Getting cosy Under the Stairs, Edinburgh

Sometimes you just have to eat somewhere that has a fish tank built into its fireplace.


It was a cold, sorry – I mean a BITTERLY cold day in Edinburgh – when I found myself desperately googling ‘warmest pub in Edinburgh’ and ‘warmest place to eat in Edinburgh ever’ and ‘make me warm in Edinburgh NOW’, when I realised I couldn’t feel my fingers anymore and Google hadn’t provided. So I did what we used to do a few years back and looked around frantically for somewhere to hibernate.

For those of you in Northern Europe who are currently suffering a similar fate – how are you coping and what survival strategies are you employing? For those of you elsewhere or reading this in the future I am writing during the period of time that I am sure will be known as The Great Easter Freeze of 2013… I mean, let’s be honest there is no way Jesus would have risen 2013 years ago if the weather had been like this.

Anyhow, I digress. So with numb fingers and a distant memory of feeling my toes, I headed down Merchant Street in Edinburgh (just behind the lovely statue of Bobby, the bonniest dog of Scotland who sat on his master’s grave for 14 years after he died…. Ahhhh!) And it was down that little road that I spied some railings with a sign reading ‘Under the Stairs’ and in the window below, a big comfy looking chair.

I shuffled my frozen feet down the stairs and tentatively pushed open the door. Immediately I was greeted by array of retro sink-into-me armchairs and the fire place/fish tank feature. I knew I had struck gold.

Glancing around, I realised this was one of those rare places that doesn’t really have a ‘bad table’ in the house. Table picking can be a tough gig. Too often when walking into a restaurant you immediately spy the two good tables – perhaps by the fire, with the comfiest seats etc – which are always taken, leaving you with the remainder of the room and its cold, drafts tables packed too closely together, by the door – the loo – the mad woman muttering to herself.

Under the Stairs offered no such predicament. The large cosy room, with its thick and battered wooden floor boards, offered a plethora of mismatched, cobbled together tables and chairs – each as lovely as the next.

The man behind the bar greeted me in a warm, Scottish drawl and told me to sit wherever. I immediately wanted to try out a few tables before settling on one – they all looked so good.


In the end I settled for one that boasted both a fabulous old armchair (they just don’t make them like they used to, do they?), and an old lampshade that gave off a warm, orange glow. Feeling very pleased with myself I perused the menu.


This is where Under the Stairs gains a few more brownie points. It has a fabulous selection of sharing plates… Anti pasti, cheese boards, breads and dipping oils etc that can be ordered until midnight. I am constantly seeking establishments that will cater to both my food and wine needs at all hours, if only I lived a little closer.

The rest of the menu also appealed – from the imaginative twist on a veggie burger (black bean, spring onion an mushroom burger), to the venison casserole and salmon and cous cous fish cakes, I was torn.

With most dishes costing about £8.95 it’s definitely a cheap lunch option in Edinburgh.

But it was this sign that caught my attention:


And this one:


Two things. One, they had my sandwich and soup and I needed them back and two, red wine must always be pondered.

So I pondered and I ordered and I sat in my Grandad’s chair, listening to David Bowie, plotting how to steal the Scottish Crown Jewels over a large glass of Rioja. I’m joking, I’m joking… I was drinking Cabernet Sauvignon.

The food arrived and I decided it was definitely the best use of £5.95 that I have put the pound to for some time. Ladies and gents, allow me to introduce you to my soup and sandwich.


Aren’t they lovely? Divine? As soon as we were ‘reunited’ I realised I had unknowingly missed them my whole life.

The soup, a spicy parsnip and puy lentil number, was delightfully coarse and rich with a heart-warming chilli kick to it. Meanwhile, the sandwich was door stopping – huge slices of granary bread were filled with Cajun marinaded chunks of chicken breast, accompanied by a sweet, caramelised onion garnish and garlic mayonnaise. There was no corner cutting.

As I finished my lunch, the tank cleaning man came in to tend to the fish. As I watched him remove water, add water, and do his thing, I couldn’t help but feel they definitely have the best spot in town. If I was a fish I would want to be by the fire, swimming around Under the Stairs.

Food Facts

My soup, sarnie, and large glass of Rioja came to £12.80.

