Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Food | The exotic choice: Persimmon tart

I recently got asked to join The Orchard - an online Tesco community that provides you with the opportunity to try new products and ranges. As part of this, I got invited to take part in trying their new Exotic Fruits. This summer I have been totally addicted to the figs that Tesco have had in store: 4 fresh juicy figs for the outrageously amazing price of just 69p. This week I was pretty excited when I discovered Tesco's new exotic fruit on their 69p offer was Spanish Persimmons. These gorgeous apricot-style fruits are roughly the size of an orange and make for the most amazing toppings to tart. Plus at 69p for 3, you really can't go wrong! 

I'm so thrilled that Tesco have broadened their offering of fruit and are helping consumers discover new flavours. While all other supermarkets are forcing local producers to slash prices and offering bags of veg for crazy prices, Tesco are offering good value and diverse exotic fruits. 

But of course, with all crazy new foods that might pass your way, the first question is usually, 'What do I do with it?!'

Well, here is my super simple recipe for a delicious Persimmon tart, perfect as the nights draw in.

Persimmon Tart
100g unsalted butter
100g soft brown sugar
1 egg
100g ground almonds
1 pack puff pastry
2 Persimmons
Zest of 1 clementine
Creme fraiche to serve

How to make it
1. Preheat the oven to 220 degrees or 200 degrees if you have a fan oven.
2. Beat the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Gradually add the egg and then the ground almonds and you will have made a thick paste.
3. Unroll the puff pastry sheet. Top tip: leave out of the refrigerator for an hour before you need it and this will be easy. Prick all over the pastry with a fork.
4. Spread a generous layer of almond paste over the pastry, leaving a 1cm border around the outside.
5. Slice the persimmons into thin wedges. Arrange over the paste. Grate the zest of one clementine over the tart.
6. Bake in the oven on the baking paper the tart came with for 20 minutes. The paste will swell up. Once it's baked, leave to cool on a cake rack so that the pastry can crisp up.
7. Serve with creme fraiche.

Highly recommend you get down to Tesco and try them out for yourself. Let me know how you get on!

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Health | Joining the 300

I can honestly say I have never before found myself at a pre-event briefing where the guy leading it is wearing essentially just leather pants. But then I've never done a Spartan before...

I've been invited by the guys from Spartan Race to test my metal against the rest and see if I've got what it takes to complete their grueling assault course. As I rock up for my afternoon heat (after a cheeky parkrun in the morning) I'm feeling apprehensive as to what could lay in store - what obstacles will there be? Will I be able to do them? Will I look like a fool? Will I come last?

First things first we line up at the start line - only it can't be that simple - first you have to vault a 4ft fence to even get in to the start pen. By this point I'm really scared. As I look around at the sea of competitors who I'm aiming to take on, I realise loads of them are wearing obstacle event t-shirts and are clearly used to this kind of event. I meanwhile have decided I require no additional training to my usual diet of running, cycling, open water swimming and the intensive 6 week Bikram yoga research study I just took part in. It appears my fellow competitors are more used to bootcamp than parkrun and as we're sent 'in to battle' I'm officially nervous.

And then the obstacles come: and they are hard, and fun, and bruise me, and require you to help those around you, and some of them are down-right surprising. But most surprising of all is the fact I can do them - because there is plenty of crossover to real-life running. 

Ditch filled with water with steep hill the other side? Easy! It's like fell running!
25m river swim? I go open water swimming at the weekends!

Carrying heavy sand bags? No problem - it's like running to work with my heels and packed lunch in my bag!
Climbing round a wall? It's just like scrambling in the Lake District!

And then suddenly childhood memories of a much less fit version of myself come rearing their ugly head as I reach my ultimate nemesis... Monkey bars... I've never been able to do monkey bars. I just have no upper body strength. I'm grumpy and cross as I run up to them but I've already told myself I'll give everything a go and if I fail so be it. And then the miracle of all miracle happens. I reach up and let my weight hang and I don't instantly fall off. Then I provide myself some momentum by swinging my legs backwards and forward and I reach out with one hand and successfully make my way to the next bar. And the next. And the next. In summary: Monkey Bars? No problem! 

And that's what is so great about Spartan - the wide range of obstacles provides you with plenty of opportunities to experience your own highs. As I cross the line I feel proud of what I've achieved and I've overtaken loads of people in the process.

When I get my final results I've come 256th out of just over 2000. Or if I really was a Spartan I've made the cut in to the 300. Already my mind is whirling with the possibility of the next one: well obviously I've only done the Sprint so now I want to do the Beast!

