Sunderland and other exciting North East experiences

Ah, Sunderland. I’m not the biggest fan of the place, yet I ended up visiting more than once while I was at home for a few days.

Mowbray Park
Mowbray Park

Once was to go for lunch with a friend. Afterwards we went for a walk around Mowbray Park and came across the statue erected to commemorate the Victoria Hall disaster. It’s a tragic tale but all it reminds me of is the poem William McGonagall wrote about the catastrophe.

’Twas in the town of Sunderland, and in the year of 1883,
That about 200 children were launch’d into eternity

Mowbray Park
Mowbray Park

Her Majesty’s grief for the bereaved parents has been profound,
And I’m glad to see that she has sent them £50

Commemorative statue
Commemorative statue

Later that week I popped to Sunderland with my parents, who go every weekend. We visited a few shops and had a coffee in Marks & Spencer. It’s such a shame there are so many closed shops and dingy streets, as there are some really nice areas, and the city does have so much potential as well as a rich history – as marked by the ‘Propellers of the City’ monument to Sunderland’s shipbuilding past.

'Propellers of the City' monument
‘Propellers of the City’ monument

Gunnersbury Park Bat Walk

Gunnersbury Park Museum has recently reopened after refurbishment, and while I was browsing the website I came across a bat walk. I signed up to go on the July walk in the hope of coming across a few bats.

Bat detector
Bat detector

On meeting at the park, we were handed bat detectors, which were quite exciting, designed to pick up bat squeaks at high frequencies. Different species have different frequencies so you have to move the dial around to make sure you pick up anything that might be out there.

We headed down to the lake and at first there was no sign of any bat activity, even though we walked right round the lake and were there for ages. Eventually, however, as it grew dusk, some bats began to come out of hiding and we saw them swooping around, aided by the bat detectors which picked up their noise almost before we saw them.

Waiting for bats

I never thought that standing by the side of a lake in the dark on a Friday night would be such fun, but it really was. There is another walk taking place in September if you fancy giving it a go.

Jensen’s Gin Experience

Bemondsey Distillery

I love gin, so was very excited about picking up a Time Out voucher for a gin tasting session at the Bermondsey Gin Distillery, home of Jensen’s Gin. I went with a friend, and we headed down early, which is just as well because it took us a while to find it. The space is built into one of the railway arches not far from Bermondsey station, and there is a door built in to a corrugated shutter.

Bemondsey Distillery

One free drink was included, and we sipped this as we were introduced to the history of gin and to Jensen’s Gin in particular. I’m fairly familiar with the history of the drink (and felt quite smug that I was able to identify Hogarth’s picture Gin Lane) but not of this particular brand. It was founded by Christian Jensen, City worker and gin enthusiast who, in a bid to recreate the gins he loved in his youth, at first commissioned another distillery to make it and then set up his own in order to make and sell it commercially. The small company now makes two gins, the original Bermondsey Dry Gin and an ‘Old Tom’ variety that is deeper and more flavoursome. We got to sample both of these as well as the individual ingredients that make up gin, including juniper berries which give gin its distinctive taste.

Bemondsey Distillery

I had a really good time at the gin tasting: I learned things about gin I didn’t know, and got to sample some delicious gins. I would definitely recommend Jensen’s Gin, and am planning to head down to the distillery shop to buy a bottle of my own. On Sundays you can also pop down to Maltby Street Market and sample a G&T for just £5, which is pretty good for London.

Bemondsey Distillery

What I did on my holidays (trip up north, to be precise)


My week mainly consisted of naps, to be honest. However, during my week at home I also did the following:

Read books
I read War and Peace and the whole of the Enid Blyton ‘Adventure’ series. A bit of a contrast there. W&P was the Maude’s translation in a cute little three-volume edition by Collector’s Library. The Blyton series is the one starring Kiki the parrot, who was always one of my favourite characters, and inspired me with the desire to own a pet parrot (as well as somewhat unrealistic expectations of what parrots are actually capable of).

I also reread a book I discovered a few years ago, The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, which is wonderful.

The Haunting of Hill House
The Haunting of Hill House

Thanks to my mam, who was on a health kick. In fairness it wasn’t too bad, and we discovered one recipe for macaroni cheese made from Primula Light cheese and mustard, which was amazing. I also ate much more fruit than I usually do, and enough miniature chocolate bars to form several whole ones.

