me were enjoying an easy banter and as they were Indian might have some helpful suggestions.

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When you step into the courtyard off of Carnaby Street you’ll find this oasis of dining establishments and a yoga studio, of course.

I asked them if they have eaten here before? Yes! Did they have any favorites? Yes! They were eating vegetarian but I was open to mixing it up. I accepted their suggestion for Bihari Phulki as a starter. A generous portion arrived with two sauces–I loved the tamarind sauce best, the other was a bit spicy for me and still delicious. They explained that this is the kind of food they would eat at home on a day like today. I wasn’t sure if they meant eat at home as in home-cooking or if they were from India. They did both grow up in New Delhi but met in London. They meant it was the kind of comforting food that ticks lots of boxes on a cold, blustery day.

While I waited for my main, they were served Puchkas. I’m sorry I don’t have a picture of it. It looks like a circle of eggs shells broken at the top around a small ceramic pot of sauce. You pour the liquid into the shell of pastry and pop it into your mouth. The flavors crash in a series of delicious waves. I know because this lovely couple offered me the seventh one, assuring me that I would keep them from fighting over it.

For my main I chose the Calcutta Chicken Chaap that comes with bread or rice. My dining friends suggested the bread as it is the kind of bread your mother would make at home or you could get on the street in New Delhi, albeit the street version is greasier. It was amazing: light and fluffy and a great compliment to the chicken. So good that I broke my rule of taking a “doggy bag” when I am on the road. I wished I had taken the chicken too as I ended up giving it to a homeless man outside Hatchard’s bookstore. The number of homeless people in London on this visit surprised and saddened me.

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Chef Asma Khan

I planned my trip to London around Harry Pottering with my friend UK Sarah at the end of November when I got a screaming deal on Air New Zealand. Then a few weeks ago season 6 of the Chef’s Table debuted on Netflix. I was intrigued by the episode featuring chef Asma Khan and her London restaurant Darjeeling Express. And thrilled when I discovered I could afford to eat there and a reservation was possible.

One of the other reasons to dine at Darjeeling Express is Chef Khan’s commitment to hiring mostly women and supporting charities that lift up women. On my table was an appeal to give to The Lotus Flower Cafe. And on the website there is information on Second Daughters Fund the charity also featured in Chef’s Table, Volume Six, Episode Three.

World’s Best Botanic Garden at Kew

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I wanted to save money on my last hotel night in London before I caught my flight home from Heathrow, and still be able to do something interesting. I love, love, love the Royal Botanic Garden. If it is not the best in the world, it is in the top three. It also is conveniently located to hotels and a subway station. So my plan was to take the train from Essex to London and the Tube to Kew Gardens, check in and spend the rest of the day in the gardens.

IMG_1807Whoopsie, no one told the London Underground and they decided to do maintenance and close the station at Kew Gardens on Sunday.

I could recount the perils I faced finding my way to Kew, instead I am going to recount the many kindnesses I received:

  • UK Sarah driving me to the train station and staying until the train arrived.
  • Woman offering me the tip about taking the train to Kew Bridge station and then catching a cab.
  • Security man allowing me through with my goofy train/underground ticket.
  • Young man who carried my 50 pound bag up the stairs at the Kew Bridge station.
  • Pub man in Kew calling a taxi for me.
  • Hotel reception that included carrying my bag up the stairs and setting up my fan on a 90+ degree day.

Was it worth all the trouble? Definitely yes. Just look at this beauty!

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The Royal Botanic Garden at Kew is constantly changing. It has been a few years since I last visited and it now has a Treetop Walk. I really enjoyed the experience of walking through the tops of trees with a bird or squirrel view. Please don’t make people who are afraid of heights go up. I saw people really suffering. It is not for everyone.

Another new feature is The Hive, a fascinating interactive experience to celebrate the role of honeybees in nature. I love bees and this was a joyful time for me.

It was a very hot day and I was already worn out from traveling all day. I found the gardens motivating me, still, some old men (one with a cane) were walking down the path faster than me. I stopped for an ice cream cone and it melted faster than I could keep licking and I used napkins to mop up my continuing mess. I tucked them in my bag because there wasn’t a trash can nearby. Later when I wiped sweat from my face, I must have spread chocolate all over my face! When I was on the treetops walk, a kind woman leaned over and whispered, “You have chocolate on your face.” I was chagrined but had to laugh. How long was I walking around with chocolate all over?

The Kew Gardens Hotel is a lovely, relaxed pub hotel. There is no A/C, but the fan did it’s work. The food was just okay but the environment was convivial and the staff super helpful. The journey to Heathrow Airport in the morning was a cinch. I hope I can return in a few years.

SWATCH: Crafts and Wool in Winchester

I was looking for a pub for lunch when I discovered Creative Crafts kitty corner from the Winchester City Museum and the Cathedral grounds. I wasn’t looking for wool since my suitcase was already bulging. My imagination was caught by the crocheted shark toy and the book of crazy sea creatures that featured the pattern. I purchased two pattern books and added them to the box I’d ship home from the post office.

IMG_1446The women who offered assistance in the shop were friendly and interested in what I was working on. I showed them the pineapple baby hat I was knitting for my grandson Calvin.

If you need any type of needle craft supplies while you are traveling or want to purchase a project, stop by Creative Crafts at 11 The Square in Winchester.

SWATCH: Mrs. Hedgehog’s Knit Shop

IMG_1336One of the joys of travel is squeezing in quick shopping expeditions to a wool shop for new knitting projects or a great book store. I had identified Mrs. Hedgehog’s Knit Bits in Cowes on the Isle of Wight before I left so I didn’t look for wool in Denmark. I also packed a few patterns that I plan to knit (after my disastrous assumption that I could translate Norwegian patterns when I got home).

It turns out that Google thought the shop was one place, and it was not. So I found my way there by asking other merchants on High Street until I found it on the corner of York Street and Mill High Road. It was the Big Woolly  Weekend and I was hoping to find a public knitting event to join. There wasn’t anything planned for Cowes so I focused on looking for yarn for a baby sweater.

Mrs. Hedgehog offers only acrylic yarn but in a great range of colors. The shop also offers everything you’d need for tools and some kits and patterns. I found a range of colors I loved and I might still have held out for washable wool, but the women in the shop were so friendly and helpful, I made a purchase.

August, 2017 postscript

I just finished the sweater inspired by a sweater Princess Charlotte sported in a photo in People magazine. I used Purl Soho’s “Little Girl Fair Isle Sweater” for the sizing (12 month) and adjusted for higher weight yarn. I adapted the sheep graph from Donna Smith’s “Baa-ble Hat.” I gave it to Amy’s expected baby girl.