For all my love of this event though I did find the event leads up frustrating: no email reminders, or confirmations, confusing event comments on the website (who needs to arrive for a race 2 hours early?! I arrived 20 minutes early and that was plenty of time) and terrible assistance on Social Media...

but they are young and enthusiastic and it's the kind of race that feels like it's good for your soul in a way I'm not sure a 10k will ever be able to be. And at the end you are presented with weightest medal imaginable, a cracking t-shirt and a selection of photos of yourself which you can download for free: a sign of people who know what runners really want (ie not to pay £25 for a photo of yourself!).

Ultimately I really enjoyed it and left so proud of what I'd achieved from my monkey bar triumphs, to my excitement at finding the open water swim, to the dark purple bruises on my legs. And not only am I in the top 300, I'm also the 22nd female over the finish line (7th non-elite). Which for my first ever obstacle course with hardly any training, at the end of day is something I feel I can be incredibly proud of.

So go on: challenge yourself! Like me: you might just surprise yourself.


Total: 1:00:56
Final placing: 256 out of 2103
22nd female overall. 7th non-elite female.

Friday, 31 July 2015

Health | Why I cycle to work

I am an absolutely cycling to work nut. I love it. About four years a go, when I first started working in central London, I had an awkward commute on the tube which involved changing at Oxford Circus. It was hot and unpleasant and not a great contribution to the planet. More than that, it was really expensive. With tube journeys now up to £2.90 each way (Zones 1-2, Peak) I really was feeling the cumulative effect of public transport’s cost on my salary.

So I made a pledge with myself. I pledged to try cycling to work on a cheap folding bike I found on eBay for £70. I figured if I could cycle 4 times a week instead of taking the tube then after 6 weeks I would be ‘in profit.’ So I started cycling and in the end – it became a bit addictive!

I now own a posh folding bike - Bertie the Brompton – this one cost me 19 weeks of the tube journeys – and every day I bike the 4 miles from Kings Cross to my office in Notting Hill in just over half an hour. I’m a member of the London Cycling Campaign and am really enthusiastic about encouraging others to have a go at trying their commute by bike.

On 3rd September 2015 I'm encouraging others to reduce their carbon footprint for the day and join the Cycle toWork Day happening all over the UK. I'd love it if you’d consider joining me. I’m also currently campaigning around the London Cycling Campaign’s call to ban tipper trucks between 8-9:30am in central London. Have a read online of why it’s important and considering singing the pledge. 

Because cycling should be a safe, healthy, green and cheap alternative to public transport in London – and 95% of the time it is all those things.

Stay safe cyclists!

Monday, 15 June 2015

Food | Review: The Gallery Cafe, Bethnal Green

It was always going to be a match made in heaven in my books: a not-for-profit vegan community cafe. Done.

On my way to the osteopath this morning I did a quick google search to try and find a good place for a pre-physio coffee and up popped The Gallery Cafe - nestled underneath St Margaret's Community Project on Old Ford Road in Bethnal Green. With the promise of dairy-free milk and WIFI calling I arrived at the entrance and was instantly transported away from the dirty, dusty streets of East London to a mecca of urban cool.

The prices are incredibly reasonable: buns from £2, pancakes are £3.50 and cooked breakfast starts at£6 this is sustainable, responsible dining at it's best. If the vegan trend is a step too far there are plenty of vegetarian options on the menu and there is also a full allergen's key that comes with all the dishes which are homemade on site. Gluten-free? No problem. Can't eat seeds, mustard or soya? Won't be an issue.

I ordered a vegan cinnamon bun and an almond milk latte as I'm currently still practicing my Vegan Before 6 lifestyle. The coffee was perfect - froth is a challenge with dairy free-coffees but this was expertly done. The bun itself was more bready than cakey which made it like the best, goey, nutty, spicey roll ever. It reminded me of Christmas and holidays and naughty treats, all in a delicious dairy-free offering.

The Gallery Cafe's passion for fresh food, local suppliers and seasonal ingredients shines through in their menu and delicious food offering. And when is a naughty treat not a naughty treat? When the proceeds go to charity obviously! As a social enterprise, The Gallery Cafe's profits are poured back in to the work that St Margaret's House does including supporting other local charities, access to fitness and the arts and providing the community with low cost events.

In fact, The Gallery Cafe is so great: maybe it's time you considered moving to Bethnal Green.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Health | AROO! Spartan challenge and competition

Anyone who sends me an email signing off with the phrase 'AROO!' deserves my attention. So when the guys from Reebok's Spartan Race contacted me and signed off in that exact way, I got a bit excited. I've thought about doing obstacle races before but have always wimped out in favour of other ridiculous challenges (including recently fell running in the Lake District and my first triathlon). However having accomplished some of my more far fetched challenges recently I felt it was time to step up.

