Delightfully Deco: Eltham Palace

NORMALLY on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow it’s the items I covet (many of them, anyway). Tonight, however, it was the location: Eltham Palace in south-east London.

Although it was originally a palace – built in Medieval times and lived in by Henry VIII – now it’s a grand(ish) house, large enough to be posh, yet not so big that going to the kitchen to make a cup of tea during a sleepless night would be daunting.

But it’s not the size that makes it so attractive, but the stunning, original Art Deco interiors (and exterior). From the round entrance hall, with its marquetry frieze of a cityscape, to the gold mosaic tiles in the lady of the house’s en-suite, it’s an absolute joy. But just as the size is not overwhelming, nor is the decor; it’s stylish, but still extremely comfortable. The sort of place you – or I, at any rate – could easily live in. If only I had the chance…

And on top of that, there’s a Medieval great hall, left over from the site’s origins as a Medieval palace, and 19 acres of grounds, including a moat(!), and, apparently, the “oldest working bridge in London”. Oh, and a lemur-ladder (for Mah-Jongg, the lemur who used to live there).

If you visit the English Heritage website ( ), or you’ve seen tonight’s Antiques Roadshow, you’ll already know a lot about the history of Eltham Palace, from that Medieval palace, to the repair and Art Deco rebuild in the 1930s by milionaires Stephen and Virginia Courtauld (Mah-Jongg’s ‘parents’), to its time as an Army training school and, now, its ownership by English Heritage.

ButI thought I’d share some pics I took when I went there, nearly a decade ago. At the time I don’t think you could take pictures inside the house (maybe that’s changed now), so these are what the exterior looked like at the time.


Time for Tea in Vladivostok

There’s an English tea-room in Vladivostok??? Indeed there is. This is me in my real-life job, as a reporter:

Core-blimey! It’s the Grange-over-Sands Community Orchard

Grange-over-Sands community-orchard boardIF an apple a day really does keep the doctor away, then good luck to anyone looking for medical help in the genteel South Lakeland town of Grange-over-Sands.

Because there are lots of apples in Grange, lots and lots of them.

Most of them are in one of the most lovely community facilities I’ve ever come across, the Grange Community Orchard.

The orchard is right on the main road through Grange, and it’s actually quite easy to miss, as it looks rather like a bog-standard park, albeit a rather tree-y park.

But noticeboards at the entrances tell visitors that it’s actually a community orchard, “created for the enjoyment of the public of Grange and its visitors”.Community-orchard Grange-over-Sands info

The orchard, which was planted in 1998, now holds around 30 varieties of apple tree, including some that have their origins in Lancashire, Cumberland and Westmorland – how’s that for sourcing locally?

Georges-Cave, Grange community-orchardOn each tree there’s a label, giving its origin, the date it was introduced, the type of apple – cooking, dessert or both – and (yum!) when it should be ready for picking.

There aren’t just apples in the orchard, though, there are other fruit trees too, including pear, mulberry, quince and medlar. And, to encourage wildlife, a wildflower meadow and native hedging, including sea buckthorn and hazel.

The orchard was created by Grange Civic Society and South Lakeland District Council (SLDC), and it’s now tended by volunteers (who look to be doing a great job, by the way), and it’s all farmed organically, without artificial pesticides or fertilisers.Grange-over-Sands community-orchard

Grange is a pretty nice place anyway – scenic and rather peaceful, even when it’s paying host to coachloads of tourists – but the orchard is especially lovely, especially on a sunny day. Even if all those apples had scared the doctor away, an amble through the orchard has to be one of the best forms of therapy ever.

More information about the South Lakeland Orchard Group (SLOG) is available here: Grange orchard

Going Dutch

“I’ve always promised the wife I’d tek her on a cruise,” said the man with the cheeky grin as Manchester United’s Old Trafford ground glided gracefully past the back of his head.

Old Trafford is indeed a shrine to millions of football fans, but as anyone familiar with it knows, it’s not in exactly the world’s most exotic location.

