About Jonny Scott Blair
Jonny Blair is a self confessed traveling nomad. He sees every day as an adventure. Since leaving behind his home town of Bangor in Northern Ireland ten years ago he has traveled to all seven continents, working his way through various jobs and funding it all with hard work and an appetite for travel. His website Don’t Stop Living, a lifestyle of travel' contains over 1,000 stories and tips from his journeys round the globe. He wants to show others how easy it is to travel the world, give them some ideas and encourage them to do the same but most of all he aims to constantly live a lifestyle of travel. He is currently based in Hong Kong and on Twitter @jonnyblair.
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After a few days in Bucharest, I boarded a train heading north to Suceava and then on to the town of Campulung Moldovenesc where I stayed at the trendy Dor de Bucovina. I had read all about the Bucovina region and made it a priority to visit the UNESCO listed coloured monasteries here. I first headed to Moldovita Monastery.
UNESCO listed Moldovita Monastery.
Moldovita is a grand complex on the top of a slight hill in the town of Moldovita. Getting here isn’t particularly easy since there is no public transport. This place is slightly less beaten than you expected it to be. In its untouristy charm the joys of Moldovita sparkle in the morning mist; it’s a sleeping giant.
Moldovita Monastery, Romania.
It’s best to hire a car or book a tour to get here. As I work on the move these days I was able to get a private tour organised which meant I could visit a load of the key sights in the region in one day including Cacica Salt Mine.
Other tourists gather to admire Moldovita.
You really need to see Moldovita in the day time. If you look at this photo you might understand how the dark lights of northern Romania fade the beauty down a notch…yes the colours have to be seen in daylight hours.
Amazing coloured murals on the side of the walls of Moldovita.
Inside Moldovita main church.
What is ridiculous and apparently true is that all these pictures/murals were painted by one artist, in the same year – Toma of Suceava in 1537. Each mural represents Christian Orthodox art (mostly painted in yellow and blue) and tells a story – a procession of saints lead up to the Virgin enthroned with the Child (Jesus) in her lap on one side and that much is obvious. I popped inside to pray and photos are actually banned.
As I stepped outside of the grounds and visited the cemetery, there was an odd eeriness surrounding the entire morning. I’d just seen something incredibly inspiring here at Moldovita and I knew it, but something baffled me – apart from the group of Italian tourists I met, there were no other travellers here. Why not? Have I missed something. Paris’s Eiffel Tower, NYC’s shops and Sydney’s Opera House can go back up their own wombs. Moldovita is a cooler place. You might just love it and you will never ever forget it!
A moment of inspiration at Moldovita.
My adventure continued in southern Bucovina and I also visited Marginea, Suceava, Sucevita and Cacica. More on that coming.
I have visited mines before in Bolivia and New Zealand. I’ve stood on salt flats in Iran and Bolivia , gone underground in Turkey in Kaymakli but all those memories were about to be joined by an exciting and obscure new one.
While in Romania, I ended up visiting an incredible underground salt mine in the barely known town of Cacica in the north of the country in southern Bucovina (for the record – northern Bucovina is actually in the Ukraine). This is no ordinary tourist trip.
Cacica is a town in northern Romania. It’s in the region known as Southern Bucovina so it’s not too far from the Ukraine border and has a population of 1,408.
Tourism hasn’t taken off in Romania the way it has in other Eastern European countries, which means getting to Cacica is not that easy. The best way to do it realistically is to hire and car and drive there yourself which is probably the best way to see Romania. However, I took a double train up to this region, first from Bucharest to Suceava, then a train to Campulung Moldovenesc (where I stayed in Dor De Bucovina).
From there I actually went on a tour of some monasteries in the region which was organised for me and I’d recommend. So if you are not driving, you can ask tour operators in Campulung Moldovenesc to add Cacica into your itinerary for the region. Please don’t miss it if you’re in the area. Though if you do miss it, there are similar underground salt mines at Praid and Turda.
The charm of the drive to Cacia – rural Romania at its best, stuck behind a juggernaut of logs.
Cacica preserves archaeological vestiges that are over 5,000 years old. Due to the local salted water sources, the monks of the Humor Monastery erected here in the time of Stefan the Great, organised the supervising and exploitation of salted water.
Cacica developed extensively under the Austro-Hungarian Empire when, after the discovery of the rock salt deposit in 1790, the salt mine was built. The mine soon attracted many settlers of Polish, Slovak, Ukrainian, German and Transylvanian origin.
The descendants now form an active and captivating multicultural community. As you get deeper down in the mine, information boards at various intervals provide informative and welcome information in a few languages, one of which is English.
