An Inn of Distinction

victoria-gastropubThe Victoria is a glorious little boutique hotel tucked away down the narrow suburban streets of West Temple Sheen, just the other side of Richmond Park in London. Obediently, we followed our GPS off the motorway and onto the not-so-beaten-track. I was beginning to think we must have typed in the wrong address, when sure enough, after rounding a tight bend, squeezing between parked cars like Harry Potter’s night bus, and reversing out of the way of a large, on-coming van, we finally spotted this jewel hiding down a leafy lane.

Having just flown in from the Philippines on a direct, fifteen hour flight, we arrived with relief, bleary-eyed and feeling a little claggy, to an enthusiastic welcome from both the reception staff and old friends who were meeting us for dinner.

And what a dinner it proved to be! I had discovered this red brick Victorian inn at the last minute on booking.com, and it fitted the bill for price and convenience. It was only later I realized that The Victoria is a top-notch gastro pub, owned and managed by restaurateur Greg Bellamy and British media chef Paul Merrett, who has been adorned with a Michelin star twice for his fine efforts in the kitchen. Together, these creative gentlemen have earned their restaurant an illustrious reputation in the Hardens London Restaurant Guide 2013, where it was voted second best modern British restaurant under £50. And we were unexpectedly delighted to find such excellent food at such a reasonable price.

The Victoria was built sometime around 1845 and registered as a public house a decade later. At that time the neighbourhood apparently consisted of three large estates, and the pub was mostly frequented by the butlers, footmen and coachmen from those landed houses.

Today, the Victoria has been almost submerged in suburbia, the ‘local’ half way down the street. There is a cosy bar filled with an eclectic collection of sofas and armchairs and rustic tables, a pretty shady courtyard and a large conservatory dining room, as well as seven bedrooms tucked quietly away behind the bar and kitchens.

The current owners discovered the pub in 2007, and restored the bar area to its original glory. It is delightfully16-The-Victoria-Garden traditional with snug nooks and crannies, and a warm and friendly staff. And for a relaxed family meal, we gathered in the comfortable conservatory dappled in green by the leafy, overhanging trees outside.

Then we shrugged off jetlag, and settled down to catch up on years of news with the aid of a bottle of wine and a delicious dinner. Unfortunately we had missed out on the special Sunday slow roasted belly of Dingley Dell pork, Bramley apple sauce, but I have read rave reviews about it, so I will need to go back. I was more than happy with my chargrilled lemon and thyme chicken, however, served with heirloom tomatoes (real tomatoes with real flavour) and buffalo mozzarella which was served on a wooden chopping board. It’s been done before, but somehow it didn’t seem self-consciously trendy, just rustic and homely.

A child’s serve of fish and chips for our young twelve year old was a great success, and our wine was so good we forgot to stop at one glass each. My teenager loved his rib eye steak and his first experience of ‘thrice-cooked chips.

The buffet breakfast next morning in the conservatory was beautifully laid out and really tasty. I do like the notion of cutting your own bread from a hearty, freshly baked loaf, and the fruit, ripe and juicy, the designer yogurts, meats, cheeses and fresh pastries were delicious. (A cooked breakfast was an optional extra, if you fancied a ‘very full English breakfast’.)  I particularly liked the freedom to carry my coffee, hot and strong, out into the garden, to sit beneath the trees in the morning sun.

A few things to bear in mind. It was lucky we had a car, as the hotel is quite a walk from public transport, especially when lugging a suitcase. We got a special deal on Sunday night accommodation, but we felt the rest of the week was considerably more expensive. Many reviews say how quiet it is, and the hotel itself has a very calming atmosphere, however, on a hot summer night, with the window open, the Heathrow air traffic can be surprisingly invasive. And why do English hotels all have heavy duvets on the beds even in the middle of summer? Otherwise the room was clean and comfortable, and we were sad to leave so soon. I hope we’ll be back.

*With thanks to Google images for the photographs.

Posted in England, Food & Wine, Travel | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Ducks are A-Dabbling

A Thames Valley Journal: Part 3

“In it’s unbroken loveliness this is, perhaps, the sweetest stretch of all the river…” ~ Jerome K. Jerome

Day 6: Marlow to Maidenhead

2014_08_31_2784 (3)Before we left the Vicarage, we popped into the Church-next-door, All Saints at Bisham, thinking we might swell our lungs with some hymn singing. Sadly, the service had been postponed, but we chatted to the Lady Vicar and some members of her congregation eager to share the history of this ancient church. We found many splendid and well-garnished tombs dedicated to various local lords and ladies from the Hoby and Vansittart families, but the one we loved best was a memorial plaque to young Eliza who had ‘most unfortunately drowned’ during a riverbank picnic in 1810. This young lady of ‘virtuous and amiable disposition’ and ‘graced with every refinement of feminine attraction,’ sank before the eyes of her friends ‘in the midst of gaiety and mirth’. It continues at some length about hearts being ‘rent with anguish,’ at that ‘awful calamity, ‘ and is a splendid epitaph for a girl who chose to ‘exchange this uncertain life for a glorious state of immortality.’

On that uplifting note, we bade farewell to our kind hosts and headed on down the river. We had divided the final lap in two, as blisters were beginning to burst forth ostentatiously upon our heels and toes, making the thought of an extra long day’s hike decidedly daunting. Instead, we quickly inserted a last-minute layover in Maidenhead.

Feeling less anguished and lighter of heart, we trotted back to Marlowe to rejoin the Thames Path at the cemetery. For about half an hour private houses with ostentatiously exclusive front gates kept the river at bay, but eventually we were passing vast playing fields on the left, and the Thames had reappeared on the right. It was Sunday morning, and the river was churning with keen young rowers, their coaches and their parents shrieking encouragement from the banks.

We arrived at Bourne End, hot and thirsty, but sadly the Upper Thames Sailing Club was not offering refreshments
to plebeian passers-by, although they kindly allowed us to cut across the club lawn. Beyond the sailing club and theIMG_1486 (2) marina, we ducked down a narrow lane that cut between ample, handsome homes and their riverside gardens, with motor boats and canal boats snoozing against the bank. Crossing the railway bridge, where there is a special pedestrian footbridge adjoining the train part, we found a plaque for a bloke with a splendid record for counting the rivets. We then strolled back upriver to ‘The Bounty,’ a café we had seen from the marina. A sign above the door announced that this was “The People’s Republic of Cockmarsh, where the laws of common sense apply,” which amused us, along with a second sign announcing that it is twinned with Chernobyl. We rehydrated and headed on…

…through marshland and common grazing land that has existed since 1272. Wandering into our third church yard for the day, we followed the path that wound through gravestones bent with age, their memories blurred by centuries of rainy weather, or disguised behind long grass. Past the church, along the lane of obligatory yew trees. There are many theories on the ubiquitous presence of yews in British churchyards. I have been offered several suggestions: the evergreen yew was a symbol of eternal life; the poisonous foliage discouraged animals from wandering through the burial grounds; Ancient Greeks & Romans used yew branches to mark a house in mourning; it wards off the winter winds as parishioners enter the church…

… and out through the lych-gate into Cobham town centre. Now which of four pubs will have us for lunch? We ended IMG_1488up in the garden of The Old Lion, gratefully kicking off our boots, sipping on cider and pumpkin soup and nibbling on sandwiches on a sunny, Sunday afternoon….

…then, refreshed and revitalized, we set off on  the last leg to Maidenhead, and wandered along a shady riverside path, past warning signs about fierce dogs that would chase us off the premises were we to inadvertently decide to clamber over the wrought iron fence onto private property. Canal boats drifted amiably by, charming us with dreams of Ratty’s life on the river where ‘there is nothing, absolutely nothing half so much worth doing simply messing about in boats.’

Eventually fields and woodland gave way to grandiose houses trimmed with topiary and flower beds, whispering of a faded past of elegant garden parties, broad brimmed hats and fine bone china. The Sunday walkers gathered force as we got closer to town, until we were suddenly thrust out into bustle and busy-ness, and our leave-strewn and peaceful woodland was replaced with tarred roads and the growl of traffic.