If you want to get involved you’ll find Under the Stairs at 3a Merchant Street. Bell them on 0131 466 8550.

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!

World in Pictures: Hyson Green, Nottingham

What is it about leaving a place that makes you fall in love with it all over again? As we prepare for our big journey across Central Asia I find myself looking around at all the little things I have on my doorstep, and appreciating them more than ever.

The things that make me smile, things that hold so many memories, and things I will miss…

I want to make it clear that curry is not the ONLY thing I will miss. I’m sure my body will get used to eating fatty morsels of meat on kebab sticks as we travel over the ‘stans, I’m sure it will be fine. There will be no tears – or waking in the middle of the night, interrupted from dreams where I was about to tuck into a spicy melt-in-your mouth lamb curry with a freshly baked, soft naan bread to my side – none of that.

The problem is, I live in Hyson Green – home to some of Nottingham’s finest curry houses. If you are reading this and have not yet sampled such delights then can I suggest you grab your purse and go straight away. Now. My personal favourites are Kabul (where Mantu, steamed dumplings of chopped lamb, onions and herbs topped with yoghurt, is an absolute must) and Desi Express, which has an array of delicious curries and the amazing takka-tak dishes, where the meat is chopped up as it cooks on a large metal grill. It literally makes the sound ‘takka-tak takka-tak takka-tak’ as the chef chops away, which incidentally is a beautiful sound. A curry and a naan bread in both establishments will set you back £5.

So, yes I am a bit worried there might be some curry-starved-tantrums on the Silk Road. But just to prove that is not all I will miss about this lovely ‘hood, here are a few pics I’ve taken in recent weeks of my other favourite things…


The Forest Recreation Ground… thank you for the wine-fuelled summer evenings and crisp, snowy walks



Oh Gregory Boulevard, we’ve had some times, haven’t we? You look prettier in the snow.



Thank you tram for stopping at the end of my road and sometimes making me a little bit less late to things.



Asda, we’ve had a love-hate relationship, but thank you for always serving me wine at 21:59.



You’re one of my favourite doors in Nottingham (and no, I have not been behind it)



Hyson Green, you have buildings of all shapes and sizes. I like your eclectic style.



And I love your rows of red-brick terraces with big bay windows



Errrrm… you have some nice trees?!



The fabulous New Art Exchange: For art, music, craft and FOOD.



Hello My Name is… Hyson Green



Art on every corner.

And yes, there probably will be another post yet on the colourful vegetable stalls, Indian-sweet stores and ahem, curry houses of Hyson Green. Talking of which, I’m getting peckish… time to “make the most” of what’s down the road, eh?

What have I missed? Feel free to share your favourite haunts.

Travelling The Silk Road: Our Planned Route

In just a few months time we shall be embarking on a trip that, although may seem a bit ‘off the beaten track’ today, is actually one of the most ancient and well trodden routes of the world. The Silk Road, or pedantically speaking – The Silk Roads (as there are actually dozens of different routes) – is the journey the silk took overland from China, through the ‘stans of Central Asia and into the western world, hundreds of years ago.

People spent their entire lives traversing across barren deserts in the scorching heat, warming up their icy, cold fingers in snowy mountains and stopping off at little caravanserais (aka traveller inns) for a shot of belly-warming vodka, before moving onto the bazaars to shift their goods. Actually I’m not sure the vodka bit is true at all, but there sure seems to be a lot of the hard stuff on the road now, and Matty has his eye firmly on the brandy kiosks of Kyrgyzstan that seem to be almost giving the stuff away at about 20p a shot.

So, in April we are giving up our little house in Nottingham to travel as the silk once did (but in reverse order). And we will be doing it all with our good friend Donagh, also known as the Mongoose (a nickname he has not just earned but OWNED when his wild side emerged on many a drunken night). Allow me to introduce him…


The Mongoose enters a cave in Lebanon… I have some much more entertaining photos of him, but I shall break you in gently.

So, it will be me, Matty and the Mongoose taking on the Silk Road.


The Route

We shall be travelling from Hyson Green (our much loved inner city streets of Nottingham) to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, where we shall be working for about a year or so, if all goes to plan.

