Europe

The best weekend breaks near London

As summer rolls into autumn, make the most of the last stretch of long(ish) days with a weekend away from the Big Smoke. From salty sea air to cobbled country roads, there’s plenty to explore within two hours of London, so grab your boots and jacket and get going.

Surrey

Surrey Hills, Image: iStock/simonbradfield

Surrey Hills, Image: iStock/simonbradfield

The county of Surrey offers lush greenery just over an hour from central London (by car - it’s even quicker by train, if you head to Waterloo). Kids and kids at heart will love the Wild Wood Adventure Park in Guilford; teetering 15 metres above ground, traverse tightropes, zip lines and obstacles amidst dense woodland. Alternatively, enjoy an afternoon a little less taxing, walking through parts of the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. The area boasts landscaped gardens, woodland walks, an intriguing Edwardian estate (Polesden Lacey) and so much more.

Sussex

Camber Sands, Image: iStock/acceleratorhams

Camber Sands, Image: iStock/acceleratorhams

Sussex offers a bucketful of seaside and history alike. Budding beach baby? Spend your weekend clambering the sand dunes of Camber Sands, before dipping your toes in the cool waters of the English Channel, or admiring the waves from a cliffside vantage point in Eastbourne. For even more impressive chalk-white cliffs, venture to Seven Sisters (not the London tube station - Victoria line this is not) a little further along. If history is more your thing, brush up on the Battle of Hastings in the place itself, with a visit to the 11th-century Norman fortress ruins and the smugglers’ underground tunnels. Another fortified building worth a visit is the moated Bodiam Castle, built in 1385.

Berkshire

Windsor Castle Image: iStock/Vladislav Zolotov

Windsor Castle Image: iStock/Vladislav Zolotov

Just west of London sits Berkshire, home to the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead. Follow in the footsteps of the Royal family to Windsor Castle, the 11th-century-built abode that allows you to tour the tower, dine under vaulted ceilings and even visit the nearby St George’s Chapel where Meghan and Prince Harry married in 2018. Fifteen minutes south of the castle, you’ll find the tranquil Savill Garden in Windsor. Spend a serene Sunday exploring the 35 acres of breathtakingly beautiful blooms.

Devon

Hartland Quay, Image: iStock/antonyspencer

Hartland Quay, Image: iStock/antonyspencer

The furthest of the lot at nearly four hours’ drive, Devon is a great spot for a long weekend, rather than just a two-dayer. Famed for its gorgeous sandy beaches, soak up the last of the sun on the English Riviera, lazing on the sands with a portion of fish and chips in hand, exploring the tiny coves in between, before retreating a little inland to the medieval towns or vast moorlands.

Where else would you go for a long weekend away from London?

What a clean-living novice learned on a wellness getaway

What comes to mind when you think of the words ‘clean living’? Bare feet, hessian clothing and an abundance of quinoa at every meal? Those were the images that instantly conjured up in my mind upon hearing those words – until very recently.

Earlier this week, I was lucky enough to be invited to the Conscious Living Retreat taster, a wellness getaway organised by Lucy Mills, founder of Your Ideal Fit and a globally recognised Pilates instructor, who emphasises the importance of mindfulness and body biomechanics when striving towards your fitness goals, and how it’s all about being in tune with your own body. Together with Sjaniel Turrel from Chemistry of Wellness, Lou Ashton from VivoBareFoot, Skyler Shah from Yatay Yoga and Lauren Lovatt from Plant Academy, the two-day, one-night event – a taster of a longer event taking place between 14th June and 17th June 2019 at the gorgeous West Lexham Manor in Norfolk – Lucy immersed me in world of clean, conscious and natural living, a world I had never really set foot in, or been inspired to set foot in, before. I came away inspired and having learned quite a bit - here’s what I discovered:

It’s okay to be out of your comfort zone

I’m a total urbanite; I’m also a millennial who loves being online… oh, and I had never attended a Pilates class in my life. I had reservations about attending the retreat, with images of sitting at the back of the class in a pool of sweat while the other attendees stretched like gazelles, before sharing tips on how to get the perfect crunch in their homemade kale crisps. Now, there were kale crisps (delicious, FYI, especially the ones with a bit of spice), but my preconceptions about the Pilates classes were totally unfounded.