JKJ states that Maidenhead is ‘too snobby to be pleasant…the haunt of the river swell and his overdressed female companion.’ A swanky restaurant beside Boulter’s Lock would suggest the same is true 125 years later. We certainly felt under-dressed to join the diners on the terrace for a beer, but this also meant the aesthetic delight of well-dressed diners in suits and high heels, glorious, colourful hanging baskets and pretty river boats. And if you happen to be walking the path in high heels and a short skirt (or long trousers and a tie), pop in. The Riverside Brasserie rates a mention in both the Michelin Guide and the Good Food Guide. We cheekily used the facilities, recognized our inappropriate attire, and wandered on…

… and at last crossed the bridge to our B&B, where we received a lovely welcome from our hosts. This particular B&B was the most business-like accommodation we had seen on our travels, and the clash of patterns and colours on carpet and wallpaper, curtain and quilt was truly a sight to behold. But despite a certain lack of homeliness, my feet were grateful to go no further today – or at least only as far as dinner.

Day 7: Maidenhead to Windsor through Rain

The next morning we took a short stroll through a light shower of rain into Windsor, where we were celebrating with
the swans at the bridge – I have never seen such a swarm of swans – by lunchtime. We had booked a night at The2014_09_02_2808 Christopher on Eton High Street, where once I had sat, surrounded by Eton mums delivering their sons to school. It is a charming hotel, a former coaching inn, dating back to 1711, and situated half way down the High Street.

Eton is a quiet little town, especially this week before school goes back. Windsor, on the other hand, was heaving with tourists, who crowded the pavements, and formed lengthy queues to see the castle.  We walked a scant two hundred metres of the Royal mile, then duck back into town, past allotments and houses muffled in shrubbery and trees…

And it’s time to soak my blistered feet in a hot bath and lather up my aching muscles with Deep Heat. I was definitely out of practise for long-distance walking, but it was worth every step, for the joy of those glorious English villages, the delicious pub meals and the delights of dreaming along the riverbank. We may explore this romantic path further into London in a day or two, but in the meantime, as I relax over a chilled Rosé at the Waterman’s Arms with an eclectic collection of locals and their canine companions, I leave the final words to Kenneth Graham:

“The Mole was bewitched, entranced, fascinated. By the side of the river he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spellbound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank, while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last to the insatiable sea.”

*Thank you to my One & Only for yet again generously sharing his photos with me for all three parts of this story.

Posted in England, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ducks are A-Dabbling

A Thames Valley Journal: Part 2

“Here today, up and off to somewhere else tomorrow…”  ~ Kenneth Graham

Day 4: Pangbourne via Bus and Sonning to Shiplake

2014_08_29_2723Day four of our walking adventure found us wandering through peaceful water meadows, talking to the ducks and laughing at the dogs, over-excited and exhuberant about their early morning freedom. In Purley, we clambered aboard a double-decker bus to ride to the far side of Reading, having decided that the stretch of Thames path along the railway line did not look overly inviting. Once out of Reading, however, we loped happily through riverside parks and woodland and past the amusingly named ‘Reading Blue Coat School’. This 17th century school was originally located near the Church of St. Mary’s Minster in Reading, where it ‘provided education and bringing upp of twenty poore male children’ whose original uniform was a ‘Blue Coate and Cappe’. The school was relocated to the Park Holme estate on the outskirts of Sonning-on-Thames just after WWII, where its students now pay almost 5000 pounds per term.

Sonning itself is ‘the most fairy-like little nook on the whole river’ according to writer Jerome K. Jerome, who made a close study of the Thames and its towns in his 1889 journal, ‘Three Men and A Boat.’ This impression still stands today and likewise his description of the lovely old pub, The Bull, behind the churchyard – ‘a veritable picture of an old country inn’. Here I indulged in a completely justifiable and totally delicious steak-and-kidney pie with a perfect crust. I just wish it hadn’t made me somewhat soporific to face the last few miles to Shiplake, past banks of wild orchids with their heady scent.

Shiplake is a quiet, tree-lined village three miles upriver from Henley-on-Thames, with a quaint, old-fashioned station that is merely a platform just off the road. Shiplake also possesses a traditional English pub, The Baskerville.  Situated right on the Thames Path, it is also very much the local watering hole, its walls entertainingly decorated with local memorabilia, and the Friday night crowd spilling out into the garden. Although the town is only a few miles from Reading, it felt as if we were lost in the depths of the English countryside.

Thankfully, pub menus have 2014_08_30_2739become much more sophisticated since we walked the Coast to Coast path across Yorkshire and the Lake District over twenty years ago. We no longer had to resort to a Shirley Valentine diet of steak and chips or egg and chips every night, but indulged merrily in a variety of gourmet offerings, tapas style and a very pleasant bottle of wine, before retiring gratefully to a comfortable bed. Also, much to my joy, the staff very kindly organized to have my washing done. (Don’t laugh, our quaint little riverside villages are visually delightful but very few would – or should – spoil the landscape with a laundromat.)

Our most genial of hosts, Kevin, could barely wait to get us in the door, blister-bound and muddy though we were, to tell us that breakfast would be spectacular. The pub had just won another tourism award for its excellent breakfasts, and Hannah and Emma would be on hand in the morning to prove why.  When the time came, we decided to skip the traditional English breakfast. A week of those and we are gaining rather than losing inches. Instead, I opted for perfectly scrambled eggs served with Scotch salmon on a brioche, with lightly fried mushrooms on the side, while the One & Only chose an omelette garnished with every possible filling. All quite delicious, as promised – and calorie free of course – which we washed down with hot coffee and a fresh banana sliced into a bowl of beautifully creamy yoghurt, Greek style. Nectar of the gods.

Day 5: Shiplake to Marlowe via Henley-on-Thames & Hurley

We left Shiplake with clean clothes and full stomachs, and wandered on to an old and favoured haunt, Henley-on-Thames. It was Saturday morning, and the river was churning with keen young rowers, their coaches and their parents shrieking encouragement from the banks. The route into Henley travels down a long wooden bridge, or causeway, past the weir and the Marsh Lock situated in the middle of the river.  A second bridge delivered us into Mill Meadows where we found the path – rather to our annoyance, this was now, indisputably, our path – teeming with tourists, dog-walkers, young families with strollers and elderly couples, ambling along cautiously. There were also multitudes of waterfowl, encouraged by children armed with bags of bread.

I tried not to be judgmental about this avian junk food but sadly, it seems a fun, childhood memory for many of us leads to a lot of problems for the birds and the environment. The bread itself can create malnourished, overweight ducks. It can spread disease to the birds, kill the fish and clog the waterways. Leftovers will attract rats, mice and unwanted insects. And as the birds become accustomed to this abundant charity, they lose their natural foraging instincts and they may even become aggressive in order to get more food. So perhaps to keep our wildlife safe and happy, we must throw bread on the compost and not at the birds!

2014_08_30_2747We paused for breath and a cold drink at  the Angel, that much photographed pub beside the elegant 18th century Henley Bridge. Perched at a picnic table by the water’s edge we peered through the arches to the long stretch of river that hosts the Henley Royal Regatta each year. This was also the original location for the renowned rowing race between the Oxford and Cambridge. The tradition began in 1829 as a challenge by a Cambridge student to his childhood friend at Oxford. The race, held annually since 1856, barring the years of the two world wars, will continue as long as the annual loser challenges the winner to a rematch. The course still covers a four mile (7 km) stretch of the Thames, but it moved long ago from Henley to West London, where the two teams row from Putney to Mortlake. As a useless piece of trivia, you might like to know that British actor, Hugh Laurie, was a keen oarsman, and  also achieved a Blue while rowing for Cambridge University in the  1980 Oxford & Cambridge Boat Race – despite the fact that Cambridge lost the race by five feet that year. Laurie has been quoted as saying ” it was a very bitter defeat.”

