Wednesday, 26 July 2017

I am not a number! ~ visiting Portmeirion in North Wales

Did you ever watch cult 1960s TV series The Prisoner? I (obviously) didn't see it first time around, but caught a rerun probably in the late 1980s and got hooked. I loved the colours and the surreal imagery and, even though I still have absolutely no idea what was really going on (does anyone?!) The Prisoner was about my favourite programme before Twin Peaks came along. Its real location, the Welsh village of Portmeirion, has been on my travel bucket list for decades and last week I finally found myself there. At last! Fortunately I didn't get gassed and wake up there - we drove instead - so leaving at the end of the day wasn't a problem!

Portmeirion was designed and created by architect Clough Williams-Ellis to show how a beautiful site could be developed without spoiling it. An ongoing project which he led for some fifty years from the 1920s to the 1970s, Portmeirion is now owned by a registered charity. The site was inspired by Mediterranean villages, particularly Italian ones, and contains a bewildering array of Grade I and Grade II listed historical buildings in wildly differing architectural styles. They are painted in sunny colours and the whole place looked stunning for our visit.

We were lucky to get our tickets bought just as one of the half-hourly guided tours was beginning so quickly caught up. Our guide drew our attention to artworks painted onto walls by one of the Williams-Ellis daughters and to odd artefacts such as the gold painted Buddha statue which I believe I remember had been a film prop. We passed cafes, the Portmeirion pottery shop and a The Prisoner shop too. The tour took about twenty minutes and we were then right on time to board the train and be driven around the Woodland Walk. A stop on this route allowed us views across Portmeirion village and its estuary. Disappointingly, there weren't any giant white balloons guarding the sands!

After the train we explored part of the village before heading down to the waterside where we decided to attempt the Coastal Walk without the aid of a 'dotto train'. Dave was suffering from the aftermath of a bad cold so was particularly breathless so we hoped this walk would be flatter than the forest one. It mostly was - until the two routes merged! We sat on a porticoed terrace and climbed up to a lighthouse viewpoint before ambling back past ponds and a red Japanese bridge where Dave made friends with a surprisingly tame robin.

Back in Portmeirion itself I took the opportunity to talk to artist in residence Briony Clarke who has her studio overlooking the lawns. Initially on a six month residency, Briony ended up staying for four years and has created a fascinating painting technique combining locally gathered pigments with moving water. She has developed a trio of machines, one of which - a spiral of water going down a drain - produces spookily beautiful monochrome landscapes that could almost be the water painting where it has come from. I know that sounds weird, but the work is amazing! Unfortunately I forgot to take any photos.

I am so glad that I finally got to visit this incredible village and I certainly wouldn't rule out returning at some point in the future. As well as day tickets there is also self-catering accommodation and a hotel at Portmeirion so perhaps we could treat ourselves for a future anniversary?

Monday, 24 July 2017

#PlasticFreeJuly - three weeks completed

It's a general consensus that changing ingrained habits takes time. This is a point I need to remember as I easily get frustrated when everything New doesn't happen Now!

Having discovered the near-impossibility of avoiding single-use plastic when buying meat, fish and dairy, I am investigating alternatives such as making my own cheese which looks like fun. Even plant-based food isn't always a plastic-free answer as tofu is vacuum sealed in plastic too so I also want to try making a kind of Chickpea tofu. The instructions seem easy enough?!

We were camping in Wales for the whole of this third Plastic Free July week but my reduced kitchen didn't make for as much difficulty as I thought it would. I managed to get our rices and pastas into recycled glass jars before we departed so had several lock-tite tubs empty. Of course they are themselves plastic, but I am not going to discard perfectly serviceable containers so our reusable plastic will stay until each piece wears out! Anyhow, our Outwell coolbox is excellent but it does tend to collect condensation. Cling film is useless when it gets wet so I was very glad of my tubs for cheeses, half onions and lemons, and my lentil spread (which is easy enough to make on a camping hob). Partway through this week I realised I hadn't actually reached for the cling film at all this month which, for me, is quite an achievement! The roll we bought in Spain last winter might now never get finished.

