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.