2 November 2012

Long time no post (and the Affordable Art Fair)

When I started this blog I said I'd try to post once a week. You may have noticed that it's been a little longer than seven days since my last post (it's been seven months), but I'm going to be better from now on. I almost finished that sentence with 'I promise', but given my previous record, I think that's unwise. Let's just say I'll do my best.

So, what to write about in this monumental comeback post? In the last couple of months I've visited Margate, Oslo, Cornwall, Johannesburg and the Loire Valley, so it's tempting to start straight in on one of those exciting places, but I'm going to resist and write about the Affordable Art Fair instead because it's only on for a few days and Margate, Oslo, Cornwall, Johannesburg and the Loire Valley aren't going anywhere. (That said, though, there are incarnations of the Affordable Art Fair all over the world – if you miss this one in Hampstead, which finishes on 4 November, you could always catch the next one, which takes place in Seattle next week.)

The Affordable Art Fair has been running since 1999, but Wednesday evening was my first ever visit. I think I've unconsciously avoided it in the past because I knew I'd just feel bad about being surrounded by lots of lovely art that I could nearly, but not quite, afford. And it turns out I was right – that's exactly how I felt on Wednesday. 

That's not to say I didn't enjoy myself however. There's masses of fantastic stuff to see, including of course plenty that's genuinely affordable, my own personal lack of resources notwithstanding (prices range from £40 to £4,000 and while there's not too much on offer right at the bottom of that scale, if you're in the market for a small framed print or photograph and are willing to spend up to a couple of hundred quid, there's lots to tempt you). 

It would foolish of me to try to draw any conclusions about the state of the affordable art market from a couple of hours spent in the company of 100 exhibiting contemporary galleries, but I did notice a couple of themes appearing as I wandered. 

The first is maps. There are loads of them, some straight up prints, some paintings and some more ambitious pieces, like this one in porcelain, which I love. 

  Lost Rivers: London 2/20 by Loraine Rutt (Byard Art, Cambridge)

It seemed to me that London was more featured than anywhere else, but I suspect that's just because lots of the galleries exhibiting assume that London art collectors are more interested in their own surroundings than other places. If so, they're probably right – typical bloody Londoners, eh?

Also well represented were paintings of birds, cut-outs of butterflies and life-size sculptures of dogs, like this one (please forgive the fact that the photograph is slightly out of focus – a woman with a glass of red wine was hoving into me as I was taking it).  

Seated Hound by Clare Trenchard (Will's Art Warehouse, London)
In fact, there were so many sculptures of dogs that I felt like I spent the entire evening doing double takes. The point at which I strolled past the stall where an actual dog lay curled up its basket, oblivious to the action around it – and not for sale presumably – was when things got really confusing.

This is just a guess, but I'd put the popularity of these motifs at this particular level of the art market down to the fact that they're comprehensible enough not to be threatening to amateur collectors. Not everyone spending relatively modest sums at this sort of fair will be new to the art collecting game of course, but I'd hazard that lots of them are. The art world can be an intimidating place – I'd suggest that figurative pieces on familiar themes such as these may embolden people to begin collecting. And good for them, because once you've started down this path, there's no knowing where it may take you.

7 February 2012

Wild ponies couldn't drag me away

Last summer I spent a few days in north Devon. It's a wonderful place, and this is what I did there...

Children and dogs are splashing in the clear waters of the pool at Watersmeet as I cross the bridge over the two rivers that join at this tranquil north Devon spot. It's taken me over an hour of hard walking in the hot August sun to get down into the wooded Lyn Valley from my campsite perched on the hill above Lynton and Lynmouth and I'm glad of the opportunity to fill my water bottle at the National Trust tearoom at Watersmeet House. Families are already lunching in the garden outside the 19th-century property, but I resist the delicious-looking cream teas and push onwards, following the East Lyn upstream.

After only a few minutes, silence reigns, the sociable chatter of Watersmeet a distant memory. The water here moves slowly and the handful of walkers I meet coming in the opposite direction speak in hushed tones suitable to their surroundings. I make good progress on the well maintained riverside path.

The East Lyn River
Another hour of walking through the densely wooded valley brings me to the scattering of whitewashed houses that make up the tiny village of Brendon, whose ancient pub, The Rockford Inn, is a favourite with walkers. I eat my sandwiches on a bench overlooking a small tumbling waterfall, but do not linger in this peaceful, isolated spot. It may be a warm day, but down in the valley the air is damp and cool and it's not long before the sweat on my back turns cold in this sunless place.

