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Exploring Lake District Without a Car Hands down the prettiest place in England.

Unlike many parts of Europe, where the best spots are often only accessed by car, Lake District is surprisingly well-connected by public transport. From the moment I got off my 8-hour coach ride from London (£48.40) at Windermere, a friendly Stagecoach staff handed me a booklet that contains a map of the area with all the bus routes, and the respective bus timetables. Day passes start at £8, which is real bargain considering most day tours range between £40-£50.

First view of Windermere lake, and I'm already in love.
First view of Windermere lake. I’m in love despite its gloominess.

I had to put up at a rather inconvenient hostel for the first night though, as the better option only had vacancies from the day after. I’m glad the sun still sets rather late because YHA Windermere is a 15 minute walk through some quiet, winding roads up from the nearest bus stop. The 6-bed female dorm (£20.83/bed) I took up is clean and spacious, and had the largest ensuite bathroom I’ve ever seen in a hostel. Would’ve been happy to stay on if not for the lousy location.

DAY 1

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Got myself the Central Lakes day pass the following morning, which cost £8 and allows me to hop on any of the buses that go around Windermere lake and the smaller villages and lakes nearby. One of the public buses even has an open top. How tourist-friendly!

First stop, the pretty and quaint town of Ambleside. It was littered with bakeries, stores selling outdoor wear, and many cottage-like bed & breakfast stays that looked really cosy. I’m definitely booking myself into one of those if I ever return to Lake District.

The famous bridge house of Ambleside, which dates back to the 17th century.
The famous bridge house of Ambleside, which dates back to the 17th century.

So I was just wandering around the town when I stumbled upon a sign that pointed into the woods and indicated that it was the way to the Stock Ghyll Force waterfalls. Unsure about how difficult or far the walk would be, I simply had to ask the handful of cheery walkers emerging from the forest, who were more than happy to tell me that it’s a really easy route.

The waterfall was basic but the woodlands that lead up to it was welcoming, gentle and pretty.

Then I stumbled upon this grotesque stump.
Then I stumbled upon this grotesque stump. I got goosebumps looking at it. Apparently it’s a tradition in this area for walkers to knock coins into tree trunks for luck.

After that, I hopped onto the same bus route and headed towards Grasmere, a small lake north of Windermere with its own little town.

The town was quiet and gloomy, all thanks to the drizzle. I took shelter in the cafe that’s attached to Heidi’s Grasmere Lodge, and had myself a traditional pastie “from Crantock”, the menu said, that had beef and potatoes in it, and a smoothie to wash it down. The meal cost £8.9.

Then hopped onto another bus to get me closer to the Grasmere lake. I was so grateful for the handy day pass at this point. Without the trusty buses I would’ve been so much more restricted to certain spots. The driver even gave me directions when I got off.

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Into the woods again! This time it’s White Moss Woods. I just love the near silence and the sound of running water. There were moments where I found myself all alone in the forest, but never for long as walkers populate most of the trails around the area, and I often chance upon families with dogs along the way.

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Windermere lake
I sat at this tranquil spot for some time, just watching happy dogs splashing about in the water.
I sat at this tranquil spot for some time, just watching happy dogs splashing about in the water.

I headed down to another town south of the same lake called Bowness for diner. There, I took away fish and chips from Vinegar Jones (picked it simply because I saw a queue) and ate by the lake. There was only 1 size that cost £6, and it was massive! It was pretty good though. And made much more enjoyable with the beautiful view, of course.

Stayed at the Lake District Backpackers Lodge (£16.50/bed for a 6-bed dorm) for the rest of my time here. It’s the first hostel I’ve been to that doesn’t have anyone physically running it! Once I’ve made my booking, the owner sent me an email stating the door code numbers. And once I got there, there were instructions to put the exact cash payment in an envelope, and drop it into the safe. So amazed at this system. Clever businessman!

DAY 2

It’s tour day with Mountain Goat. They are costly, but crucial for taking tourists without a car to places where buses can’t traverse. Just like the goat, the mini bus climbs frighteningly steep and windy roads up into the highlands, where the best views of Lake District are found. And for that reason, I thought I’d get the most out of their services by picking the High Adventure tour (£40), which follows mountain passes.

And I got so lucky with the weather!
And I got so lucky with the weather!

Malcolm is our driver and tour guide rolled into 1, and I was amazed at how he could tell engaging stories, drive, and tell jokes simultaneously. His decade-long experience as a guide clearly shows. He had so much knowledge about the area, and his narrative is always packed with facts and details.

