There ain’t no party like an army party

I think we’re all sometimes guilty of generalisation. Not in a Clarkson way, but if you get invited to a party on an army base with your brother who is in the forces, and his vodka loving wife, you could be forgiven for presuming it will probably be a boozy evening. Having said that, I didn’t expect to spend the evening drinking toffee vodka from a spoon whilst dressed as Sandy from Grease.

We made the trip down to Southampton last month to see my brother and his family for the first time in two and a half years. Everyone’s busy lives, the distance between us, and the fact that our parents live in Cyprus now has meant that we haven’t seen them since my nephew Jan’s christening at the end of 2014. We were really looking forward to our weekend, more so when we found out it was Ben’s summer mess ball and that we were to be guests. Chris less so when he found out it was movie themed fancy dress…

I love fancy dress. Any opportunity to get dressed up like an idiot is right up my street, though we were conscious of finances and the fact that we were going camping on the Isle of Wight straight after our weekend and couldn’t hire anything, so we decided to see what we could patch together from the fancy dress tub. After spending a fortnight trying to find a film that had leading characters in shellsuits in it so we could revisit our look from Sally’s 80s party, we admitted defeat and realised we might have to throw a bit of money at the situation. When someone suggested Sandy and Danny from Grease we thought that would be easy enough to do with what we had, i.e. we could both wear leather jackets and not have to worry about it too much. Long story short, with our makeshift outfits we realised we were going to look shit, so made a quick emergency stop at a fancy dress shop for some wigs and teamed with my sister’s shiny pants, we didn’t look half bad.

And thank God we made the effort. I’ve been to my fair share of fancy dress do’s but the effort people had made when we got to the base was unbelievable. The effort that had gone into the evening was pretty unbelievable really, and when I was handed three tokens for gin cocktails, I was already declaring it the best party I’d ever been to.

There was a man dressed as a scout walker (yes, I had to look this up), who had made his own costume with an inbuilt fan and optic full of Southern Comfort. There was a man who’d come dressed as an Oscar, in a Morph suit. I had to ask who he was too, but once I had all the answers these were the standout get ups. As for the entertainment…well the whole mess was decked out like a Hollywood set, with cardboard cut outs of famous characters that were crying out for drunken selfies. There was a casino, with free chips. A band, a gin bar in a horse box courtesy of The Little Gin Company, a laser quest which Danie and I ran squealing round later, and a Scalextric set up for teams to play each other. Food came in the form of build your own burgers, in a tent set up with every kind of burger topping and salads on one side, then ice creams and mini chocolate toppings on the other. Transport was free and door to door, whenever you fancied leaving. And to top all this off, it was £1.22 a pint. All in all there were all the right ingredients for a very entertaining night, which is what you want when you don’t know too many people – cheap booze and a dark inflatable you can run round with a laser gun.

I’d always assumed that army dos would be a bit ‘lads, lads, lads’, and this was partially confirmed when Chris started drinking out of a watering can but also not true at all. Everyone was very welcoming and friendly and I think genuinely pleased to meet new people and share their experiences with them. Everyone was there to have a good time and celebrate the work they’d done over the year with their partners and friends, and we were proud to have been invited to be a part of it. We left pretty early to get back for Jan so missed out on any more potential watering can misadventures, and drinking toffee vodka out of Danie’s Mary Poppins ‘spoonful of sugar’ medicine bottle was the height of our mischievousness. All in all it was a great night made better by having the chance to spend time with Ben and his family and friends after such a long time apart.

Furthermore, it’s confirmed what I already suspected after their wedding…go to a party with soldiers and you’re going to do some drinking. And at £1.22 a pint it’d be rude not to!

Thanks to Ben, Danie, Billy, Alex and the British Army for a great night.

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The Isle of Wight…sandy beaches and saucy postcards

For those who read my last blog, you will remember me talking about spending summer Saturdays at the cricket club. Well when we weren’t there, we were in a static caravan in Mablethorpe. Our family is pretty well versed in the tradition of the Great British summer beach holiday. If it involved a caravan, waltzers, buckets and spades, bingo or having sand rubbed vigorously from your feet by a grandad who doesn’t know his own strength, we were happy. Once I’d read Famous Five go off in a caravan they stopped being tiny spaces where your sister was under your feet and infuriating, they were magical places where tables miraculously turned into beds and cupboards at different times of day. We’d spend our days playing on the beach, and our evenings playing bingo and on the amusements, at the circus, on the rides, or just running around the campsite. They’re all happy memories, and I think every child of the 70s and 80s has a deep wired love of a British seaside holiday. Before Majorca and Tenerife there was Filey and Skegness, and we were more than fine with that.

