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Wildlife photographers

Shooting British Wildlife: Improving my photography skills

Take more photos!

I’ve been trying to get to grips with photography over the past few years and I’m getting there bit by bit. I’ve learned there’s a lot more to it than ‘pointing and shooting’  and there are lots of resources out there on the web that will help you get to grips with the basics and the terminology and equipment.  There’s no substitute for actually getting out there and taking pictures though, so I was very lucky to be able to visit the British Wildlife Centre on one of their Wildlife Photography Days, courtesy of Emma who bought me a voucher for the day.

Ben and Owl

Tom, our guide and keeper at the British Wildlife Centre.

The British Wildlife Centre

The Centre is in Lingfield in Surrey and is a privately owned organisation which works on breeding programmes, habitat conservation and education.  One of the ways it raises funds is through these wildlife photography days.  Numbers are limited to around a dozen and you have the run of the place, with one of the keepers as a guide. Ours was Tom, a really enthusiastic and knowledgeable guy who clearly loves his job and the animals in his care.

Some impressive kit on display.

Some impressive kit on display.

I got there early and met the other photographers (all amateurs by the way, that’s one of the conditions).  I was a little concerned because it looked like I was seriously out-gunned in the lens department.  My kit is very modest but some of the equipment on display was a little intimidating.  As it turned out I was actually more appropriately equipped than most. You get so close to the animals, within a few feet in fact, that you don’t need long lenses at all.  Although the animals are not ‘tame’, they are used to people and especially the keeper, and the promise of food (mainly dead chicks), would appear to help them overcome any shyness.

Hedgehog at the British Wildlife Centre.

The hedgehog gets a lot of attention.

It was a wet day and unlike the others, I hadn’t come appropriately dressed so there was no lying on the ground for me!  I also needed a plastic bag to cover my camera, luckily someone had a spare .  So off we set from enclosure to enclosure to see the hissing Scottish Wildcat McCaverty; the playful otters; the grand old fox Frodo (who sadly died, aged 13 a few weeks after my  visit); Badgers; owls and many more.   One of my favourite shots was of the little stud hedgehog snuffling around in the leaves surrounded by a bevy of photographers. He didn’t seem to mind.

My wildlife photos

So here are my best shots of the day, I was very happy with them. It’s a great day out, well run and a way to get up close to some of our wildlife in a safe and accessible way and to contribute to their wellbeing and conservation at the same time.

Otter

Picture 1 of 9

My equipment

For the record, I took these pictures on an old Canon EOS 20D I bought on eBay for £70 a couple of years ago. It’s about 15 years old but works well although I’d like a bigger screen and the ability to shoot some video clips.  I’m looking at the Canon 1300D as a potential upgrade.  It’s not that expensive but would be a good step up.

I used a Canon 18-55mm zoom kit lens for most of the shots with the exception of the harvest mouse which was shot with the Canon 50mm f1.8 prime.

A day out in West Sussex: town, country and beach

If you’re looking for a day out in West Sussex combining the beach with town and country, you can’t go far wrong partnering historic Arundel with bucket and spade Bognor. In 8 hours, or less, you can easily fit in a country walk, a spot of shopping, lunch and some history as well as dipping your toes in the sea and savouring a fish and chip supper. Here’s what my #GLO50 Book Club friends and I got up to on our day out in West Sussex.

Mooch around the quaint lanes of Arundel: 1 hour

You can spot the historic castle and cathedral of Arundel long before you get there. Our first stops when we arrived in this hill-top town though were the charming streets and lanes that lead up to the castle. The shops are eclectic and quaint and we quickly lost ourselves browsing through the bits and bobs in antique markets, design and houseware stores, bakeries and even an outlet selling dog-themed everything, alongside lovely painted furniture and other pretty household items. Dinky Donkey Delights comes complete with a gorgeous, real-life resident whippet normally to be found tucked under the cash desk.

Quaint and eclectic shops in Arundel

Quaint and eclectic shops in Arundel

Stop for lunch: 1 hour

There are tons of great coffee shops and cafes in Arundel.  We loved the Motte & Bailey on the High Street. The staff were really welcoming and went to great lengths to accommodate 9 of us during a busy lunchtime.

Motte and Bailey cafe

Motte and Bailey cafe

The food was fabulous, fresh and tasty  too – from soup to brunch and more!