The man above was being interviewed on our BBC local news programme, North-West Tonight, during a feature on Manchester Ship Canal cruises. Yes, that’s a cruise along the inland waterway built between the industrial hub of Manchester and the port city of Liverpool about a century ago.

The Ship Canal may have been one of the main arteries that fed the phenomenal growth of the North West in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, but glamorous it ain’t. And the man above’s comment is even funnier if you imagine it said with our flat Northern vowels.

Still, he had fulfilled his promise and taken “the wife” on a cruise, even if it was a cruise of sorts.

(If you think I’m dissing Manchester Ship Canal cruises, I’m not, in any way – my mum and dad went on one and loved it.)

Anyway, the above is a roundabout way of saying that I, too, have just been on a cruise-of-sorts: a Mini-Cruise to Amsterdam.

Departing the Port of Tyne on the ferry to Amsterdam.

Departing the Port of Tyne on the ferry to Amsterdam.

My parents (see above) are on the mailing list for travel company David Urquhart, and it was because of that that I spotted that they were offering a Mini-Cruise to Amsterdam for “from £59 per person”. That included return coach travel from the North West to the ferry terminal near Newcastle, and a coach transfer from the terminal at IJmuiden to Amsterdam. It seemed like too good a bargain to miss. The only downer was that you get only a handful of hours, at most, in Amsterdam. But then what could be more jet-set than nipping abroad for lunch?

So, after paying a single supplement of £16 (because there was just me, booo!) I was booked on-board.

I had been to Amsterdam before, but many years ago, when I was a student, and my uni room-mate and I stayed in a hostel and spent several days ambling around looking for things that looked interesting.

This time I was more organised. Thanks to Professor DuckDuckGo I learned that Amsterdam now boasts a branch of the Hermitage, as in the world-famous museum in St Petersburg, Russia. That would be my number one target, I decided, and anything else I managed to see or do would be a bonus.

I know that, technically, all David Urquhart had to do was get me to the terminal and back (in the UK) and from the terminal and back (in Holland) and book me a cabin on the ferry, but they really did that job faultlessly.

The coach was clean and comfortable, and the driver, Craig, was entertaining, friendly and efficient.

The ferry itself is operated by DFDS Seaways (you can book tickets independently, but, well it would have cost 59 quid just to get to Newcastle on the train – if the trains were running, that is – so why not go for a bargain when you see one?).

There’s a load of stuff on the DFDS website about facilities on board, and it’s a fair reflection of the reality. On the one hand, it’s not The-Ritz-on-Sea: this is a working ferry after all, not a purpose-built cruise ship, but on the other, it is pretty fancy for a ferry. It has a nightclub, for goodness’ sake! And the restaurants and bars are nicely decorated and serve food and drink on proper crockery and with proper (metal) cutlery.

My cabin, which could accommodate two people in bunk-beds, was small but not unbearably so, although it might have been a bit cramped if there had been two of us. But then the cabin is only supposed to be a place to sleep, it’s not like you’re living in it or anything, and it is for just two nights.

In addition to the bunk beds, there was a little sofa big enough for two people, and a desk/dressing table, with chair, and one (continental plug) electric socket. And it had a bedside table and bedside light, and coat hooks and even a couple of coat-hangers.

The cabin and the ensuite bathroom were spotlessly clean, as was the bedlinen, and the bed was really comfortable too.

What with the restaurant, bistro, coffee bar, nightclub and children’s play area, there was lots to keep the passengers entertained, even right through the night, something that some people seemed to take full advantage of!

It took ages to get through customs/immigration, so we had less time in Amsterdam than we should have had.

If you’re hoping to ‘do’ Amsterdam in one Sunday in November, this was probably the best, and worst, one to choose, as it was the day that Sinterklaas arrived in town (

It was the worst because it meant that between me and my target, the Hermitage, was a network of barricaded, already busy, streets awaiting Sinterklaas and his procession.