Throughout the day, he told us how the Romans and Vikings made their marks on the landscape, and that the white, grey, and brown sheep that pepper the farms are in fact all the same Herdwick species whose wool colour changes as it ages. One of Malcolm’s many bite-sized history lessons was on how the landscapes became dominated by grasslands: back in the middle ages, monks started rearing sheep as wool was lucrative then, and they had to chop down trees to make way for pastures for them to graze on.

Langdale, first of the many breathtaking views to come.
Langdale, first of the many stunning views to come. I love how the lack of trees allows you to see so very far ahead.

Malcolm and his trusty mountain goat bus.

Vast landscapes, little people.

Stopped at Boot for lunch. Time surely stands still here, as there are only a small cluster of houses and pubs. Even the waitress at the pub said, “Nothing happens around here… there was a car that crashed yesterday, and everyone was like, have you heard about it???” But I still managed to lose track of time here wandering around, and had little time to enjoy my cumberland sausage and onion gravy baguette. It was delicious, and I wish I had more than just 40 mins at this lunch stop to savour rather than shove it down my throat.

The tour included a short ride on the cute little steam train on the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway. Just look at how short it is compared to me!

Wastwater lake
Wastwater lake

Definitely the highlight of this trip, the Wasterwater lake drew loud WOWs from everyone in the bus when it came into view. Pictures never do places like these justice, but to get a sense of scale, check out the 2 people who appear as white specks on the right side of the photo. Wish we had time to lay out a picnic and spend the afternoon here… but as with all tours, all you get is enough time to snap photos.

This causes some to make the most of their time here.
This causes some to make the most of their time here.

The next stop was Muncaster castle, which looked rather unremarkable from the outside, so I only ended up with photos of animals.

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Ended the beautiful day at Coniston Water.

DAY 3

As I wanted to venture further north into the town of Keswick, I had to get the £10.8 day pass for the public buses. It took me just over an hour to get there from Windermere. At least the bus ride was amazingly scenic.

Just like the other towns I visited on my first day, Keswick is made up of the usual souvenir and outdoor gear shops, and restaurants. There’s nothing charming about this place, so I just looked up TripAdvisor for the best scones around, and it pointed me to Laura in the Lakes, which is just a short walk away from the main bus stop. The scone (£3.25) was fresh, hot, and fluffy, and with jam and clotted cream slathered all over it, I soon reached nirvana.

I didn’t have any solid plans for the day, so I just looked at the map with the bus route, and picked 77 as it goes around a few lakes. It was also the route that’ll pass Catbells, one of the scenic places which I remember reading about.

And I simply couldn’t believe the places that this public bus took us. It was a standard bus, but it went through lanes so tight that the cars coming in the opposite direction sometimes have to back up to let the bus pass through. Some lanes were so narrow the bus had to scrape against hedges to avoid cars that were parked on the side. It was at times too much excitement for the pensioners on board to take. I could feel them stressing out and hear the occasional tsk tsk-ing.

Bus 77 passed the gorgeous Buttermere lake and wide valleys of Gatesgarth, which looked almost like Mars. I was stressing out a little on the bus as I had to make split-second decisions about whether to get off at each stop. It’s not as easy as this route only comes once every 2 hours. I’m glad I held out till it got to Catbells though, as I wouldn’t have had time to reach its summit if I had made another stop. I thought Catbells would be so popular that hoards of people would get off at the stop and I’d just follow. But I nearly missed the stop because there was no visible sign indicating that it’s Catbells, and only 1 other couple got off.

There weren’t many people around, so with no one to ask, I just headed up not knowing how long I’d take or how difficult it’ll be. But the path looked pretty all right at first.

Then as the views got better, the path got rockier and steeper.

Such a rewarding view, and I'm not even at the summit!
Such a rewarding view, and I’m not even at the summit!

There were a few false summits, but they serve as a good pit stop. The views from midway up already made the hike so far worth it.

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Mountains have a funny way of making things look scarier than they are. I sat at the false summit for some time, debating whether I should attempt the summit, which from where I was standing looked really steep and dangerous. Then I did some market survey, and this mother with 3 young boys said that it was absolutely safe and easy, with some minor scrambling on the way down.

So I decided to scale it.

My favourite view from the summit.
My favourite view from the summit.

Reached my first ever summit! Funny how I’ve always wanted to hike up a mountain, and I managed to do this without even planning. But on my way up, I kept thinking that it’s going to be way more challenging to descend. It was indeed tougher, and made trickier as it started to drizzle. Fell on my bum just once, so it wasn’t too bad at all for a first experience.

I really hope to return to Lake District someday to scale more peaks!

London Munching Great food with the best company that money can't buy.

