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Product review: Secret London – an unusual guide

Every now and again, the debate over whether counting countries makes someone less of an authentic traveller or not rears its head. I’ll freely admit, I’ve added places to an itinerary simply because I’m going to be just across the border and the urge to explore is strong. But it’s also great to revisit a place and dig a bit deeper. That said, there’s a temptation when you do go back to see yourself as some kind of expert. Usually, that’s not at all true, but what about when it’s your local city?

When I was offered the chance to review Jonglez Publishing’s “Secret London: An Unusual Guide”, I thought it was a chance to see just how well I knew the city. Both my parents were born there and as I’ve lived all my life under an hour from Liverpool Street station, I’ve been a frequent visitor. In that respect, although I’ve never lived in London, I do know it well and think I’m reasonably well qualified to determine whether the places included in the book should be deemed “secret” or not.

The extensive list of contents is zoned into broad geographic areas, such as Marylebone to Shepherd’s or Whitechapel to Woolwich. “Towerbridge” niggles, but the error is fixed in later pages. I’d say you have to know the city already to be able to make sense of the geography, though the flip side of that is that the book is designed for people who wish to get off the beaten track and by definition, they’re more likely to have already visited.

I’d have liked to see neighbourhoods or the more usual East, South, West and North London split to make it easier for readers to get their bearings. Greater London is dealt with in two halves, so you have BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir in the same section as God’s Own Junkyard yet they’re 15 miles apart on opposite sides of a congested city.

In this respect, the guide’s more suited to curling up in an armchair than taking it out with you. In many cases, the listings seem to be designed to be sufficiently informative that you don’t need to visit at all, with tons of background and a colourful picture. However, there are helpful maps throughout which enable you to concentrate on a small part of the city and hop from sight to sight should you wish. The inclusion of bus numbers as well as Tube stations is also useful.

Largely, the buildings and curiosities that the authors include are intriguing. One of the guide’s greatest strengths is to gently remind you that many of these things are hidden in plain sight. Some of the attractions featured are a surprise: Brixton is home to London’s last windmill in full working order, while Strand Lane’s Roman Baths are neither Roman nor originally built as a bath.

There’s a lot in here that is already familiar to me, but there’s also a lot which isn’t.Though it’s possible to dip in and out of this guide, it’s the kind of book that rewards those who give it a little more time. There are a few missed opportunities, such as an entry for the Kingsway Tram Subway that makes no mention of the Crossrail project. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, anyone hoping to visit some of these attractions is going to need to check online listings as many of them are currently closed.

Overall, I think it’s a worthy addition to any bookshelf – not to mention its gift potential if you’re stuck for present ideas. I can’t wait to take it up to London with me and see some more bits of our fascinating capital now I know more of the background.

Many thanks to Jonglez for the gift of several of their guides, including the Secret London guide which retails at £12.99. For a full list of titles visit the Jonglez Publishing website.

Essex on foot: walk your way through lockdown

These are stressful times but one of the best ways to find a way through this with your sanity intact is to walk. As you connect with your surroundings, you’ll find yourself using more of your senses – you won’t just see what’s around you but be able to smell, hear and touch it. Slowing down the pace gives you time to appreciate what’s around you in a way that taking a scenic drive cannot. Here in Essex, thanks to our flat topography, walking really is accessible to everyone.

Even before the pandemic, Country Walks magazine was encouraging us to get out and explore on foot to improve our fitness. Its Walk 1000 Mile challenge was as simple as it sounds; walk, record, share. If you walk every day, that’s less than 3 miles in one go each time you lace up those boots. The initiative launched early in January, with a year suggested for covering the 1000 mile target, but there’s no reason you can’t start whenever you like. Use an app such as Map My Walk or Strava (not just for runners and cyclists) to keep track of the distance you’ve covered.

Be mindful of the lockdown rules

Before you head out on a cross-county drive to explore somewhere new, bear in mind the UK government’s lockdown guidance, which currently extends until December 2nd. Walking with members of your household or support bubble is permitted, and it’s also legal to meet with one other person. Plan ahead so you’re abreast of seasonal parking options and road closures.

Give other walkers space; carry a mask for areas which might be busy, such as queuing for a car park ticket or a takeaway coffee. Carry some hand sanitiser to ensure you don’t unwittingly pick up germs from a gate or bench. We might not all agree with the government’s policy, but restrictions will only ease if the numbers come down and we all have a responsibility to try to achieve that.