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Taking a class in the evening, before dinner, and in the morning, before breakfast, Lucy expertly walked us through each position in a way that was easy to grasp, even if you’d never laid your bod on a yoga mat before (we used sustainable ones from Yatay Yoga, which were super comfy and non-slip – ideal for those sweaty, shaky, where-even-are-you-lower-ab-muscles moments). In her rather soothing voice, she used relative examples that you could visualise, such as rolling your hands along a tennis ball, so you could get the correct form and movement. We worked the movements step by step, starting with simple movements and working our way towards the more demanding holds slowly and, somehow, you’d get there without realising – the sign of a good teacher! Lucy was constantly reassuring and helpful, and I never once felt silly, awkward or inadequate in the classes. In fact, I felt pretty damn good about myself. Lucy’s previous clients include celebrities, royalty, exercise newbies and people who are rehabilitating from injuries, and it is easy to see why they seek her out.

Plant-based food isn’t plain nor boring

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Probably my biggest takeaway from this trip: I was truly inspired by the menu created by the Plant Academy’s Lauren Lovett. While in recent years, I have become more mindful about eating healthily, I often don’t feel full after a meal without meat or fish, and those who know me will know I have a rather unhealthy obsession with fried chicken.

However, the food at the Conscious Living Retreat was divine. Lauren initially began cooking as a way to address mental health and its relationship with food, and how you can support your mind with cookery. She founded Plant Academy in East London, where you can learn to cook scrumptious plant-based dished that not only taste great, but are great for your body and mind, too. “To get people to eat well, you not only have to make food delicious; you have to make it cool,” she said to Cotswold Life.

Lauren created meat- and gluten-free courses at the retreat, with some ingredients foraged by Danny Seeley from the local area. I chowed down on dishes such as coffee roasted wild beets with Chimmicuri, zucchini fillets with candied pecans, and confit carrot lox on cultured buckwheat pancakes, and delicious desserts, like fermented lemon posset with hot berries and toasted coconut ginger biscotti. It wasn’t all herbal teas and water either; sipping on mulled pomegranate juice, I could have almost been drinking red wine, while the next morning, my turmeric latte warmed me right up. After this retreat, I most definitely want to incorporate some more flavoursome, filling plant-based dishes in my repertoire.

There’s so much to ‘conscious living’ that we don’t even consider

There are so many parts of our daily routine that we don’t even give a second thought to – or I know I don’t, at least. Listening to the panel at the retreat, made up of Lucy, Sjaniel, Lou, Skyler, Lauren and Isabelle Colville (who owns West Lexham Manor), I realised how many aspects of my life I do automatically, with little regard for the impact on my body or the environment around me.

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On the second day of the retreat, we took part in a natural beauty workshop, run by Sjaniel, who has been a make-up artist for over 20 years. She showcased make-up from Twelve Beauty, Jillian Dempsey and Green People, and as someone who has used the same foundation for the last 10 years, I learned a lot in regards to the environmental impact of certain ingredients, as well as its effect of my skin and hair. For example, I never realised the amount of silicon that appears in the products that I use, and the way it creates a barrier around my skin and hair, preventing them from breathing… then washes down the plug hole, leaving a film of plastic in its wake.

Being mixed race, and being one of three ‘people of colour’ on the retreat, it was pretty obvious that there is a lot of progression still to be made in the natural beauty movement, especially in regards to creating make-up to suit a range of skin tones – something Sjaniel herself recognises. However, the products I tried left my skin feeling soft and light, which was great.

After lunch, we also listened to a talk from Lou from VivoBarefoot, a company who create shoes for a range of activities that mimic being barefoot – the natural way to walk. She described how with regular shoes, our feet are squished, elevated, moulded in certain ways, whether in trainers, heels or other types of footwear. With VivoBarefoot, these are all addressed in their designs.

Sometimes you just need to switch off

My favourite part of the retreat was the location. From the moment we entered the main barn, which was dimly lit and smelt incredible, I knew I would love this place. West Lexham Manor sits in 21 acres of sprawling grounds, with a barn house, treehouses, a manmade lake and a rustic, country getaway vibe. I slept in a barn en-suite room, adorned with exposed wooden beams and symmetrical images on the walls. The colour scheme is earthy, with calming bluey greens, and dark and light woods. The bathrooms in this room type are huge, with a lovely deep bath and underfloor heating.