My decision to make north Devon the destination for this late summer break was a largely pragmatic one. Only an hour's drive from the Wiltshire town where some friends were getting married last weekend, Exmoor National Park boasts an enviable diversity of landscape for walking. Between rolling heather moorland, rich woodland and the park's extraordinary coastline, there are enough options to keep even the most fickle walker occupied. It's also a place where no one will judge you for eating a cream tea every day.

I am still short of breath from the fiendishly steep hike up out of the Brendon Valley when I am stopped in my tracks by the sight of a herd of Exmoor ponies. I caught a glimpse of these punky-maned, semi-feral horses on the drive in, but seeing them close up – so close I can smell them in fact – is a thrilling, visceral experience. This unique breed has lived on Exmoor longer than people have, and although the animals you see here are all either privately owned or the property of the National Park Authority, they roam free as they have always done.

As I take the path across the fields, walking straight towards the iridescent blue of the late summer sea, the ponies keep their deep black eyes on me. The herd is calm and still and several foals are sprawled lazily on the tightly cropped grass, but I get the sense that were I to step off the path towards them, the whole lot would be away in a thunder of tiny hooves.

Gorse and heather on Exmoor
Further on – I'm walking across the moor proper now – the heather and gorse are in flower, their nectar attracting what seems like hundreds of thousands of black flying insects. Their buzzing is loud in my ears and I have to cover my face with my sleeve to stop them flying into my mouth and nose. Exmoor's many bird species don't share my pickiness and feast on this insect bounty, swooping and diving low over the flowers.

A vertiginous, zig-zagging descent on a narrow paved road through the moorland brings me to Foreland Point, Devon's most northerly point. Lynmouth Foreland Lighthouse has been automated since 1994, but the turn of the century lighthouse keepers' cottage which perches perilously on the cliffside next to it is a working holiday home (run by the National Trust). The sun is shining in a cloudless sky as I clamber up onto the coastal path above the lighthouse, but this remote spot must feel brutally exposed in winter.

The walk up to this point has been tiring in places, but never particularly challenging. Here is where that changes, as for the next quarter of an hour I pick my way along the treacherously narrow footpath that runs around Foreland Point. Loose scree bounces down towards the Bristol Channel with each step and the wind buffets me as I go, the rich scent of the heather rising through the air. It is completely exhilarating and when I regain the safety of the main route of the South West Coast Path I find my legs are shaking and my heart pumping hard.

Walking the other direction around Foreland Point, I only
saw this sign after having done the tricky bit
The remainder of the walk is a fairly gentle 4km ramble around Lynmouth Bay and down into the pretty village of Lynmouth. This patch of coastline is so ruggedly beautiful – reminiscent of the cliffs of Sardinia – that it's hard not to dawdle through the heather and gorse, especially when I spot another herd of ponies cropping the grass on a worryingly steep bit of bluff. I could stay here and gaze all day, but it's late afternoon and the call of the cream tea is too much to resist.

Lynmouth Bay, with Lynmouth in the distance (spot the ponies)
I drag my weary frame into Lynmouth, gorge myself on scones and fall asleep in the sunshine on the village's tiny grey-pebbled beach. 

Travel details

North Devon & Exmoor official visitor information: www.northdevon.com

Where to stay
Channel View Camping and Caravan Park (Manor Farm, Lynton; 01598 753349) is a 20-minute walk up a steep hill from Lynton, but the views of the bay and the peace and quiet are worth the climb. 

Where to eat
The Oak Room (Lee Road, Lynton; 01598 753838) serves classy Spanish-inspired food, including some excellent fish dishes and original desserts, in an elegant setting. 

Where to drink
The Rising Sun (Harbourside, Lynmouth; 01598 753223) dates back to the 14th century and has a good range of ales and ciders on tap. 

24 January 2012

Digging a hole to the other side of the world

Australia has always been one of those places that I thought I'd probably get to one day, but have never been in any particular hurry to visit. Various of my friends have spent time there and, like most Londoners, I've collected a small squad of Australian buddies over the years who've extended kind invitations to stay with them Down Under, but it always felt not quite exotic enough to merit the immensely long journey.

Until now that is, because at the end of February my half-Australian boyfriend and I will be setting off for five weeks on the world's smallest continent. Tempted by the idea of visiting family S hasn't seen in over a decade, scuba diving somewhere new, taking in the comedy and theatre at the Melbourne Comedy Festival and Adelaide Fringe, and eating lots of massive prawns, we decided that now was the moment. 