Attended pub quizzes
Two, to be precise. One was my dad’s quiz, which we won, no thanks to me. My dad’s quizzes are HARD. The other was at a pub near to where my parents live. My mam and I went with one of her friends from the estate and said friend’s mother, who was eighty-nine, had never been to a pub quiz before, and was very excited about it. We did fairly well on this one, and I don’t think the three bottles of wine we consumed had too much of a negative effect.

Popped down to Seaham
My mam and I drove down to Seaham to go for a walk and check out the shops. The highlight was undoubtedly a trip to Lickety Split. They do GINGER NUT ICE CREAM.

Seaham harbour
Seaham harbour

Visited some new bars in Newcastle
Newcastle has really changed since I was last there. I went for a friend’s birthday and we started off in The Alchemist which does amazing cocktails.

Me at the Alchemist
Me at The Alchemist

Between us we had one that looked like a miniature bubble bath, one that resembled a science experiment and one that looked like water but which tasted of different things as you drank it. We then moved on to The Botanist which is simply gorgeous.

The Botanist, Newcastle
The Botanist, Newcastle

Celebrated Heritage Open Days
With a tour around Hetton-le-Hole, on which more in my next blog post…

Secret Cinema presents: Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge!

Entrance to Montmartre
Entrance to Montmartre

I’d never been to a Secret Cinema event, although I’d heard of them. It was always at the back of my mind as something I’d like to do, but I never got around to it… until they announced Moulin Rouge! as the next film, at which point I knew I would just HAVE to go. This modern classic, released in 2001, happens to be one of my favourite films of all time.

I ended up going by myself – at first I was nervous at the prospect, until I reminded myself that I’ve been to plenty of immersive theatre alone in my time, and this probably wouldn’t be that different. As the day approached, I visited the website, filled in all the forms I needed to and gathered my outfit together. You are meant to register with the website once you’ve bought your ticket and you are allocated a character, complete with a backstory and outfit guidelines. My character was Nina Boucicault, a comedian. Here I hold my hands up and frankly admit I completely ignored my character’s suggested outfit. It involved trousers, but I haven’t worn trousers for years, and I wasn’t going to start now.

Full-length outfit photo

I don’t know what it says about me that I didn’t actually have to make any special purchases at all in order to dress up. I wore a dress I got from ASOS (mega sale bargain) a couple of years ago, with a corset over the top. I took a fan (that I think came from Accessorize) and wore my ‘She Walks In Beauty’ earrings from Alchemy Gothic.


I got changed in the toilets at work (classy) and then I had to get the tube to Canning Town station. Now I was a bit nervous about the prospect of having to get on the tube with all those commuters, but one of the reasons I love London is that no one pays any attention to you on the Underground (unless you’ve got a dog. Everyone loves dogs), so no one looked at me twice the whole way there. At the station, I began to see other people dressed in a similar way to me, so I knew I was in the right place.

The venue was really close to the station. It was supposed to be top secret, but to be honest, any locals or anybody passing through would notice the queue of people building up at around 6pm. We didn’t have long to wait, we were soon invited to enter the world of the Moulin Rouge. No phones or photos allowed, naturally.

Wow. Inside it was incredible, like stepping into another world. There were bars and storefronts, cafes and stalls, all designed to draw you in to the fin de siècle world in which the film is set. Costumed actors added to the atmosphere, and sometimes it was hard to tell the actors from the ordinary ticket-holders. I only saw one person without costume, and I felt quite sorry for her as she really stood out!

Everyone was so friendly. I didn’t talk to many people – I didn’t need to – for most of the event, but I got chatting to people in the queue to get in and in the ladies’ loos, and I even danced with some people at one point. There’s something about immersing yourself in something like this that makes you forget yourself and act much more confident than usual – I guess that’s true for me, anyway.

I spent the time before the film started just wandering around, exploring as much as I could, and sampling the drinks on offer (which included absinthe). I also won a bet on some lesbian wrestling (don’t ask). There were performances and songs and I was almost sorry when it was time for the film to start.

Almost, that is. There was still loads going on while the film was showing, with actors performing key scenes in front of the screen. I never did see Moulin Rouge! at the cinema, as no one wanted to go with me and at sixteen I was much less inclined to do things by myself than I am now, so it was so good to actually see the movie on the big screen.

By the time it finished I didn’t want to leave. I’d had SUCH a good time and it was an unforgettable experience. I wonder what Secret Cinema will do next year?