The Royal Regatta, meanwhile, begins downstream at Temple Island, a miniature, midstream islet on which stands an elegant 18th century folly. On this particular Saturday afternoon it was being decorated for a wedding, and we stood aside to let a stream of walkers and cyclists go by, and to watch proceedings for a little. Unfortunately we were2014_08_30_2754 (2) too early to spot the wedding party who would presumably arrive later by boat.

We eventually dropped into a quaint Edwardian pub called ‘The Flowerpot’ for lunch, one that was obviously immensely popular with weekend walkers. The large garden was full of picnic tables crammed with hungry kids, while the interior was crammed with box-framed fish. Perhaps ‘The Anglers’ would have been a better name. My One & Only christened it ‘The Pub of Death.’ We ate our quiche and salad rather nervously beneath the fierce glares of stuffed fish, foxes, weasels, wild boar and antlered deer. Some modern day wit had even framed a tin of sardines.

The next stretch to Hurley was across the deer park of Culham Court and through numerous kissing gates. Once we go back down on the river, we passed through acres of on-site vans and small summer cottages. We presumed, wrongly as it turned out, that these were holiday homes for the working classes. Then we spied the owners Jaguars, Mercedes and other equally illustrious vehicles lined up along the grass verges. Further down, large family groups were picnicking all along the riverbank, kids shrieking as they braved a dip in the chilly shallows of the Thames. At last we reached Hurley, where we discovered yet another summer wedding being set up in a large medieval tithe barn with its acres of red tiled roof. We stood to chat with the florist who was making up the most beautifully creative flower arrangements in old wire colanders, jam jars and jugs.

Our penultimate night on the Thames Path was an extra-special treat. We left the Thames path at Hurley after peeking into the ancient and charming ‘Olde Bell’ (reputedly 12th century), with its low, beamed ceilings and crooked stairs. A public footpath slipped down the side of the pub and its extensive garden to greet a field of chatty alpacas, 2014_08_30_2775and on into Temple, past a row of charming little cottages that all contained ‘Temple’ on their name plaques. Our road then wound on through banks of blackberry bushes and stubbly fields, and past the once stately Bisham Abbey that is now a Sports complex.

The village of Bisham stretches along the Thames on the opposite side of the river from Marlow, and here we stayed in the lap of luxury at The Old Vicarage, a large Victorian house whose lawns run down to the river, and whose neighbour is, unsurprisingly, the Bisham parish church. I felt I was rather letting the side down in my hiking boots and trousers, as I tiptoed into the daintily creamy, dreamy sitting room, but our hostess was forgiving, and presented a substantial afternoon tea with homemade fruit cake despite my lack of sophistication.

To complete the day’s march we walked the extra mile into Marlow for dinner, across the stunning suspension bridge, ‘The Compleat Angler’ pub standing guard at one end, the pinnacled spire of All Saints Anglican Church proudly welcoming us into Marlow on the other side.

‘The River itself is at its best here’ says JKJ and he is right. I also agree with him that while Marlow may not be one of the most picturesque towns on the river, it is nonetheless attractively, cheerfully bustling, with many ‘quaint nooks.’ It is also full of pubs. After circumnavigating the town, we chose one for our end-of-the-day-pint, and then filled our grumbling stomachs at Zizzi’s, our family’s favourite Italian restaurant chain, which we have loved for well over a decade. Their mozzarella is like the nectar of the gods. Despite weary feet, I drifted blissfully home to bed…

Posted in England, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ducks are a-Dabbling

A Thames Valley Journal: Part 1

`DUCKS’ DITTY’ 
All along the backwater, wind in the willows.1
Through the rushes tall, 
Ducks are a-dabbling, 
Up tails all!

Ducks’ tails, drakes’ tails, 
Yellow feet a-quiver, 
Yellow bills all out of sight 
Busy in the river!       

~ Kenneth Graham, Wind in the Willows

Hedgerows, brimful of nettles and hawthorn and blackberries and cow parsley. A lazy river laden with canal boats and motor boats and barges and kayaks. Riverbanks hemmed with rushes, and overflowing with geese and cormorants and terns and ducks a-dabbling. Arching bridges and deep locks and flint-studded churches and tiled farmhouses appear like magic around every bend. Baskets of brightly coloured petunias hang from the eaves of ancient pubs. Skipping through water meadows wreathed in the scent of wild orchids and dotted with buttercups. Trudging muddy paths through gentle, mizzling rain…

Last week we went on an adventure in Kenneth Graham country. If you haven’t read Wind in the Willows, I am talking about the Thames Path, which runs west to east from its source at Cricklade in the Cotswolds, through the Thames Valley, on into London and out to the North Sea. We only had a week, so we mapped out about a hundred kilometres from Oxford to Windsor, and will save the rest for later.

It’s a long time since we last did a long walk like this, and I was soon feeling my age (about a hundred and three), due more to the unexpected weight of my pack than the actual walking, which was relatively smooth going. However, we made it a little easier on our elderly selves by adopting the luxury of a Bed & Breakfast every night. This way, we could look forward to a hot shower, a pub meal, a decent sleep, and a big breakfast to give us the ‘oomph’ we needed to get moving again in the morning.

When you are hiking, breakfast rapidly becomes the most important meal of the day, one we would discuss with all the attention of connoisseurs. Suddenly a quick coffee and a bowl of cornflakes was not enough to keep us going till lunchtime, and we became dedicated to the Full English Breakfast.

I have to admit, it’s not usually on my list of food cravings. I am not an enthusiast of eggs or fried food for breakfast; such generosity of calories generally gives me a stomach ache. When you are about to walk 7 ½  miles (12kms) before lunch, however,  there is nothing worse than blood sugar levels dropping too low for you to see straight, as you stagger the last 3 miles to the next food supply. So for once in my life I was prepared. Mostly. My One & Only was already carrying half the contents of my backpack, he did not need the threat of having to carry me as well.

Day 1: Oxford to Sutton Courtenay via Sandford Lock and Abingdon

We began our walk at the Osney Bridge, on the northern skirts of Oxford, passing a lock, a row of Victorian terraced houses and two 2014_08_29_2727 (2)pubs in the first two hundred meters. The sky was dripping like a rusty tap as we finally left the canal behind and reached the main river and the Folly Bridge, where we stood to admire the view of the famous Christ Church gate-tower, designed by Sir Christopher Wren and encasing its equally renowned bell, Great Tom. It is pretty much all we saw of Oxford as we wandered off along the river path opposite Christ Church Meadow, and past the numerous college rowing sheds and clubhouses.

The steady drizzle that had accompanied us all morning finally receded, and the sun emerged, as we paused at the very pretty Iffley Lock to watch a couple of canal boats passing through, the owners chatting happily with us as the water rose in the lock and the boats floated out and onwards to Oxford.

For those of you unfamiliar with locks, this system, devised during the industrial revolution, allows boats to pass up and down river between stretches of water on different levels. After the boat has entered the high-walled, water-tight chamber between two sets of lock gates, the lock keeper will shut the gates and turn the windlass or lock key. This will open the valve to either fill or empty the chamber of water depending in which direction the boat is heading. When the water level equals the external water level, the gates will open and the boat will pass out of the chamber and back onto the canal or river. In the UK there are a number of lock ‘flights:’ stairways of locks that actually allow a boat to climb a hill.

IMG_1415In the past, a lock keeper and his assistant had a full time job maintaining the lock and its surroundings, and would inherit a small house to accompany the job. Today these cottages – many over 200 years old – are still beautifully maintained by the lock keeper, but the assistants are mostly volunteers now, usually retirees with an afternoon or two a week to spare. They are often more than happy to pass the time of day with walkers.

Recently the future of lock keepers’ cottages was at stake, as it was suggested that up to a third should be sold off or rented out to reduce costs. The idea was scrapped after lock keepers and riverboat captains raised concerns about river safety.

In Sandford-on-Thames we found another pretty lock cottage, beside an old watermill transformed into housing, and a low-ceilinged pub on the edge of the millstream, where we indulged in pints of lime-and-soda and large baked potatoes heaped with salad and Coronation chicken, peeking through the floor-level mullioned windows, eye to eye with a pair of swans gossiping on the millstream.