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Home-made soups, eggs with brunch and ham and chips were all on the menu and were delicious

Circular walk around Arundel: 2 hours

Fed and watered you’ll be ready for a walk. We did a reasonably easy, 3.5 mile route, starting at the bottom of the town (in the Mill Road carpark by the local museum), rambling alongside the river Arun, with its raised bank that once served as a trading route in the 16th century.

Arundel castle above the pretty town

Arundel castle taken from the banks of the River Arun

Hiorne's Tower

Hiorne’s Tower is said to be haunted by the ghost of a heart-broken young woman from the 1t8h century, jilted in love

This walk took us through Arundel Park and around its lake, up a gentle hill and past Hiorne’s Tower (said to be haunted by the ghost of a heart-broken young woman from 200 years ago who was jilted by her lover). We returned to the top of the town by the cathedral and Arundel castle, looking like something out of a fairytale.

Arundel, complete with castle, cathedral and folly

Arundel, complete with castle, cathedral and Hiorne’s tower

 

Exploring Arundel castle: 2 hours

Arundel castle has been the ancient seat of the Dukes of Norfolk for more than 800 years. Ancestors have included the 3rd Duke, courtier and advisor to Kind Henry VIII (him of the six wives) who managed to narrowly avoid being executed because Henry died the night before the execution and the less fortunate 4th Duke who was beheaded for plotting to marry Mary Queen of Scots. Although the castle was besieged and damaged in the English Civil War, today it’s in good repair and an impressive sight atop the town. It’s open to the public from Easter until the end of October.

Drive from Arundel to Bognor Regis: 30 minutes

The route from Arundel to Bognor is not the prettiest in the county but you can forgive that once you hit the seafront at Bognor Regis with its shingly beach, fishing boats and cafes along the promenade.

Beachcombing in Bognor: 1 hour
Good old seaside views

Good old seaside views

Go on. Ease off your shoes and dip your toes in the sea (just make sure you do this near to the water’s edge as pebbles are torture to walk on in bare feet!). The beach at Bognor is lovely so long as you don’t mind shingle. I prefer it, as the water tends to be clear rather than the murky stuff you get on a sandy, British beach.  As this resort claims to be the sunniest town in Britain, it’s likely the weather will be nice enough for paddling (at least in the summer!). There are old-fashioned groynes along the shore and fishermen’s boats that launch from this part of the coast. You’re looking at a scene unchanged in many respects for over a 100 years (minus Butlins which is set back from the front).

Evening in Bognor

Evening in Bognor

Beach views at Bognor

Beach views at Bognor

 
Fish and chip supper: 30 minutes

If you’re peckish by now, there are plenty of fish and chip shops in the town to choose from. We didn’t get a chance to sample their fare, but Ye Olde Fish and Chippe Shoppe comes very highly rated on TripAdvisor

If you want to stay…

It wasn’t an obvious choice of location for our annual Book Club weekend away. But Sea House in Bognor Regis persuaded us. It was a mini wedding cake confection of a building perched right on the shingly beach, with amazing sea views,  a bright white interior and enough room to comfortably sleep 9 of us. There is room outside for BBQs and sunbathing too.

Sea House, Bognor Regis

Sea House, Bognor Regis

 

 

Iceland Mountains

10 hidden gems of Iceland

Although this was our second trip to Iceland – it most certainly won’t be our last. We failed, yet again, to see the Northern Lights, but this country has so many wonderful experiences to offer that it would be churlish to complain. Accompanied by our #GLO50 friends, Rachel and David, we not only took in some of the more well-known sights in the south-west of the island –  to be found in all good guide books – but we also discovered some real, hidden gems along the way. Here are our top 10.

Emma and John with Rachel & David in Hafnafjudur

Emma and John with Rachel & David

Visiting Reykjavik

Hidden gem 1: Eric’s walking tour

Eric is a local history graduate who’s turned his passion for the city into his job. His ‘Classic’ Tour highlights some of the most famous sights and then takes you beyond them, to reveal  more of the history, the culture and the stories of Iceland’s capital city.

Our Reykjavik tour guide, Eric

Our Reykjavik tour guide, Eric

 

Beginning outside the ‘pocket-sized’ Parliament building, he guided us through the old quarter of the city, through bustling shopping streets, past the  dramatic Hallgrímskirkja (the church below that dominates the city) and the funky, glass-fronted Harpa concert hall on the seafront taking back-street routes to illustrate Icelandic sagas of elves, Vikings and independence from Denmark (as late as 1944).