From Hyson Green we shall be taking the tram to Nottingham Station, and the train to London, before embarking on the Eurostar to Paris for a swift lump of cheese and bottle of wine. From there we will take the night train to Munich, before stopping off at Salzburg in Austria, Budapest in Hungary and Bucharest in Romania, on our way to Turkey.

Then it’s onto the Silk Road. We wanted to visit Iran, but following the savage burning and prompt closure of the British Embassy there we thought it may be somewhat ill-advised so instead, this will be our Silk Road:


When I tell people I’m travelling the Silk Road, I get a fair few blank faces. And if you’d have asked me a year ago I would have met your gaze with equal blankness. But after a little bit of reading (combined with some artistic licence), this is what I am expecting… and the reasons for visiting each country:

Georgia – For its green valleys, mountain scenery and other such beautiful things.

Armenia – For the Cognac (and a ‘riot of flowers’ according to the Lonely Planet).

Azerbaijan – To understand what is ‘not Asia nor Europe’ and cross the mythical-sounding Caspian Sea.

Turkmenistan – For fabulous gold statues, ever-burning gas craters and bugged hotel rooms.

Uzbekistan – For majestic cities, brawling bazaars, ancient desert fortresses and a shrinking sea (fact).

Afghanistan – For the scary armoured vehicle ride to Mazari Sharif (the Mongoose’s current place of residence).

Kyrgyzstan – For horse treks, hunting with eagles and crying ‘wow’ a lot at stunning scenery.

Tajikistan – For the world’s most remote mountain-top road trip (the Pamir Highway) and hospitable home stays.

Kazakstan – For the leafy city of Almaty that sounds too much like ‘Oh Matty!’ to risk missing.

China – For the ‘Desert of Death’ aka ‘The Point of No Return’ or the name it goes by on most maps – the Taklamakan Desert. We don’t talk about this. And of course Xi’an where the Silk Road ends.

So there we go, that’s our journey. The journey taken by hundreds of camels years ago, as they travelled nose to tail, pulling large, heavy caravans through swathes of deep, dry desert sand for miles and miles. Am I scared? No, not at all.* Bring it on.

Follow our journey on this blog. I may do some geeky posts about gear and what to pack before we set off but you can ignore those and join me for the ride from April 22nd if you fancy it.

*I might be a bit scared… Crossing the desert of death in 40+ degrees does sound a little scary, right?

Urban Exploring in Nottingham: The Great Northern Railway Warehouse

I have become one of those people who looks at an empty, derelict building and thinks: ‘Can I get in there?’

I’ve even specifically cycled to buildings just to ‘stake’ them out.

Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately as my mother would see it, I’m not a very good law breaker and am easily deterred. For instance on a recent stake out to the old Radford Mill site near Garden Street in Nottingham I walked away within minutes after seeing the Warning: Guard Dogs on Site sign.

If I stop to think about this it’s probably fairly unrealistic that dogs have just been kept at this old mill for god knows how many years… But am I going to risk it? Not a chance.

More recently, as Matty and I walked home from town after a few ales, we passed the old Forest Mills buildings off Alfreton Road, which are currently being pulled down by the council. We skulked around the edge of the site, threatening to go home and get our camera – ‘and just get in there’, and making other such brave comments. It was then a bloke appeared out of the shade and said ‘you wanna get in?’ – as if selling tickets for entry.

‘Yeah, yeah’ I muttered, desperately trying to disguise my Home Counties accent for something a bit more street.

‘Don’t think much is left in there,’ he said darkly, as much to himself as to us. ‘I know a bloke that got in that one,’ he said, turning his arm 180 degrees across the dark sky, towards a 1960s tower block that had just been emptied and was earmarked for demolition. ‘He stripped it, got about £5k of lead,’ he continued.

‘Crikey,’ I said (I couldn’t help it, it just slipped out), thinking I’d probably written stories about his mate.

‘Anyway, you want to get in? I can get you in’, he said, our eyes falling back to the site we had been scouring just minutes earlier.

‘Errr yeah, that would be great,’ I found myself saying. ‘Although not tonight, we’ve, errr, got to meet some mates now.’ And with a dramatic glance at my watch and a slightly over-zealous gasp, we were off on our way home.