The afternoon delivered a steady drizzle as we dodged and weaved (wove?) along a narrow, muddy channel moonlighting as the Thames Path. The backs of our legs were splashed with mud, but our raincoats proved their worth, and we were mostly oblivious to the sodden sky, simply enjoying the abundance of wildflowers, ducks and geese along the riverbank, kestrels swooping and wheeling about the stubbly fields.

The sky was gun-metal-grey in Abingdon, but we enjoyed the stretch
of broad, firm towpath under the Abingdon Bridge-of-many-arches, past St Helen’s Church and the 15th century alms-houses across the water. A string of canal boats were lined up, bumper-to-bumper on the riverbank, jealously guarding their prime views of this glorious medieval town.

Our path then disappeared back into the fields, the river hidden by tall hedges, and it was not until we had detoured around the back of Culham and across the bridge, that we spied it again. A nasty accident on the narrow stone bridge delayed us, as we lent our mobile phones to those involved, but eventually we arrived, decidedly footsore, inIMG_1423 Sutton Courtney. Here, we stayed at a sweet little B&B on All Saints Lane, which, not surprisingly, we found behind the cemetery. Here lies the tomb of Herbert Henry Asquith, Prime Minster of England during the First World War. George Orwell is also buried here, though you will look fruitlessly for his grave, until you learn that his real name is Eric Arthur Blair. We dined at the first of many ‘Swan’ pubs we would discover along the Thames, and next morning we ate breakfast in Susan’s sunny kitchen overlooking a pretty walled courtyard, afterwards sharing the leftovers with her elderly, deaf-as-a-doorpost Highland terrier.

Day 2: Sutton Courtenay to Moulesford via Wallingford and a Taxi

Our second day was much brighter and sunnier, as we trekked through a variety of attractive Thames villages to Wallingford, a lovely old medieval market town at the foot of the Chilterns.

We paused for a coffee at The Barley Mow at Clifton Hambden, which is, according to writer Jerome K. Jerome (more of him later) ‘the quaintest, most old world inn up the river….its low-pitched gables and thatched roof and latticed windows giving it quite a story-book appearance.’ Indubitably.

The path pottered on and eventually introduced us to the tiny hamlet of Little Wittenham and St Peter’s, the parish church with its 14th century bell tower. Here we sat peacefully on a bench beneath the lime trees, looking out at the Iron Age fort on Castle Hill, and chatting with a lovely couple who had just traded in a sedentary retirement for life on a barge with a dog. We would discuss this alluring fantasy at length as we continued walking.

After skirting Dorchester-on-Thames, the path suddenly swung us up onto a busy, noisy main road, and we grumbled nearly as loudly as the trucks, as we dodged empty drink cans that had been bounced off the hedge by passing motorists. Ducking back across the main road, past a dark, rather dingy little pub, we found the path again, pottering down Wharf Road past Wisteria Cottage and others of similar floral ilk, before squeezing its way between garden fences and out onto the driveway of the stately Shillingford Court. We crossed the bridge at the end of the lane, by now on a single-minded mission for lunch. The unimaginatively named Shillingford Bridge Hotel made up in welcomes for what it lacked in character – at least from reception staff. And we were more than happy with our baked potatoes, which set us up for the last five miles into Wallingford.

Arriving in Wallingford in the late afternoon, we crossed the broad stone bridge, bedecked in huge baskets of pink and purple petunias.  Narrow, cobbled streets and alleyways eventually wended their way out into a wide market square bordered with shops and an impressive, 17th century arcaded Town Hall, where we gratefully stopped for coffee. Once seated, we rapidly decided the last three miles were beyond our weary feet and aching shoulders. As I went searching for information about local buses, I found, instead, a string of taxis lining up around the square… OK, a little lame, but as our driver careered through the hedge-rowed lanes, chewing up the miles we might have been walking, we sat smugly in the back, smirking at the rain.

2014_08_28_2707 (2)Our destination, The Beetle & Wedge, was a boathouse restaurant and
old ferry house accommodation tucked in beside the river at Moulsford. It is a stunning setting, and we were given a luxurious bedroom complete with deep, claw-footed bath perfect for sheer indulgent soaking, before dining magnificently with friends we hadn’t seen in about eight years.

All the more disappointing then, that our riverside breakfast was utterly mediocre. A platter of berries and melon looked really colourful and inviting, but every piece of fruit was sour. Our full English breakfast was a travesty of barely-red tomatoes, raw fried potatoes and cold toast. The poached eggs had been hard-boiled in brown malt vinegar because they had run out of the white wine variety – a totally unappetizing look. I sent it back with a request to leave out the vinegar and the plate returned with undercooked malted eggs. I gave up. The tea, at least, was hot. Still stomping crossly, but armed with a pint-sized copy of ‘Three Men in A Boat’, our ears ringing with apologies for breakfast, we set off.

Day 3: Moulesford to Pangbourne via Goring & Streatley

Our morning was a gentle meander through water meadows and into the Goring Gap, a geological feature where the river cut a narrow cleft between the chalky Chiltern Hills and the Berkshire Downs in the last ice age.

We paused for morning tea and browse through a divine little art gallery on the High Street of the twinned villages of2014_08_28_2715 (2) Goring and Streatley. I wandered down memory lane with glee, having worked here, briefly, way back in the eighties. Clutching hands across the river, over a weir and a lock, both villages boast a collection of lovely pubs, thatched cottages and old churches. That day the river was teeming with boats queuing for the lock, and we joined the locals at Pierrepont’s delightful little café with its delicious selection of homemade cakes, scones and cookies, its walls papered in menus from well-known English restaurants.  I was loathe to pick up my backpack and move on.

However, the path, ducking beneath shady trees, past the 12th century church, a large old house that once – maybe still? – belonged to George Michael from Wham, several country estates and under the vast iron railway bridge (one of Brunel’s apparently), was a joy. Fishermen were lying fishing lines from niches between blackberry bushes. Boats drifted by. Buttercups tossed their heads at the sun. We took advantage of several kissing gates – or did they take advantage of us? – to catch a few kisses, before clambering up through beech woods to a long ridge above the river, where the beech nuts crunched satisfactorily beneath our feet.

Eventually the path dipped down to a road that swung steeply down into Whitchurch, past a seemingly endless array of heavenly old stone houses and cottages, pulling up beside a truly old-fashioned pub full of solitary old men quietly sipping a pint of the best bitter and talking about sport. A ham and cheese sandwich sent us on over the ‘weak bridge’ into Pangbourne, where our little loft room was Polly Pocket-sized with a deeply sloping roof, but kitted out IKEA-style, with everything we needed. The next morning there was no full breakfast, just a self-serve tea and coffee, juice and a variety pack of Prince Charles’ own muesli beneath the steep eaves. I was rather off eggs after that morning’s experience at the Hedgehog & Hammer (o sorry, the Beetle & Wedge), so I was perfectly happy with such regal simplicity. Pangbourne has a history that goes back to the 9th century. More recently, it was the retirement home of Kenneth Grahame, author of ‘The Wind in the Willows’ who died here in 1932. Illustrator E.H. Shepherd was reputedly inspired by the local landscape to draw his now famous pictures for the book. And there was another ‘Swan’ pub on the river for dinner…

*In recognition of E.H. Shepherd’s beautiful illustrations and my One & Only’s beautiful photography.

Posted in England, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

It’s Not Easy Being Green

echomarket-b“It’s not easy being green.
It seems you blend in with so many other ordinary things.
And people tend to pass you over ’cause you’re not standing out
Like flashy sparkles in the water, or stars in the sky.”

So sang Kermit the Frog, but Chit Juan of EchoStore seems to find it as easy as breathing to be both green and to stand out in a crowd.