When we were looking for somewhere to spend a week following a trip to Southampton to visit my brother at the end of June (more about that in my next blog), we were spoilt for choice with coastal options, but sprung for the Isle of Wight as that was Chris’s childhood Mablethorpe. I’d no background knowledge of the place but liked the words that were being used to describe it, as a quirky, quaint, old-fashioned seaside resort. My sister in law mentioned over the weekend that it was a “lush place when the sun was out, but, well, a bit grim when it’s not.” Having pitched up in marvellous sunshine on Cool Camping’s Ninham Country Holiday’s site, a beautifully located site in the middle of the countryside but a 20 minute walk from the beach, with a boot full of beers, sausages and sun cream, I’d forgotten what she said until the following morning when we woke up to grey skies.

 

As you tend to do on the first day of your holiday, we set off for a long walk into the resort and around, making our way first into Shanklin through acres of farming fields and neighbouring caravan parks, then along the promenade into Sandown. And to be honest, it did look a bit grim. The quaint coloured beach huts that you see in photos of Brighton that probably cost as much as a terraced house in East Lancashire were all closed with the exception of a pair of snoozing pensioners. The beach was all but empty and the sea looked slightly hostile. What must have once been a majestic row of stately Victorian hotels and guest houses looked in need of a lick of paint and some were shut down, and the piers that hadn’t been washed away and not replaced following storms, were home to endless slot machines, not bingo or dance floors. It made me quite sad to be honest. I thought about my grandparents and their frequent trips down to the Lincolnshire coast in their little Cinquecento, and how they loved to take us all playing bingo and on the 2p machines. It all just seemed so quiet and a bit forlorn. The British seaside holiday is something so anchored in our traditions, and something we should be proud of and it was sad to see it so diminished. Anyway I relayed a version of this self-indulgent monologue to Chris who told me to stop whining and being negative, reminded me I wasn’t at work, and took me for a pint. My mood lifted, the next day the sun came out, and it was like waking up on a different island.

 

Shanklin is split into three parts. The beach, which is a mixture of shops selling resort tat of the highest quality (I LOVE holiday tat), buckets and spades and some decent pubs with superb views, a bizarre choice of lagers and lengthy happy hours. It’s the first time in years I’ve seen anywhere sell ‘saucy’ postcards featuring cartoon blondes with massive comedy knockers. It was like stepping back in time. It’s also home to the finest mini-golf course I’ve played on, a fun pirate themed one next door to Jurassic Park (you can play both for £13).

 

There are sound effects and you’re right on the sea front. There’s the town centre, which we didn’t venture into but has an English/Polish restaurant with great reviews that is on the list if we were to return. Then there’s the old village, a small street of thatched roof pubs and tea rooms with picturesque gardens leading down to Shanklin Chine. Here you’ll find the Christmas shop, which was open, in June, and playing Christmas music (quirky, yes?). As the week went by and the sun got hotter, the place became busier and busier with young families and a lot of older couples and groups. The beaches filled up and it was difficult at times to get an outside table in a lot of the pubs. The resort came into itself, and I think if we’d have gone in a couple of weeks when the school holidays start then my first impressions would have been very different. I doubt they’d have been of a place that had had its heyday, but a place that was continuing to serve a large population of people that appreciate and love the British seaside. Across the resorts we visited, including nearby Ventnor you can see the beginning of the trendy ale and gin scene starting to creep in, with the occasional beach cafe/bar that could sell you a lovingly garnished G n T and a cappuccino without change from a tenner. Luckily for everyone’s pockets these are found alongside the beach hotel bars that have John Smiths on special offer, and we enjoyed both in equal measure.

 

Quirks and the contrast between old and new aside, the scenery is quite breathtaking. The coastal road from Ventnor to Alum Bay to visit the Needles was superb. As soon as you leave the village you’re high up on a cliff road with nothing but rolling green fields to your right and the sea to your left. Every so often a campsite would pop up, with caravans and tents seemingly metres away from falling into the ocean…but what a view to wake up to. A boat trip we took from Alum Bay felt like we could have been on the Mediterranean, with the blues of the water and the yachts bobbing about.

We only had five days there so we didn’t see the whole of the island, and from leaflets we saw I can see that there are a lot of attractions and activities for young families and coach trips alike. It has many of the elements required for great family seaside fun. Our reality as a young(ish) couple with no kids was mainly beach walks and bus rides to new villages, stopping frequently for an ice cream, a beer, or on one lovely pitstop, a sparkling afternoon tea. It was as it sounds and a great way to break up the day. I recommend Vernon Cottage on a sunny afternoon for just that, and they also have a ghost if you’re into that kind of thing. Having a campsite with electric hook up meant there were always cold beers and meat in the cool box, and we spent most evenings watching bats fly round the campsite after the few other campers had gone to bed. It was incredibly peaceful.