I was delighted on our return home yesterday to have an envelope from Bee Bee Wraps waiting for me. I featured these innovative food storage cloths in my Top Five Etsy Finds a couple of weeks ago and now have a trio to review. They are pretty and I have been looking forward to trying them out. I will share my thoughts in a future post.

Today, instead of nipping to the Co-Op for plastic-bagged bread, I dusted off my favourite Slow Cooker Wholemeal Bread recipe. I began baking this regularly on our 2014-15 caravan journey because It was usually easier than trying to find the 'right' sort of loaf in Spanish supermarkets. Using the slow cooker keeps our energy consumption right down and meant we didn't have the oven overheating the caravan! Overheating isn't so much of a problem in our flat, but our inherited an electric oven uses 2000w+ to bake bread. The slow cooker uses just 163w so even with the much longer bake time, it's still about a tenth of the electric cost. The ingredients are cheaper than a bought loaf too, it tastes better, and dough kneading is superb exercise for reducing 'bingo wings'! Win-win-win-win! I'm struggling to remember why I stopped baking bread.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Camping on the North Wales coast - Llandanwg and Harlech

View from Llandanwg beach 
I vaguely remember going to Anglesey for a week with a schoolfriend some thirty years ago otherwise I don't think I have explored North Wales before now. It's beautiful!

We booked in for four nights at a Camping And Caravanning Club certified site in the tiny village of Llandanwg, about two kilometres from Harlech. Ymwlch Farm campsite is essentially a neat stonewalled field with electric hookups and several water taps. There are a pair of toilets off to one side and the possibility to take showers at the nearby farmhouse. A 'shock horror' moment revealed there was absolutely no phone or portable wifi signal there so I had the bizarre experience of being almost internet free for several days! I say almost because there was a good signal about a hundred yards away on the beach. The campsite was £16 per night including electricity. Showers are 50p extra each. There is a fairly tight turn off the road and I was glad we only had our trailer tent on tow although larger caravans than Bailey were in the field so it probably would have been fine!

View from Llandanwg beach 
Ymwlch Farm's great advantages are its proximity to a wide sandy beach and to the historic town of Harlech with its interesting shops and cafes and the partially restored castle. There is good walking country hereabouts too, but unfortunately Dave came down with a nasty cold for a few days so we will need to return and walk! We did manage an hour or so strolling towards a small harbour and back around on our first evening. The views were stunning and these photos really don't do them justice!

We visited Harlech Castle the next day. Edward I had its construction started in 1283, one of a number of structures he commissioned, and it was virtually completed by 1289 which is apparently fast by large-stone-castle standards. I learned that 950 men worked on the build at the busiest time and, like all grand designs, it went rather over budget although at just over £8000 was still Edward's cheapest castle! By the early 1400s Harlech Castle was occupied by Owain Glyndwr (whose name we last encountered I think in Llandovery) and the famous anthemic Men Of Harlech song was written about the siege of Harlech Castle during the Wars Of The Roses.

View across to a harbour
near Llandanwg 
Entry to the castle these days is by way of a ticket office with attached gift shop and cafe. Once inside there are a number of informative poster boards and I especially liked two small models of the castle. Towers and walls have been restored so it is possible to climb (too many!) spiral steps and get long views over Harlech town and out to sea. At the time of its construction the sea was much closer, but now there is a band of protected dunes and a small golf course between its sea gate and the water.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

#TreatYourself - special offers that caught my eye

You may already have spotted the fantastic bargains to be had in the Not On The High Street summer sale at the moment. Many items are up to half price so I thought I would concentrate July's TreatYourself post on showing you my favourites. I love that Not On The High Street shops are independent artisan businesses and craftspeople who make high quality products. I have kept Plastic Free July in mind too!

Click on the photos to buy!

Dust And Things, based appropriately enough in Caerphilly, have their wooden Commemorative Cheeseboards at half price in the summer sale. Reduced from £34.99 to £17.49 these make perfect wedding gifts as they can be engraved with the couple's names, special date and venue. The cheeseboards come complete with a grio of cheese knives and a fork.

If you need a last minute coach, tutor or teacher's gift, you might just have time to receive a Thank You For Helping Me Grow kit from Kutuu. It's reduced from £15 to £12 at the moment. Inside the gift box which is personalised with your chosen message you will find a mini terracotta plant pot wrapped in tissue paper, an expanding coir compost disc, a seed ball of your choice, “thank you for helping me grow” pewter plant marker and instructions.

Unsurprisingly, discarded plastic toys make up a significant proportion of landfill waste and most can't be recycled. Alternatives are available though and I liked this adorable six piece train which is made by Twenty Seven in Edinburgh. Made from long-lasting wood, it can be personalised with a child's name and a date and is suitable for children aged three or older (perhaps much older!) The train is 20% off in the sale, reduced from £27.95 to £22.36.

I thought this rugged canvas holdall would be ideal for travellers or gym bunnies alike. The strong holdall bag is made from washed canvas with detachable retro stripe webbing strap in cream and chocolate. It can be personalised with your choice of initials or name and this printing is done by Sparks Clothing in Somerset. Make the most of the 50% discount by buying now at £30, reduced from £60. Sparks Clothing have a matching cross-body messenger bag currently at a 60% discount too!

And, after all that shopping excitement, I chose a relaxing Lavender Infused Silk Eye Mask for my closing suggestion. Made in West Sussex by StephieAnn for the ultimate luxury, these beautiful eye masks, infused delicately with lavender oil, were created for the perfect night's sleep. Each one features a floral front printed with your choice from one of four of Stephie's paintings, a black silk reverse and comfortable elastic strap. Eye masks are perfect gifts for mums to be, jet setters and spa or relaxation weekends - or treat yourself! They are currently discounted by 50%: £11.50 each, reduced from £23.

Friday, 21 July 2017

Exploring Ironbridge, the beginning of the Industrial Revolution

Back in 2015 Dave and I began our thirteenth year together by visiting a historic bridge in Northumberland. At the time of its construction in 1820, the Chain Bridge was the longest carriage-carrying suspension bridge in the world. This year, entirely unintentionally, we spent the first day of our fifteenth year together strolling around the village of Ironbridge near Telford in Shropshire - the site of the world's first cast iron bridge.

Now preserved as a historic monument by English Heritage, the bridge itself was originally basically a giant advertisement! It was constructed over the River Severn in 1779 to prove the point that iron was perfectly suited as a material for large scale architectural projects. Local foundry owner Abraham Darby III had the bridge built and, from a promotional point of view, it was a roaring success as people straight away began travelling to Coalbrookdale to see it and iron became a popular choice for further bridge manufacture. We had even seen a quartet of small iron houses a few days previously at the Black Country Living Museum. A village grew up around the bridge, Ironbridge, and the new name is now used to encompass the incredible industrial heritage trail along this short section of the River Severn.

Ironbridge Gorge model 
We visited the Darby Houses situated uphill from the bridge itself and home to several generations of Abraham Darby III's family. These two buildings, side by side, were rescued for preservation pretty much in the nick of time as they had been allowed to get into a very poor state of repair. Now partially renovated (and with more work planned) the houses host a small museum to the influential family and their Quaker faith. It was very interesting and a well laid out museum with helpful staff. There is even a dressing-up room where we tried on period clothes of both society and Quaker fashion. It turns out a bonnet rather suits me!

One of my favourite exhibits was down in Ironbridge itself at the Museum Of The Gorge. There an intricately detailed  twelve-metre-long model of the Gorge as it was in 1796 shows the various industries concentrated there, how the River Severn was vital to their success and how they interlinked. The Ironbridge can be seen in the centre.

Ironbridge Gorge model 
Of course most of the industry that made Ironbridge famous has now gone so the Gorge we visited is once again a clean, peaceful place. Paintings up at the Darby Houses showed images of the valley partially obscured by smoke or with the polluted night sky glowing orange. I imagine it is a far more pleasant place to visit these days - and certainly a healthier one in which to live! The main business these days seems to be Afternoon Teas and we did partake in a cuppa and a slice. Eighty Six'd is an independent cafe uphill and a little away from the main tourist street. There's slate art on the walls and I loved their brightly coloured crockery! We can certainly recommend you to the Coffee And Walnut Cake (pictured) and the warm Apple Cake With Ice Cream. Sitting up in the bay window watching the world pass by made for a reflective end to our Ironbridge day.