Hendrick’s Gin Ministry of Marginally Superior Transport


I’m rather fond of gin, and when I found out via Showfilmfirst about a special event involving gin, London, and a rather special bus I knew I had to go. The Hendrick’s Gin Ministry of Marginally Superior Transport was obviously designed as a way to promote the Hendrick’s brand, but to be honest as the tickets were only £2.50 this really didn’t bother me.

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The event involved a bus journey around London in which we were served G&Ts and delicious gin cocktails with a bonus gin macaron. The bus was beautifully decorated with bizarre mock-Victorian wallpaper and we got a few freebies including a rather awesome fan, which I’m sure I’m going to make plenty of use of during the summer.


During the journey we were entertained by bearded bartenders and challenged to complete a number of tasks including writing a poem: I’m rather proud of my brief effort, considering I haven’t written a poem since school.

I had an identical twin,
Who had a grand passion for gin.
At the hint of a frolic,
She’d pour gin and tonic,
And begin her descent into sin.

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BB Bakery Afternoon Tea Bus Tour

When my mam came to London recently, she came with my auntie and several other relatives, one of whom was celebrating her birthday, so the plan was to do something exciting. We ended up booking on a bus tour of London with a difference – a tour that includes afternoon tea.

Our bus

The tours are run by BB Bakery, a traditional French bakery which is based in Covent Garden. We arrived at Victoria Coach Station on Sunday afternoon in plenty of time to board our bus, which was one of those awesome heritage Routemasters. We headed upstairs where our tables had been set out for us (we were a party of six, so we actually took up two tables).

The afternoon tea consists of sandwiches, scones and cakes, as well as orange juice and, of course, tea. They do cater for different dietary requirements: as a vegetarian this is very important to me, and I’m happy to report that my veggie selection was utterly delicious (the standard sandwiches were pretty nice too, according to the rest of my family). I enjoyed my scone, and the cakes in particular were incredible. If you get too full, you are given a little box to take any uneaten cake away with you.

Yummy afternoon tea

I had been curious as to how you avoid spilling hot drinks all down yourself on a moving bus. Not to worry, you are actually given a solid takeaway-style cup with a lid which fits into a hollow on the table (you are able to take this cup home with you). The cake stand is fixed securely to the table, and the cutlery, while it looks metal, is actually plastic – all health and safety bases have been covered!

Wearing my highly appropriate, London bus-themed, Tatty Devine “Not In Service” necklace

The bus takes a roundabout route through central London, passing Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square and other notable landmarks. It should be noted that you don’t get actual commentary, as you would with a “normal” tour bus. However, the staff – who are very friendly, helpful and chatty – do provide random commentary which is often quite funny. As a London resident, I didn’t feel the need for a proper commentary anyway, particularly as I was enjoying my food too much to care!

The tour takes a good hour and a half, so make sure you go to the loo before it starts! Tours cost from £45 for adults and £35 for children, which sounds pricey but it really is a fantastic experience and the food is yummy. I definitely recommend this for a special occasion, and I’ll be heading to Covent Garden to check out the bakery in the near future.

Pub Crawl and Culture in St Albans

The Clock Tower

I spent another day in St Albans at the weekend in order to spend time with some friends. We alternated visits to pubs with various cultural activities. I was excited to finally get the chance to go up the Clock Tower.

Going in…

This is located on the High Street of St Albans. It was built between 1403 and 1412, the only medieval town belfry in England. It is designated a Scheduled Ancient Monument. It’s possible to go up the tower at weekends during the summer months, at a cost of £1 for adults (children go free). The climb is very steep and rather tough, so if you’re unfit you may wish to reconsider!

The clock machinery
Inside the tower

We were exhausted by the time we got to the top of the tower, but it was worth it because the views were amazing.

Cathedral of St Albans
Looking out over St Albans
A formidable-looking gargoyle

Later we visited the Roman remains in the park, before finishing off in a number of pubs.

In the park



Visit to St Albans

At the weekend I visited some friends who have recently moved to St Albans in Hertfordshire. We embarked on a magical mystery historical tour.

Our first stop was Verulamium Park, so called because it lies on the site of the Roman city of Verulamium. It has a pretty lake with ducks and moorhens and on the edge there is a pub, called Ye Olde Fighting Cocks. We didn’t visit the pub on this occasion, but we did have lunch there the last time I visited. Apparently the pub holds the Guinness Book of Records title for being the oldest pub in England.