I'll be writing about the trip while we're away so won't ruin the surprise and bore you senseless by listing all the things I'm looking forward to. What I hope might be useful at this stage, however, are a few tips for finding cheap flights to faraway places, all of which we made good use of last week:
  1. Check the ticket prices of your preferred airlines and/or relevant national carriers via their websites before you do anything else, as this will give you a benchmark for prices when you start looking elsewhere.

  2. Use a travel search site such as Skyscanner to compare the ticket prices offered by lots of different travel agents for the various airlines that fly the route. In all likelihood there will be much cheaper deals available than those available when booking directly with the airline.

  3. The more flexible your travel plans are the better, as there are often big differences in price depending on what day of the week you travel or which airports you fly into and out of.

  4. Start researching flights well in advance of your trip so you can get an idea of how prices fluctuate as your dates of travel approach. Tickets aren't necessarily cheaper the further in advance you book, but they often are, particularly on long-haul routes.

  5. Once you've found the flights you want, do some research into the travel agent the search site suggests as it seems there are a lot of disreputable operations out there. Google the name of the company + review and you'll find plenty of threads on online travel forums. It's a good idea to take anything said in a forum with a pinch of salt as it's not unheard of for companies to log in anonymously to leave positive feedback for themselves or negative feedback for their competitors. If in doubt though, look elsewhere, bearing in mind that travel search sites won't give you information for every travel agent available. Having found the tickets we wanted on Skyscanner, but unhappy with the agents listed by the site, we searched with Lastminute, ultimately finding the same tickets (with the rather illustrious-sounding Royal Brunei Airlines) for just £20 more than the lowest price quoted on the first search site. 

  6. Research the airline too. This is more relevant to short-haul flights, but very often you get what you pay for. Does your ticket price include meals, drinks and inflight entertainment? Are you able to choose a seat in advance? What's the airline's record when it comes to safety and delays?

  7. Remember that flying 'direct' and 'non-stop' are not the same thing. A 'non-stop' flight is what it sounds like: one that goes from A to B without stopping along the way. A 'direct' flight might involve scheduled stops, either where you stay on the plane or have to change aircraft. 'Non-stop' will almost always be more expensive.

  8. Remember to factor in the cost of taxes, surcharges and fees.

  9. Always book travel arrangements with a credit card as your credit card issuer should refund any losses in the event of trouble.

  10. If you're concerned about a booking made through a third party, call the airline as soon as possible to check that they have your details.

5 January 2012

A stroll along Regent's Canal – Angel Islington to Broadway Market

London's Regent's Canal may not have the obvious, picturesque charms of the famous European waterways – take a stroll along the canal, particularly the section in the East End, and you're unlikely to mistake your surroundings for Venice, Amsterdam or Bruges. But historic architecture, romantic photo opportunities and flocks of swans are not the be all and end all. Look beyond the gritty exterior (and the tourist traps of Camden Lock and Little Venice) and you'll find that London's canal has plenty going for it.

I've lived within walking distance of the canal all my life, first in Islington, then in Hoxton, now in Dalston, and have seen it evolve from a rubbish-filled, super scary, never-go-there-at-night sort of place, to a destination its own right, complete with cafes, restaurants and bicycle maintenance shacks. Go on a sunny Saturday and you won't be able to see the ducks for all the trendy young folk hanging out in their moustaches and onesies. Make no mistake: it's still pretty grubby and I wouldn't be thrilled to walk along the towpath after dark on my own, but it can be a real joy, for either a leisurely visit or as a means of getting from A to B by bike or on foot. 

Narrow boats moored at the mouth of the Islington Tunnel
A natural place to start this little introduction is where the canal emerges from the 886-metre Islington Tunnel (access from Colebrooke Row, a few minutes' walk from Angel tube station), which was completed in 1818. There's short-term mooring available along the waterway between this pleasant, quiet spot and City Road Basin to the east, so there are always plenty of boats around, the smoke from their wood-burning stoves perfuming the air.

