Thursday, August 23, 2012


On one sunny Sunday* in July, we set off on another adventure.

(*Do you like how I always say “one sunny Sunday”? The London definition of that phrase is “A Sunday that was mostly grey and cloudy, but with occasional spells of glorious sunshine, high levels of humidity, and at least one shower of rain.  – i.e. if you didn’t take your jacket you’ll get soaking wet, and if you did take your jacket you’ll end up roasting hot”. Aah, English weather!)

This was the day that we saw the Olympic Torch up close and personal, but it was also the day on which we visited the lovely Rochester. Located beside the Medway River, Rochester has amazing historic connections – it was inhabited by Neolithic tribes (as evidenced by remains which have been found there), invaded by the Romans, and occupied by Celts and Saxons. Its cathedral and castle were built between 1080 and 1343.

Because of its prime location, Rochester has played an important part in history. A bridge over the river Medway was fought over during the Roman invasion, the city was sacked and besieged three times before the Normans arrived, its castle was built especially to guard the river crossing, and the wider Medway region had two circles of fortresses protecting it. These were built during the 1800s to help defend the area during the Napoleonic wars, and to defend the Royal Dockyard. (Which was located at Chatham, 1.8km east of Rochester).
Can you see what this is? A cold-war sub. Yep.
Gad's Hill Place
Rochester was one of Charles Dickens’ favourite places, and was close to his house in Gad’s Hill Place. Dickens used the Rochester area as inspiration in some of his novels: descriptions of the town appear in Great Expectations and The Pickwick Papers; in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Cloisterham is loosely based on Rochester; and Great Expectations' Miss Havisham’s house is based on Restoration House, a local Elizabethan mansion. Each year, Rochester holds a Dickensian Christmas festival to celebrate its links with the author - the festival has been highly recommended to us, so we may see if we can go this year.
Restoration House, the model for Satis House. Picture from Wikipedia
Rochester was lovely – cobbled streets, old houses, lots of antique stores, some specialist craft shops, and some great leafy, green areas. It reminded me of Lyttelton in the sense that it was beautiful and quaint, and seemed the sort of place you could happily visit once a month to roam around and have a poke through the quirky shops.
Aah, crooked houses. Just like being at home!
Erwin Drood's house was based on this grand building
The day we visited just happened to be the day of a (loud) concert in the grounds of the castle. There were hundreds of people sitting on the lawns around the castle, and as the sun was shining brightly (at that point) we spotted many shirtless or scantily-clad Brits looking a bright shade of lobster-red. We enjoyed wandering around the castle and looking out over the Medway region as the (loud) music played in the background.
Afterwards, we ate icecream and explored the historic streets of the Rochester town centre. Bliss!

We then decided to go for a drive and see the sea, but we soon grew bored with that (it wasn’t as close as we thought) and ended up here. (Wherever that is – somewhere past Gillingham)

And then you know the rest of the story – on our way home, we got caught up in the 2012 Torch Relay. We arrived home late that afternoon, hot, tired, and happy. I think I should like to return to Rochester one day at have a look at Restoration House, and imagine Miss Haversham haunting its rooms.    

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

We go to the London Coffee Festival

Just a few days before meeting Kevin McCloud, we went on another adventure. Adam is here to tell you about our day:

On a miserable London morning we made our way to the 'trendy' area of Spitalfields, 
to the London Coffee Festival and UK Barista Championships. The coffee fans were out in force, and we joined the end of the queue, which soon went around the block:

Loooooooong queue
When we eventually got inside, there were a multitude of booths, selling or advertising everything from espresso vodka shots to corn chips to cupcakes. Surprisingly there were possibly more chocolate-related stands than coffee ones! It made for lots of free chocolate samples though, so no complaints here...
Non-coffee-related lunch
We watched a couple of the competitors in the Barista Championships final. They follow quite a particular routine - having 15 mins to prepare 4 espressos, 4 cappuccinos and 4 'signature drinks', all while talking through what they are doing. They need to explain what beans they used in their blend, and why, and what characteristic each brings to the cup. There were 7 judges (!) - 4 'sensory judges' who score the taste, texture etc of the drinks, another 2 judges who keep an eye on the technique of the coffee making, cleanliness etc, as well as a head judge.
A Barista at work, closely watched by (some of the numerous) judges
We spent the rest of the time wandering around checking out the stalls, and sampling different chocolates and coffees. The coffee culture in England generally is considered to be behind NZ and Aus. It is very difficult to find a good coffee outside of London. It seems to me that they are catching up quickly though. There is a particular focus in London on brewed coffee. Whereas espresso is almost always made from a blend of different beans, brewed coffee is generally made from single origin beans. This enables you to more easily try different beans, and experience the different characteristic of each. 