To anyone who has discovered ECHOStore in Serendra, I am probably preaching to the converted, but the story behind ECHOstore is inspiring. ECHOstore Sustainable Lifestyle is the first concept store of its kind in the Philippines. ECHO is the acronym for Environment – Community – Hope – Organization. And store owners Pacita Juan, Jeannie Javelosa and Reena Francisco, have recently opened another store in Salcedo, to join those in Serendra, Quezon City, Mandaluyong, and Baguio.

ECHOstore consists of a café and a mini market selling organic produce and healthy snacks, as well as a gift store filled with environmentally friendly products that are sourced from small rural communities all over the Philippines. And ‘people are looking for the products we are selling,’ says Chit Juan, when I spoke with her recently.

While this is a profit-making company, ECHOstore also claims to have the “heart to see the social issues and the gaps that need to be filled.”  Thus the directors identify marginalized and often physically isolated small business people and connect them with customers, helping to build sustainability for those businesses and a pride in Philippine products.

This entrepreneurial attitude extends to many of the producers, who have been inspired to develop new initiatives. One tomato farmer, for example, was encouraged to invest in a solar drier to save excess tomatoes from rotting, and she now provides ECHOstore with a regular supply of sundried tomatoes.

Chit Juan believes that small producers are shaping the future with the aid of entrepreneurs like her. ‘It is not a trend, but a growing consciousness,’ she affirms. ‘People are getting behind the cause, and word of mouth is very strong in the Philippines’.

Since 2008, these three inspirational women have been promoting not only their producers, but the benefits of living a sustainable lifestyle based on conscious and caring consumerism, healthy, seasonal and local eating, social entrepreneurship and planet stewardship. And they have given talks on these issues at more than 100 corporations, universities and NGOs nationwide.

The store in Salcedo is part of a new business development to encourage licensees to help expand the business. Chit tells me firmly that interested licensees may not join the business purely for financial gain, they must also live the lifestyle. Sitting in her little upstairs cubbyhole, I listen while she expounds on past, present and hopefully future successes, while we sip on freshly squeezed juice. Ginger Boost is an invigorating blend of ginger, apple, cucumber, carrots, orange, tomato and celery. Just be sure and ask for extra ginger!

While only pocket sized compared to the store and café in Serendra, the Salcedo store squeezes in a remarkable number of products from snacks and coffee to ready-made meals, from body scrubs to Messy Bessy’s range of environmentally friendly cleaning products.

At the ECHODeli you can sit down to a healthy and wonderfully tasty Pinoy breakfast with longganisa or perhaps homemade tapa, an omelette or poached eggs with spinach. A range of delicious burgers and sandwiches are available for lunch, and I can highly recommend the mushroom burger –  whether or not you are vegetarian – and there are always the delicious fresh shakes and juices if you are simply passing through.

Also, there is an ever-expanding selection of locally grown, fresh produce such as greens, eggs and a variety of excellent cheeses, providing an everyday organic market so that you don’t have to wait all week for Salcedo’s Saturday market!

Visit the website to read in more detail about the work of these enthusiastic, unstoppable entrepreneurs: http://www.echostore.ph/

*Adapted from an article written for the ANZA News, August 2014.

Posted in Lifestyle, Philippines | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Vask: Theatrical Fine Dining

VaskOn a half-constructed street in the north-west corner of Bonifacio Global City, above a carpark filled with designer cars, perches Vask. Usually providing a delicious array of modern Tapas and degustation dining, this week the chefs at Vask have taken a turn at creating a special menu – and a special performance – to showcase Filipino cuisine.

Kulinarya was inspired by the travels of Chef Juan Luis Gonzalez and Chef Julieta Caruso, who spent a month wandering through the Philippines ‘to source and experiment with everyday local flavours… and native produce.’

The results were truly inspirational. A degustation menu filled with magic and mystery: how to foil the diner into believing his tuna is a slice of veal; making a dumpling filled with egg yolk and floating it in duck broth to create the flavour of balut without the traditional challenge of being eye-balled by a tiny duckling.

As we watched from the front of the stalls, these wizard-like Chefs spun their magic spells in the open-plan kitchen to produce the essence of Filipino cuisine and its flavours in an entirely new format. The results took our expectations of Filipino food to new heights.

“Everything in the hotels is imported,” Gonzalez tells us. “Filipinos don’t value their own products.”

Obviously, these chefs do. The menu was lengthy, and the Spanish wine was excellent, but I still remember every glorious mouthful. There were thirteen courses, and I cannot keep you here all day, so I will describe only a small selection, a soupçon.

So let’s skip the rather lackluster shrimp balls and move on to the sea urchin. I have to be honest, I Sea Urchincringed as a dollop of sea urchin, the colour of baby poo, arrived in the concave centre of a pale grey plate shaped like a mushroom. Happily, though, it tasted much better than it looked. As the waiter poured kinilaw (a local vinaigrette) over the top, I anxiously lifted my spoon… and quickly stopped scrunching my nose. Sea urchin has a very strong flavor of the sea, and a silky texture. Its richness was further enhanced by pork fat,  then balanced by the sharp snap of the vinaigrette poured over at the last moment by our waiter. The combination slid smoothly, effortlessly down my throat. Like chilli, the flavor, instead of receding, expands after each spoonful. I was still tasting it on the top of my tongue minutes later, and loving it.

Next up was a sinigang, that Filipino version of Thai tom yum, and undoubtedly the best sinigang I have ever tasted. The crockery and cutlery being just as much part of the show as the food, the soup was poured over the pulled pork in a dainty cylindrical jug with a narrow spout, while the waiter explained that sinigang is the only Filipino dish unaltered by any foreign influence. The light, sour broth cut, but did not disguise, the richness of the pulled pork. YUM, seconds please!

Crab ChowderMy husband christened the next dish a deconstructed corn chowder: fresh crab meat, a corn-flavoured
custard and cilantro. I had to close my eyes while I was eating this one, to focus on the flavours and textures of such an exquisite offering. As is often the case with any good degustation menu, one mouthful was not nearly enough.

Have you had enough yet? I hope not. We are only half way through! So…

Entitled ‘malunggay’ (my favourite local spinach, thick with vitamins and fabulous as a pesto) this was actually a stew of malunggay, smoked maya maya (the local sunset-coloured snapper) and boiled spring onions that tasted like celeriac with a creamy, lingering smoothness and a tiny explosion ofMaya maya the bulb, all afloat in a light lemongrass broth. May I say “YUM” again?

Steak was the misleading title for the next dish. The subtitle: talinumkangkong – native basil only
described the foliage. It was obviously some kind of trick, as we were asked to guess. Well, if you were reading closely, you will have noticed I gave the game away earlier – but the waiters were keen to keep the secret, and my irritation was palpable before the Chef put me out of my misery. Apparently it was specially designed to taste like red meat when in fact it was tuna. (Other guesses included pigeon, veal and pork.) Whatever it was, it tasted perfectly nice, but I was too cranky to care, and slugged back a substantial Spanish red in retaliation.
sungkaHowever, the wagyu steak totally restored my humour and my sense of well-being. Grilled to perfection, with a dash of crispiness aound the edges that I adore, it was served with a spoonful of tiny chícharos, or Mexican peas that practically popped against the roof of your mouth, and local mustasa or mustard greens.

And that was the end of the savoury courses, to be followed by not one but three desserts. All were amazing, but I will just share my favourite here: an espresso cup of Arabica Kape (coffee), which was a glorified tiramisu in three textures: crunchy, creamy and smooth.

The final act was a play on the game sungka, that Filipino game played with cowrie shells or seeds distributed across a number of shallow bowls or pods cut into a thick wooden platter. But instead of shells or seeds, Chef had filled the pods with an assortment of different amuse bouche – like Filipino Quality Streets without the guide – an amusing finale as the curtain descended.