Hallgrímskirkja in reykjavik

Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavik

 

He pointed out the best hot-dog stand in the city, explained why the main streets never have snow on them (the roads are heated by hot water piped from thermal springs) and showed us where topless, Icelandic women staged the ‘Free the Nipple’ protest recently!  His walking tour is also free. He simply asked us to give what we felt was appropriate at the end of this lively, two-hour exploration of the city. We dug deep.

The wonky angles of the Harda concert hall in Reykjavik

The wonky angles of the Harpa concert hall in the background

Hidden gem 2: Beer mitt

Not sure if this is something you can get everywhere on the island, or if it’s just an invention of Eric’s mother. Either way, we bought one. How else was John going to enjoy a Gull in the snow?

John Beer Mitt

John enjoying the local brew.

Hidden gem 3: The Sea Baron (Sægreifinn) restaurant

This fisherman’s shed on the harbour-side in Reykjavik looks a bit run-down from the outside. We’d been sent by some Brits who’d stopped us in the street to tell of their fantastic experience there. We were warned not to be put off by the tatty exterior because it’s claimed this place is home to the best lobster soup in the world. We may not be able to confirm this from a global perspective, but we can certainly say it was one of the best we’ve ever tried.

Lobster soup at the Sea Baron

Lobster soup at the Sea Baron

We then followed it up with amazing fish kebabs. There’s no menu here, you just choose from the daily catch on display in the chiller cabinet. Everything (apart from the soup) comes on a skewer, the veg and the potatoes arrive on skewers too. Even the long, narrow plates are designed for them – which is helpful at the long, narrow tables you share with other customers.

If you like to try local food, I’d also recommend the Icelandic tasting menus you’ll find in many of the restaurants in Reykjavik. They’re not cheap but you will get to try some new foods – minky whale, puffin and possibly fermented shark, if you are adventurous.

Visiting the Golden Circle in Iceland

A wintery geyser in Iceland

A wintery geyser

Hidden gem 4: Earthquake display at Hveragerði shopping centre

As you come down over the mountains from Reykjavik on the N1 heading towards the geysers and the Gullfoss waterfall, you’ll pass by the small community of Hveragerði. Stop off at the shopping centre there. Unannounced inside you’ll find a permanent exhibition to the 2008 Icelandic earthquake. There’s dramatic cctv footage from inside the centre’s off-licence which captures the moment when, with a series of powerful judders, customers dash out of the shop as all the bottles crash to the floor. You can experience the shaking for yourself in a small ‘ride’ there and even straddle Europe and North America, thanks to plate tectonics and a glassed-in crack in the ground in the middle of the shopping centre.

Tectonic plates in Iceland

Straddling two continents.

Hidden gem 5: Friðheimar Tomato farm

We tucked into delicious, fresh tomato soup when we stopped off for lunch in this sub-tropical greenhouse oasis on the snowy route to the geysers.

Fridheimar tomato farm in the snow

 

While John and Rachel sipped bloody Marys, David chose a ‘happy Mary’ made with green tomatoes, gin and ginger and I, as designated driver, tried an alcohol-free ‘healthy Mary’.

Iceland tomato farm and cafe

Tomato soup for lunch? Don’t mind if I do…

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Green tomato sauce on ice-cream

 

This family-run, eco-friendly farm delivers tomatoes to the capital every day and the staff are very proud of what they do. Before sitting down to our meal, our waitress took time to tell us more about the geo-thermally heated water and generated power that makes this a year-round operation regardless of dark nights or snowy days. We met the bees that arrive from Holland each month to pollinate the plants and sampled the sweet green and red tomato sauces the team produce and sell as toppings for ice-cream and cheesecake.

 

Staying around Reykjavik

Hidden gem 6: Airbnb near Hafnarfjörður

OK Airbnb isn’t exactly a ‘hidden’ gem. But if you are planning a self-drive trip, it’s definitely worth considering booking your accommodation with them. There are lots of comfortable, modern – and reasonably priced – places to stay. We chose a cosy cottage called Mosi out in the countryside only 20 minutes from Reykjavik and even closer to the delightful, harbour town of Hafnarfjörður.