You get my point. As fascinated as i am by old empty buildings that are laced in history and scattered with little pieces of life from another time, I’m just not really cool enough for all this ‘urban exploring’.

But if a door is left open, that is another matter.

My first experience of ‘urban exploration’ was when I stumbled across this old corn warehouse in Nottingham, which used to belong to the Great Northern Railway. Built in 1850s, it has stood empty for years and was pretty much gutted by a fire that ripped through the building in 1996.


I was doing a spot of homework for my photography course and wandered over to its main entrance, on Manvers Street, to take a few snaps.



But as I was taking pictures of these seemingly impenetrable gates I was interrupted by a couple of teenagers. Truth be told, I was lying on my back at the time, trying to get some ‘arty shots’ that never actually worked out.

‘You into urban exploration?’ I suddenly heard. Lowering my camera down from my face, I saw a girl and a boy peering down at me.

I think I might have said something intelligent like ‘what’s that?’ as I peeled myself from the floor, ignoring all the stones and grit stuck to my skin.

‘We go into old places and record it, take pictures and stuff,’ replied the girl, who must have been about 14 tops. ‘We can take you in here if you want’, she added, pulling away a wooden panel at the side of the locked gates.

I was tempted. I nearly followed them in, but I held back, a little unsure about my new friends.

‘Just don’t go in on your own,’ one of them warned me. ‘Full of skag-heads and homeless people. Two women were murdered in here,’ she added.

And with that as their parting shot they trampled over the wooden panel and into the unknown. I gingerely put my head through. There was a grassy hill leading into the unkempt grounds with weeds almost the size of trees and grass as long as wheat…. I decided to just perch on the hill and take a small picture.

I knelt down into the grass (avoiding the needles) to change my camera lens and at that penultimate moment where both lenses are off and the camera is naked to the elements, I heard rustling and voices. I looked up to see a bloke and a girl walking towards me. Holding eye contact with my camera only, he greeted with me with an ‘Alright’ while her eyes rolled around in their sockets. As I took in the dark rings around their eyes, and their pale, hallowed faces, I felt certain that they could hear the loud thumping of my heart as I debated whether to try and run back down the hill or just play it cool.

I attempted the latter, I think I squeaked an ‘alright’ back as I casually furiously changed my lens. They staggered past me and were soon lost in the jungle-like weeds ahead. I turned on my heels and ran the hell out of there.

Two days later I was back. With back-up… in the form of Matty. And after walking through the needle-strewn grass we reached an entrance of sorts….


As we approached it, we heard someone call out. As we have discussed before on this blog, I am a massive scaredy cat, so news that we had company naturally terrified me.

The man shouted down, ‘I just wanted to let you know I’ll be coming down the stairs. It’s pitch black in parts so I didn’t want to alarm you.’

Well, what a lovely chap, I thought. But as we walked into the darkness and started climbing the stairs I did think, ‘it’s probably a trick, what if he’s just luring us in…’

Suddenly I found myself thinking of the two homeless women that were found in the building in 2005. Was this how it started for them, I wondered.

We soon passed him on the stairs and he was most pleasant.

So… what did we see?






Passing all the dark, leaking, empty rooms – one of which had numerous tents in it – we finally stepped onto the roof.




See Matty is a much cooler ‘urban explorer’ than me and my mental, over active imagination.

Nevertheless, as we headed back down the rickety stairs (at a quicker pace past the tent room) and into the wilderness, stepping over bottles of Buckfast and fag packets, I mentally made a note to add ‘urban explorer’ to my CV.

If you want to see some more impressive explorations, take a look at this site called 28 Days Later, which has some wicked stuff on it.

LEGAL DISCLAIMER: This is, of course, a fictional tale. Under no circumstances have I ever considered breaking and entering and certainly not trespassing. These pictures were borrowed from someone naughtier than me. And no, that’s not Matty in the picture, it’s his pesky doppelgänger, who gets us in all sorts of trouble.

World in Pictures: Beating the January Blues

Oh bugger, it’s almost January.

Poor old January, he really has the worst deal of the year doesn’t he? All the other months must feel so smug when they look at his blue, bitter ways with his short, frost-bitten days.