Posted in Food & Wine, Philippines | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Manila Schools: part III

Parents have many different priorities when choosing schools for their children, and it becomes a particular concern when resettling families in a foreign country. Some want to find exactly what they feel their kids lost on leaving home, others want to broaden horizons and make sure their children get to know their local community. Some want space and state-of-the-art facilities. Others, I discovered, find the larger schools prohibitively expensive, preferring the smaller schools, which may not have the extensive facilities, but are cozier and more cost effective. So here is the final selection of schools from the wide variety available in Metro Manila, and hopefully one will meet your criteria.

 brent.3Brent International School

“Opportunities for excellence”

The original Brent School was founded in Baguio in 1909 by the eponymous Charles Henry Brent, then Episcopalian Bishop of the Philippines. Today, there are three Brent schools at Baguio, Binãn, and Subic. All three are under the guidance of Mr Dick Robbins, who became Headmaster at the Binãn campus in 1994. These days he spends much of his time travelling between the three schools.

Recently, I spoke with deputy head, Jeffrey Hammett, who has taught in the Philippines for thirty four years, twenty years at the International School Manila at their Makati campus, the last fourteen at Brent, where he was involved in its construction.

Designed by the same team of architects who created ISM, Brent has three libraries, an auditorium, a dedicated chapel, landscaped gardens for quiet meditation, and even a dormitory, once used for students commuting from the city, now used to house visiting teams. An Early Learning Centre was opened on the opposite side of the campus in August 2001, and a recently completed roof-top pavilion will house a fitness centre and a covered Physical Education space.

Mr Hammett talks about the school demographic, which is made up of 28% Filipinos, 24% Korean, 17% American and a sprinkling of other nationalities including Aussies, New Zealanders, Brits, and Japanese. 1,050 kids in total.  Class sizes, therefore, need never exceed 18-20 students.

Raymond and Atcha Azurin are parents of three past and current Brent students. They agree that a smaller school community is great, because “everyone knows everyone else,” and this makes the kids feel really secure.

Raymond and Atcha migrated to Australia in 1988. Posted back to Manila in 2002, they stayed three years, then returned again to the Philippines in 2008. This time they needed to find a school for their growing family. Brent came highly recommended from Aussie friends, and when they went to check it out, the Azurins liked what they saw. Brent is Episcopalian, and the religious aspect of the school was a definite plus: the couple appreciated the Christian values and the balanced discipline: both, they felt, was a good foundation on which to build a solid school community.

Mr Hammett points out that Brent is religious but not evangelical. “We just ask that the students be respectful of others religions,” he explains. Religious studies, which includes both Comparative Religions and Bible Studies, are part of the curriculum. Both feed into Theory of Knowledge, in the IB program.

Atcha has been heavily involved in the PTA, and praises the strong parental presence in the school. Various inclusive school events help to build the community, she says. She then describes the annual International Food Festival that provides the opportunity for the Juniors to raise funds for their school Prom, and brings the entire school community together for a day of games and international food booths, culminating in a student talent show and fireworks.

Located just off the South Luzon Expressway, in the middle of a gated community, Brent is less than half an hour from Makati, and provides a really safe and clean environment for the kids, Raymond said. Brent owns a fleet of buses for transporting the students to and from school from various parts of Metro Manila, including Pasig and Makati. The Azurins agree this is an excellent service, which also makes allowances for after-school activities by having three separate runs in the afternoons.

Mr. Hammett describes the broad range of extra-curricular activities available. Firstly, there is a strong music programme that works each year towards a week-long music festival showcasing the numerous bands, orchestras, dance groups and choirs.  Atcha and Raymond tell me proudly they virtually have their own band, their children play so many instruments between them, all thanks to the encouragement of the music program at Brent.

Sports also plays a large role at Brent, and Mr. Hammett was keen to show me over the state-of-the-art facilities, which include two full grass football pitch, a baseballs triangle, three full sized gyms, a brand new multi-purpose pavilion, and a covered, heated swimming pool. Brent is also a member of the Asia Pacific Activities Conference (APAC), which unites twelve regional schools for regular competitions in various sports, dance and music, model United Nations, forensics, mathematics and theatre.

Academically, Hammett boasts, the IB results at Brent are amongst the best in world, and many students end up in top universities, with as many as  65% going to the US. Raymond points out that the school has also developed ‘a strong culture of critical thinking’ of which he thoroughly approves, although he adds that this approach to education can seem strange to Asian families who may be more used to a system based on rote learning.

The Azurins say they will see their youngest daughter through Brent. Apparently, she will not have it any other way. If her siblings got to graduate from here, so will she!

everest.1Everest Academy

Semper altius: always higher

Opened in 2007, Everest Academy is tucked away off College Road in the Fort, the only Catholic International School in Manila. Everest is the first Asian campus in a network of 237 schools across Europe and America directed by the international Catholic movement Regnum Christi Movement and the Legionaries of Christ. I spoke with the Mexican Executive Director, Beatriz Rivera, who talked in clear, measured English about the school’s mission to create caring, responsible members of the community, lifelong learners and critical thinkers and strong, self-disciplined leaders. The school website states that at Everest, teaching “focuses on the complete development of all dimensions of the person: intellectual, human, spiritual and apostolic,” and these values form a cross-disciplinary theme.

Currently the school starts at Kindergarten level and goes up to the end of Grade 8, but is adding an extra grade each year. The student population of 284 is set to grow to 350 next year, and the school administration will shortly start work on building extra high school classrooms to accommodate its growing population. The additional High School building should be completed by the middle of next year. At that point construction can then begin on a final building to house the gymnasium, an auditorium and a cafeteria.

That final building will fill every available square foot on the property, which will then allow for a maximum student capacity of 650. A property in Nuvali has been earmarked as the future site of a second Everest Academy in the Philippines. While open space is limited, Everest has adapted to accommodate the need for sports facilities. The campus has one full-sized undercover basketball court, and uses the Polo Club on McKinley road for football training.

The curriculum is designed by National Consultants for Education (NCE) in the United States with a couple of local variations: students learn conversational Tagalog, as well as Spanish and Mandarin; and social studies classes focus more on an Asian perspective than their American and European counterparts, to give the students an appreciation of the regional environment. Smaller classes, Ms Rivera says, allows teachers to provide personalized attention and develop each child to his or her full potential.

Everest Academy’s elementary course was recognized by the Philippine Department of Education in 2011 and in 2013, it was granted AdvancED accreditation. AdvancED is the world’s largest education community, providing education for more than 16 million students.

In the earlier years, classrooms are mixed, but it is school policy to separate the children for academic classes at Grade 4, to allow for the different pace of development between the sexes. Each child has a mentor for one-on-one discussions of their progress through their personal development plans. Everest also has a highly visible, pro-active, no bullying policy in place.

Today the school is 50% Filipino, around 30% Balikbayan (dual passport holders or returning Filipinos) and 20% international, mostly from America and Korea. The staff is predominantly Filipino, with a handful of internationals.

Maya is American, her husband Filipino and her oldest daughter started at Everest last year. Previously home schooled, eleven year old Sahel ‘campaigned for a year to be allowed to go to formal school.’ When her parents eventually succumbed, they visited every school in Metro Manila, and Maya is delighted with their choice.

Sahel is really active at school and participates in everything, her mother tells me. Sahel loves her friends, but she especially loves her teachers. The younger girls, seven year old Miel and Selma (9) will start next year, but the school has already adopted them into the community, inviting them to join all the school activities such as the Christmas pageant and the barrio fiesta.

Maya has no reservations about their decision, although she says for them it’s sometimes hard adjusting to school routines. They chose the school because they felt it focused on character formation and solid values, and most reflected their home environment. Each month the teachers introduce a specific virtue, which involves inter-disciplinary discussions. Maya also likes the fact that the kids are taught to be good citizens, and she says the teachers really engage with the kids.

Maya feels strongly that she, too, has a place in the community and has become increasingly involved in school. Settled far from her own family, she appreciates her ‘surrogate family,’ describing how other school families provided support for all the children for their first communion. “Friends are always leaving in the expat environment,’ she says, but “here there are more local kids, so the community is less transient.” After six years in the Philippines, Maya says “it is the first time she has felt truly anchored.”