 

Would I go back to the Isle of Wight? I would, but ironically for someone without kids I’d probably want to go in school holidays so the place was full of life. I’d want to predict the weather and go in a scorching hot week like we’ve just had. And I’d be writing to the Mayor of Shanklin to plead that they get some lottery funding to open a vintage bingo hall. It’d just be a shame that Grandad Ray wouldn’t be there to help me call when I’d won a line but was too shy to shout. He’s the reason after all that my summers were always so well spent, and who I spent the majority of last week remembering and missing.

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We stayed… Ninham Country Holidays in Lake, £200 for ferry and 6 nights 4* camping…and they even book your ferry

We drank… all over, but the Spyglass Inn, Ventor was a favourite of mine. A pint cost similar to home, it’s right on the sea front, had spectacular views and an interesting selection of lagers.

We ate… the standout meal was at the Happy Haddock, Shanklin Old Village. Fish and chips for two cooked in beef dripping with a can of pop and a buttered teacake (I’m salivating) for under £20.

 

 

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Pendle Forest Cricket Club Beer Festival: It’s OK, you don’t have to like cricket

It’s folklore in the Blackburn family that there were some disagreements about whether my parents wanted a boy or a girl as their first born. It is claimed that my Dad wanted a boy so that he could play cricket for Yorkshire. It is also claimed that they travelled from their home in Wigan back to my grandparents in Doncaster every weekend towards the end of Mum’s pregnancy, so that hopefully Mum would give birth in the land of the white rose. Unfortunately I didn’t toe the line and was born back over the border in Wigan, female, at ten to seven on a Sunday night just in time for the pubs to open. How much of this is true I’m not sure, as over the years it’s become apparent Mum is prone to exaggeration (sorry Mumbo, but its true!). I do know though that despite being a little Lancastrian girl (which my mum was thrilled about); I was still encouraged to show an interest in cricket from an early age. I’d never make 100 at Headingley for Yorkshire, but I could help my mum make the cricket teas every Saturday of the season.

By the time I have my earliest memories we’d left Wigan via Leeds and settled in East Lancashire, where my dad had taken up playing cricket with a local team at Pendle Forest Cricket Club. We duly went to watch every Saturday, played with the other kids and helped the mums put the mini toffee crisps in the men’s teas for their breaks. It is either because of this, or despite this, that nearly 30 years later I have no interest in cricket. I do however have a great fondness for Pendle Forest Cricket Club. My dad had his 40th there, my sister still has a scar in the middle of her face from falling over during a particularly boisterous game of whip in the grounds, and since being an adult it’s been the scene of some great parties.

This weekend they had their annual beer festival, which we had missed last year due to being away. My friend Dave was home on a one night only basis from Poland, so a small group of us ventured up on the Friday night to try a few beers and have a catch up. I must admit I’d not expected huge things, despite having a big function room upstairs the bar itself is quite small, so I was pleased to see they’d kitted out the whole of the downstairs room as a makeshift festival bar and it was really busy.

IMG_9336At this point it’s probably worthwhile pointing out that I’m not the best person to review a beer festival when I don’t drink ale, and I only went on opening night. That said, they had eight different gins on, were selling burgers and possibly bacon fries too, and they’re the friendliest team of staff around – so I’m reviewing it on that basis. Now that craft ale and beards are bang on trend, I’m sure that if you said to the bar staff at some beer festivals that you actually wouldn’t mind a nice cold lager, you’d probably be made to feel the same as if you asked for ketchup in a fancy restaurant. Here there’s no judgement, and you’re just directed to the bar upstairs or offered a Peroni. I’m told that the ales were very good, and they also had a range of ciders, wine and prosecco. I made a point of trying as many of the gins as I could, including my new favourite, Brockmans, which I discovered at Franky’s wedding earlier this month. The rhubarb and ginger Edinburgh gin wasn’t my cup of tea, but I was glad they had it on all the same…as at £2.50 for gin plus mixer I wasn’t complaining.

Graham and his team have always been more than accommodating at any do I’ve organised or been to, whether that’s by letting us carry on partying til about 4am on Chris’s 40th or when 80 of us descended dressed as gangsters and molls for Captain’s 30th.

All in all it was a fun evening with a good atmosphere and the opportunity to try something new at little expense, which in my opinion is what a festival is all about. The weekend apparently carried on in the same vein with a family fun day on Saturday and Facebook posts on the Sunday to let everyone know that the bar wasn’t dry just yet. We didn’t take him up on the offer, but will more than likely add it to the list for next year…

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Could this be Bradford’s best curry?

Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, birthdays…these are the days where you go along with where the person in question wants to spend their special day. So it didn’t come as a great surprise when Dad requested that this weekend we go for a curry at the Nawaab in Bradford.

A curry enthusiast, my Dad was in his element when our family moved from Leeds to East Lancashire in the late 80s. As a business manager in a bank he spent a large part of his working day helping local people secure finance to start businesses, and support existing ones. By 1989 Nelson was home to an increasing number of Asian restaurants and my Dad was involved in helping to get several of them off the ground.  I vividly remember visiting some of his customer’s houses as guests and being dressed in saris by their daughters, sharing home-made curries and trying my first glass of mango juice.

Dad relocated several times over the years but eventually retired to Bradford eight years ago, and I was excited at what I thought would be an opportunity to try out some of the famed Bradford curry houses, where you bring your own bottle and eat delicious authentic curries that are akin to those on the sub continent. I spent time in India when Sarah and I went on our epic adventure in 2005, and I was expecting to try some new dishes and expand my palate and horizons when it came to Asian food. The reality however, is that we’ve been to the same one restaurant about 100 times. And it’s not even really in Bradford, it’s on the A650 leading out to Wakefield and is pretty much in Leeds. I’ve not even been into Bradford apart from to get a train in the whole time my Dad has lived there.

This might sound like a crying shame, a waste of the wealth of fantastic restaurants available in the city centre.  The thing is, despite the volume, our local takeaways and restaurants can be pretty hit and miss. The Nawaab has been consistently delicious every single time we’ve been there, so we’re loathe to go somewhere new. It probably won’t come as a shock that I’ve also got into that irritating habit of ordering exactly the same thing every time I go, to the point that I now can’t order anything else because it could only be a disappointment.

This is a typical visit. 2-3 beers in the Six Acres pub across the road. Head to the Nawaab. A sizzling sharing platter for three – bhaji, lamb chop, seek kebab, chicken chat, and a side of meat samosas. Several poppadoms and lashings of mint yogurt dip. Bottle of Cobra. After six years Dad and Chris finally reached an understanding, whereby Chris will be allowed to order exactly what he wants even if Dad thinks he couldn’t possibly need or eat all that rice and bread, because he’s in his 40s and can decide himself how much food he wants. But Chris will then allow Dad to call him greedy at every opportunity. Dad gets to poke fun and Chris gets to be a glutton – everyone wins. The main course is what keeps us going back though, time and time again, and that’s the delicious lamb haandi. A traditional Punjabi dish, apparently it is eaten a lot in Asian homes, cooked in a clay pot that keeps all the delicious flavour in. It’s not too spicy, it’s not creamy, its just melt in your mouth lamb in a flavour packed sauce that is just the right consistency. We always have it with the pilau rice which always gives the impression of having been lightly buttered…whatever it is that they do to it, it works. Chris pontificates for longer than necessary on which combination of lamb, chicken, balti or rogan josh to have before ordering the same thing, with rice and two chapattis. And we all leave very happy indeed.

Yesterday we decided to have a change (eek!) and try out the Sunday buffet. My grandparents were visiting from the Cotswolds and we thought there would be more variety to suit their more delicate tastes and needs. For around £12 a head you get eight or nine different starter options, a full salad bar, two different rices (including a delicious keema biryiani…yes, there’s a lamb theme going on), breads and then nine different curries. I went for the chilli chicken and garlic and chicken balti curries, a heaped plates of starters (which I could eat all day every day) and a couple of refreshing scoops of ice cream to finish off. Oh, and a Cobra. You can even bring your own Cobras if you’re so inclined, and they won’t charge you to open them. It was delicious and the staff are so accommodating, but a little part of me did miss our usual order…

I don’t have any photos of the food to share, my grandparents aren’t comfortable with mobile phones so if I then started taking photos of their dinner to put on Twitter they’d think I’d lost my mind. And to be honest the Nawaab itself isn’t all that pretty, it’s basically on a roundabout, but they have just had a lovely decking and patio area set up outside for people coming for a drink before their meal. But lack of imagery aside, if you find yourself within a ten mile radius of Tong, or Huddersfield, or even their restaurant in Spain, I can’t recommend a visit highly enough. Maybe one day we will venture into Bradford so I can at least offer some kind of comparison, but for now, I’m pretty happy with my haandi.

Note: This is Dad’s 60th pictured below, we don’t usually spend Father’s Day with his golf mates!

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Third time lucky in Austwick…a hidden treat in the Yorkshire Dales

It’s always a struggle to find a campsite that is both pleasant to stay on and allows groups. Usually the group sites are filled with lairy groups of people playing guitar all night and having fires they aren’t meant to. I know this as I’ve been in one of those groups many a time. A few years ago we were looking for a group site, but this time the guitars had been replaced with toddlers so we needed somewhere quiet, accessible and with decent facilities. Cue Dalesbridge campsite. Only a 40 minute drive away from us up the A65 and into the Yorkshire Dales, it’s a part of the world that I’d driven past many a time on the way to the Lakes and thought it sounded a little too much like Auschwitz to be appealing. What a mistake that was. I’ve stayed there twice, the first time we had the benefit of good weather, a quiet time of year and the only pub in the village being open and serving excellent food (more about this later). The only downside was that Mr P had thrown himself in front of someone’s knee at football earlier that week, so he was at home practising on his crutches.

The second time was a couple of years later, and when we discovered the bar. The same group of families and friends had planned a trip, only for them all to cry off on the Friday because it was too cold and they were enjoying drinking their wine in comfort. Undeterred off we went. However our tent had been to Beatherder a good few times by this point, and was suffering as a result. Anyone who has been to Beatherder will know that packing your tent in such a way that avoids future mildew growth, is not your priority by the end of the weekend. We were in a chilly Austwick, the lovely pub I’d been talking about for two years was full to busting and had no unreserved tables all weekend, and the tent and sleeping bag had gone mouldy. Everyone we’d left behind at home was in a nice warm pub enjoying our friend’s band, and we were sat freezing outside a decrepit tent sulking.

Off we went to try out the bar. Now, spending the evening with a group of middle aged men from a mill town in Lancashire who are playing dominoes and discussing what I now know to be a prelude to the Brexit debate might not be everyone’s idea of a good time. But it was warm and dry and they served alcohol.

Dalesbridge is a really convenient site for us, and one that definitely should be remembered by those who live on the Lancashire-Yorkshire border. Too often we traipse all the way to the Lakes forgetting that we’ve got the beautiful Dales on our doorstep. Austwick is round the corner from Clapham and easily accessible for all of the three peaks of Yorkshire. The site is friendly, clean and whilst compared to some of the bigger sites it’s not as modern, it’s got everything you need. They specialise in groups and families, have got a big flat field with no drainage issues that I can remember, and they have other accommodation options if you’re not in tent. It’s also reasonably priced and they’re very relaxed about booking, though I wouldn’t take this for granted during the summer holidays.

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It’s also worth considering making a trip just for the Game Cock Inn. It’s a ten minute walk into the beautiful little traditional village of Austwick, all red phone boxes, dry stone walls and posters for the WI. I believe the pub is run by a French couple, and the menu is a wonderful mix of traditional English dishes with a French twist, and a variety of other dishes.

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As it was a bank holiday when we camped they were fully booked, and I suspect this is a regular occurrence. We called again last year, following a trip up to Coniston to climb the Old Man, which hadn’t left us sufficiently hungry enough to eat in the Lakes. We called into the Game Cock on our way home, which by now had become somewhat built up in Chris’s eyes due to his inability to ever get a meal there. It almost seemed like the same thing was going to happen again, but they squeezed us in and promptly stopped seating people for food. We’re so glad they did. As well as eating exactly the same thing as I did in 2012 and it being just as good, I got to try all of Chris’s choices and can confirm that they’re not a one trick pony.

A steak burger being held together with a very sharp knife looked the business, and tasted it too. The homemade chutney really complemented the flavours of the meat, and for some reason I’m a real sucker for a decent French dressing…which was always going to be good in a place like this.  The game pie beat my Grandma’s (though I’ll be keeping that to myself), and the malteaser cheesecake, well, I’ve sent a few tweets about it so it’s fair to say that I’m a fan. Add to this a great beer garden at the back with a children’s play area, and both Peroni and Wainwright on draught. Had it not been a Sunday we’d have been trying to get a room for the night, and waiting for the crowds to clear so we could enjoy the pub for longer. The couple on the table next to us were testament to its brilliance, given that they came most weekends and took it in turns between driving and enjoying a bottle of lovely French red.

If all of it isn’t enough to tempt you to Austwick, whether it be passing through for a drive, camping with a gang or scaling the Three Peaks, bear in mind that Austwick is home to Great Britain’s silver medallists in pickleball. And if you want to know what that is, you’d probably better ring and reserve a table now…

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Vilnius: The underground city that’s not just for cool people

I don’t usually pick my holidays on the strength of forum posts on Up the Clarets. As Neil and Dave have lived in Warsaw for several years now, planning a city break has usually revolved around finding out when Neil isn’t working and booking a £40 flight. We both love Poland, Chris especially. If he had a blog he would probably use it solely to extol the virtues of pierogi and the cost of premium lager. Having only visited Warsaw in November though, we decided to cast the net a little wider, whilst still focussing on that part of Europe. The problem with spending so much time in Warsaw is that then spending anything more than £60 on flights makes you wince, which immediately ruled Prague out. However Mr P spends a ridiculous amount of time on Burnley FC’s forum page. Within these posts apparently you can find out anything from information on player transfers, local road closures, kebab shop hygiene ratings…to Eastern European city break suggestions. And off to Vilnius we went.

I’d not done a huge amount of research but what I had seen indicated that it would follow a similar format, Old Town, river, hearty (stodgy) food and reasonably priced beer. I’d also heard it would be cold. We tend to do hand luggage only on these kind of trips, primarily because I’m practically a Yorkshire woman and would rather wear the same top all weekend and have more money to spend on food, and because Chris likes using his miniature toilet bag. One thing I’d say about Vilnius in April is that you will need a hat, scarf and gloves, all of which luckily we’d brought. You’ll also definitely need a waterproof as we arrived in rain on the Friday and unfortunately it poured it down for the majority of the day.

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We’d got the airport bus into the city centre, which takes around 20 minutes and costs 1 Euro each, which quickly made us realise that Vilnius was going to be an easy city to get around. Our hotel, Europa Royale was right at the far end of the Old Town within shouting distance from the Gates of Dawn. The Gates of Dawn mark the entrance to the city by the only one of nine remaining original entrances in the city wall. I visited mid morning on the Saturday when there were large groups of tourists on organised tours and several carts selling fridge magnets and replica gates. From there you can walk the length of the Old Town, which is just over a mile or so, and end up in to Cathedral square, a huge square which is home to a beautiful cathedral and the start of the walk to what remains of the castle. From there you can see the river, and over into the business and presumably less touristy district of the city.

Our plans for the weekend were to wander around looking at the architecture, visit the castle, stroll by the river and intersperse this with plenty of stops for food and drink.

A couple of things hampered this on the first day, firstly the rain, and secondly that everything looked deserted. Vilnius is seemingly a really quiet city. But by the end of Friday night when the rain had stopped and we’d persuaded several Lithuanian students and young couples into conversation with us, we realised that everyone is just inside staying warm and dry. And getting hammered. Apparently in the summer the cafes, bars and restaurants all spill out into the streets, and quiet cafes turn into lively clubs. In the winter you wouldn’t have a clue where anyone was from the outside of the restaurants and bars. But we found them, packed into dark bars eating potatoes and drinking craft beers, and it was absolutely brilliant.

We’re the kind of people who like to size up a place from the outside, weigh up how popular it looks and even try and catch a glimpse of a meal before venturing inside. Not here. You can’t see through some of the windows as they’re frosted, and those you can see through could look deceptively empty. Some of the best bars we went into looked practically closed from the outside. And this is how we found ourselves on a walking and drinking tour in some incredibly quirky bars, including…

Alaus Biblioteka (The beer library)

If you head a couple of streets off the main road in the Old Town, you will find this fantastic bar hidden above a pizzeria. It’s a blink and you’d miss it job, but there’s no need to ever miss a bar again now we have Google maps. Rows of books face shelves of craft ales, lagers and stouts. My main complaint with the craft ale movement of the last four or five years is that it can alienate the lager drinker and make us feel a tad unsophisticated. This bar however knows that there is more to lager than Carling black label. Very friendly and knowledgeable bar staff offered a range of around 10 draught beers both ale and lager, and there must have been 200 available on display by the bottle. We went for German Pilsner, Jever, and a Lithuanian corn beer which Chris cited as the reason he slept through breakfast. It was a busy bar but we managed to get a table, and some great advice about where to go over the weekend from a local couple.

The Meat Lovers Pub

When I’d finally got Chris out of the door on the Saturday, we went for a stroll round the Old Town. It had stopped raining and we had blue skies all day, with the exception of about eight seconds of snow that afternoon. It’s a predominantly Catholic country, and as we strolled round the streets looking at a number of beautiful churches we stumbled across the Meat Lovers Pub. We ordered dirty burgers and Lithuanian sausage, and I treated myself to a Bloody Mary. All I can say is, if I hadn’t fallen in love with Vilnius when we found the beer library, being served a Bloody Mary with a skewer of bacon as a garnish sealed the deal. Not dissimilar to what you’d pay at home for the privilege, but for a capital city it was excellent value.

Leiciu Bravoras

Leiciu Bravoras is just off the Town Hall square and is one of a couple of bars/restaurants run by a brewery that offer tasting packages. By the looks of the group we watched, endless jugs of different beers are delivered with an explanation of the beer’s origin and other useful facts, plus what looked like a considerable amount of beer snacks. We observed this from the table opposite, where we enjoyed our own personal tap to pour steins of home brew, whilst eating cured meats and exceedingly spicy horseradish sauce. If you have a real interest in beer itself as opposed to just its side effects, the tasting experience looked substantial and enjoyable. We were just after a livener at this point after an afternoon spent in the Museum of Genocide Victims, which itself is well worth a visit to understand some of Vilnius and Lithuania’s history from WWII onwards.

Beerhouse and Craft Kitchen

IMG_8611.JPGThis was possibly the most deceptive of them all. From outside all you could see were empty tables, but the couple smoking outside couldn’t rave about it enough, so in we went. We went down a flight of stairs, round a corner and into a series of underground cellars filled with tables and people enjoying a Saturday night out. People sat eating herring and drinking from yet another impressive array of beers, and all in what looked like a concrete bunker/railway station/brewery. It was fantastic.