London has always been about the company rather than the attractions for me. It’s a big, busy city with loads to do, and there’s no better way to enjoy it than with friends. The moment we arrived, Keith and I were immediately  welcomed to Pat and Afsar’s home with a fabulous party with our Sonar buddies, and we ate and chat and danced till the sun rose (we’re not that wild — the sun rises at 4am).

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The following afternoon, Keith and I started our day really well with a chance encounter with Comptoir Libanais in South Kensington. We did the Asian thing of queuing because there was already a queue. And we were right! It was crowded because they served great food.

Get the hearty Lamb Kofta (£9.45). It doesn’t look like a big portion, but you’d be surprisingly filled towards the end. I also preferred Keith’s option with the Basmati rice compared to my couscous one.

Then we headed for Hyde Park in hopes of basking in the sun.

Bintang reunites in London!
Bintang reunites in London!

But the joy was fleeting because it started to drizzle… then rain properly… then drizzle again.

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Thankfully, the weather cleared up promptly before dinner, and we decided to Boris bike to the restaurant.

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These rented bicycles do not have good brakes at all… So those of you who are planning to hop on one of these, do buffer a larger distance between you and whatever you’re hoping not to crash into.

Arrived in 1 piece at Big Easy at Covent Garden after cycling down Oxford Circus during weekend peak hour! It was a fun ride though.

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The heart attack-inducing Grand Appetizer Platter (£49.5). The Voodoo chicken wings on the left was the winner. Order this only if you’re a group of hungry hippos like us. If you’re not near starvation, I’d say skip this and just indulge in the Lobster Bake (£24.5) below.

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This was exceptional. You’re looking at a mouth watering pan of half lobster, giant shrimp, mussels, crab claws and potatoes, all drowned in garlic white wine cream. It was fresh, tasty, and everything seafood should be. Looking at this photo just makes me want to go back again.


The next morning, while Keith went about his work, I met up with Bacchus PR at one of the establishments they represent, Sketch.

It houses 5 different dining concepts under one roof, and each room is wonderfully designed. The most whimsical corner has got to be the sci-fi washroom above the East Bar, which has individual cubicles shaped like giant alien eggs.

For dinner, we were lucky enough to be invited to Afsar's triple combo curry party. Felt so spoilt!
For dinner, we were lucky enough to be invited to Afsar’s healthy (not sarcastic here) triple combo curry party. We were so spoilt!
I love cider. It's cheap and sweet -- just like me. Had it for dessert.
I love cider. It’s cheap and sweet — just like me. Had it for dessert.
We also started to plan how Keith and I would exit London. Both of us were leaving on the days the bloody tube strike. Such luck we have.
As we drank, we also started to brainstorm how Keith and I would leave London. Both of us were departing when there would be no tube service at all. Such luck we have.(Albeit the heavy traffic, buses saved my day in the end and I managed to catch my coach back to Antwerp.)

Next up, Carsten Holler’s interactive exhibition in Hayward Gallery at Southbank!

Call me superficial, but I didn't really care about what the statement was. I just wanted to get on those slides!!!
Call me superficial, but I didn’t really care about what the artist statement was. I just wanted to get on those amazing slides!!!

The slides are the exits of the exhibition, so you have to go through the rest of his other equally whimsical works before you can get on the slides.

The exhibition starts with a choice between the A or B tunnel entrance — hence the exhibition title “Decision”. We picked randomly, and suddenly found ourselves in total darkness. We were walking through a tunnel, with no indication of where it turned or dipped (it’s a slight descend but it’s scary!) except for LED lights that were few and far between. Navigating it got us shouting and laughing like little kids. Not sure what the difference between the 2 choices was, but I’m sure they both led into the dark tunnels.

Glad to emerge from this tunnel of sightless torture.
Glad to emerge from this tunnel of sightless torture.

An enormous shroom mobile which you can help rotate by pushing it sexily like Keith did.

I really liked these roving beds too. The idea that you can wake up to a strange place without knowing your journey is fascinating!
I really liked these roving beds too. The idea that you can wake up to a strange place without knowing your journey is fascinating!

Keith and I decided to stay in the long queue for this flying machine even though it didn’t look that exciting, partly because we paid £15 for this exhibition. We waited for around 45 minutes, got strapped into silly suits and then hooked up to a structure that was revolving really, really slowly. It was exciting to take the leap from the platform into midair, but that’s about it. The view was nice from up there, but after 4 rounds, it started to get quite boring. Worth the queue time? No. But we’ve got to do what tourists do.

These goggles have mirrors which flip everything. It’s a funny experience trying to re-orientate. And even more hilarious when you try and take a selfie with it on.

Our failed attempt.
Our failed attempt.
Corrected that fail-fie with a proper one.
Corrected that fail-fie with a proper one.