 

logo5Chinese International School, Manila (CISM)

Ignore the inference in the name: this is not an international school for Chinese students. Rather it is an international school for English speakers with an interest in building understanding between China and the west, as China’s role in the world expands. Classes are taught in English, but there are daily Mandarin classes for all ages. Ironically, there are few Chinese students at the school.

CISM is non-sectarian. It accepts students from aged four (pre-kindergarten) to eighteen (year 12). Currently there are 220 kids, which will grow to 250 in the next year, with a maximum capacity of 500. Classes are capped at twenty, and then split, although most classes have no more than fifteen students. Headmaster, Mr Wycherley, says this allows the teachers the time and space to develop a real awareness and knowledge of individual students.

Mark Wycherley came to CISM eighteen months ago and loves working here. After four years at BSM, he and his wife Wendy moved to the Gulf, with plans to return to the Philippines to retire. Two years later they were back in the roles of Headmaster and Lower School Director at CISM. They are delighted to be back so much earlier than anticipated, although their busy days at CISM seems a far cry from the plans of a gentle retirement.

CISM is located at McKinley Hill. Like many of the smaller schools here, the academic results are excellent, but sporting facilities are hampered by lack of space. However, like many smaller schools, this makes them innovative. Swimming classes are held at the Polo Club, there is a covered basketball court on the roof, and the school has links with a number of local sports clubs. In-house, the school teaches badminton and volleyball, fencing and taekwondo. The school also has a dance studio and a modern dance instructor, and there are plans to introduce ballet next year.

And despite the lack of outdoor space – or perhaps because of it – CISM is very creative about its extra-curricular activities and after school clubs which include not only orchestra and singing, but typing, taekwondo, gymnastics and Chinese cooking!

Academically, the school is thriving. Mr Wycherley makes no apologies for the fact that the school is selective, and all new students sit an aptitude or IQ test. There is no ESL program at CISM, so fluent English is vital.  However, teachers are available every afternoon between 2.30 and 3.30pm for extra coaching in all subjects, and Mr Wycherley even has a list of preferred external tutors if parents wish, with whom he works closely to ensure they are closely following the school curriculum and keeping the kids on track.

The current year 12 has had such excellent university offers in the US, Canada and the UK that it has generated a surge of interest in the school, and Mark says he is meeting prospective parents daily.

Demographically, Mark says his staff come from everywhere. He doesn’t notice nationality, he simply wants the best, and he is obviously proud of his talented faculty. The parents also play an important role in the school, through a highly involved and active PTA.

One particularly interesting aspect of the school was the charity work in which it is involved. An annual regional seminar for students – the Global Issues Network – inspires a student lead initiative to look at various community issues, choose one, and work on that for a year, with great results.

Kellie and her family moved from Singapore to Manila late last year.  Her daughters Ivy (4) and Scarlett (6) started at CISM in January. Coming from a tiny nursery school in Singapore, many of the larger international schools seemed huge to the little girls, so a smaller school provided an easier transition for them.

Kellie says the smaller cohort means they not only have the security of smaller classes, but there are more opportunities for the kids to take part in community events.  A school-wide talent show is now being organized, for example, in which all students are encouraged to participate, be it to sing, dance, play an instrument or tell a joke. Normally quite shy, even Scarlett is excited at the prospect, and is planning to sing her favourite song from the new Disney hit Frozen – in Mandarin!  Kellie says that ‘Chinese was key for us, as they were learning Chinese in Singapore and we wanted them to continue that.’  The girls also have a tutor from the school to teach them more conversational Chinese.

Kellie finds that the demographic of the student body is broadly international, although her blond blue-eyes daughters stand out in a predominantly Asian or dual-passport community, but then they are used to that from Singapore, and barely notice the difference. And the benefit of having a large local population in the school is that it provides a stability that is often less achievable given the transient nature of many international schools. It also gives the students direct exposure to the local culture, not to mention the culture of many other nationalities.

Although obviously happy with the school, I ask Kellie if she has any reservations. Only one, she says, and it is simply that she would like to see better – as in more up-to-date – communication between teachers and parents. In these days of modern technology, they are still using notebooks for homework, and she says she would find it much easier if feedback and notes from teachers were sent by email or perhaps through a class Facebook page.

However, Kellie thoroughly approves of one particular communication tool: the entrance lobby is filled with posters proudly exhibiting the individual successes of the students, and she thinks it is really cool that these kids get recognized. She also thinks it is awesome that the school corridors are lined with all the kids’ artwork. And her girls are happy.

A post script from headmaster Mark Wycherley: “All our teachers are blogging every week to update parents on the work students are currently doing, and the work they are about to undertake. We still keep the diaries as some parents prefer to receive hard copies of this information, and it does help to develop children’s organizational skills. “

 

To Be published in the ANZA News, July/August issue.

Posted in Lifestyle, Philippines | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Walking to Coogee

bondi walk 1Bondi. That iconic beach on the south east coast of Australia. In the summer, it swarms with surfers, sunseekers and swimmers. Today the sand is clear of bathers, but tents are being erected for the City to Surf fun run next weekend. It is mid-winter in Sydney. It is 25’C.

Bondi Beach. A couple of surf boards wait in the calm water, before their riders paddle furiously through the surf to snatch at white-tipped waves. Red-faced joggers crash past pedestrians, breath rasping, oblivious in earphones. Cyclists stand up on spiked pedals, pushing furiously, neck muscles straining, up the steep hill away from the beach.  Truculent skaters whip and switch, slash and grind around the skate park. As always, at Bondi, everyone seems fit and almost embarrassingly energetic.

As always, when I drop in to visit my cousin in Bondi, we head out for a walk along the cliffs. From Bondi to Coogee, this rollercoaster walking path winds for 6kms along the coast, up and down some fairly step and rocky stairways, always overlooking the sea, and passing several beautiful little coves, parks and beaches, such as Clovelly and Tamarama. Sometimes we stop at Bronte for coffee or lunch, but this time we trek all the way to Coogee, overtaken by reams of more athletic pilgrims, jogging enthusiastically, plugged into their favourite music.

We prefer the music of our own voices, and chat non-stop all the way there and back, deterred only by the odd extra-steep slope or staircase that reduces me to a geriatric gasping wheeze. It is the most beautiful winter’s day, unexpectedly warm, and my jeans are glued to the backs of my knees. Who would have thought I would need shorts in July? The sea is a luxuriously deep navy blue, stretching lazily to the horizon, to touch  a sky dabbed with wispy, cotton wool clouds. Rolling waves are tumbling gently onto the beach, lapping at the sand like hungry kittens. The whales have been and gone, but we keep a close eye out for dolphins. On such a glorious day, the path is crowded with walkers, runners, models doing photo shoots, dogs, tourists.

Starting at the Bondi pavilion, the guide books allow two hours for the walk to Coogee, but we accomplish it in under an hour and a half, although I have to skip a bit to keep up with my cousin, who, despite her lesser height, has much fitter legs than mine.

In October, there is an opportunity to meander a little more gently from Bondi to Tamarama to admire the bondi walk 2Sculpture by the Sea. This is an annual outdoor exhibition of more than one hundred, mostly tactile sculptures by Australian and International artists, set up on grass, sand and rocks
along the coastal pathway.

Today we can only reminisce, as I take a breather on the edge of the cemetery at Waverley, beyond which the concrete pathway becomes a wooden boardwalk. It might not be so bad to be dead, if blessed with a view like this one!

coogeeWe finally make it round to Coogee, and decide to stop for coffee at the very cool new Coogee Pavilion, before marching back to Bondi for lunch.

Feeling a little nostalgic for Asian cusine, we end up in a cute little pavement restaurant called misschu, where you can make a ‘tuckshop order’ by ticking your choices on a printed menu form. At the top of which you are warned: “no queue jumping, no real estate talk, no chopstick fights.”

Owner, Nga Chu, or Miss Chu is the self-designated Queen of Rice Paper Rolls. Born in Luang Prahbang, Laos,
Nga Chu and her family fled to Thailand in 1975 to escape the Pathet Laos communist Regime. They lived in Thai refugee camps for four years before the Australian government invited them to settle in Australia.