Elsewhere on the grounds, you can stay in treehouses, where in some, trees literally grow through the room.  Isabelle explained that West Lexham was created to be a ‘nest’ to grow oneself – as was their journey in building it. They wanted to create a place of subtle education for living in an eco-friendly way, and used a plethora of upcycled materials, for example, some tables are made from garage doors, while the toilet block for glampers were built using the floor of the Norwich Theatre Royal. The hotel is run on around 90% renewable energy; the sustainability message is all-encompassing through the food, atmosphere and physical attributes of the abode – down to the little touches, such as drawer handles and a humourous notes. The beautiful welcome note from Lucy said it all, really: here you can “exhale the London madness.”

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I thoroughly recommend the Conscious Living Retreat, whether you’re a novice like me, or well into your wellness – I was inspired and enlightened on this way of life, with many of my misconceptions changed within the short 24 hours.

Lucy’s next full retreat takes place between 4th October and 7th October 2019, with a series of workshops, classes and country walks – find out more here.

A handy guide to interrailing

For many youths, a well-known right of passage is heading off on a 'gap YAH' in between college/sixth form and university.

As you know, I'm a massive advocate for parring off daily life for a bit of travelling, however heading off on a gap year was not an option for me when I finished sixth form. Had I chosen to defer university for a year, I would have welcomed a substantially larger student loan into my life, following the... ahem... lovely Tories' decision to hike up university fees.

Not one to miss out though, my best mate and I planned a little interrailing trip for the September after graduation, so we could hold onto our university years for just a couple more weeks, before starting our careers in the real world.

We donned our backpacks and headed onto the trains of Europe, two incompetent map readers, excited for adventure. If you're thinking of doing the same, here are a few tips to bear in mind.

How to pack

Think hand luggage, but less. You're going to be lugging this suitcase/bag/backpack cross-country for HOURS on end. I opted for a rather large backpack (and, at just under five foot, it looked particularly large on me) that clipped around my chest and waist, while my best mate opted for a slightly smaller one, just over her shoulders. Both faired us well.

In terms of packing, you're only gonna have the bare necessities:

- Being "made up" is going to be more about a slap of lippy, rather than a full face of bronzer, blusher and the like, before you get any Kylie Jenner ideas. Also, get teeny tiny toothpaste, shampoo sachets, and basically miniature everything.

- Roll clothes to make them as small as possible, packing just over the right amount of underwear for each night, but only half the outfits - try and keep it to around three bottoms, and maybe six, or seven, tops that you can wear on rotation, and mix and match.

- Choose fabrics that you can easily wash in a sink and that dry easily, just in case you need to give 'em a rinse at any point.

- Your main bag should hold a smaller day bag and muchos plastic bags (for dirty/wet stuff), and everything in your bag can act as a buffer for souvenirs. Somehow, we managed to carry porcelain masks from our second stop in Venice all the way home, keeping them in one piece.

- Spray deodorant IS YOUR FRIEND.

- My friend also had the smart idea of bringing non-perishable snacks, which are great for in between meals, or late night snackage.

- Chances are, you'll be traveling with a fair bit of dollar on you. Split up your pennies into different parts of your bag and, also, ALWAYS keep some, along with your passport and EHIC, on your person. See if you can get one of those money cards, if you're not taking your credit card with you (though you may need it for proof of ID at your hotel). We also had a little book where we noted down our hotel info and key phrases in the different languages.

Be mindful of the check-in and check-out times of your hotels/hostels/b&bs. If you have a particularly early check-out, or particularly late check-in, you may end up lugging your bags about on your sightseeing adventures for a bit. It's worth finding out if you can store your stuff anywhere, for example, at the lockers in Gare Du Nord in Paris.

View from the train between Austria and Switzerland

View from the train between Austria and Switzerland

Trains

Obviously, when interailling, trains are a massive part of the whole shebang. Unfortunately, unlike the Interrail Pass would have you believe, it isn't as simple as just buying the pass and heading on your way. Boo.

On the Interrail website, you'll find a comprehensive list of the rail services across Europe that partake in the Interrail initiative (click here to go directly to the PDF). South Londoners, you'll be pleased to know Southern Rail isn't on the list (lolololol). For the ones that do take part, yes, all you'll need to do is buy the pass, and fill it out with your intended destination before you set off on that leg of the journey (make sure you do fill it out before you step on the train, though, otherwise you could get fined by a ticket inspector).