Spartan Race is the worlds leading obstacle racing series with over 130 events in 17 countries last year. Unique to most obstacle runs this isn't simply a challenge: it's a race. And I love I good race. So yes, primarily completing it should be your first goal, but then beating your friends, yourself and your other Spartan opponents is your next goal. 

There are three different lengths you can enter: Sprint (5km and 15+ obstacles), Super (13km and 20+ obstacles) or Beast (20km and 25+ obstacles) and they happen across the UK with upcoming races in South Wales, Manchester, Scotland, Cambridgeshire and Battle, East Sussex.

As I read through the instructions online my favourite pre-race advice of any race I've ever entered has to feature under what to wear, "shorty shorts, monkey suit or Lycra". Awesome: monkey suits at the ready people. Obstacle course runs are a chance to accept you might fail, accept it might get messy (actually: will get messy) and accept you won't have a beautiful swishy hair finish line photograph. But that's kind of the point: who wants to look perfect anyway? Instead don't we want to run until we get that giddy breakthrough feeling in our legs, until others will boggle at what we are planning to achieve and until we can cross the finish line and feel an overwhelming flood of pride for our achievement.

As races increase in distance and we are told to keep striving to go further and faster, isn't it about time someone grabbed the racing world by the scruff of the next and threw the original aim at us: get fit, be strong, have fun, be challenged, thrive.

And if you've always been too scared to enter now is your chance! The guys at Spartan are offering a free place to one reader of my blog at one of the 2015 Spartan races near you. To enter the competition, simply comment below answering: Why would you like to compete in the Spartan race? Competition closes on 30th June and winner will be announced the next week on my blog.

You can also get 10% off any Spartan race by entering the discount code BLOGGER15 online.

So meet me at the start line of the Cambridgeshire Spartan Sprint where I'll be competing or find the race nearest to you. Whatever you do: do it with conviction. AROO!

Find out more about the Spartan Races online here >>

I'm delighted to announce Patrick Aubrey has won race entry to a Spartan of his choice this Autumn. I'll be participating at the Cambridgeshire Sprint Spartan on 5th September so look out for my race report shortly after!

Patrick said:

Well done Patrick!

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Health | Taking on the Triathlon

Do you ever get those moments where you think you just need a good challenge to look forward to? Having rediscovered the joys of sports and the outdoors and found my love running, I love looking forward to the next crazy challenge. Races are a great example and they really help give me something to look forward to and train for but doing a 10km race has become a bit too normal. Please don't get me wrong: if you are about to run your first, second, third, even tenth race that's brilliant and you should be so proud of yourself but there comes a time where 10km races are all about hunting down the perfect time and completing the race isn't really the challenge anymore. 

Feeling I needed a challenge that was a bit more, well, challenging, I signed up for my first triathlon: a nice local race featuring a pool swim. I entered the Walden Sprint Tri: a 400m pool swim, 25km bike ride and 5km run. And I have to be honest, I was pretty terrified. My terror came from three main sources: 

1. I don't swim. I do know how to swim and I used to swim as a child but as I've grown older body consciousness in the past has always prevented me from being much of a swimmer. But I treated myself to a new racing bikini (as in one designed to swim properly not simply pose in) from Sweaty Betty and when I went for a couple of training swims I loved it. I also discovered that swimming is a little bit like riding a bike: once you've learnt you never really forget. 40 laps in the pool in my training session took away that fear of the swim and I'd definitely recommend if looking into triathlon's with pool swims if it's your first race and swimming is your weak discipline.

2. I don't own a proper bike. I love cycling and I'm pretty good at it. That said I own two bikes: a vintage 1970s Raleigh bike with a cracking wicker basket and moustache called Maurice and my adorable Bertie the Brompton folding bike. They are both brilliant bikes but not designed for 25km road races. Who cares though right? So the Brompton got packed in the back of the zip car and after a slightly fraught experience at the start where I almost got disqualified for having wheels that were too small (a squabble ensued here as I was told the reason that was an issue was it made me less stable at which point I pointed to a painfully light and expensive carbon-fibre bike and said "Surely I'm more stable pootling round the course than that guy is".) Avoiding disqualification as they couldn't quite work out the rules Bertie was lined up at the start to the amused smiles of my competitors.