The original misschu tuckshop was founded in Darlinghurst in 2009, and there are now four Sydney, two in Melbourne, and this year one opened in London. The misschu website describes them as ‘modern day hawker takeaway with high end food at a low price tag.’ Compared with Manila, the Aus$90 bill for three was not so cheap, but it’s certainly not bad for Sydney. And we definitely ate our fill of  the famous rice paper rolls (tiger prawn and green mango, and roast duck and banana flower, yum). The serve of salt and pepper squid was perfectly cooked and huge, so much so that I was forced to share. My cousin’s seared salmon was a delight, and my teenage son inhaled the large bowl of beef and oxtail pho in seconds. A satisfying end to a strenuous walk.

*With thanks to Google Images for the pretty pictures!

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Talking to the Birds

cockatoo_head_shotAfter almost two months in Australia, one of the things I realize I really miss in Manila is the wildlife. From our living room window I occasionally see a  team of racing pigeons, looping around and around the apartment building opposite. That is all. At street level, there is not even a sparrow with whom to pass the time of day. Forays into the country often find me waving to a carabou, neck deep in water, but that is all. And at the beach, we sometimes discover those stolid, studded starfish. They are hardly chatty. In Australia, living on the edge of a national park, we conversed daily with a range of sociable, garulous parrots. The memory inspired the following piece…

There is a colour that is neither blue nor purple: indigo-violet-lilac-lavender? It is the colour of bluebells that spread like wildfire through English woodland in April. It is the colour of jacaranda flowers, small, five-lobed flowers like tiny trumpets heralding in the antipodean Spring. It is the colour of nostalgia and memory.

I stand high above this concrete city with a cup of coffee and reminisce about a place north of Sydney harbour, the bridge and the iconic Opera House, a home-among-the-gum-trees, kookaburrawhere I sat one still November morning, sipping my coffee on our broad balcony, conversing with the loquacious lorikeets, who bitch and bicker over birdseed. My eyes wander down over the manicured lawn past a dispirited magnolia tree, ravaged by delinquent possums, to the wire fence at the bottom of our property, the boundary between smugly groomed garden and harum scarum, devil-may-care bushland. There, at the fence line, our  jacaranda stands guard, back to the encroaching bush, branches spread out protectively. Outlined against a thundery, leaden sky, it smudges the clouds with a hazy halo of purple like a fresh water-colour.

On a low branch squats a kookaburra, moody and motionless,  until suddenly he throws back his head withhis mocking, gunfire laugh that echoes through the trees.

As if in response, the sulphur-crested cockatoos sweep in. lorikeetsStrangely shy, despite their superior size, they kow-tow awkwardly to the bullying antics of the eastern lorikeets, who flaunt their beautiful, bright feathers with unmelodic, ear-piercing shrieks. Refusing to share their feeding trough, they strut and stamp, argumentative, aggressive, amusingly determined to have their own way. Meanwhile, the meek cockatoos, with wingspans that would knock their tormentors into tomorrow if they chose to retaliate, wait their turn patiently on the side-lines.

I love this airy space on the very rim of suburbia, the drop-off from urbane north shore homes to raw, untrammelled national park. Clear air, expansive skies, nature dressed in every shade of green from deeply glossy sub-tropical shrubbery to the dry, flaky, khaki eucalyptus, a flummery of wildlife ignoring human boundaries and taking their freedom for granted. This world is soothing and challenging at the same time, and it makes my heart clench with joy and gratitude that, if only for a moment I got to share this secret garden, a temporary haven in a transient life. As I run my finger around the edge of my coffee mug, the scent of lemon myrtle wafts up through the still air, I take a deep, deep breath, and smile.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

The Retro Vibe

imageAs I wander through the streets of my hometown, I am constantly amazed at the ever expanding Adelaide cafe culture. Chains, franchises and independent coffee shops abound. It seems everyone is drinking coffee these days, and I have certainly been drinking more than my fair share while I have been in town. Some people prefer the chains like Cibos or Cocolat (Coffee Bean or Starbucks in Manila), as they know what they are getting anywhere in the city. Personally I prefer the quirky little independent coffee shops: Pave Alfresco on Norwood Parade, squeezed into a courtyard space between Trak Cycles and Yanni’s Yiros; Queenies opposite the Largs Pier Hotel, a stone’s throw from the jetty, its walls filled with the work of local artists; Pantry on Egmont on a suburban street in Hawthorn overlooking the railway line, or the Loose Caboose in the old Bowden Railway Station just off Port Road.

My new favourite is the Retro Vibe at Port Elliot.

Last time we were staying in Port Elliot, this building with its bull-nosed verandah and a small, sunny deck housed one of those over-indulgent, over-priced gift shops that abound in seaside towns to attract the swarms of holiday clientele. Today, as I wandered down the hill, it had morphed into a spacious, quirky cafe, full of vintage 50s posters, formica tables and square, red leather armchairs. Red glass water bottles stood to attention on top of the cake cabinet – filled with scrumptious looking cakes, mostly locally made, I am told. There is a back corner filled with gift options: a selection of bags and numerous crocheted hats, slippers and scarves, created by local residents, including one crocheted in video cassette tape – very Bruno Mars. A glass display counter offers a selection of 50s nick-nacks – like the Japanese barbecue condiment set in that garish 50s green. How have I lived so long without one?

image

Owner Michael moved here from the mid north 18 months ago and opened the cafe in December last year. His new project has rapidly become the most popular watering hole in town, with both the locals and the holiday crowd. Just across the railway line and past the war memorial, it looks out over Norfolk pines and the fine old blue stone buildings that line the Strand.

After all the noisy, jam-packed coffee shops of Manila – understandable when the population is 20 million not 20 plus – the elbow room and the peace are self-indulgent luxuries I revel in. The first time I popped in with my daughter, our host was on the verge of closing up on a slow (dead) afternoon, but he welcomed us in and was happy to stay open as long as we were comfortable.

Chatting about the whys and wherefores of his arrival in this small seaside town, once a thriving whaling station, now a prime destination for South Australian retirees, he began with ‘well, to cut a long story short…’ I have always loved that as an opening gambit. It inevitably leads to a good, long story. I settled in, and was not disappointed. Meanwhile my girl had found us a corner filled with large sofas and deep armchairs from where we eventually proceeded to put the world to rights over an iced coffee and a big mug of caffe latte – at last, someone else who doesn’t follow the annoying trend of coffee in a glass.

Today the morning crowd is being blown through the door like Mary Poppins, as the wind continues to torment and tease the coastline as it has been doing all night. My One & Only disappeared earlier to clamber around the rocks to take photos of a windblown sea, so he’s probably half way to Kangaroo Island by now.

imageI order my mug of latte and ponder the best place to sit: by the window at the pink formica table? Or in the back corner on the large brown leather sofa facing kiddy corner and a seven foot bookshelf? I pick the lighter spot by the window, to sit and reminisce.

Remember those kitchen chairs with the legs sloping out that grab your ankles and trip you as you squeeze past? And record players? The one in the corner actually works, although the records are sometimes a bit scratched and lurch through old favourite hits of my parents era. I throw on a Doris Day album that has never sounded as good as it does in this perfect 50s setting. There is even a mini, back-lit juke box, and old vinyls have been glued to the wall at one end.

Michael is chatty and friendly, and we stand talking with him for a few minutes before we head home, laughing together about some of the odder pieces of memorabilia he has unearthed.

According to the various reviews on trip Advisor, the cafe is a firm favourite with both locals and visitors, labelled “Port Elliot’s finest” with a “great atmosphere” and “the best coffee on the coast” . In my humble opinion, it is the best coffee I have had since landing in Australia. And not just because it arrived in a mug!

Should you feel the urge, you can even pop in for a Devonshire tea or high tea. Somehow we didn’t find the time for nibbles this time, but we will undoubtedly be back…

Posted in Australia, Food & Wine | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment