Dear Journalism: We’re not breaking up, I’m just taking a break

I feel a little bit like I’ve just broken up with somebody I still love.

We had some good times over the past five years, some bloody great times. You took me to places I would never have otherwise seen, you made me laugh, made me mad… And made me swear like a trooper. You were my life, my world, my everything. You were demanding, challenging and impossible at times, I hated it when you kept me up in the middle of the night.

I think I’ve done the right thing, I think it will work out for the best – for both of us. I just need some time on my own, to explore new lands, be selfish for a while. It’s not you, it’s me. Well, it was you a little bit, but let’s not get into a fight. Not now.

I can’t remember my first day as a reporter. I think I probably arrived early, with freshly washed hair (that was a bit too flat on my head according to my security pass), dressed in a clean, pressed shirt, pushing my glasses up my nose with enthusiastic keenness.

In fact my only vivid memory from my first week was when, after spending about 20 minutes trying to work out how to submit a small piece of news that I had laboriously typed up, I timidly turned to the girl next to me with short, dark hair for some advice. She was laughing with another reporter, while typing furiously and I decided I wanted to be her friend.

‘No worries,’ she said, as she helpfully started pressing buttons on my keyboard. We both watched in silence as she accidentally hit “delete” and sent it to story heaven, where it spent the rest of its days alongside legally questionable investigations and adjective-heavy crime stories. She was mortified, I was desperate to assure her it was fine. She bought me a Crunchie, and I made my first friend.


This is us a few years on. Her hair got longer and mine developed some volume.

I wanted to be a journalist ever since I was about seven years old when I thought it simply involved being paid to make up stories (note to Nottingham City Council – this is NOT what we do). Back then I was rewarded for spinning a yarn at story-time with a carton of milk on the carpet. That was good, being paid would be better, I thought.

Fast-forward some 15 years and I was walking into the news room for the first time (with flat hair), clutching my shorthand guide.

I remember my first ‘big story’. The atmosphere in the newsroom shifted from chattering banter to passionate and enthusiastic obscenities. Word had reached us that Harworth Colliery in north Notts was reopening.

With hundreds of ex-miners still unemployed in the county this was big news. ‘Fu*kin’ big news,’ declared one of the editors, as he told me to get up there as soon as possible for the detail. A correspondent was handling it from the office I was assured, who would be putting the spread together and look into the history of the site. I just had to get the detail on the ground.

‘No probs,’ I agreed, desperately trying to recall some knowledge about coal mining. As I sped up the M1 I played conversations with my Welsh nana over in my mind, she had told me so much about mining, but I couldn’t remember a thing.

I soon arrived at the site and was greeted by barren, brown land, scattered with a few industrial buildings. As I walked away from the car, unsure where to head, someone yelled, ‘Press?’ and I was swiftly escorted upstairs, into a board room of VIP coal people. There sat the chief executive of UK Coal, trade union leaders, Colliery leaders, I lost track… Job titles blurred into names and names into companies.

I introduced myself and shook hands with a lot of faces in suits.

‘So what exactly are you planning to do here?’ I asked, with confidence that I didn’t have inside. They started telling me and as I listened, enthralled by plans that seemed to fly in the face of history, the questions unravelled and soon I found asking about things I hadn’t even known had existed just minutes before. I left with enough material to write a small book on Harworth. And that is probably the best way I can explain journalism to you.


For the next five years I remained at the same regional daily newspaper. Until yesterday that is, when I packed up my shoe collection from under my desk and walked out the doors for the last time. And what a roller-coaster it’s been. Few jobs take you into the heart of Nairobi slums in Kenya, take you face to face with Gordon Brown, or give you the chance to talk to plane crash survivors who have never before spoken of their ordeal.

As a journalist it is your job to step into somebody else’s life and tell their tale. It can be both a terrifying responsibility and immense privilege, and one that often leaves you flying by the seat of your pants.