The slide was amazing! Would love to go on it over and over again but too bad you can only exit the exhibition once. I will also never forget how loudly Keith screamed while sliding down.

Keith highly recommended Alounak for lunch, and we were not disappointed! The waitress got our orders wrong, so instead of more lamb, we got more chicken instead. Out of all the different types of meat, the minced lamb was the best. It was juicy, tender, and was cooked with the right amount of herbs. The basmati rice — on which you have to add on a chunk of butter while it’s hot — was so damn sinful and delicious. I’m not a rice person, but I can easily wipe out an entire plate of this. The hummus is great as an appetiser too. Total damage with soft drinks: £19. Not too bad considering the size of that main course!

Outside Burner's Tavern.
Outside Burners Tavern.

For our last dinner together, we indulged at a hotel restaurant called Berners Tavern. It’s the kind of place that makes your jaw drop once you step in. I couldn’t believe I was going to eat at such a posh restaurant. I’m never one to indulge on expensive meals, but I’m glad I agreed to this one. It’s beautiful, and the crowd is not as stiff and pretentious as I expected of a place as grand as this.

The good thing is, we’ve been eating the entire day. And after that massive Mediterranean lunch, we couldn’t stuff much more down our throats. So we shared 1 starter and 2 mains, and saved ourselves from busting our budget. I like that the wait staff didn’t give us dirty looks when we said we wanted to share the dishes. The beef tartare (£18) is fantastic, and so was the seafood risotto (£26), but the whole dover sole fish (£35, not pictured) was forgettable.


On my last night in London, Ade made bak kut teh (with chicken), and I finally met Boogie!

That wraps up our very indulgent, very delicious London trip! It was lovely to spend time with Keith and Ade here — everywhere’s amazing with those 2.

 

Friends, Food, and Performances in London Doing what locals do.

London. It was the first and last stop of our 2.5-week long Europe trip, and I had mixed feelings about spending time in London. I hate that I love it so much, and I knew very well that visiting this city again will remind me of how much I’m missing out in Singapore.

I did my exchange semester a few years back in Hertfordshire (1 hour bus ride away from central London), and would often spend my weekends frolicking around London. I still have wonderful memories of its museums, gigs, nonsensical locals, clubs, and Primark outlets. Even imagining myself strolling down Oxford Street gave me an enormous sense of well-being.

Because I’ve done most of the touristy stuff in London, the first and only item on my must-revisit list is the National History Museum, which I absolutely adore — mainly because of the dinosaur bones and taxidermy. So as Priya set out on her bus tour, I lazed around in Ade’s apartment (yes, that bitch has been staying in London since early this year) until noon, before heading out.

I got off at South Kensington station, walked over to the museum, and was greeted with this wonderful sight.

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The queue to enter the National History Museum was more mind blowing than anything I’ve seen inside the museum.
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National History Museum’s exterior looking gorgeous in the bright sunshine.

Plan B? Hyde Park, since it’s only a short walk away.

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A sculpture by architect Sou Fujimoto at the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion.

I love these interactive public art things. This even housed a cafe within!

After strolling around a bit, I took shelter from the sun under a tree, where I laid down to read and even took a nap. And I enjoyed every single second of being alone in a foreign country.

I still had a lot of time to kill, so I decided to take a long walk to Piccadilly Circus, where I’ll rendezvous with Priya. Being in the thick of the crowd there reminded me of Singapore, and I felt sick immediately. So I cursed Priya in my head for being late.

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Feeling too indie for these mainstream tourists.

Next on our itinerary was  Ten Bells, a restaurant/bar (upstairs/downstairs) near Spitalfields. It’s here that Priya and I reunited with Ade (who had to work that day) as well as old friends Mei, Oleta, and Lana. I still find it surreal how easy it is to keep in touch with friends thousands of miles away through Facebook and arrange for a meet up with just a couple of phone messages.

Ten Bells London food travel
Us

While the food came in small portions, it all tasted wonderful. It’s on the pricey side, but I think it added up because we ordered quite a few appetisers, like buttermilk chicken as well as ravioli to share.

Ten Bells London food travel
Took the lamb main course as recommended by the cute waiter.

My portion of the bill came up to £33, including the shared appetisers, a main dish, and a spritz cocktail. Fairly decent actually, if I don’t convert it to SGD. Do give it a try if you’re in town! Nice decor, good service, and great food.