Then we went to a club. If like us you’ve not been to a club since before they introduced late licensing in pubs, Vilnius is a good place to ease yourself back in. We ended our day of exploring in the Mojo Lounge, Vilnius’s number one nightspot and according to the guide book, a place where ‘it doesn’t matter how young or old you are’. It’s the kind of club you can get a Corona for 3 Euros, they’ll let you in wearing your big coat, and you can dance to Faithless.

Needless to say Sunday got off to a slower start, and off we went to Forto Dvaras to indulge in some traditional Lithuanian stodgy dishes to clear the cobwebs. It’s a chain, but its menu laid claim to the seal of approval from the Lithuanian culture board for staying true to traditional culinary values. It was yet another Vilnius labyrinth, with what felt like hundreds of tables below ground level in more caves. We ordered chicken kiev and cepelinai (commonly called zeppelins because of their likeness to the airships). Zeppelins are almost the Lithuanian pierogi, a huge potato dumpling stuffed with meat and drizzled with fat, lardons and sour cream. They might not be everyone’s cup of tea but Mr P ate them every day with no complaints.

After a short and easy hike up to the castle for views out over the city, including the Three Crosses monument, we ended our trip by retiring to Sky Bar at the Radisson Blu hotel. A couple of thoughtfully served cocktails in their gorgeous 22nd floor bar, endless bowls of peanuts and ambient dance music later, and I could have stayed in Vilnius all month.

We flew… Ryanair, £80 return from Leeds Bradford

We slept… Hotel Europa Royale, £50 a night for a huge double room and breakfast

We drank… beer ranging from 3-5 Euro a pint

We ate… anything with potatoes and stuffed with meat, prices varied a lot but you can get a decent traditional meal for around 5 Euros and be full and content

We bought… if your family are anything like mine and expect a fridge magnet from everywhere you go, you can pick these up at the airport for 3 Euros each (if you were too busy drinking cocktails to buy them in town)

We chatted… to anyone and everyone. The people were incredibly friendly and happy to share their tips of how to make the most of your Vilnius experience. Even if you were wearing anoraks

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Keswick when it drizzles

It’s something I do a lot. The sun comes out, I’ve kept a bank holiday weekend free for ‘spontaneity’, and I mention to Chris that we could go camping. By the time the bank holiday rolls round a fortnight later it has inevitably dropped 5 degrees, non-stop rain is forecast and I’ve lost interest. Unfortunately by this time Mr P has packed and unpacked the boot several times in his mind, and before I know it we’re heading up the A65 under a blanket of cloud with cries of “stop being a fair-weather camper” ringing in the air. This Easter was no exception. We’d spent the previous couple of weekends basking in early Spring sunshine, and on a Vitamin D fuelled Sunday took the radical step of becoming members of the Caravan and Camping Club. We claimed we’d done it for the discounted ferries and wider options for our sporadic camping trips, but we both knew we’d done it for the matching membership cards and car stickers. As chance had it, their Keswick site had availability, so we booked in and set off on a drizzly Good Friday morning.

This was our third trip to Keswick in just over a year, so you could be forgiven for thinking it’s our favourite part of the Lakes. I wouldn’t necessarily say this is true, but you get the convenience of a huge variety of walks, accommodation, shops, and places to eat and drink without having to do battle in Bowness. Here are my favourite things to do in Keswick, many of which I have partaken in this weekend…

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Go for a walk

It sounds obvious, but there are that many shops and a growing number of fancy bars that you could visit Keswick quite easily without leaving the town centre. This would be a terrible idea! Many people flock there to climb the ‘family friendly’ Cat Bells, though having gone up in driving wind and rain last year, I found it relatively tough. Having said that, it’s steep but not too high, and after the initial painful section you get fantastic views out over Derwent Water. On a drier and less blustery day I’m sure you could take relatives of all ages.

On this trip we climbed Latrigg. Wainwright describes it as “the easiest of promenades” and a walk for which Sunday best is quite appropriate dress. I wouldn’t have gone that far, but I’m in no position to disagree with Wainwright. We tried to do the walk via a circular route in a tourist leaflet, but one of the bridges is as yet unrepaired following the 2015 floods, so we trekked up from the town centre, crossing over the A66 before starting the climb. It’s not a long walk, and the beauty is that there are several trails heading off it into woodland so you can explore if you want to extend the walk or enjoy your picnic. It’s also pram and wheelchair friendly. I’ve got no upper body strength so I doubt I’d push a pram up, but I saw people comfortably doing just that. Once you get to the top you see down Derwent Water to Borrowdale, the Newlands Valley and Cat Bells to your right, and Bassenthwaite in the distance. Behind you is the beast that is Skiddaw.  Latrigg is often described as Skiddaw’s ‘cub’ so that gives you an idea of its size. We climbed Skiddaw during the very snowy February last year and I thought my legs would never recover. Latrigg is a gentler option for those wanting a couple of hours stretching their legs and getting great Lakeland views. It’s also perfect for if you want to cross a Wainwright off quickly before getting to the pub. (More resilient walkers may wish to try Blencathra or the Newlands Horseshoe, both of which were ruled out because of the weather on this trip).

Go for a post walk pint

No Lakeland walk would be complete without the pint at the end, and there’s no shortage of places to get one in Keswick. A particular favourite and our first stop this year was The George Hotel. It’s at the top of the main street, opposite a working men’s club which I’m dying to visit for a game of pool. The George is all dark wood, brass hangings, maps of peaks and decent beer. In winter there’s always a fire, and they have both Peroni and Jennings on draught. They also do the best food – but I’ll come back to that.IMG_8493

Last year a Belgian beer bar opened just before our trip. Now admittedly it’s not very traditional to drink 8% Belgian beer on a Cumbrian walking holiday. That said, if you’re there for a week and become a little bored of Wainwright and meals containing gravy, their beer selection is overwhelming, they sell the glasses of many of their brands (I know this as we have some), and they have an impressive variety of both moules and cakes. Originally called The Drunken Monk, it’s now called Magnolia, and you can find it at the top of town just before you turn off for crazy golf and the lakeside.

Eat a pie

Now this may sound a little controversial, but I don’t think that the Lakes really pulls its weight when it comes to great pub food. I’m sure many people will disagree, and I will (very) happily go back and try any recommendations, but most pub meals we’ve had in the Lakes have been OK rather than fantastic. That is with the exception of The George. The George is rightly famous for its cow pie. It says something about a pie when they serve it in half and full portions. I’ve had the half, and had to retire back to my bed and breakfast suffering from what Joey in Friends described as ‘the meat sweats’. It’s not just that it’s huge; it’s rich, delicious and gravy dowsed and you do feel like you’ve eaten half a cow, but in a really, really good way. The full cow pie is the sort of thing American diners would give out bumper stickers on completion and take snaps for Instagram #fullcowconquerer. It really is a must try, if you love meat and supporting traditional pubs. On our next trip we will be attempting the full cow pie. Well, Mr P will be. I’ll be tweeting photos of him (they also have WiFi). If you love pie but couldn’t stomach a full cow, we head to Thomason Butchers each trip. They sell individual pork, steak, mince and onion and breakfast pies for under £1.50 each, and we take one on each walk. Due to being rained off our second planned walk, I can report that steak pies taste just as good eaten in a nice warm car in a layby off the A66. I always find if you’re looking at a mountain you can almost convince yourself you’ve climbed it and deserve the pie all the more.

Go shopping

After a lovely Saturday walking, eating and drinking in intermittent sunshine, Easter Sunday was back to back drizzle all day. There is no lack of shops to visit in Keswick, and as much as I hate shopping, there are so many wonderful things to buy in some of the independent shops in Keswick I overlook it. I also overlook how far off pay day it is. My absolute favourite is Cherrydidi. I’ve popped in on every trip and each time buy something and add something to the IMG_8515list for next time. They stock local artists and jewellers, are absolutely lovely and cater for people who want a Lakeland souvenir but don’t want to spend a tenner on a Herdy mug. I had a ring made by one of their local jewellers last year, Jeannie Healey Creed. Their service was fantastic and I did it all over the phone once I was home, which prompted a welcome return trip to collect it (postage was available, but that’s not as much fun).

This weekend I added these beautiful earrings to my collection. You can buy a big selection in the shop itself though, no design needed.

Head for the famous Zak the collie dog once you leave the main street (this will make sense on arrival!) and you won’t miss the shop.

Viewpoints is the gallery of Pete Tasker, keen walker and photographer. His photos are gorgeous and it’s always worth a look in. His biggest framed prints are around the £200 mark, but you can pick up a small print for under £40, or greetings cards if you’re stuck for space or funds. We’ve got one of his Wast Water prints above the fire and it’s a constant reminder of how we’ve still not climbed Great Gable (previous blog post about disastrous trips to that part of the Lakes if you’re interested).

You’ve also got to pay a quick trip into Bookends if you love reading. If nothing else, it supports and helps to keep local bookshops alive. There’s always something a little unusual to be found, bought, and read at your leisure in your camping chair.

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This weekend has gone a long way to remind me that you should never let the weather at home put you off packing the tent and setting off. Yes, we’ve been cold, and my bank balance would be in a better place if we’d walked the Newlands Horseshoe with a Thomason pie instead of loitering in the aforementioned shops and pubs. Looking out of our window at home on Friday morning was enough to make me want to turn on the fire, stockpile the beers and spend the weekend socialising and complaining about the Great British weather. Yet the weather didn’t really seem all that bad from where I was sat later that day, looking up from under the awning at Skiddaw, with a rather large glass of Lakeland gin.

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