(I made it, of course, and even spotted en route, an exhibition of colour photographs before 1918, at the University of Amsterdam’s Allard Pierson Museum. I’ve been fascinated by this type of photograph, autochrome, for years, ever since a BBC series on Albert Kahn – whose work features in the exhibition. I just wish I’d not had to tear through it at breakneck speed.)

However, like I said, what made this probably the best Sunday in November to be in Amsterdam was also what compensated for the brevity of my visit: the arrival of Sinterklaas. Not because I was expecting Sinterklaas to be laden down with lovely gifts for me (I’m a bit old for that!) but because of the children who were, many of whom were in dresssed as Sinterklaas’s assistants, “Pieten”, in brightly-coloured, gold-trimmed breeches, boleros and caps, but all of whom were beside themselves with excitement.

I was just really sad that I had to leave before Sinterklaas arrived.

Note: If you want to know more about Sinterklaas, the official tourism website,, has loads of information, about him, the controversy over his assistant “Black Piet” and this thoroughly entertaining explanation of the differences between “Sint”erklaas and “Sant”(a Claus)

Which bottom is top?

WHAT does a beautiful bottom look like? Yeah, yeah, I know this is supposed to be a travel blog, not the Daily Mail Sidebar of Shame, but bear with me on this, because, technically, this post really is travel-related.

You see, I was travelling when I saw these particular “beautiful buttocks”, as they were on display in Amsterdam. (Obviously, if you actually live in Amsterdam, this isn’t travel-related, but I don’t so it is.)

Amsterdam having the reputation it has, this won’t be the first time a naked bottom has had a public airing in the city. However, this particular bottom is supposed to be worth more attention than most, seeing as it belongs to Venus Callipyge, or “Venus of the Beautiful Buttocks”, and it’s on display in the Amsterdam branch of the world-famous Hermitage museum (which I have also visited).

Apparently, there are several versions of Venus Callipgye in the world, supposedly based on or inspired by a Roman copy of a Greek original. This one in the Hermitage is by Italian sculptor Vincenzo Pacetti (1746-1820), and it’s in Classic Beauties, a temporary exhibition of treasures from the collections of the main Hermitage in St Petersburg, Russia.

If our Kardashian-obsessed tabloid media (and social media) is to be believed, tastes have changed in the two-and-a-quarter centuries since Pacetti got out his chisel. I just thought it was interesting to compare the two (supposed) ideals of beauty. I know which I prefer, anyway: the one that’s made from marble, not silicone.

Hermitage Amsterdam opened in 2009 in a former old people’s home (a classy one, built in 1683). How do the two compare? Hermitage Amsterdam is a lot smaller than the original (although to be honest, it would be hard to be as big or bigger!).

During my visit last month it had just the one exhibition (Classic Beauties) of stuff from the original Hermitage, on one theme and just paintings and sculpture, rather than a selection of objects representing the sheer range of the collections held in St Petersburg.

(In case you’re wondering, the theme of Classic Beauties is the artists and art inspired by the excavations of Roman sites in Italy during the 18th Century. It’s due to run until 13 January 2019. I won’t be including more pictures because I didn’t take any – I just don’t feel right taking pictures in exhibitions, unless it’s for a special reason – illustrating a beautiful bottom, for example.)

The other temporary exhibition (also until 13 January) at Hermitage Amsterdam is the Outsider Art Museum, an exhibition of art created by people not formally trained as artists.

The permanent exhibitions are “Portrait Gallery of the Golden Age”, 30 portraits of residents of Amsterdam in the 17th Century, taken from the collections at the Amsterdam Museum and Rijksmuseum. That’s worth seeing if only because of the sheer size of the paintings – they’re massive! (If rather heavy on the black and brown; did colour not reach Holland until the 18th Century or something?)

And there’s the eight-minute-long Panorama Amsterdam, which is a video history of Amsterdam.

An adult ticket for the whole museum is 25 euros, while tickets for just Classic Beauties and Golden Age… alone are 18 euros.

I only had time to race round Classic Beauties and the Golden Age portraits (I’ll explain why later), so didn’t get chance to deconstruct properly the architecture of the building itself. It did feel a bit generic, though; I may have been in a building more than 300 years old, but I didn’t feel like I was, which is a bit of a shame really. And, of course, while it’s old, it has nothing like the history of the original Hermitage in St Petersburg.

But I’ve seen it now and I’m glad I have.

The Thames Path – or The Scenic Route

THERE’s probably a certain irony to how this post came about, seeing as it involves me visiting a dead explorer then doing some exploring of my own.

I’d decided it would make sense to combine checking out the tomb of Sir Richard Burton in Mortlake (the subject of my previous post) with a ‘work’ visit to the UK’s National Archives in Kew, seeing as the two are only a couple of miles apart.

Having done my stuff at the National Archives I hit the road – or rather roads – to Mortlake. I’d no complaints about the roads ; they were doing what they were supposed to do, ie get me from A to B (Archives to Burton, I suppose you could say). But at the end of the day they were just roads, of Tarmac and cars and pollution (and a retail park with a TK Maxx, if that’s your thang).

I crossed one pretty big road and followed a footpath down a little embankment and onto a housing estate. A little distance further on I found myself looking out onto the River Thames. Between the boring road I was on and the river, though, was a pretty little green area, framed by an elegant stone bridge.

I walked up to the bridge, which turned out to be Chiswick Bridge, which carried the big road I had just crossed over the river. “Kew Gardens 2 miles” said a sign pointing under the bridge and vaguely towards where I had just come from (the National Archives is at Kew Gardens). “Ooooh,” I thought, making a mental note for later. And I continued on my way to find Sir Richard’s tomb.

Now, in the interests of full disclosure, I should ‘fess up here that I didn’t actually see the tomb this particular day; I got caught out because the graveyard was locked shut at 3pm (I’ve updated my previous post with a warning about this).

OK, so I was disappointed, but at least I had something else to explore – that path to Kew Gardens.

The “path” was wide, smooth and had hardly any incline on it at all, making it easy enough for people who might struggle to get up hills, and/or wheelchair users. There’s lots of greenery, and, of course, you’re on the banks of the Thames, so there’s (a bit of) wildlife to watch, including, during my walk, the members of a rowing club practising on the river.

It was much quieter than the road/s, and so much more relaxing. It was, in fact, such a nice experience that by the time I had reached the back of the National Archives, and Kew Bridge, I had pretty much overcome my disappointment at not meeting Sir Richard.

Map of Thames Path

My route to the Thames Path: A: St Mary Magdalen Church, and Richard Burton’s tomb; B: Jolly Gardeners pub (which we like because it has a toilet open to the public!), Lower Richmond Road, opposite Mortlake Green; C: The Ship pub, right on the riverbank; D: ‘park’ at Chiswick Bridge; E: Kew Bridge and the National Archives. (Map compiled and adapted from maps on the Thames Path website,

I found out later that what I had been walking on was (a small) part of the “Thames Path”, a 184-mile-long walkway along the length of the Thames from its source in the Cotswolds to the Thames Barrier. If you’re visiting London and fancy doing something a little different to the usual stuff, as well as getting some fresh (for London, anyway) air and a bit of exercise, I’d say a walk along part of the Thames Path would be well worth considering.

There’s lots of information on the Thames Path on the official national trails website (  There’s also lots about the other 15 national trails across the breadth of England and Wales, from the “South West Coast Path” to the “Cleveland Way” (

(In case you’re wondering about the whole tomb thing, I went back to St Mary Magdalen Church a couple of days later, at a time when I knew the graveyard would be accessible. And then I went on to the Arts and Crafts Red House, at Bexleyheath, which I may write about presently, if the spirit moves me.)

The End of the Road

THIS post is a bit of a departure (excuse the pun) from previous ones, as it’s about a traveller other than me. And it’s about where he ended up after his travels were done.

I’m talking about Richard Burton (the one who was famous as a traveller rather than an actor). Burton’s life was exotic and “interesting”, to say the least, and his last resting place reflects that rather well:


Yup, not exactly what you would expect to find in in a graveyard behind a nice but conventional church, albeit one in a rather posh part of London.

In a time well before planes, FaceTime and even – for some of the places he visited – maps, Burton (a non-Muslim, of course) conned his way into Mecca disguised as an Afghani; explored modern-day Ethiopia (getting a spear in his face for his trouble), and, with fellow adventurer John Hanning Speke, set out to find the source of the River Nile. They failed on that score, but they did become the first Europeans to see Lake Tanganyika. (They split up after having a row, and Speke went on to find the source, which was actually Lake Victoria. Which wasn’t called that until Speke named it in honour of his monarch.)

Burton also served as British Consul in Fernando Po, Santos in Brazil, Damascus and Trieste – his final posting seeing as he died there.

Burton produced a number of travelly books in English (oh, and one on the history of farting). He could speak 35 languages and dialects and he produced some rather complete – aka explicit – translations of the Kama Sutra and The Arabian Nights (the original version of which is, apparently, not quite as family-friendly as, say, the Disney cartoon of Aladdin).

When Burton headed for the great departure lounge in the sky it was pretty obvious that a bog-standard gravestone wasn’t really going to cut the mustard, so his widow, Isabel Arundell, had this concrete Bedouin tent built for him in the graveyard of the church of St Mary Magdalen in Mortlake, South West London. When she died six years later, she joined him in there.

And here they are: (and no, I’m not being a ghoul – if Isabel didn’t want people to see them in repose, she wouldn’t have put a window and a sogging great ladder up the back of the mausoleum, would she?


Burton’s tomb aside, the graveyard is quite a nice place to visit if you happen to be in the area, as it’s rather characterful and tranquil, even if it is only a minute or so from a busy train line. It even boasts at least one urban fox – I know because it bolted goodness knows where after I startled it.

St Mary Magdalen Catholic Church is at: 61 North Worple Way, Mortlake, London SW14 8PR.

Updated with important information: I guess I should warn potential visitors that the cemetery isn’t accessible all the time; there’s a gate that can be – and is – locked, and as far as I could find, there was no other way into the graveyard, seeing as it’s surrounded by a rather high wall. I’m afraid I never made a note of the opening times (as I went for myself, never really intending to write about it), but if you went before 3pm you should be able to get in. or, best of all, check with the church yourself when planning your visit.

If you’re a visitor to (rather than a resident of) London, the easiest way to get to the church is probably public transport. Transport for London (TFL)’s rather effective journey planner can be found here.

If you want to read an uproarishly entertaining account of Burton’s life you can find a brilliant one here:

And look what I discovered purely by coincidence was published just a couple of days ago in the UK Guardian newspaper about Burton and Speke’s jaunt to Tanganyika:


Burmese Daze – the book!

For some strange reason it seemed to make sense to turn my diaries and dlogs from Burma/Myanmar into a book. More depth, more stories, more opinion, more, well, Myanmar!

It’s available now, as a print book from, and as an ebook from Smashwords , Barnes and Noble, and  Kindle. For UK-based readers, print copies are available direct from me (for less than the Lulu etc list price); please just ask via the contact form.

Reviews – good, bad or indifferent – most gratefully received on the relevant seller’s site. Thank you!

For anyone who fancies doing their own book, it’s not as difficult as you might think, but I’m happy to give advice based on my own experiences – again, just ask via the contact form.


Coffeemix and a Celica, or the Road to Pyin U Lwin

K, N and I took the bus from Nyaungshwe to Mandalay and travelled from there to the hill station of Pyin-Oo-Lwin. They were going because they had heard it was really nice. I was going because it was one of the places that, 50 years earlier, British travel writer Norman Lewis had included in his book Golden Earth, only then it was a Colonial hill station and called Maymyo.