Ten Bells London food travel

Next, we met up with Ade’s housemates, a lovely couple by the name of Patrick and Afsar, for a night of Icy Gays at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA). We got our drinks and entered a very warm auditorium where a group of very non-mainstream (by my standards) crowd have gathered to watch some sort of B-grade performance/presentation. A drag queen read off poetic lines while 2 performers (one gay boy and another topless transgender or girl, I’m not sure) dived off the stage and crowdsurfed. but I loved it. I had no idea what was going on, but I loved its freakiness and how everyone was so into it. It was quite trippy.

Aérea Negrot London travel music
The main show: a performance by Aérea Negrot.

Aérea Negrot is a Berlin-based Venezuelan musician, who got the crowd moving with dark yet danceable Berlin-esque beats, proved her talents with some crazy vocals, and tickled all of us with lyrics like “listen to the people who cum inside you“. If you have clicked on the links or listened to her stuff online, you’re probably judging me for singing praises for such a nonsense artist. But trust me, you gotta see her live to understand. She has a great voice (the way she yelled, groaned, and moaned reminded me of the way Karen O sings live), her DJ set is minimal and groovy, and her performance is such a joy to watch! Very envious of Londoners and their access to such varied artists.

Aérea Negrot London travel music
Patrick’s fangirl moment.

Day 2

Hung out with Patrick and Afsar at home until noon, then Priya and I took a bus down to Borough Market.

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The view from the lift lobby of Ade’s apartment.
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Caught a glimpse of the terribly named Shard on the way to the market.

We made a bee line for the duck sandwich as it was highly recommended by Patrick and Afsar. It was a little bit of a wait, but it turned out to be a generous serving of really tasty shredded duck!

The market wasn’t bustling, but it still had a nice, quaint feel of a farmer’s market.

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Had the nastiest home-brewed cider for £1.90. It smelled like nail polish remover and tasted as pungent,
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Some amazing scallops.

We also bought a really good brownie (light and fluffy yet rich in flavour) to go, and I bagged some truffle oil (£7 for a Tabasco bottle-sized portion) and foie gras pate to bring home.

After our feast, we dropped by Primark. I’ve been dreaming about re-visiting it ever since I left the UK at the end of my exchange, and I was thrilled to be in the new store along Oxford Circus. But after an hour or so of browsing all four levels, only 2 tops (same design in different colours) caught my eye. Guess it’s just a natural progression to be a lot more discerning when it comes to shopping as you age.

After the disappointing shopping stop, it’s back on the tube again to get to Leicester Square to meet Ade for drinks at Opium, a speakeasy in Chinatown.

We had some fancy-looking drinks, and I really liked my choice: Xin Sheng Ming (£11) with Absolut, a ginseng spirit, rocket and watercress syrup, cucumber juice, and a hint of lime. (It’s the green drink that came along with a bottle labelled “chinese medicine” as pictured above.)

The day’s main event came after our pre-drinks. Weeks before we even embarked on this Europe trip, we made a booking with the Black Cat Cabaret because I’ve always wanted to watch a burlesque. So glad that we’re able to catch them during our short time in London as they only do 1 or 2 shows a month.

Black Cat Cabaret London travel
It was held at the Cafe De Paris and the venue completely blew me away.

The cabaret-style seating on the ballroom floor cost a bomb as it included dinner, so we took the £13 general admission ticket that entitled us free-seating on the mezzanine level. The area was almost filled when we arrived just before the show, but we managed to find decent seats wedged between 2 British couples. And I was so in love with the venue. It was small yet grand, busy yet intimate, and so damn sensual.

Black Cat Cabaret London travel
The host commanded the entire show with her effortless wit, sexual innuendos, and amazing stage presence.

The stage was tiny, but I loved that none of the acts were played up with the usual theatrics common in bigger venues. We were treated to a medley of short performances featuring acrobats, a juggler, a contortionist, a fire-eater, can can dancers, as well as a sexy piano player who sang and drawled his way into our wet dreams. The pace of the show was very casual, keeping the bohemian vibe pretty authentic.

London clubbing travel
Clubbing in Area

Our Saturday night in London was spent at Area, a gay club in Vauxhall. Nothing exciting, but the music was pretty all right. Being the anti-social people that we are, we enjoyed our own company the most, and were very glad that the club was only half-full.

Day 4

Our epic trip has finally come to an end. We spent our last day at Ade’s place, in the company of new and old friends and some really good home-cooked Indian food by Afsar. It was too soon that the conversations had to end, and we had to pick up our bags and put on our boots. It was such a heartbreaking goodbye to London and Ade. I love Europe so much and I’m never, ever prepared to go when it’s time to head home. Let’s hope it’s just a temporary separation. Can’t wait to be back.

Let’s end this series of posts on our Girls Gone Fat Europe trip 2013 on a happier note…

London travel friends

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