3. I've been struggling with a back injury. If you're a fanatic follower of the Cambridge Parkrun leaderboard (really? Just me?!) you might have noticed that I lost my top spot a couple of weeks a go and haven't been running since. I had a horrible back injury rip through me during my normal parkrun about 4 weeks a go and have been desperately trying to rest and work out what happened since. So normally 5km would be easy. However 5km after all the spine problems I'd been having was a bit daunting...

With the husband
So there I was, feeling daunted and lined up in my tri-suit, swim cap and goggles at the start of my first triathlon thinking "Why on earth did I think this was a good idea?" And then the whistle went and off I went and it was amazing. The swim was great: challenging and I struggled with my breathing a bit, but great. Then my first transition was fantastic: off I went running out to my bike, quickly dried off and stuck on my t-shirt, helmet, socks and shoes and I was off - out in the countryside on Bertie Brompton ticking down the miles. No, I wasn't fast on a folding bike, but I did it! Then as I came back in to transition I was made for the cycling to running swap: no shoes to change and used to a commuting bike dump I was out like a lightning bolt. Running after you've put swimming and cycling in to your legs is hard and I struggled with the first 500m which was a hill ascent but after that it was just like the second half of a long race- you enter a section of your brain where you aren't really thinking about what you're doing its just happening. When the finish lane came I'd recovered enough that I was surprised it was over so soon. My husband (who naturally beat me as always) greeted me at the finish line with a smirk.

Me: "What's so funny?"
Him: "You found that a bit too easy didn't you."
Me: "It was great! When's the next one?"

Unflattering but accurate! Image: Joe Higham Reportage
Swim: 10:50
Cycle: 61:00
Run: 28:44
Total: 1:40:34
Final placing: 23rd female out of 31 (only person on a folding bike!)

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Health | The first to Fell

think it is something of an endemic among runners that as soon as you finish one impossible challenge you feel the need to create a bigger one for yourself. I believe it is this that causes so many people to run marathons, ultras and tough mudder races. For me that shining beacon of slight nuttiness is fell running. I think there is something incredibly heroic and exciting in fell runners: individuals who seek out mountains and then run 10,20,30,40,50k races on them. There is something incredibly back-to-basics about the whole thing and I'm a sucker for good scenery.

So I found myself in the Lake District for a long weekend having taken the fast train to Oxenholme from London and then picked up our Eco-zip car we'd made our way in to the area around Wastwater and discovered that a fell race was taking place the very weekend we were there. On the Sunday morning of the race we awoke to exceptionally blue skies and blisteringly hot weather which, for those of you familiar with British mountains, is a rarity. That for me decided it - it was now or never.

Armed with my bum bag 

We arrived at the village pub to register thirty minutes before the race started to find other runners already warming up and bristling with excitement. The Middle Fell race is £7 to enter including a bowl of pasta at the end in the pub and takes in the ascent and descent of Middle Fell on a steep 10.6km route. If you are considering running a fell race be advised that there are rules you just adhere to or risk being disqualified: you will need the minimum safety kit and to carry it in a bumbag/small rucksack [Waterproof whole body cover (i.e. jacket and over-trousers), hat, gloves, map of the route, compass, whistle, emergency food (snack bar, jelly babies etc)]. The organisers do random kit checks and disqualify those that don't comply. You'll also need some decent shoes if you've never fell run before - I've got the Inov Trailroc 236 shoes that I was running in which made the downhill section marginally less terrifying.

It's a partially marked course with lots of very friendly bodies holding open gates and pointing encouragingly in the right direction. This race is however the the steepest in terms of climb you can get - not sure if that's a good thing for beginners but take comfort in the fact that even the real pros walk up sections - everyone at my paces was walking - albeit very quickly!

On the decent (image credit: Grand Day Out Photography)

The 10.6km, 518m ascent race starts in Nether Wasdale and after a long cross country flat section the ascent begins. It's hard going and pretty painful driving your legs repeatedly uphill and it's not as though I can comfort you in telling you it's not for long - it's quite far. At the top you are greeted by friendly guides (I was being shouted at 'Round the cairn, round the cairn!' as I accidentally tried to cheat and miss out a section of the race) and then you turn at the top of the mountain to see the phenomenal sweeping landscape of the Lake District open up in front of you. Unfortunately this is the point where you also have to fall down the mountain without falling down the mountain. This bit is definitely the most terrifying and as I'm running down I whisper to myself 'don't die, don't die, don't die'. Fell running it turns out is not for the faint hearted.