April’s running around crying, ‘I might bloody shower on you but summmmmer’s ahead!’, August is all ‘I’ll bring you sunshine [In the pouring rain]’, September seduces us with, ‘I know August was a two-second wonder – he always is, but I’ll bring you an Indian summer’, while December just sits on her gold encrusted, red throne with Santa on her side and elves rubbing her feet. But even February, with his dark, gloomy days, just pulls up a seat, orders a gin and tonic, and says: ‘Hey I’m only 28 days long,’ and we all swoon a little. ‘And I’m not January,’ he adds, with a mischievous wink.

Bless January, he tries his best to impress us. ‘I’ll make you fit and healthy – let’s start using that gym membership,’ he promises desperately. ‘Let’s give your liver a rest – walk away from the wine, in fact I will transform you into a new person this year… Just make a list, lets do it together.’

But he just always ends up disappointing us, doesn’t he? He’s all talk… and throwing down hail, sleet and snow, while sending us back into work with a belly full of turkey does not help. And let’s not mention the stinking hangover he always insists on starting the year with. The bastard.

In a bid to combat the somewhat aggressive January blues that I can already feel coming on, I have searched high and low for my favourite blue pictures that Matty and I have taken in recent years. Because really, if you stop to think about it, blue is a rather beautiful colour. Maybe January should start using that as his chat up line instead…


The wonderful Tyne Bridge in Newcastle. Especially wonderful in March 2011 as it marked the end of our west to east coast bike ride of England. Thank God for Star Bursts.


Some arty, blue plastic bottles at the Musee d’art Moderne et d’art Contemporain in Nice (which I am reliably informed is French for modern art museum).


One of the beautiful palm-leaf swinging trees of Bali… with oodles of offerings at their base


One of my favourite bluesy pictures of all times, so must give credit to Matty who snapped this (while I was probably filing my nails or something) in Essaouira, Morocco in 2008


The infamous sky-mirror at the Nottingham Playhouse on a particularly merry July evening in 2012.


And this, folks, is my dear friend Nicki at a particularly blue-infused rave at Glastonbury in 2010. I told you blue could be brilliant.


Well no blue collection could be complete without a cheeky little snap of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul



A Kenyan man in a a Nairobi slum from my trip with Christian Aid in 2010.


And we’re back in Nice, which I visited in March 2012. I love this place.


And a funky blue head on a posh hotel in Nice.


Hungerford Bridge in London baby! (Taken at some point in the last five years).


From the soon to be demolished Lenton Flats in Nottingham, snapped in 2011.


And another from the Lenton Flats complex, 2011.


Finally, some flying shoes in Ljubljana, Slovenia… snapped in 2011.

So, ahem, please feel free to share your views on the months of the year. Don’t pretend I’m the only one to give them sexes and personalities… Which one do you fancy the most?

Oh, and Happy New Year! X

World in Pictures: Collecting Christmas Tree Decorations

Souvenir shopping is a tricky business. The vibrant, bustling markets of India and Morocco leave me mentally decorating my home in glittering mirrors and patchwork cloth… I clutch abstract wooden carvings and lavishly decorated masks, convinced that they are exactly what my inner city Victorian terrace is lacking. But for some reason they never look quite so at home again as they did on that market stall.

Don’t get me wrong I’ve had some successes. Our huge green, hand painted Moroccan fruit bowl looks like it was made for our kitchen table and our Balinese coconut shell stores sugar just as well as anything that Ikea churns out… but, you get what I mean, it doesn’t always work.

However, have you ever noticed that EVERYTHING looks good on a Christmas tree? If it’s bright and colourful and a little bit garish, the chances are it will work just beautifully on the festive tree, if its a bit dark, sinister or just plain odd, it will probably work too – just like my Kenyan mask here.



I think this bright blue silk butterfly, which I picked up in Malaysia, more than confirms my point.

So ever since my first big travelling trip in 2006, I have collected Christmas tree decorations from around the world.

And next year I will go on my biggest Crimbo decoration shop yet… in fact I will be giving up my job in a bid to collect tree ornaments from France, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, China and Vietnam.


This little lady at the top of my tree comes from a previous trip to ‘nam

Admittedly, we are not just going to buy Christmas decorations, it is a trip we have wanted to do for years – and finally the time is right. But if truth be told, this Christmas feels a little strange… It’s going to be our last Crimbo in the UK for some time and perhaps the last ever in this little house.