Where to find information

If you’re looking for a walking book there are a number of good choices, but one of the best is Essex Outstanding Circular Walks by Dennis and Jan Kelsall. Suggested routes are grouped by length, giving you a good idea of how long they might take, and there are clear maps too. Best of all, you’ll conveniently end up where you started.

There’s also a wealth of online content available. If you’re not able to get connected at home, sixteen Essex libraries are open and 45 minute computer sessions are bookable in advance. These are the libraries which remain open during the lockdown: Basildon, Billericay, Braintree, Brentwood, Chelmsford, Clacton, Colchester, Dunmow, Epping, Harlow, Harwich, Maldon, Rayleigh, Rochford, South Benfleet and Witham.

A useful starting point on the internet is the Essex Walks site. It has a useful map search facility which means you can identify walks near to your home. It also splits walks into long and short, allowing you to pick a route which is suitable for your fitness level and the amount of time you can spare. Fellow travel writer Helen Moat wrote a great round-up piece for Wanderlust magazine this summer, which mostly features walk ideas that showcase our varied coastline.

If you’re on Facebook, then I recommend you check out the Rambling Essex group. Largely driven by member-suggested content, this is where you’ll find the local walks and hidden gems that can only come from those who live here. The admin team have been diligently uploading all sorts of walking routes, so if you’re looking for inspiration, this is the place to find it.

Some of my favourite Essex walks

Woodland: Marks Hall Arboretum

We’re blessed with many woodland walks in Essex: well-trodden paths cut through Hockley Woods, Billericay’s Norsey Woods and Belhus Country Park in south Essex. Further north, the county boasts hidden gems such as Blakes Wood near Danbury, Chalkney Wood near Earls Colne and Weeleyhall Wood near Weeley. Let’s not forget Epping Forest, which remains an unspoilt tract of countryside despite its proximity to London.

Marks Hall Arboretum, in my opinion, is in a league of its own. This time, it will stay open during lockdown; the mix of formal planting and natural woodland makes this place a delight to visit at any time of year, but it’s especially lovely in autumn with its palette of ochre, burnt orange and crimson. It’s becoming increasingly popular, so check ahead for opening times and car park information.

Village walks: Thaxted

Inland, there are plenty of walks which loop within and around some of the county’s cutest villages. Coggeshall’s packed with history, not least as you stroll past Grange Barn or Paycocke’s House. A walk from Bradwell-on-Sea soon takes you to England’s oldest chapel, St Peter-on-the-Wall, built in 654AD. Follow St Peter’s Way 40 miles across Essex and you’ll reach another historic place of worship, Greensted Church, the oldest wooden church in the world.

The Essex countryside is also littered with windmills. The oldest, a post mill, stands overlooking the chocolate box village of Finchingfield but as far as walks are concerned, my vote goes to Thaxted. A loop trail reveals not just an early 19th century tower mill but also Dick Turpin’s house, thatched almshouses and the beautiful 15th century Guildhall.

Riverside walks: the Wivenhoe Trail

It’s really hard to pick a riverside favourite as there’s just so many to choose from. The charms of the River Stour at Dedham Vale are well-documented, but it’s also a treat to walk east from Manningtree to Harwich, passing Wrabness and the quirky House for Essex along the way.

The Blackwater at Wickham Bishops reveals an almost hidden wooden trestle railway bridge tucked out of sight in a copse, the last of its kind in the country. Not far away, the Chelmer & Blackwater Navigation has a number of highlights, including Paper Mill, Hoe Mill and Beeleigh locks, not to mention Heybridge Basin, of course. The Crouch is pleasant too, particularly the north shore from Fambridge to Burnham-on-Crouch.

I do enjoy the five miles or so from Hythe in Colchester to Wivenhoe. The industrial heritage at the start of the trail is fascinating – you won’t miss the Colne Lightship in its red livery but there are some unusual wooden carvings that are easier to overlook. Wivenhoe, with its pretty historic cottages and colourful boats, is a complete contrast.

Coastal: Walton on the Naze

Surprisingly little of the Essex coastline boasts broad sandy beaches, as the presence of salt marsh creates a buffer between the villages and the sea in places. At RSPB Old Hall Marshes, near Tollesbury, and at Wallasea Island, footpaths make use of the sea walls for hikes that are guaranteed to blow away the cobwebs. That’s not to say we’re short of sand, however, from the busy beaches flanking Southend Pier to the historic iron lighthouses on Dovercourt’s Blue Flag beach.