I took some water in with me and I’d recommend it. There is no fresh air as you are going underground here and no daylight so those who get claustrophobic please consider this before you head down.
St. Barbara’s Chapel — at 27 metres below the surface is this church, St. Barbara’s Chapel. This is the first room where the salt was exploited. The work started in 1803 and the salt plug was manually sculptured. It’s a work of human hard work and art.
Every year on the 4th December, priests of three different confessions, Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic and Orthodox have a common sermon here, dedicated to Saint Barbara, the miners protector, whose icon is in the Southern Wall, sculptured in the salt rock.
The Salted Lake – a bit further down some steps and along a corridor and you come to the salted lake! It’s not actually a natural lake but the salt is natural of course. It/s 38 – 42 metres below the surface. The lake is artificial and has saturated brine in which salt crystals formed throughout time could be seen.
There is a raft on the lake that was once used to carry guests to events in the ballroom, yes here 40 metres below the ground is a ballroom. Yes, there’s actually an underground ballroom – incredible! It has a balcony looking over it with chandeliers and a dance floor.
The underground ballroom.
The Party Zone/Grotto – OK so that might not be the real name for it but with sunbeds, wide open spaces and safety from the world outside, this grotto part of the underground salt mine is the final room you get to on the tour and it feels like a party zone. All it’s missing is a wee bar in the corner, football on the TV and a bowling alley.
The Football Pitch — yes! It’s an underground football pitch.
The Museum – as well as the information boards along the way and some souvenirs, the tour also includes a small museum on Cacica.
Salt artefacts in the museum.
I heard word that Paddy Campbell’s award winning play “The Wet House” was on in Soho Theatre, London while I happened to be passing through so I got a few tickets and off we went.
It was a busy week for me in London and Windsor. I toured Windsor Castle and took in a lot of pubs. I had a Guinness and a Shamrock Pie. I felt that seeing a play by a guy named Paddy, anything with an Irish connection would be a good mood sitter. Friends, Sandra and Neil, joined me after a mad dash from work for the play.
Wet House is a drama based on real life experiences of staying and working in a hostel for recovering alcoholics, drug attics [sic], single mothers, sex offenders and anyone who needs some rehab or a home to try and help cope with problems they have in life. Hostels like this really exist, and alcohol is permitted inside, hence the title Wet House. Paddy Campbell the writer has based the play on real life experiences and you can tell this in an instant. A raw, real life of a hostel in north east England becomes apparent from the play’s opening scene and here’s an overview of my night out there watching it without giving too much away as I encourage you all to get out there and see Wet House when it’s next on at a theatre near you.
The entire play is based in the actual hostel itself, changing from room to room and with a few scenes reliant on the in house CCTV from the hostel’s reception.
We meet Mike and Helen first of all. Both are workers in the hostel. It’s as if their lives have become evolved around looking after these maniacs that reside in the Wet House. Mike is the hard lad, the man who always wants to be the tough man. He talks of life in the army, holding guns in Northern Ireland etc. (by the way, I enjoyed this Northern Irish reference, if indeed it does serve as a reminder of the way things where when I grew up there in the 1980s). I’ve worked with people like Mike myself in my life and I can connect to the type of character portrayed here.
Helen is the hard working, feisty lady who cares more for the hostel residents than Mike. In fact, all Mike does is moan about his job and the residents, yet he oddly seems to enjoy this, but talks down to the hostel residents throughout. We learn that an ex worker at the hostel, Jim, has “rung in sick” and has now left. So they will be joined by a new, young, enthusiastic worker. The sad truth is that this young lad is coming into a job he has no idea how crazy things can get.
So the new lad saunters in, he’s cycled here and gets the piss ripped out of him from the start by hard lad Mike. The new worker is Andy. Andy appears nervous, shy and timid at the start. He seems like a genuine hard working lad. As soon as I saw him I wondered if indeed this character was based on the author of the play himself. I’d hazard a guess that I’m spot on. Andy gets straight into the swing of things – learning the rules, cleaning the floor, chatting to the “patients”. We meet three of the patients during the play, others are only spoken of. Here’s an overview of the hat trick that we meet:
1. Dinger. Dinger looks a lot older than he is. He’s forgotten about his family, he has no job, he rarely washes and he’s a self confessed alcoholic. His charater would remind you of a Father Jack type from Father Ted. Except Dinger is more talkative, more raw, moves off his chair and is a full on alco. Again, we’ve met people like Dinger in our lives, in most cases out on the street clutching a bottle of cider, in some cases the rich ones turn up in bars drinking too much and annoying the other customers. You always sense Dinger has a heart but with his constant shakes and need to drink as much as he can, he’s a sorry figure with a serious problem.