Our house in the snow.

Our house in the snow.

We looked at a lot of places before booking this one. What we liked here were the big windows around the house and the location in the countryside so we could experience dark skies and hopefully the Northern Lights.

The view from our house

The view from our house

Everything at Mosi was perfect for our 3 night stay, except of course the lack of solar activity to trigger the Lights. We didn’t meet our host Arngunnur in person either, but she gave us lots of advice via email about places to visit (most of which are here in this blog) and strongly advised us on car hire in winter (a 4×4 with studded tyres is a MUST).

Our cosy and colourful home from home

Our cosy and colourful home from home

Hidden gem 7: Icelandic horses

These delightful, shaggy little horses (we’d probably call them ponies) seem to be able to withstand arctic temperatures out in the fields and on the mountains in the harshest of weathers. We saw lots of them on our travels and close-up as they passed by our house from a local riding school. Riding it seems is popular for locals and there are certainly lots of opportunities for tourists to join a trek too. Look out for the strange, extra gait styles of these stumpy-legged horses that don’t exist with other breeds.  Their little legs look to be going ten to the dozen while the rider sits completely still on the horses back.

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Hidden gem 8: Coffee and cake

Good cake is heaven on a plate as far as John is concerned. And he wasn’t disappointed in Iceland. Wherever we stopped for refreshment, the coffee was exceptional. And the array of cakes was usually vast. Our favourite place was the Súfistinn coffee house in Hafnarfjörður.  Great ambience, free wifi, terrific coffee, tasty cakes (and curry pies if you’re stopping for lunch). The town itself is very charming, with a series of folk museums explaining local history and a refreshing walk along the seafront.

Hafnarfjörður

Hafnarfjörður and cake!

John’s Viking gems

Hidden gem 9: The Settlement Museum in Reykjvik
Reykjavík 871±2, The Settlement Exhibition

Reykjavík 871±2, The Settlement Exhibition

The first settlers landed in Iceland in 871, well give or take a couple of years, hence the name of this interesting exhibition that is built on top of an excavated Viking long house.  The house is still there and forms the centerpiece of the display with stories and information running around the outside.  It’s nicely done and , like so many things in Iceland, it’s carried out with great panache and taste.

It’s right in the centre of Reykjavik and will take you abut an hour to look around.

Hidden gem 10: The Viking ship near the international airport
Viking Ship

The Viking ship Íslendingur

On display at the Viking World museum is the ship the Icelander (Íslendingur) which was sailed to America in the year 2000 as a part of the millennial celebration of Leifur Eiríksson’s journey to the New World.

It’s a re-creation of course but very authentic and you can climb aboard and have a good look around.  If you find yourself heading to the airport with a bit of time to kill, drop in and take a look.

Finally if you are keen to learn more about Iceland, especially in winter, check out Trapped on TV. It’s the latest Scandi detective drama on BBC 4. We’re loving it – but you need to wrap up warm to watch it. Brrrr. While we didn’t experience the full force of a snow storm in Iceland, we came pretty close. There are scenes on the roads that look very familiar to us! But that’s another story….

Let us know about your favourite Icelandic hidden gems.

 

100 tiny tips to pro-ageing

Actually the 100 tiny tips are in fact 100 fine needles that are gently inserted into the lines and wrinkles on my face each month to help reduce the ravages of ageing. I call it acupuncture but  it’s often known by practitioners as facial rejuvenation.

Sadly it can’t radically change how you look (like an invasive, surgical procedure might) but I do believe in its claim to help slow down the ageing process  and brighten the complexion and skin, especially immediately after each treatment.

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Pro-ageing is the buzz word right now for women over 50. Apparently this means we’re not trying to look younger (hmm…..) but instead we are all about looking healthy at our real age. Don’t get me wrong,  I WOULD LOVE TO LOOK YOUNGER. But given I didn’t start with supermodel looks in the first place, nor am I keen on botox, fillers or surgery, using acupuncture needles for facial rejuvenation seems to tick the pro-ageing box and perk up my skin into the bargain.

What is a facial rejuvenation session like?

The first thing that comes to mind is how relaxing it is.  When I go to see my practitioner Sasha we  have a chatty catch up for 10 minutes or so in her warm and comfy consultation room. That’s when she asks me about my general health…..digestion, headaches etc….and any updates on specific issues I reported at my previous visit. She then studies my face to note the areas she will work on (quite a lot of them!) and any changes since last time.