Quite literally sometimes… me with Ron Haslam doing about 120 mph at Donington Park. All in the name of a story.

But if there’s one thing journalism has also taught me it’s that life is short and you’ve got to grab it while it’s here… (the stabbings, shootings and suicides may also have made me a morbid cynic but let’s not go into that). So it feels quite appropriate that one of the last stories to be printed in my name will be that of Miles Hilton Barber, a blind adventurer who has climbed some of the world’s highest mountains, crossed the entire Qatar Desert in 78 hours without sleeping and even flown himself from London to Sydney. It is also apt that my other final story is about Justin Bieber. Like I said, it is a roller coaster.


This is Miles, guiding a man in a wheelchair along the bottom of the seabed. His motto in life is: “The only limits in our lives are those we accept ourselves.”

So, journalism, it’s not that we’re breaking up as such. We’re just taking a break. It is time for me to push those limits, and take on new challenges. Perhaps then we will work even better together.


Weekend Cottage with a Hot Tub in Suffolk: Perfect for Four Little Piggies

Everybody has a little piglet in them. Whether it’s behaving like hogs at the trough, indulging in a little dirt and mud every now and then, or perhaps thinking you’re a little bit cleverer then your pen mates sometimes, we’re not as different to our curly-tailed friends as you may think.

So it was quite appropriate after a two and a half hour journey from Nottingham to Suffolk (pigging out on pretzels and banana cake) that four little piggies arrived at Piglet’s Place, in a little village called Culford in Suffolk.

Matty and I are desperately trying to make sure we spend lots of time with our loved ones before we depart on our trip across Central Asia, and that is exactly what brought us to Culford with our good friends Gemma and Marco. We had a boot full of booze and grub, and a new, shiny pen to play in for the weekend.

Formerly a pig barn, Piglet’s Place has been somewhat spruced up in recent years.



We walked in, bagsied bedrooms and furiously filled up the fridge for the weekend.



But Piglet’s Place is more than just a posh pigs pen, it is a posh pigs pen with a hot tub. I have decided that cottages with hot tubs in the UK are the perfect answer to dealing with the uncertainties of British weather. I don’t mind battling the horizontal rains on a walks that leave you exposed to the elements for hours on end, but I do want to warm up afterwards. And hot tubs are the perfect way to soothe those aching trotters after such countryside adventures. It’s one of the few British outdoor activities where it doesn’t matter if its raining – in fact it is almost better if it is, just take a shower cap instead of an umbrella.


To be fair, the hot tub is more like a nightclub under the stars… It has flashing disco lights (I know, amazing), you can be in it until 3am – and you don’t wear many clothes. It might just be my new favourite club.

But it was the little touches that made this cottage stand out from the rest. Sitting on the work surface of the kitchen, in a cute little blue tin, sat a homemade cake, freshly baked for us.

Let me repeat that – they had baked us a cake! It was delicious and we ate it for breakfast.

So aside from eating, drinking and hot tub dancing, there is plenty to do in this corner of the world. Surrounded by acres upon acres of beautiful countryside there are plenty of walks to enjoy – and it is also near the quaint town of Bury St Edmunds, which is home to the Greene King brewery and has lots of lovely pubs and restaurants scattered across its cobbled streets. Oh, sorry that’s eating and drinking again, isn’t it?

We went for a lovely 6.5 mile walk across Thetford Forest, filled with tall, skinny trees as high a the sun and was quite delightful.

Me (on the left) with Gemma and Marco being naughty piglets. Do not try this at home folks.

A pretty river runs through the forest.

Sun worshipping.

This little piggy got numb fingers (me).

This little piggy led the way (Gemma).

This little piggy walked in the road (Marco).

And this little piggy went (for a) ‘wee, wee, wee’ all over the forest (Matty).

Then it was over to Bury St Edmunds for an ale or two. The pretty town boasts a wonderful old abbey that dates back to 633 and was over-run by the town’s people in 1327 who destroyed the Abbey Gate and killed several monks, as well as decapitating the abbot as he tried to flee. The placard, telling the story of the abbey, read like it had almost been written by the town’s people themselves – clearly quite proud of their rebellious history.

Abstract shot of the old abbey.

The Abbey Gates as they stand today.

All in, it was the perfect retreat for four little piggies… who did not want to drive ‘all the way home’ on Sunday afternoon.


Traveller’s Tips

Piglet’s Place is run by the lovely Steve Flack of Home Farm. He has about three properties on the farm and they also share a swimming pool, which opens in the summer. At least two of the properties have private hot tubs – we originally intended to book The Dairy, which is a smaller two-bed cottage with a hot tub. There was some confusion with our booking but Steve ended up offering us five star Piglet’s Place (which has three bedrooms) for £182 for two nights, which was the price of The Dairy at this time of year.

To make a booking or find out more click here.

There are some fab pubs within a one to three mile radius of the cottage including the Cadogan Arms at Ingham, the Woolpack at Fornham St Martin and the Three Kings at Fornham All Saints. We ate at the Cadogan Arms, which is more like a gastropub restaurant than your average spit and sawdust style ale house. The food was exceptional – we enjoyed perfectly cooked medium rare steaks and beautiful tempura squid. The wine list is very good and a two course meal with plenty of wine cost about £40 per head.

PS And I can’t believe its taken me this long to mention this – Piglet’s Place is a working farm and they have an amazing shed of cows that you can go and hang out with. Amoozing!


Where to get visas on the Silk Road

Last updated – June 2013

GEEK ALERT: This post will probably not interest you in the slightest if you are not also planning a trip across the ‘stans of Central Asia. (These kind of posts will appear from time to time, where I basically get to indulge my list-making-inner-geek by publishing ‘useful information’ to fellow travellers.)

However, for those who are also planning a trip along the Silk Road, and wondering about the big V-question, please read on.

Of course, V stands for Very Vexatious Visas. Said to be the single biggest headache on this fabulous journey, these little slips of paper seem to take more organisation and thinking ahead than some of the bills that go through Parliament… Well have you seen the state of some of them?

And so after about five late nights, 10 different lists and copious glasses of wine, I finally have a plan of how to get our visas while travelling the Silk Road. Our main problem is that we need our passports for work before we leave so we can’t send them off to get visas before we leave – to take a look at our proposed route click here.

I shall update this list as and when things change, as they seem to do so frequently in this corner of the world. This info is a collation from recent blogs and forums, the Lonely Planet and local travel agents in Central Asia. For your reference, I am a British passport holder… with a big 48-page shiny, new passport. Bring on the visas.

Georgia: EU citizens do not need a visa.
Update: Confirmed, easy border crossing, no visa needed.

Armenia: EU citizens do not need a visa from January 10th, 2013 according to the latest info from the FCO here. (Border is currently closed between Armenia and Azerbaijan and also between Armenia and Turkey).
Update: No visa needed, no fee at border.

Azerbaijan:Pick up in Batumi, Georgia. According to recent blogs, this is very easy to do and only takes 3-5 days to come through. Strictly speaking, British citizens do not need LOIs but they are widely regarded to speed things up… I think we will try without. From the embassy in London it takes 10 working days, unless you are prepared to pay quite a bit more to seed it up by four days.
Update: Easily collected the Azerbaiajan visa in Batumi. I think it would have been next day service if it wasn’t for the fact it was Victory Day when we handed them in so we had to hang around for a few days extra.