In my opinion, the stretch of coastline between Jaywick and Hamford Water takes some beating. Though the grassy dunes of Jaywick are photogenic and the greenswards at Clacton and Frinton are ideal for a dog walk, northerly neighbour Walton is head and shoulders above the rest. With an 18th century clifftop tower, wrecked pillboxes, promise of shark’s teeth fossils and a nature reserve that’s home to migratory birds during the winter months, what’s not to love?

One last thing: show respect for local landowners

I’m always saddened to read of conflicts between ramblers and local landowners. Private land is what it says, whether we like it or not. Farmers out in their fields using machinery shouldn’t have to worry about people straying into their path – it’s important to remember that 72% of Essex is agricultural land, so stick to footpaths and marked trails if you’re venturing out into the countryside. 

Funchal’s old town doors

I spent five days exploring Madeira and it wasn’t nearly enough to discover its charms. Based in Funchal, I enjoyed several early morning strolls around the old town while waiting for buses to take me around the island. Those walks revealed a novel art project instigated by local photographer José Maria Zyberchem in 2010, coincidentally about the same time as Instagram began. It’s called the Art of Open Doors – and as it’s evolved, now centres largely on Rua de Santa Maria in the Zona Velha. The first piece of artwork on that street – at number 77 – was commissioned in 2011 and the project’s still growing.

Homes, restaurants and shops combine to form one wonderful outdoor art gallery, as diverse as it is compelling. Some owners were more reluctant than others, particularly at first, but this is the kind of project that snowballs. The more doors they include, the greater the impact of the whole installation. As property changes hands, some of the art is painted over. In one or two cases, vandals have spoiled the original work. But, many of the doors are as they were when the artist packed away their brushes.

The Painted Doors Project, as it’s also known, provides an interesting insight into Madeiran culture, with images of poncha, folk dancing and the island’s colourful flora all making an appearance. Some artists make imaginative use of door knockers and post boxes within the design. Some are modern in style, others contemporary. All of them help to breathe new life into an area that was definitely looking a little rough round the edges.

Do you have a favourite? I’m hard pushed to choose and always a sucker for a dog, but if I had to pick, then perhaps the mermaid.

It’s travel, but not as I know it

As more and more of Europe experiences a rise in coronavirus cases, and the weather worsens as we head into winter, my thoughts are inevitably turning to travel further afield. I hate November with a passion. Since I’m no longer tied to school holidays, that means I can escape to far-flung destinations such as Barbados for a bit of autumnal sunshine. But this year’s a little different, of course. After my recent trip to lovely Madeira, tentative hopes to visit perhaps the Azores or Santorini were dashed due to the lack of direct flights and I remain wary of travelling long haul lest the situation worsens and I end up stranded.

I’m not even sure I’d enjoy the experience, if what’s on offer in Cuba and St Lucia becomes the norm. I’ve enjoyed trips to both those Caribbean countries and part of the appeal as an independent traveller is to explore on my own. But right now that wouldn’t be possible. Take St Lucia for example. Travellers of many nationalities including Brits are permitted to fly; BA are operating direct flights and TUI have just followed suit. So long as you can present a recent negative test result, you’re in. But that’s when things get a little more constrained.

The advice on the UK’s FCDO website reads:

“You must remain at your COVID-certified accommodation for the duration of your stay in St Lucia unless you are on an excursion arranged by the hotel. You may not leave the property by vehicle or on foot during your stay.”

To elaborate, St Lucian authorities permit travellers to stay in certain hotels. There are 30 such places on the official list, though not all of them have opened quite yet. No worries there. In fact, the hotel in Rodney Bay I chose before is on the list and I’d be more than happy to stay there again. The issue is what happens when I want to leave the resort. Current regulations state that unless I choose from a predetermined list of excursions with an approved list of operators then I’m legally bound to stay put. There’s nothing wrong with that if that’s how you usually travel, but I don’t enjoy holidaying like that. 

The experience in Cuba would, from my perspective, feel equally restrictive. Last time I visited this fabulous country, I split my time between Havana and Trinidad. I explored sugar plantations by day, travelled in style by vintage car and danced late (for me) into the night fuelled by sweet but potent canchancharas. If I were to visit right now, I wouldn’t be landing at Havana Airport – it’s only open for repatriation and humanitarian flights. The situation is a little more relaxed than it was before – visitors are allowed to rent cars and aren’t entirely confined to the beach resorts. And sometimes, as it was for me, it’s cheaper and easier to see the sights on an organised excursion.