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With the ‘formalities’ done, I hop onto the bed where she applies numbing cream to the most sensitive areas of my ‘free-of-makeup’ face. While this is taking effect she starts putting a small number of needles into my feet and hands – all part of the facial rejuvenation experience, tailored to each individual. If I’ve had a problem with sleeping or stress she will insert a few more needles in the places that Chinese acupuncture indicates are helpful. Usually my head or chest. This whole procedure takes around 20 minutes or so and it’s only on the really sensitive areas of my face (around my eyes and mouth) that I feel the occasional stinging or tingling sensation as some needles are tapped gently into place.

Is it my make-up free face or the needles that are the scariest thing to look at?

Is it my ‘make-up-free’ face or the needles that are the scariest thing to look at?

 

The zen-like trance I often slip into when she leaves me – all needled up –  to relax for 20 minutes is amazing. It can feel as if I’ve been in a deep, deep sleep. Other times I become aware of a slight disturbance in the room, only to discover I’m being interrupted by my own breathing (I refuse to admit to snoring!!).

I can’t say I understand Chinese acupuncture theories or if there is any proven science behind this beauty treatment. But I can say that I really enjoy it and it seems to work for me.

Tell me more about your favourite pro-ageing treatment in the comments box below.

Light up the night. Don’t miss out!

Drive past Chiswick House in south-west London at night and you may be surprised by the eerie glow coming from the grounds right now. It’s actually the light from hundreds of amazing, giant Chinese lanterns – part of the first festival of its kind in the UK celebrating Chinese New Year.

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This event offers a magical, illuminated experience as you wander through the gardens of Chiswick House in the dark.

Find your astrological sign as a lantern  – Tiger for me, Pig for our friend Gary and Rat for John and Gary’s wife, Jackie.

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Watch your step as you come across Chinese warriors on guard ….

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Coo over the sweet pandas frolicking amongst the trees

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And simply enjoy all the sights and ingenuity of this glorious, technicolour celebration of Chinese lanterns.

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The event is on until 3rd March 2016 so there is still time to get along if you live nearby or are visiting London soon. We got our tickets slightly cheaper buying ahead from the Time Out website.

DO wear warm clothing when you go. The walk around the grounds is quite a long one and it can get chilly round the nether regions if you haven’t come prepared. We missed our hats and were thankful for our gloves!   Small children might struggle unless they are well wrapped up and a buggy might be advisable if they’re not keen walkers.

John says:

In celebration of Valentine’s Day, here we are in a short video we made of the evening …..ahhh.

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Six Secrets of South East Sicily

Ok there’s nothing particularly secret about the biggest volcano in Europe but I liked the alliteration and if you’re planning a trip to Sicily,  I hope you’ll discover some nuggets in here that you won’t find elsewhere – to make your trip extra special.

1. Taormina

Taormina, Sicily

Taormina

It’s busy, it’s touristy and it’s the most expensive place on the island but you’ve still got to visit Taormina because it’s so damned cute!

It has a fantastic main street with lots going on but go for restaurants in the side streets.  The views over the sea are beautiful. Go for dinner or a drink up to el Jabel to see one of the best.

There’s a  Greek amphitheatre that has regular performances throughout the year. We saw La Boheme there, tickets were just €23.

Down the hill to Mazzaro via cable car will take you to good beaches with really expensive sun loungers.

2. Etna

Etna, Sicily

Mount Etna

It’s dormant right now but that doesn’t mean Mount Etna is dead. Far from it.  As recently as December 2015 there was an eruption that threw lava 1km into the air. But don’t let that put you off a visit. We drove there and all the way up to the cable-car station. You can grab some lunch before taking the 20 minute ride up. From there we got on an impressive 4-wheel-drive bus that took us across a moon-scape of cinder and ash and past steaming pits of recent activity.  From there we joined a guide who walked us up to one of the vents from the big 2002 eruption. He was really knowledgeable, spoke good English and talked us through the geology and history of this massive feature which dominates the whole of South-East Sicily.  Give yourself half a day to a day for this adventure depending where you start from and remember that the stuff you are walking on is some of the newest bits of the surface of the planet. Respect!