2. Spencer. Spencer is a sex offender. At one point, Mike uses the word “kiddy fiddler” which suggests he may have had a thing for young boys or girls. Again a sad character but we can’t have too much sympathy for people like Spencer in real life either. Yet, he’s a quiet lad at heart who probably wants to be an innocent man. But he isn’t. He may have served time for it and now he drinks away his worries. Andy sticks up for Spencer as does Helen at times throughout the play, but Mike is having none of it. Mike is almost an old school homophobe. The type that wouldn’t be receptive to gays and ladyboys. There’s one crazy incident in the play involving Mike and Spencer but I’ll leave that to you to watch when you go.
3. Kerry. Kerry is a typical English teenager. She got into boys, booze and drugs before she would ever have considered education or a career. She’s “up the duff” from the start, something which Andy notices and remarks on, only for Kerry to lie to him saying he’s a cheeky bastard for making such a suggestion. She comes onto Andy at one point. Somehow, a young lad with an education like Andys (he’s got a degree in Art History) wouldn’t be wanting to be anywhere near the likes of Kerry. Again, typifies some of the girls I personally met when I lived in England. Some might call her a slag, a chav, a steek etc. The baby’s due as the play begins.
The play lasts just under 3 hours, including a 20 minute interval (where ironically Neil, Sandra and I headed straight to the bar for a Wet House half time drink – we were able to take them back in with us). Scenes change all the time during the play and excellently chosen music chimes in between scenes adding to the sense of sadness, brutality and reality that is evident throughout. The scene includes violence and swearing – it wouldn’t be the same otherwise. After the show I hung out in the bar and got to meet the cast.
Off stage, everyone seemed really down to earth and I loved that. Top cast – I was particluarly impressed by Joe (who played Dinger) and Eva (who played Kerry) – Joe had stopped shaking and was having a pint and Eva was glammed up looking gorgeous – a far cry from her character, Kerry.
I loved Wet House and can’t wait to see if the playright Paddy Campbell releases any more plays, as I’ll be straight up to get tickets when it happens. A ticket for the Wet House cost £20 and I bought a book copy of the play too for £4, with intervals drinks at £4. Typical London prices really and very much worth it for the night out. I rarely go to plays but when I do I love them and I really hope you can all get to see Wet House sometime! It started off as a play in Newcastle’s Live Theatre back in September 2013 and has won three awards.
Wet House by Paddy Campbell
Live House in association with Soho Theatre
Cast (in order of appearance):
Helen – Jackie Lye
Mike – Chris Connel
Andy – Riley Jones
Dinger – Joe Caffrey
Kerry – Eva Quinn
Spencer – Simon Roberts
(All the actors and actresses have a really successful acting CV including appearing on shows like Byker Grove, Casualty, Jonathan Creek, Doctors, The Bill and Poirot.)
Now a bit about the play’s author, Northern Irishman Paddy Campbell. Apologies if I shed a tear or two.
I loved the play and was completely inspired by it, in fact I was in tears towards the end and looked to the London sky afterwards as if to thank God that Paddy Campbell was a success. You see, I know Paddy Campbell. In fact he was my best friend for a while when I was 13 – 14.
With names like Blair and Campbell, we’d be sitting beside each other in classes a lot – something to do with alphabetical order in the over bearing, wannabe conservative shit hole of a grammar school Paddy and I both attended. Bangor Grammar School. I’m immensely proud of my Primary School, Kilmaine and even went back for a reunion this year, but Bangor Grammar means nothing to me. Reading Keith Gillespie’s book recently made me realise that I wasn’t alone.
Paddy Campbell didn’t like the school and nor did I. An event that happened in May 1994 (the 16th to be exact – that date forever inscribed into my brain as “Paddy Campbell Day”) changed the course of Paddy Campbell and Jonny Blair’s lives forever. We had big plans to hang out together that summer, have a few sneaky teenage cans of beer down the beach and get some girls. That was the dream. Between us, Paddy and I lifted ourselves higher than your average student. We stole an exam paper.
The third form history exam – I found it and Paddy nicked it. We copied it, sold it and used it to get better results. Aged just 14 back in a ceasefire stricken Northern Irish 1994, we thought we were kings of the world at the time. We sang along to D:Ream’s hit “Things can only get better” back then (a vivid memory of mine) and everytime I have heard that song since I think of Paddy and always pull out this line and dedicate it to our friendship, what it was back then and what it should forever be:
“I, I sometimes lose myself in me, I lose track of time and I can’t see the woods for the trees. You [Paddy] set them alight. Burn the bridges as you’ve gone. I’m too weak to fight you. I’ve got my personal hell to deal with.”