So at the show there were quite a lot of demonstrations of different brew methods, which was good to see. We were already using an Aeropress ( and got to see a couple of demonstrations on that. I was surprised at the lack of home espresso equipment on show or for sale. A missed opportunity for sellers, I think. 

Overall, it was a thoroughly interesting morning, and something else to add to the London experience. 

[Editor's note: You can't really go too wrong with free chocolate now, can you?! I just wish the flat whites had been free too...
I should add, we did also get to try some of the Kopi Luwak or civet coffee ( - the cat poo coffee!! This crazy type of Asian civet that looks a bit like a monkey-cat eats the beans of coffee berries and then poos them out. The enzymes in the digestive tract break down the coffee beans (read the Wiki article if you want a scientific analysis) and make them taste better. Goodness knows how someone discovered that one...
One of the Aeropress guys was brewing up some poo-fee, so we thought we'd take the opportunity and try some. Truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, as this stuff is sold in exclusive London stores for up to £50 for ONE ESPRESSO! Yep.
I thought it was ok, nothing special, though I don't usually drink black coffee anyway. Adam obviously didn't think it was anything special as he didn't even remember we'd tried it! Lucky we didn't pay to try that one...]

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Meeting Kev

Sorry folks, this channel will resume normal programming now. Hope you can all handle waiting for the Olympics stuff? (By the way, we had a FANTASTIC time…) 


Cast your mind back to a time before Opening and Closing Ceremonies, Before Oodles of Olympic sport and Other Stuff (things such as Synchronised Swimming, which is too awesome to really be called ‘sport’), to a time before Union Jacks were flown from car windows, Brits made fun of Australia on TV every night, and Boris Johnson got caught on a zipwire. Back further still, beyond RAF fly-overs and Thames River flotillas, to a time before Diamond Jubilees and street parties. 

Yes. A lot has happened in London over the past few months. But we go back to a less-exciting time: to the beginning of May, a time of rain and cloud, a time when we returned to the drudgery of normal life after a lovely holiday in the south of France. 

Not true – London might be a lot of things (busy, cloudy, and expensive being three), but it is never really a drudgery. There is always something going on, and we feel lucky to be able to explore these opportunities. So after returning from our overseas holiday we had two things to look forward to: the International Coffee Festival, and Grand Designs Live. 

Early one Sunday morning in May, we made our way to the ExCel Centre, a huge exhibition and conference facility on the Royal Victoria Docks, not far over the river from us. What were we going to see? More accurately, WHO were we going to see? Kev! 

Kevin McCloud is a designer who is most famous for his TV programme, Grand Designs, which has been following British people on their self-build homes since 1999. It is much less common over here (as well as being extremely difficult) to self-build, and the programme has had immense success as the projects are seen as something everyone dreams of doing. Unfortunately for Britons, most will be unable to ever build a house of their own due to a lack of opportunity as well as planning restrictions related to land usage, population, and heritage. Kevin McCloud is a very charismatic presenter, and has become somewhat of a cult hero because of his quick wit, friendly smile, and intelligent, off-the-cuff musings. (Can you tell I’m a fan?!) Kev is also known for being interested in sustainability and things like environmentally-friendly construction methods. (*sigh* Our hero!)

So the Grand Designs Expo is basically a large home show with exhibitions in areas such as kitchens, windows, modular homes, and large spa pools. A real hodgepodge. In some senses the exhibition grated, as there were sustainable, eco-friendly, ‘green’ homes and building materials at one end of the big centre, while the other end was full of luxury pools and Balinese spa huts. ‘Grand Designs’ is to some people a big, luxury build with space enough for each child to have its own bedroom (plus four guest rooms), a kitchen bigger than most modern apartments, and a total square footage of about twenty times that we had in Christchurch – whereas for others, a ‘Grand Design’ is about working with the land, with local materials, respecting the environment and minimising one’s impact on it. (Anyone else see the disparity between those ideas?)

All up, we did enjoy pottering around the exhibition, and I did find my dream kitchen (Although I’ll probably change my mind in a few months.). But best of all, we met the master! We shook hands with Kev himself, tried to have a chat to him, and learned that he had been in discussions with someone in Christchurch about designing social housing for the rebuild. What a man!

At the end of the day, it was great to see how many people are working towards ‘greener’ living, and to be inspired by some of the ideas out there. We also never dreamed that we would actually be able to meet Kevin McCloud – it was one of those ‘bucket list’ things that we hoped we might be able to do while over here, but never believed would actually happen!! London has been so good to us.