Turkmenistan: We have decided to get the tourist visa (you can get a transit visa for a few days, which basically allows you to pass through the country) but we’re hoping to spend about 7 days there. It means we have to book a tour ahead of our visit and be accompanied by a tour guide at all times. An LOI (valid for three months) is required and we plan to get the visa in Yerevan, Armenia, where apparently it only takes a couple of days to come though. The visa will state entry and exit dates and what parts of country you are travelling to – you can enter after the start date and leave before the exit date. Apparently Yerevan is the best option at the moment as Baku is only open two days a week.
Update: The lady in the Turkmenistan embassy in Yerevan was extremely helpful but warned us travellers have been having a lot of trouble at Azeri border (before getting on boat) if Turkmen visa has been issued in Armenia, due to the ongoing conflict between the two countries. She said for some it has been very bad and they’ve had to get their embassies involved as passports have been taken… She recommended we get the visa in Baku, which we will try next.
Update: We picked up our Turkmenistan tourist visas in Baku on the same day… Eventually. Turns out they only open Monday and Friday. Once you get there you have to fill out the forms and then they send you to a bank (a taxi ride away) to actually transfer the cash. Complete hassle but got there in the end. They are open 9-12.

Uzbekistan: Amazingly, Uzbekistan will let us apply for a visa with only a copy of our passport. About 10 days later we will need to go down to the embassy in London with our real passports to get the visa put in. Therefore we shall be doing this before we leave the UK, it will be the only visa we leave with. LOI not normally needed for UK citizens, but it can speed to process up anyway and some embassies will ask for one. We shall try it without. We have been told you can also get this visa in Baku and Istanbul.

Update: We successfully got this visa from London before leaving, they processed it without our passports (just requiring a copy) then we collected it from London with our passports about 2 weeks later.

Afghanistan: Looks like we can get this in Tashkent, Uzbekistan according to the latest information here.
Update: REJECTED! We tried to get Afghanistan tourist visas in Tashkent, Uzbekistan but were told that the system changed two months ago and now visas must be obtained in home countries. They suggested we got a letter from the British Embassy just confirming who we are and requesting the Afghan Embassy assist us in eating a tourist embassy, but the British Embassy in Tashkent refused to do this. Alas, we will be missing Afghanistan out now.

Tajikistan: Need visa and GBAO permit (for Pamirs), which we plan to pick up in Tashkent, Uzbekistan (open 9am – noon) or Baku, Azerbaijan (open 15:00 – 17:00). Baku sounds the easiest option according to various forums, so we’ll try there first. I found this link particularly helpful.

Update: We got this easily enough in Baku. It took about three working days and the embassy opens from 3pm – 5pm Tuesday to Friday. We put our in on Thursday and picked it up on Tuesday. They do not currently have the GBAO permit stamp but have said we can pick it up easily enough in Tajikistan.

Kyrgyzstan: No visa needed for UK citizens according to the latest information here.

Kazakhstan: Collect visa in Baku, Azerbaijan. No LOI required. Easy and cheap to sort here according to this information.

Update: We picked up our Kazakhstan visas in Tbilisi, Georgia. All went without hitch… Very nice lady in embassy. Took about four working days to come through so we went off for a few days and came back.

China: This is our main problem at the moment and I’m not entirely sure what we will do! We have been told by a local expert it has become ‘very tricky’ to get a Chinese visa in Bishkek and Dushanbe. Currently looking into getting a six month visa before we leave the UK. This is a work in progress…

So here’s our plan:

London: Pick up Uzbekistan visa… maybe China too.
Batumi, Georgia: Pick up Azerbaijan visa
Tbilisi, Georgia: Pick up Kazak visa
Yerevan, Armenia: Pick up Turkmenistan visa
Baku, Azerbaijan: Pick up Tajikistan visa
Tashkent, Uzbekistan: Pick up Afghanistan visa

Tips for Getting Visas on the Silk Road

Make sure you have loads of free pages in your passport – we’ll be travelling with brand new ones.
Take loads of passport photos – I’m thinking at least 20.
Keep an eye on the latest information, searching the Thorn Tree forum is helpful but I think this Caravanistan website is perhaps the most helpful of all – after all, things seem to change every day.

If you have any experience of picking these visas up, then pleas share your thoughts below!