Tea and cake at Eighty Six'd 

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

The RAF Museum at Cosford

I surprised myself with how much I enjoyed our visit to the RAF Museum at Cosford. Exhibits are crammed into three large hangars and despite our being there several hours we only managed to do justice to two of the three. Like York's Railway Museum, Cosford's RAF Museum is free to enter and is a magnificent display. It felt as though we should have paid handsomely for the privilege of walking around!

Once past the cafe and gift shop - to which we returned at the end of our visit! - the first hangar concentrated on a history of the RAF and military flight beginning with a statue of pilots from three eras. Superstitious artefacts including soft toys and a rabbit's foot lay alongside guns and uniforms. The only woman I saw mentioned was Jean Lennox Bird, the first female pilot to be awarded full RAF pilot's wings, and the museum has her St Christopher necklace. From a feminist perspective I was encouraged to see cadet groups touring the museum included significant numbers of girls so women are becoming more equally represented. From a pacifist perspective though I found it difficult to reconcile the museum being located on an RAF base. Its historical bubble swiftly bursts when one realises that the destruction and violence depicted in archived videos are still business as normal in the next door hangars.

The museum has examples of Second World War planes from various countries including the earliest surviving Spitfire and this pictured Japanese Ohka, one of the Kamikaze planes. It's tiny! We also got to view numerous experimental aeroplanes and Dave particularly was appalled at the amount of money spent on creating prototypes that never flew or that became outdated within a very short space of time.

The pride of this museum is its Cold War exhibition housed in a specially designed hangar that is a work of art in its own right! Exhibits here include a variety of airborne and landbased vehicles as well as video and sound installations, contemporary posters, newspapers and magazines, and some great propaganda slogans from both sides. I particularly liked the Albert Einstein quote pictured at the top of this post. With the recent UN resolution to ban nuclear weapons soon to be ratified by so many nations - although not the UK of course - this exhibition depicting how bravado and bullishness had so nearly brought the world to nuclear disaster relatively recently was chillingly relevant.

Monday, 17 July 2017

My second week of #PlasticFreeJuly

Coming away camping for a fortnight has added different pressures to my Plastic Free July challenge. I am still pleased with my reduction in plastic usage, but being in unknown towns makes finding plastic free options that much more difficult.

I am delighted with the performance of my homemade toothpaste. Firstly the jar hasn't leaked at all which was a slight worry in a washbag! My teeth still feel just as clean as with commercial toothpaste and their extreme sensitivity didn't immediately return which I was also concerned about. Instead my bleeding gums problem has completely stopped so I have concluded that it was caused by something in the commercial toothpaste - perhaps it being too strong for me? Now, not only can I save plastic and money by not buying that, it looks like I can dispense with sporadic Corsadyl purchases too. That's even more plastic and cash saved!

I made myself a batch of Lentil and Onion Spread before departing home and have the makings of another batch with me. This made for easy lunches on crackers or bread. However now being without an oven means I can't bake any more crackers. I should have brought my metal-pan slow cooker to bake bread! But didn't so today's loaf had to be a plastic-wrapped purchase. I assuaged my conscience a little by buying from a local bakery though and it is a particularly delicious loaf.

We're actually in Harlech now (my touristy posts will take a few days to catch up!) and I found boiled sweets that were Not individually plastic wrapped and weighed out into a paper bag. Yay for Harlech Sweet Shop! I was disappointed last week by the Black Country Living Museum displaying loose sweets in jars, but then actually selling individually plastic wrapped ones already weighed into paper bags so I couldn't see that what I had bought was different.

I was cheered up by a message from BeeBeeWraps, one of the artisans I featured in July's Top Five Etsy Finds. She offered to send a pack of her plastic free food wraps for me to try out and review so I am looking forward to receiving them when I get home.

Otherwise cheese, meat and fish are proving to be the trickiest to find plastic free and so far I have failed on all these and oats too. I bought the huge bag of oats from the Coop so reduced plastic wrap and their apples and tomatoes were at least in cardboard trays (then wrapped in plastic). We were in Shifnal at this point and I was disappointed to have missed the greengrocers by only five minutes - until I peered through the window and spotted plastic a-plenty there too. Oh well!

Fingers crossed for a better third week ...