On the final long straight I overtake three runners. Later over bowls of hot pasta I tell someone I'm from Cambridge and this is my first fell race. He looks at me impressed: "I couldn't do all that flat running, much too difficult." Maybe challenges like these are subjective to our environment. I leave glowing with pride. When the results come in I find out I came 11 out of the 15 women who entered in a time of 1:25:43. And with that I'm thrilled: not only did I finish my first fell race: I didn't come last.

Ready to race

Friday, 24 April 2015

Health | Confessions of a Yogaphobe

I have spent years being rude and cynical about yoga. Years and years. Whenever someone mentions going to a yoga class my top lip will curl and I'll make some snidey comment about how breathing deeply and saying 'om' doesn't count as exercise.

That is until my first yoga class a month a go. Turns out: yoga is tough! I had signed up for my first ever yoga class thanks to the wonderful Get Fit 4 Free programme run by Sweaty Betty which gives you the chance to be taught by fantastic passionate fitness gurus in the Sweaty Betty stores - and all for free! I signed up for Vinyasa Yoga as I thought it might be an interesting thing to try and I thought it might help improve my flexibility ahead of going surfing in Los Angeles at the end of May. Boy oh boy was my first class a shock!

So here are some of the confessions I have after my first month of yoga:

1. I can't help but giggle during yoga: I'm just so bad that I find myself outside of my body laughing at myself. Turns out though...

2. No one judges your ability at yoga! It's not competitive, not even with yourself, it's just about finding the space to exist in your body: to stretch, flex, bend, poise and relax in to your muscles.

3. Yoga is harder if you're a runner. Sorry guys: think running is the be all and end all? Yoga's going to be a shock! As runners we've trained our muscles in very specific, somewhat narrow-minded, ways and yoga forces your body to have a 360 degree view - not great for us runners!

4. Yoga is relaxing and that's pretty enjoyable. I like the point at the end of yoga where my groaning and inflexible muscles are allowed to simply lay there. You might even get a little shoulder massage from your yoga teacher if you're lucky: and yes, that is also pretty nice.

5. I feel more zen after a yoga class. I don't quite think it's the 'om's or the empowering quotes read at the end (sorry still skeptical about those) but yoga forces you to look at every muscle in your body and will it to relax. To encourage it to loosen as you stretch yourself in every direction. In order to push your body further you have to focus on your breathing and the combination means I leave feeling calm and less likely to shout obscenities at taxi drivers trying to kill me on my commute home.

6. I like going to yoga. There. I said it. I like my weekly class, in fact, I love it! It's challenging and it flows in a different rhythms to the rest of my life and the rest of London. Since going to yoga I've also knocked 27 seconds off my pretty solid 5k time taking it below 24 minutes: a barrier I thought was impossible for my body. I'm not sure if it's the result of the yoga: but I'm pretty sure if nothing else the positive affirming spirit of yoga has helped.

So consider this yogaphobe reformed: I'm now a converted yogi. Try it before you laugh at it: it might surprise you.

Tree pose, Isle of Wight

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Baking | The Biscuiteers, Notting Hill

New job new area! A month a go I started a brand new job in Notting Hill working for a really cool arts venue. It's such a brilliant area - lively, creative, colourful and full of incredible bakeries! 

One of my favourite bakeries in Notting Hill is called The Biscuiteers. They make beautiful, unique iced biscuits and also offer afternoon tea and icing classes. But the total highlight of their shop for me is the wonderful 'icing cafe' they offer. It's essentially a chance for the 5 year old in you who loved colouring in to mess about with icing and make something beautiful and delicious.

The Biscuiteers icing cafe has to be my friend-date of choice in London. I visited with my fantastic foodie friend Sarah and in between laughing at each other's concentration and all the sugar I can't think of a better way to spend an afternoon. For £15 you are given three biscuits to decorate (your choice of all kinds of shapes and sizes) and a huge bowl of prepared for you icing tubes in different colours. You also get unlimited drinks while you are in the cafe - tea, hot chocolate with marshmallows, lattes - whatever you want! So highly caffeinated and sugar filled you set off on your challenge to ice your biscuits. I have great fun decorating my pirate ship, wedding cake and man and at the end they wrap my biscuits up carefully and post one of them for me.

After you've learnt how hard it is to ice the biscuits it's time to celebrate your victory with The Biscuiteers glorious afternoon tea. Served on beautiful candy striped crockery this simple offering is beautifully created even though it's slightly simpler than other afternoon teas available elsewhere in London. Cucumber and smoked salmon sandwiches served on white and brown bread respectfully. The cucumber is all laid in little diagonal lines making these simple little sandwiches quite delightful and I'm dragged back to childhood memories of posh birthday parties with buffet tables and lavishly decorated birthday cakes.