Just after City Road Lock and Basin you'll come across The Narrow Boat, one of very few London boozers on the canal this side of town. It's a jovial place serving reasonable food and a few real ales on tap. In cold weather the fun is mainly indoors, but in the summertime drinkers spread out towards the lock and beyond. In terms of real ale though, this area's mecca is not The Narrow Boat, but multiple-CAMRA-Pub-of-the-Year-winning The Wenlock Arms, just around the corner. This is a proper old man pub – none of your east London trendiness here. Just a fantastic range of ales, lively live jazz on Friday and Saturday nights and a selection of booze-soaked regulars who've been in situ since it re-opened in 1994.

The artistically-minded ale fans among you (not that this blog is special interest you understand) might want to stop off at Victoria Miro Gallery or Parasol Unit on the way. Both galleries, which you'll walk past coming from the canal to The Wenlock, host changing exhibitions of the work of contemporary British and international artists.
Alex Hartley's I'm tired of travelling (2011), from 'Alex Hartley:
The world is still big', running at the Victoria Miro Gallery
until 21 January © Alex Hartley
Back on the canal, continuing east, we pass Holborn Studios, where all manner of famous photography, film and musician types have worked over the years, from David Bailey to Bjork. A little further on is Gainsborough Studios, a massive, swanky housing development built on the site of the cinema studios that produced Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes and a whole host of 1940s melodramas.

From here on in the landscape begins to get a bit grittier, with graffiti becoming more prevalent and increased numbers of algae-covered shopping trollies visible in the murky depths of the canal. Badly bombed during the Blitz, this part of Hackney is home to sprawling estates of postwar housing, the gardens of which back onto the towpath in various places. There's a huge amount of cash sloshing around in Shoreditch and Hoxton, but there's still plenty of deprivation too, which makes for a really interesting mix here, demographically-speaking. Every six months work starts on another new private canal-side housing development – the area's changing fast.

Detail of i am here, a site-specific photography installation by 
Andrea Luka Zimmerman, Lasse Johansson and Tristan Fennell 
addressing gentrification in Hackney 
Just past Whitmore Road Bridge you'll find Towpath, a fantastic, if pricey, canal-side cafe open from March to November. They serve delicious breakfasts, Italian-inspired lunches and excellent coffee from a tiny kitchen that gives directly onto the towpath. The petite seating area is more or less open to the elements, so Towpath isn't the best option for wet weather dining, but there are heaters to keep out the chill and on fine days there's nothing nicer than locking your bike up and stopping for a snack in the sunshine.
Towpath. Image courtesy of D1V1d on Flickr
Across the canal (accessible from Orsman Road) is Water House, an eco-restaurant serving modern European dishes. The modest portion sizes may disappoint those with big appetites, and the service can be hit and miss, but the food is of a very high standard and the canal-side terrace is a civilised spot. Deserts change regularly, so I can't guarantee they'll have home-made ice-cream, but if they do, you should definitely order it.

Me eating home-made ice-cream on the
terrace at Water House © Steve Pretty 
The next section heading eastward is barer of diversions, but keep your eyes peeled for street art, including various examples by Banksy and King Robbo, as well as Bob & Roberta Smith's Shop Local: Ron's Eel and Shellfish Van, a large-scale mural across from Denne Terrace. It's also worth having a peek into Kingsland Basin (opposite Water House), where a community of boaters grow their own vegetables in a specially adapted garden barge. And if you're in the area on a weekend, pop into The Pattern Market, just past off Kingsland Road, for crazy vintage clothing, bric-a-brac and furniture. 

CHUG boaters' community 
A little further on, past the lock, and you reach Broadway Market and a whole world of tasty food and shopping opportunities. My personal highlights include Lock 7, the friendly cycle cafe on the bridge; The Dove, a pleasantly ramshackle freehouse serving excellent food; Black Truffle, an expensive but lovely clothes shop; Off Broadway, which serves tempting cocktails in a room lit so low you can barely see what you're drinking; the Argentinian steak heaven, Buen Ayre; and La Bella Vita, a very decent, permanently busy pizzeria. 

Visit Broadway Market on a Saturday (until 2 o'clockish) and you'll find the market in action, with dozens of stalls selling vintage clothing, crafts, gifts, and food and drink. And if you're there on a Sunday, check out the farmers' market held in the playground of London Fields Primary School, which you get to by turning right at the top of the road.
Broadway Market stalls © Aidan Brooks
In the next instalment I'll continue the journey eastwards to introduce you to the delights of Victoria Park, Mile End and Hackney Wick. If you think I've missed something in this section, be it a pub, restaurant, shop or interesting local fact, please tell me about it, either in a comment below this blog or via Twitter.