3. Alcantara Gorge

Alcantara Gorge, Sicily

Alantara Gorge

More geology here but it’s nice and cool and solid this time. The Alcantara gorge is made from solidified lava flows from about 8,000 year ago and the hexagonal vertical and horizontal ‘pipes’ are very impressive.

You can explore yourself to a certain extent but we chose to take the guided tour and it was a lot of fun.  You get kitted out with waders and are lead down the river  and over rocks and into pools. The water is surprisingly cold so the waders are for insulation as much as protection.

There is a park at the top with some fairly comical animated animals and dinosaurs and a cafe and bar. Remember to take your swim suits (unlike us) or you’ll be getting some clothing wet!

4. Syracuse

Syracuse, Sicily

Syracuse

A little further south is the charming town of Syracuse.  If you like Italian churches, boy, have you come to the right place. We visited just two, both in Ortigia, the ancient heart of the town connected to the mainland by a small bridge: The Cathedral of Syracuse (Italian: Duomo) is an impressive white Baroque building that dominates the top end of the square and The Church of Santa Lucìa alla Badìa, another Baroque edifice built after the 1693 earthquake. It houses the Burial of St. Lucy by Caravaggio.  Find it at the bottom end of the square.

The square itself is beautiful, all white marble and not too busy out of season.  Stop off for a coffee or a specialist hot chocolate at the hotel opposite the Duomo. Just one mind, there’s enough cocoa in there to keep you fizzing all morning.

5. Catania Fish Market

Catania, Sicily

Catania

If you are staying in the South East, it’s likely you will fly into Catania but there’s more to it than just the airport.  The fish market here is an experience you won’t want to miss.  Dozens of fishmongers, fishermen and guys with  just a box of fish trade here and it’s a sight and sound to behold.  You’ll probably hear it before you see it as the sellers are very loud in advertising produce!

There were some varieties of fish here that we’d never seen before but don’t let that put you off. If you are here to shop for dinner you will not go home empty handed. If you just want to soak up the spectacle of something that has been going on pretty much unchanged for hundreds of years then just stroll around and take pictures. It’s nice to ask before you shoot the but they are a friendly lot and you might get them to strike a pose.

6. Villa Romana del Casale

Mosaics, Sicily

Villa Romana del Casale

This Roman villa is still being excavated but what’s been uncovered so far will take your breath away.

The Summer home of a high-ranking Roman (maybe even Caesar himself), the Villa Romana del Casale is unlike any Roman ruin you’ve ever seen.  The buildings are interesting but what you have come to see are the mosaics; lots and lots of mosaics. In a really good state of repair, they depict what life was like for the well off in the later part of the Roman Empire. You’ll see how they lived, played, hunted and explored.

You’ll also see how they dressed. The Bikini Girls are famous in their own right. It’s as close to a time-machine as we’ll get to those days and life looked very good.  It’s tucked away so use your map or SatNav. There’s a hotel at the junction to the main road which is very good for lunch.

Emma’s added secrets:

  • Sip a cocktail on the roof of the El Jebel hotel in Taormina (mentioned above). All white and terracotta, it has to be one of THE most romantic places to sit under the stars with a view of the sun setting behind Etna and the sea laid out in front of you. If I wasn’t already married to John, I would have fully expected him to propose here!
  • If you get the chance to see a performance at the Greek amphitheatre in Taormina, go for it. But remember to take a cushion or towel with you if you’re sitting in the ‘cheap’ seats. You are literally perched on the old stones.
  • Try delicious pistachio ice-cream on the island. These nuts are grown locally and used in lots of dishes. However only try cannoli if you happen to like a lot of sweet cream cheese stuffed into what looks like a giant brandy snap and then dipped in chopped pistachios.
  • Trip Advisor now has a rental service well-worth trying.  We booked our apartment in Mazzaro with them – a lovely, modern and newly-renovated  two bed flat over a restaurant. From the balcony you could watch the busy main road and just glimpse the seaside too. This resort is not the most picturesque but it is cheaper than staying in Taormina itself, has a nice bay and is a good base to see other parts of south-east Sicily.
  • Take the train. We went from Mazzaro to Catania this way. It was quick, cheap and easy.  You just need to know you must get your tickets stamped for each journey before getting on the train. We narrowly avoided a fine on our return leg after a kindly Sicilian passenger  stepped in to help explain our error to the rather cross ticket inspector.