After the simple savoury element of the afternoon tea, the cakes are eye-wateringly pretty - little cupcakes with sprinkles and mini biscuits wings pressed in to the mound of buttercream icing; miniature Battenberg slices and an incredible array of the signature immaculately defrosted biscuits: Notting Hill's tube sign, union jacks and a telephone box are all on the menu. The colours really pop out of this afternoon offering and it feels like the ultimate London experience with the vivid pallet of red, white and blue British emblems. 

The Biscuiteers is definitely a fantastic way to spend an afternoon either devouring their Instagram worthy afternoon tea or trying your hand at some biscuit decorating. And the results are delicious: both aesthetically and literally!

Monday, 9 March 2015

Health | Cambridge Half Marathon

A beautiful, sunny March day is not necessarily dream conditions for a half marathon but given the track record that the Cambridge Half Marathon has had it is a bit of a relief when I wake up and open the curtains to bright blue skies. Four years a go, the Cambridge Half Marathon restarted after a gap of 25 years and it's a fantastic course: two laps around the beautiful sights of this old city weaving through the famous colleges and past historic churches and over the beautiful river. It gives you a true sense of the city - plus it is flat - the half marathon dream.

Since the race restarted, my husband and I have featured in it - at least one of us every year. Three years a go it snowed (that was the one year I did't race: hoorah), last year it was blistering sunshine and several people fainted along the course. But that's one of the fab things about putting a half marathon in March in the UK: unpredictability.

The race itself is so well organised. In fact I think I can be as bold as to say I believe it is the best organised race that I have run. The course is well thought out and mostly well spaced with a few slightly too tight corners that are only problematic because of the 2,999 other runners. It is extremely well marked so you always know where you are distance wise and even though there is a headphone ban, the nature of the route means you are always running past the incredibly friendly local crowds cheering you on and offering jelly babies. There is a real sense of local pride about this: Cambridge seems happy to have regained its race and that makes it a joy to run. There are enough water stations for a fish with stations every 2 miles stocked with water and gels. All very impressive. In fact it's so well organised I wonder if the race organisers have it in their sights to turn it in to a full length marathon one year? I'm sure there would be the demand and the foundations have clearly been laid in terms of planning and route preparation.

Image: Paul Beastall
The goody bags at the end are exemplary as is my free massage from the team at The Sports Injury Clinic who, full credit to them, have brought in staff from all over to be able to hugely cut the queue time down to 10 minutes. The medals are amazing: weighty and pretty. I'm not totally convinced by the alcohol free beer instead of a sports recovery drink at the end, but my spectator is thrilled when I give mine to him. After all: who doesn't want a nice cold beer in one of the beautiful parks of Cambridge on a gloriously sunny day?

Downsides to the race are the same as most races: not enough toilets and some overly keen steward clearly thought my jumper, tied in about 20 knots to a railing, was a donation to a charity shop so it's a cold walk home. I'm also not sure why the race organisers felt they needed 3 pacers at 2hrs and no pacers slower than that. In a race that is open to all it would be nice to include pacers further down the field: maybe two at 2:15 and one at 2:30? 

But at the end of the race I'm feeling exhilarated. In fact, so exhilarated and shocked at having beaten my PB and 2hr dream time that I cry. Oh dear. I mention it to a friend afterwards who suggests I blame it on the runners high. Definitely one of the best races I've done. Totally loved it and love my new PB (texted to me 3 minutes after I finish) of 1:55:57 - thanks Cambridge for a brilliant day.

with the hubbie: 1:35:36 for him, 1:55:57 for me - PBs all round!

Thursday, 26 February 2015

Health | Barry's Bootcamp

Are you ready for this? The truth is as I enter the achingly cool underground club-style workout space that forms Barry's Bootcamp near Euston, London, I'm not sure I am. I've slept badly the night before through worry that the hardcore regime will simply break me and I'll run out crying or be laughed out the gym. But the enthusiastic receptionist greet me friendly, give me a towel and point me in the direction of the changing room in a very encouraging 'You can do this!' sort of way. 

I've come to Barry's Bootcamp to try the latest workout craze to hit London from America, a high intensity rave style workout session combing cardio and free weights in a session that boasts to burn up to 1000 calories in an hour. Entering the downstairs gym feels slightly like I've turned up for an underground rave but in a sense I have. Positioned in the corner of the room is a DJ who helps rev up the atmosphere with a seamless weaving of beats and accompanying atmospheric lighting. This is essentially a type of circuit training with two main bases: the treadmill and free weights.  