The town was one of many renamed by the junta in 1989, supposedly as a way of consolidating national unity; even the country was renamed, from Burma to Myanmar, as the generals claimed “Burma” was too closely associated with the Bamar majority people. Most young people used “Myanmar”, possibly because that was what they had been brought up with, but older people often used “Burma” to show what they thought of the junta.

We arrived in Mandalay about 4.30am, with around two hours to wait for a bus to Pyin-Oo-Lwin. Despite the time, the streets were pretty packed, with monks collecting donations of food. Burmese males were expected to become monks at least twice in their lives, even if was only for a couple of weeks. The mother of a friend of N’s, having heard about her son’s antics in Thailand, told him he had better go to a pagoda for a few weeks to atone for his sins!

It was a common sight all over Asia: monks wandering the streets soliciting their food for the day. People would feed them in the hope of “earning merit”, and increasing their chances of being reincarnated into a better life (a big incentive in a country with as many problems as Burma).

We whiled away our time drinking Coffeemix, a three-in-one blend of coffee powder, sugar and creamer, and which was particularly popular in Burma. Signs outside roadside cafés, for example, proudly proclaimed: “Coffeemix”. And there was something quite addictive about the stuff.

Although Coffeemix would be your last choice of beverage when you arrived, after a week, you would not patronise any establishment that did not offer Coffeemix. I’m not making this up: I met so many visitors who admitted that they had sworn at first that they would dehydrate to death before they would drink Coffeemix but had gone on to develop an addiction for the stuff.

The ‘bus’ was actually a songthaew, and it was eventually ready to leave. We set off. And promptly stopped outside an office at the side of the road. From there, we went to a petrol station, where the driver put some fuel in the tank, then, after driving for about five minutes, we stopped to fill up at one of those roadside carts of pop bottles of fuel.

I found out later that drivers, even bus and pickup drivers, were rationed to six or eight litres of petrol a week, and after that they had to turn to the black market.

One litre of ‘legal’ fuel cost 800 kyat, but it was 1,800 kyat a litre on the black market. And, of course, people had no choice but to pay, even the bus drivers who provided public transport in a country where so few people had their own vehicle. And, of course, a country with such reserves of oil that there was once a company called Burmah Oil.

Pony and trap on street in Pyin Oo Lwin or Maymyo, Myanmar or Burma

How to travel in style in Pyin Oo Lwin – in a pony and trap.

We arrived in Pyin-Oo-Lwin and called the guesthouse, which sent our ‘free transport’ to collect us – a Toyota Celica with a purple metallic paint job, thumping sound system (Burmese rap again), with a row of lights across the back bumper that flashed in time to the music, and “Blackburn Rovers” seat covers (even though the driver looked at me blankly when I said: “Blackburn Rovers?”). We didn’t half give the trap-pulling ponies a fright!

The point of the hill stations, not just in Burma but throughout Colonial-era Asia, was to give Europeans a cool escape from the heat of the lowland plains, especially in Summer.
I could understand why Pyin-Oo-Lwin, or, as it was then, of course, Maymyo, had been so popular. The climate was rather English – ie, cool – as was the vegetation – lush and green. It was hardly surprising, really that a botanical garden had been established there in Colonial times.

Another relic from Colonial times was the British-looking churches. Christianity had a presence in Burma, largely, I suppose, because of Colonialism, so there had to be churches elsewhere, it was just that I didn’t notice them as much as I did those in Pyin-Oo-Lwin.
Seriously, they would not have looked out of place anywhere in the UK. More than once I found myself cycling past one then, especially with the climate and the green everywhere, having to pull myself up short and remind myself that I wasn’t actually at home.

From Burmese Daze – the book. Available directly from me (£6, including p&p in the UK); or from Lulu, Amazon, or to order from your local independent bookshop or via Hive. E-book available from Smashwords.