Don't fret if you require a train that doesn't appear on this list, though. It just means you a) may need to buy a separate ticket, or b) need to buy a ticket AND make a reservation. Erm, why am I going to pay MORE money after the pass, I hear you ask? Well, the majority of local and international trains you will take are covered once you hit the continent, but the additional costs you incur will be things like overnight trains. Avoid these and avoid fees. Seriously; avoid night trains like the plague, if you can. Our first train journey, Eurostar aside, was the overnight train from Paris to Venice. I had visions of The Tourist - that 2010 film with Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie - as we boarded the train to make the same journey. Ah, cute, they have little cabins. Hmmm, sweet, the lounging sofas turn into beds. Err, shite, it's a bit claustrophobic. OH FUCK, BED BUGS. Mmmhmm. That's how it went down over the course of 14 hours.

Our beds for the night... (Paris to Venice train)

Our beds for the night... (Paris to Venice train)

Bonus, the tickets did come with pillows and blankets, and the rocking to sleep was quite soothing. That free-falling feeling you get when you're overtired, but actually happening in real life because of the train stopping? Not so much.

Hotels vs hostels

After the journey to Venice, we were SO grateful to be in a proper bed for the night. There is a common misconception that to travel 'properly', you have to slum it. Nah, mate. Not for us. And it doesn't have to be for anyone else either. The hotel in Venice was a simple 3-star abode, but we found it to be more than satisfactory. Scratch that actually - it was great! Staying in 3-star accommodation keeps costs down (so you can spend on actual experiences) and the majority put on breakfast as part of your room cost. You only need a base anyway, because you're out exploring all day, but you don't have the worries, or the reservations, of staying in a hostel.

That said, though, we stayed in two hostels while on our trip: one in Switzerland and one in Paris. The one in Switzerland was on Lake Brienz and the only accommodation we could find that didn't cost an arm and a leg. We spent an hour looking for it in the rain to find that, actually, we had passed it about ten times - I told you: we were not good with maps! Once inside, there was such a good vibe. The rooms and bathrooms were SPOTLESS and the staff were so friendly and helpful. Our time in Brienz was so restful (and so picturesque); I cannot recommend the village and the hostel enough.

Now, Paris... slightly different story. I love the capital of France SO MUCH but, let me tell you, that love ceases with its hostels. The last night of our trip was spent in the noisiest, dirtiest place I've ever laid my head (and you read about that train ride above). For someone who is known to be unable to get into bed without showering first, whether drunk, sober or physically maimed, I vetoed stepping in that shower, even WITH FLIP FLOPS. It was nassssssssty. Defo go hotel in Paris. Or b&b. Our b&b in Innsbruck was so lovely. You get your own room, but just had to share a toilet and (very clean) shower room.

Beautiful Brienz

Beautiful Brienz

Must dos

We did SO MUCH on our travels, but my personal highlights include the following:

- Generally just being in Venice, Italy: I had wanted to go to Venice for years. I love water and love Italy, so a combo of the two was perfection. We ended up getting so lost at one point, but the city was just so perfect and picturesque that it didn't matter. Well, it kind of did because we had a boat tour booked, but we just blagged our way onto another one later that day. Don't listen when people say it smells. We were there in the midst of a September heatwave and it didn't smell at all.

- The Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, France: Kimye spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend part of their wedding celebrations there and I can see why. The Palace of Versailles was exquisite and it was nice to get out of central Paris for a while (again, note that you'll need to buy a Metro ticket for that trip).

- Heading to the zoo in Innsbruck, Austria: Heading to the highest zoo in Europe was exciting in itself, as we passed all the huge coloured houses on our way. What I loved about Innsbruck as a whole was the feeling I got from the mountains that towered over wherever you stood. It felt like we were protected in a (massive) cove. The zoo itself was quite blase about their Health and Safety, but I loved it as you could get pretty close to the animals.

- The train ride between Austria and Switzerland: Just look at the beautiful view above! Like the train in Oslo, it pees all over the Central Line.

I could go on for hours and hours, and thousands and thousands of words, about my interailling trip, but it's commendable that you've got this far! If you have any questions about interrailing, or need any tips, just hit me up.