So first up I'm on the treadmill - the machines are clever and the use of carefully positioned mirrors all round the room helps motivate further. The girls on either side of me smile in a similarly scared yet encouraging way and I'm feeling pretty excited by the time we get going. Through a series of interval style session we do everything from sprints to inclines and as I scrape myself off the machine after 15 minutes to the free weights I'm already exhausted but exhilarated. On the floor a careful combination of dynamic weight training gets me grimacing and laughing at myself at the same time. Then suddenly it's time to jump back on the treadmill for what feels like a more intensive session. One more session on the floor and it's all over. It's been a full on an incredibly pumped up hours session helped massively by the enthusiastic and flawlessly performed class leader who perfectly works over the top of the DJ to encourage and motivate us.

At the end I get ready for work in the achingly cool changing room with luxury products flown in from New York, real showers (none of the usual gym rubbish where you have to continually press the button for a predetermined temperature trickle to come out) and hairdryers and straighteners. I leave and order a banana nut protein shake which is glorious and ensures I don't have to deal with sore muscles the next day.

I leave a convert - I feel strong and radiant. This isn't a workout - it's a way of life. 

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Home | Vintage Chair Restoration Project

About 5 years a go I bought these amazing vintage 50s chairs off eBay for £20 for four. They were, on the surface, not the prettiest but I could see that they had originally been incredibly cool before the years had taken their toll. Now with our house renovation fully under way I've been temporarily excused from woodwork painting duty to focus on some slightly more creative upcycling projects. First task: my beloved vintage chairs!

The seat and back pads are quite simply attached to the frame of the chair with a couple of screws so it was easy enough to remove these. I then sanded the thick dark brown paint off them to reveal a beautiful blonde, Scandi style, wood underneath. Once this was completely sanded (a much more time and physically exhaustive experience than I had expected) I then used Linseed oil on the wood to protect it and nourish it while still retaining the beautiful light coloured wood I'd revealed through my hard work. 

Next work: the seat and back pads. After a bit of thought I'd decided that I only wanted the seat pad to be covered in fabric. Whoever had originally covered the chairs had, I'm convinced, had a nail fettish. There were about 100 nails in the back board so it took a seismic amount of effort to remove all the plastic beige fabric, padding and the huge amount of metal from the wood. Once I was down to my raw materials of the two bits of wood I could then begin to breath life back in to them. For the back section this involved using wood filler on all the holes from the nails and then applying several coats of linseed oil to bring it up to the same colour as the frame. For the seat pad I decided to keep the wadding which was in pretty good condition and choose a green polka dot fabric to cover my chairs in. Cutting the fabric to size was a simple job of laying the seat pad on top and cutting with a 3-4 inch border. I then used a staple gun to stretch the fabric in to place and secure it making sure to create a seam so that the loose ends of fabric were hidden on the inside. For this you fold the fabric in on itself before stapling on top of the fold you have created.

Then I reattached the seat and back sections to the frame again and thus my chairs were restored! I'm not totally happy on the finish on the back section although I am pleased I didn't choose to cover it in fabric. It's very comfortable as it is and I enjoy the contrast. Unfortunately the nail holes had caused more damage than I'd expected to find. I'm going to pause on the project and work out if I want to do something else to hide the holes - potentially a fabric border around the back section using the same fabric as the seat pad or maybe painting them the back a pale grey colour. Let me know your thoughts!

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

Food | The Pullman First Great Western Train

Exeter via Pullman and Brompton

Are you ready to be taken back in time to a world where luxurious travel was as much about the journey as the destination? I’ve arrived at London Paddington ready to journey to the South Coast via a culinary railway treat. I’m ushered in to a beautiful classical architectural gem that constitutes the first class lounge complete with coffee and pastries. As I curl up in a leather wingback armchair I feel like I’ve been taken back to the magic of 1930s rail travel. All I need now is a leather suitcase and a mysterious date with a trilby-wearing stranger at the other end.

I’m of to Exeter St David’s on the latest offering in luxury travel from First Great Western. Partnering with chef Mitch Tonks they have launched a new menu on board the UK’s only daily fine dining rail car service, the Pullman. Featuring produce sourced locally to the railway line and beautifully fresh seafood straight from Brixham market, this fusion of classic whirlwind romance and exceptional dining is a combination that is sure to be a hit.

Sitting in a luxurious wide carriage, at a linen covered table, I order a Cornish white wine and as we begin to slip out of London I feel as though I’m already far away from the noise of the city. Specially sourced, the white Cornish wine from Knightor, is a revelation – I’ve always been hugely suspicious of any English wines but this really is a delicious delight. The Trevannion is light, fresh, floral and a beautiful English offering.