Our trip from Hyson Green to Ho Chi Minh City (aka Nottingham to ‘nam) will begin in April and take about four to five months and we shall be doing it all overland… from tram, to train to tuk-tuk. We’ll rent out our house and find some new digs in Vietnam, or at least that’s the plan.

So there will be plenty more tales to come on this blog in the next year, but for now let me leave you with some souvenirs of beautiful trips gone by. And if I don’t write again before Christmas itself… Have a bloody good one.


The latest addition to the collection – the Bali ball… 2012


This little angel was the only thing not corrupted on the football tour to Riga, Latvia… 2009


From London with love… 2007


All the way to Scotland… 2012


My Indian elephant. The country I loved enough to get inked… 2006


My Deutsche fairy from Hamburg on my very first press trip… 2008


As if climbing his way to the top, this furry Koala is a Crimbo tree must… 2007


And who says you can’t decorate your tree in shells? Fiji… 2007


I heart Laos… 2006


A Moroccan slipper and a Thai delight… 2008 and 2006


And an angelic gift from Matty. Ljubljana, Slovenia… 2010

Merry Christmas and safe travels for 2013 x

Movember: When Matty met Barry

There seems to come a time in every man’s life when he must hold his head high, flex his Adam’s apple, beat his chest… and be safe in the knowledge that he can grow a big, bushy moustache. And unfortunately for me, Matty’s time came last month.

I went away for two days. That is all it took. Two days. And I came home to this….

And it is not the pose that I’m worried about. Just look at that hairy growth sitting oh, so happily on the top lip. It was Sunday, November 5th.

For any of you that managed to get through the last month without noticing an alarming rise in the number of furry lips among friends, family and colleagues, we have just come to the end of Movember. The month where men grow moustaches, the universal icon of raw and rugged manhood, and – just to silence disgusted girlfriends and wives across the globe – they do it for charity.

So for the last month we’ve had a third party in our relationship. I christened him Barry and with every passing day, as he marked his territory on Matty’s upper lip, he got a little bit stronger and more prickly. Barry didn’t take long to develop at all. I thought it was only right you all got to meet him.

Monday, November 12th. Barry and I weren’t getting on all that well.

By Day 14 Barry was ‘holding water’, Matty noted as he stepped out the shower. He could also ‘hold’ food and drink, which he would store between his bristles for later in the day.

Sunday, November 18th. Barry was changing Matty… This was the hobo stage.

But merely days later Barry had entered the ‘Old Man’ stage. By Day 22, Barry had Matty coming out with all sorts of ‘dad jokes’, which I’m not sure I can repeat on here, while he mused about pipes and cigars.

Saturday, November 24th. Matty Barry had never looked quite so at home in his Rover 25.

By that evening, Barry and Matty were one. I could no longer distinguish between them. It was just one messy three-way relationship.

To me, to you: Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you to Barry Chuckle.


By November 30th this was what I was contending with. I have never been so glad that November does not have 31 days. It was like Matty had grown a nest on his top lip. Things could have lived in it… Maybe they were.

While I was convinced that Matty had definitely morphed into Barry Chuckle, he was adamant he was more World War fighter pilot style, Biggles if you will. After all it is a hero’s tash…. Ahem.


So here we are on December 1st… 30 long days later. Now of course by this point you are no doubt all screaming: ‘Delia this is for charity – you are a terrible person, just ridiculing poor Matty on your blog.’

Now, I’ve never professed to be anything other than a terrible person, but today I did finally sponsor him… Withholding the cash until I saw him clean shaven was the only weapon left in my armoury you see. There were threats that Barry might stay for Christmas so I was forced to play the I’ll-sponsor-you-to-shave card.

But all jokes aside, Movember is a fab cause. Today 1,000 miles of tash was shaved off in the UK alone… just think of how many millions of pounds that translates into for men’s health programmes, namely prostate cancer charities. So if this post has amused you, or you’ve felt a pang of sympathy for me at all, take a look at Matty’s Movember site and sponsor him a few pennies.

This morning Barry died and I have Matty back. RIP Barry.


Disclaimer: The real Barry Chuckle lives on.