Nevertheless, Havana remains off limits, as does Ciego de Avila, Spriritus and Pinar del Rio. Note too that although tourist flights to other parts of the country are operating, the current FCDO advisory states:

“Visitors who fly directly in Jardines del Rey Airport (for holidays in Cayo Coco, Cayo Cruz or Cayo Guillermo) may rent cars, but cannot leave the Cayos.”

I’m not suggesting for one minute that the Cuban or St Lucian governments aren’t doing the right thing. They have a responsibility to take care of their citizens and this is an effective way of balancing that duty with the need to kickstart their economies in a COVID-safe way. Tourism is a major income generator for both islands, as it is across the wider Caribbean region. A number of islands are now deemed safe destinations for British tourists, including Barbados, Antigua and the British Virgin Islands. Each is managing arrivals in their own way. The information’s easy to find and it’s up to you to decide whether you would be able to have the kind of holiday you hope for.

For me, a trip isn’t on the cards until I can travel my way. I guess I’ll just have to be content with Tenerife, but as the UK heads into Lockdown 2.0 even that will probably have to wait until 2021. What about you?

Funchal’s wicker toboggans

Funchal’s wicker toboggans might not give you a rollercoaster-level thrill, but their long history makes riding one a must for any visitor to the Madeiran capital.

I stopped off at The Madeira Story in downtown Funchal for a little background before catching the cable car up to Monte. I learned that people started to use the wicker toboggans, known as “carros de cesto”, back in the 19th century.

Wicker is a big deal in Madeira; the industry is centred on the village of Camacha. Willow grows abundantly on the island, thanks to its humid climate. Once harvested, the willow sticks are boiled to make them flex more easily, an attribute that’s vital if they’re to be crafted into baskets, furniture – and toboggans.

Riding a toboggan provided the means of getting down the very steep hill from Monte to the Livramento neighbourhood in comfort. Having walked down from the end of the toboggan ride I can attest to the painful toll those gradients have on your toes, knees, calves and thigh muscles. But if you look closely at these old photos, you’ll also see the steps in the cobbles, designed to make it easier to walk – but probably resulting in a much bumpier ride than that you’d experience today.

Today’s carreiros wear much the same white uniform and straw boater as their 19th century counterparts. However in some old photos the carreiros wear something akin to a funnel on their head instead. I’d love to know what these peculiar hats were called and when they were phased out.

In pairs, the carreiros drag the wicker cart on ropes to get some momentum, before running to the back ready to steer. Gravity pretty much does the rest – the cart’s greased wooden runners glide surprisingly smoothly on the tarmacked streets.

At junctions (these are proper roads used by cars too), spotters keep an eye out for oncoming traffic and ensure someone gives way. If it’s the toboggan, passengers must rely on the braking power of the carreiros’ shoes. Fortunately, despite reaching speeds of up to 30kph – some say even faster – they seem to be pretty adept at stopping. It’s fun rather than terrifying, but an activity I’d definitely recommend.       

Some sources claim that Ernest Hemingway pronounced the ride “the most exhilarating” of his life during his 1954 stopover on the island. But there are no written accounts penned by the author; instead, it’s likely that the only Hemingway to have experienced the toboggans during that trip was his wife Mary, who wrote about it herself. 

Rain was threatening and so the carreiros were beginning to pack away the wicker toboggans. This involved considerably less effort than a century ago. Back then, if this picture is to be believed, the toboggans were carried downhill on their shoulders.

These days, all that has to be done is to bump the cart down a few steps, using the ropes to guide it. From the bottom, it’s hoisted onto a waiting flatbed truck and piled up neatly for the transfer to the depot.

To ride the toboggans:

The Monte base is a short walk from the top of the Teleférico do Funchal, which departs from the Funchal waterfront near the bus station. A one way adult ticket costs 11 euros. The toboggan ride costs 30 euros for two passengers (solo travellers pay a hefty 25 euros). The ride lasts just a couple of minutes. From the end of the ride at Livramento at the junction between Caminho do Monte and Estrada do Livramento, a taxi will cost you 10 euros back down to the cable car station. Save your money and instead, catch a city bus (#19 departs from across the street and #26 nearby) for a fifth of that cost.