Knightor Trevnnion Cornish white wine   
To start I order the fresh crab from Devon - a dish featuring both the white and brown meat (£10). As tastes and fashions have changed, brown crab meat has been dropping off more and more menus but it’s great to see the deeper flavoured dark meat partnered against the sweeter white meat here. On to mains and I’ve opted for Mitch’s personal recommendation the monkfish (£25). A beautiful meaty piece of perfectly cooked fish is presented before me served with a mint and caper sauce and traditional British sides including cauliflower cheese. The next time someone tells me there is no such thing as traditional British food I’d like to wave the Pullman’s menu in front of their nose. Taking influence from Italy and France but firmly rooted in the traditional British palate, the menu is classic and reminds me strongly of home which seems appropriate for a train that might be whisking you away from the city to your beautiful seaside home.

Crab starter

Monkfish main
For desert I’ve opted for the West Country cheese board, served with Somerset quince jelly (£9). Beautifully creamy and an incredibly generous portion later, we roll in to Exeter St Davids after just 2 hours and I feel a million miles away from the chaos of the capital.

West Country cheese board
I’ve brought Bertie the Brompton, my new folding bike, with me and we’ve got 40 minutes before catching the train back to London. While the rest of the Press traipse over the road for hotel coffees, Bertie and I are off on our guerrilla style speed tourism adventure. I’ve never been to Exeter but it’s the town my mum went to university in and after a quick scan of a map before leaving I’ve worked out it’s only a mile from the station to the city centre. I hadn’t quite bargained on that being up a stonking hill but Bertie is armed with two gears and more than capable of the challenge. I’m rewarded at the top with the beautiful Saxon cathedral dating from 1200. It’s vast and the ceiling inside is completely incredible: in fact it’s the longest vaulted ceiling in England.

Bertie outside Exeter cathedral

Inside Exeter Cathedral

Exeter Cathedral
Back on the road and up hill a bit further I find Rougemont Castle, built by William the Conqueror soon after 1066. Now just tumbling walls and sections of the gates remain but it’s impressive nonetheless and you can imagine how this prominent hill side fortification would have been a stronghold back in the Medieval times.

Rougemont Castle 
Mural in Exeter city centre
Bertie and I whiz back down the hill to the station and I’m back with time to spare before the train. The other reviewers look round confused “Where’ve you been?” They’re half way through their coffees and I meanwhile am flushed with the excitement of a new city and a small but mighty adventure. “Oh, just nipped round Exeter quickly, did the tourist thing” I reply nonchalantly, grinning to myself.

As I step back on to the train I’m plotting my next visit – a chance to take on both the beautiful old-school romance of the laid back first class travel with the highlights of the exceptional food produced on the Pullman train and a chance for Bertie and I to get out and about on another adventure.

By stepping back in to the past, I feel I have come face to face with the future of travel: because, after all, shouldn’t the journey be as important as the destination?

Me with chef Mitch Tonks

Monday, 9 February 2015

Life | Two oldies adventures

I want to tell you about a rather amazing power couple I know. Both in their 60s, they aren't your usual OAPs. On Saturday, the wife, Philippa, left to go round Indochina for 4 months - more accurately 'flashpacking' - "Haven't you heard of it?" she asks, "it's the glamping of backpacking." She's starting in Bangkok before heading off to Myanmar (known to most of us by it's old name Burma) before heading round Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam and ending up back in Thailand. All of this on her own.

Meanwhile the husband of the couple, David, had been plotting which mountains around the UK need to be ticked off his already rather impressive list. Under the disguise of learning to use the appliances in the house, he has booked train tickets to the furthest reaches of Scotland and planned all the trips that would usually make Philippa roll her eyes. A typical trip includes taking a train all the way from London up to Wick in Scotland before cycling to get to a mountain "But it will be cycling through thick snow!" he tells me excitedly. Not your normal holiday.

On top of that, David bikes 25 miles a day round London and when Philippa is in London she nabs the standing spots at the Royal Opera House and pays single figures to watch 5 hour long arias.

They really are rather cool and I really am a bit jealous of their adventures. Plus they're my parents! 

They've both just started a blog talking about their adventures home and away, check it out - they are hilarious and unexpectedly adventurous. 

Philippa (AKA mum) is travelling under the ruse of An Oldies Adventure
David (AKA dad) is getting up to no good over at An Oldies Misadventure

So a toast to the coolest oldies I know: Team Levey.

An Oldies Adventure checking in at the airport

An Oldies Misadventure crossing a river in Scotland