We walked away from the lake and came to the remains of the City walls and outline of the main London Gate. During the legendary drought of 1976, planes flying overhead could see the outlines of the old Roman city, made visible by the lack of grass, which had withered away in the heat.

Looking towards the lake at the remains of the London Gate. Apologies for the inconveniently-placed dog waste bin…
The remains of the London Gate

The Hypocaust Mosaic is nearby, covered by a purpose-built building. It is beautifully preserved and, in one corner, the hypocaust – or method of underfloor heating – can be seen.

The Hypocaust Mosaic

Following this we visited the nearby Verulamium Museum, containing many objects of everyday life, more mosaics, and a couple of skeletons. It cost £5 to enter which we thought a bit pricey, but there were some interesting things to see. We didn’t go to see the nearby Roman theatre as you had to pay separately to go in, and none of us felt like forking out more!

Mosaic in Verulamium Museum

Walking back into town, we could see the abbey – officially St Albans Cathedral – in the distance.

View of St Albans Cathedral

We decided to go inside.

St Albans Cathedral

The first thing that struck me was the gorgeous ceiling.

Another part of the ceiling

The rood screen, known as the Wallingford Screen, dates from around 1480, but the statues date from the Victorian period and are replacements of those destroyed in the Dissolution of the Monasteries.

Wallingford Screen

This figure – a replica of an original on display in a case elsewhere in the Cathedral – stood above the Poor Box.

Poor box figure

There were several interesting things to look at, including this skull.


The shrine of St Alban still draws pilgrims to the abbey. Alban died around 300 AD; he lived in Verulamium and the story goes that he gave shelter to a Christian priest, who converted him. Alban changed clothes with the priest, who escaped, and died in his stead.

Shrine of St Alban
Shrine of St Alban

This ancient structure was designed so that priests could watch over the shrine constantly.




The Cathedral is unique in having very good and visible wall paintings, relics of the pre-Reformation days, which incredibly survived the Dissolution.


I loved this gorgeous window.


The Cathedral
The Cathedral

Finally, we visited the Museum of St Albans. This was a free museum and we both enjoyed it. My friend was impressed when she found her street mentioned on one of the information boards. My favourite thing was the stocks: you could put your head and hands through and be pelted by (cloth) fruit and vegetables. Hours of fun!

Museum building

St Albans is a nice place to visit if you want a bit of history. There are some lovely pubs too, and I definitely want to climb the tower when it reopens in the spring.

Shoreditch Underground Station (Pillow Cinema)

This post should probably be about Pillow Cinema, the east London phenomenon dreamed up by the same people who founded Hot Tub Cinema. The idea of sitting in a hot tub surrounded by strangers has never particularly appealed to me, but the Pillow Cinema idea is much better-sounding – sprawl out on a giant bean bag, pillow behind your head, and relax while watching a classic movie. I saw Billy Elliot on Saturday, and the experience was a great one – but that’s not why I wanted to write this post, and it isn’t why I wanted to go in the first place. After all, I could probably have recreated the experience much more cheaply in my front room with a couple of duvets and a pile of cushions.

No, it was the location of Pillow Cinema that appealed to me, much more than the concept itself. Screenings are held in the former Shoreditch Underground station, and being the Tube obsessive that I am – particularly when it comes to disused or “ghost” stations – I was certain that I wanted to get inside.

Shoreditch Underground Station is located near Brick Lane, at the end of Code Street. It’s covered in graffiti so it’s not hard to spot. The station used to be the northern terminus of the East London Line, and it closed in 2006 in preparation for the development of the Overground network, which now runs through Shoreditch High Street station.

Approaching the station from Brick Lane
Sideways view
View from Code Street
The original entrance
Inside the building
Looking west
Trains still run past the station towards Liverpool Street

Originally opened in 1876, the station had only one platform and track in use towards the end of its life. It had low passenger footfall, and when it was closed, the platform and track area was filled in.

Inside the cinema
The arches
The opposite wall

The cinema is located where the platform and the track used to be. You can see the walls with their filled-in arches, and the hooks on the side designed to hold the cables. I’m probably the only person who got excited by this, but I kept imagining ghostly trains moving through the space where we were sitting, one era layered upon another like Russian dolls. Pretty impressive to me.