See also

Emma’s recipe video for Caponata, inspired by our trip.

The upcoming exhibition ‘Sicily; Culture and Conquest’ at the British Museum.

Caponata from Sicily

A Taste of Sicily in Summer

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While cold and stormy weather batters us right now, I thought it would be great to share a recipe that brings with it a taste of warm weather, summer days and Sicily. John and I grabbed a week on this wonderful Italian island last Autumn and discovered a vibrant, welcoming place rich with history, fabulous food and amazing scenery, topped off with the imposing Mount Etna, Europe’s tallest, most active volcano.

Wherever we went on the island you could almost always guarantee that local cafes and restaurants would serve up Caponata. It’s a delicious stew of aubergine and celery that every place seemed to add its own twist to. So here is my version.  It’s really easy to make, full of healthy vegetables and provides a really interesting change from its French cousin, ratatouille.

Emma’s Caponata Recipe

Ingredients:

1 large onion, diced

2 large aubergine, roughly chopped into bite-size chunks

4 sticks of celery, chopped as above

2 cloves garlic, diced

2 green or red peppers, sliced and diced

2 tomatoes, chopped into bite-size chunks

2 courgettes, chopped (optional)

20ml olive oil

30ml red wine vinegar

1 tin chopped tomatoes

a handful of raisins, capers and pine nuts

small bunch of basil leaves

salt & pepper to taste

Once you’ve heated the olive oil in a heavy-based pan,  add the onion and aubergine and allow them to soften for a few minutes. Then add the rest of the chopped and diced fresh vegetables and garlic along with the tin of tomatoes, red wine vinegar and the raisins. Put a lid on the pan and leave the vegetables to cook down for around 20-30 minutes until soft. Check during this time that there is enough liquid in the pan and top up with water if necessary.

While the vegetables are cooking, heat a small frying pan and toss in the pine nuts. Keep a close eye on them, moving them around the pan until they start to brown.  As soon as they do, turn the heat off and put to one side.

Before serving, add the capers and the basil to the Caponata, adding the pine nuts and some additional torn basil leaves as the final touch. Delizioso – a taste of sunshine and Sicily.

Left, Right, and Centre

US politics today

US Politics today

We still have a full nine months to endure and witness the insane and dysfunctional US presidential election campaign. It’s been the maddest I’ve ever witnessed and there are bound to be more crazy moments between here and November. But I just want to say a few words about it.

I am a liberal, left-leaning democrat. I believe in inclusivity, opportunity, equality and fairness.

We’ve seen some unspeakable behaviour from Trump on his campaign. His pronouncements really do beggar belief. My view is that he brings shame on his country and gives ammunition to those who want to harm democracies everywhere.

At the same time, we see Bernie Sanders, probably the most left leaning politician to ever be a contender at this stage of the political cycle. He has massive support form the young voters and he just gave Hillary Clinton a scare in Iowa. So what’s happening?

A change

I think it’s a cusp moment. What we are witnessing here will be repeated in other democracies around the world. We are seeing a tipping point from the old, pre Internet generation to the web-born-natives. Think about it, the voting age in the US is 18. That means they were born in 1998. By the time they were in High School, they all had email addresses and Bebo accounts.

Equally, the old guard are scared. They are lost in the sea of technology, their assets are based on the baby boom and they have no idea how to cope with the modern world. These are Trump’s supporters. He articulates their fear and his quick-fix platitudes are a comfort blanket to them.

That’s why this is such an interesting and complex election. We won’t see it’s like again.

Hillary

If that weren’t enough, we have Hillary Clinton, shooting for the presidential nomination of the Democratic party for the second time, to become the first ever female president of the United States of America.

Given what I said above, if you were to draw a political, left/right line from Sanders to Trump, Hillary would be in the middle third, depending on the policy.

That should do her well come the vote, when the electorate have to face up to who, on balance, will represent them best.

So what about Hillary?

There is no doubt that she is the most qualified and experienced candidate from either party.

She has credentials and respect from counties around the world from her time as Secretary of State. You might not agree with everything she did but ask yourself who else in the pack could make those decisions and deal with real-world politics?

Why now?

But beyond the politics of this US election and beyond even the USA, electing Hillary Clinton as president would send a huge message to the world.

It would help girls and women across the globe to believe that there is no limit to what they can achieve. It would force repressive and inequitable regimes to face up to the fact that the most powerful nation on Earth has elected a woman to be their leader.

The USA and the Western democracies are under an ideological threat from fundamentalists and terrorists who denigrate learning, openness, culture and, most importantly, the role of women in society. We need to demonstrate that this is not to be tolerated.

So, to my many American friends, irrespective of your fears, impulses or concerns; vote for Hillary Clinton in November. Your vote will resonate throughout history and way beyond your national borders and you will most certainly make your country a safer and better place to live in.

Instagram – What? Why? And How?

 

What’s Instagram?

It’s a free photo and short video sharing service. You can follow the posts of friends and professionals and make edits on your photos before posting them. Instagram has been owned by Facebook since 2012.

Why would I use it?

You might think that it’s full of teenager selfies and pictures of people’s kids, food and pets. And yes, people do post those picture but there is a lot more to explore. News agencies post breaking news there (the BBC makes good use of short videos for instance); check out travel locations with photos taken by real people; follow your favourite sports person or celebrity. If you are into photography there are some really talented people posting their work.  It’s also helpful to check out bars or restaurants before you visit to see what’s going on there.

If you run a business you might use it to post pictures of your products or your customers using your goods and services.

Your friends and kids are probably on there, follow them to see what they are up to – you don’t even need their permission!

Instagram users have a unique name (a bit like Twitter) so click on these examples to see what they post…

BBC News – @BBCNews
Photographer Matt Scutt – @MattScutt
Usain Bolt – @UsainBolt

British Museum – @BritishMuseum

Or take a look at my posts – @JohnJRoyle

If you see a picture you like just double tap on it. The poster will be notified and you can see how many other people have also liked it.

Use the search window at the top of any of the above to explore for yourself.

How do I get started?

To post pictures you need to download the app from the Apple App Store or from Google Play. It’s free and simple to setup. You’ll need to think of an account name. This can be your name or something else entirely. If it for business it would be good to use your business name.

You can enter a few words about your self and add links in there if you like.

Following

Matt Scut InstagramThe first thing you’ll probably want to do is start following some people. Use the search function to find them by name or topic or location. Then just hit the follow button. They’ll be notified and you’ll be added to their list of followers. You can unfollow at any time. The posts from people you follow will appear in your feed when you open up the app.

Remember to double tap on pictures you like and you can even add a comment if you like.

You can also ‘send’ a picture to one of your friends using the little bent arrow icon.

Posting

Now it’s time to dive in and start contributing!

Smartphones contain fantastic cameras and we all have one with us all the time so start shooting and sharing. It couldn’t be easier and you will soon find that your work gets noticed and commented on.

Instagram ButtonsJust tap the centre button (it’s a really simplified camera icon) to call up your phone’s photo gallery and select the picture to post. Then follow the instructions on the screen to edit the picture, add a comment, the location the picture was taken and those all important hash tags.

Hash tags help people find pictures so use then liberally. There are no set rules, you can make them up but make sure you use all the obvious ones (really, if you take a picture of a tree tag it with #tree and #trees at the very least).

I hope you give it a try, if you do, please follow me and I’ll be sure to follow you back and look at your pictures. Good luck!

Lot more info here: http://www.cheatsheet.com/technology/how-to-use-instagram.html
on this Cheat Sheet from May 2015.

Emma adds…

I love John’s Instagram posts. He shares some great pictures of his own. I don’t post many  myself but I do enjoy following the odd celebrity (my not-so-secret vice). It’s amazing what some will share about their personal lives. You often see it first on Instagram. I also love the inspirational food and travel posts by @everydaycurator and I’m a sucker for dogs, any dogs, all dogs,  on Instagram. This platform being photos and few words, it’s easy to flick through for a visual treat without much effort.

Kitchen kettle melt-down

 

 

Fingers crossed this little beauty, our new kettle purchase, is going to be our last for a while. So far we’ve had kettle lid/spout combinations that spew boiling water all over the worktop and miss the teapot; plastic kettles that just silently seep water from underneath them and clear kettles that fur up and fill our teacups with scaly matter!

This time I’ve pushed the boat out and spent a bit more money on a KitchenAid model. Let’s see if this dinky specimen, that surprisingly holds enough water for our family teapot, can live up to its brand reputation for quality and allow us to make a cup of tea without tears.