I wrote about the exam paper incident with fondness on its 20th anniversary in 2014 before thinking of Paddy for a few hours as I sipped on a few cans of Guinness in Hong Kong. It was a really emotional few hours. I just thought, what if I could meet Paddy again. My best mate when I was 14. What is he doing now? Then I remembered – we have Google, we have Twitter and we have Facebook. I can probably find Paddy Campbell and get in touch after all these years. It was worth a try. The worst he could do was ignore me. But then I knew Paddy.
Why would he ignore me? In fact, my school buddy Scott Callen murmured what turned out to be spot on judgement on a Facebook comment, “Och Paddy will be fine with you – people don’t change that much.”I’d spent a lot of time acting the lig and messing around at school with Paddy. Lunches together, football at break time, ridiculous games in school lessons, Saturday detentions for no reason, making the world’s first Fantasy Football League in a plastic bag (I kid you not). Paddy and I went back a long way.
So I found a tweet about a “Paddy Campbell” on Twitter, retweeted it and then got a reply on Twitter from a Zoe Dawes. Itself felt odd, as I had worked in radio with a Zoe Dawes in Bournemouth as a student about 10 years ago. But this was Paddy Campbell’s girlfriend and a different Zoe Dawes. Twenty years on. A shiver down my spine when I knew I was close to being back in touch with Paddy. Would he add me if I friend requested him on Facebook when I realised which profile was his? I messaged him with the story I’d written on the 20th anniversary, Paddy added me and replied. Same old Paddy Campbell. The genius that he always was. I cried.
Now, we were now 20 years older. We’d drifted apart but were back in touch. Paddy and I always had a passion for English and writing though. It’s true. I used to write football reports, Paddy would write mock plays during English lessons. He was always a genius. The teachers never saw it. They didn’t want to see it. Paddy Campbell was a wild card. He was popular at school, because he was out there. There were no limits to Paddy’s humour or capabilities. He was destined to be something more than what the school thought. And so, after getting back in touch with Paddy, I found out that he is an award winning playright.
And me, his best buddy from 1994, I was now a travel writer and backpacking businessman, making my own way around the world working, again all off my own back and no thanks to the idiotic teachers at Bangor Grammar School. We’ve both done well.
I cried a bit that night when I realized that Paddy and I had taken similar paths in life after the exam paper episode (which meant we only saw each other once in the last 20 years, and that was a fast meeting at a bus stop). I hadn’t been permanently haunted by the exam paper episode but it always lingered in my mind. When I attended a Saturday detention in June 1994, forcing me to miss a World Cup football match on the TV as a result, I knew I was going to be a lonely teenager without Paddy around. I didn’t pursue, I got on with things, got my GCSEs and got the fuck out of Bangor Grammar when the bell rang. Now the missing piece of the jigsaw as Paddy and I were back in touch.
A quick Google search also reveals that award winning Northern Irish playright Paddy Campbell also featured on the BBC website, the exact same week that a certain Jonny Blair did, having taken my Northern Ireland flag to 70 countries. A coincidence waiting to happen? I’d say so. I also thought of the other crazy coincidences. Paddy had lived in England for a long time, as did I. Paddy worked in a hostel. I stayed in a lot of hostels. Paddy works at theatres. I spent almost 2 years working in a theatre (remember my post on working at Bournemouth Pavilion Theatre?). And we were just two wee lads from Bangor in Northern Ireland wanting to enjoy life and have a laugh. We certainly had a laugh at school.
The teachers didn’t respect Paddy Campbell or I. How wrong they were. He’s a successful playright. I’m a successful travel writer. What a Bummer, eh? Are you reading Miles Christy or Robert Stephenson?
So as I walked out of Soho Theatre that night, I raised a smile to myself again. A kick ass 1994 Paddy Campbell smile. Paddy wasn’t there of course, he’s as busy a man to catch as me. And readers of Don’t Stop Living, do you want to hear the news? There will be a 20 year reunion of Paddy Campbell and Jonny Blair to follow soon. I can’t wait. I’ll probably cry my eyes out and there will be a video of Paddy and I together I hope.
Good times Paddy, f##king good times mates
My recent travels in England took me to the town of Windsor (& Eton) in Berkshire for what I thought was the first time.
I soon realized that back in 2000 I had actually visited the Legoland nearby, so this on my return to the town of Windsor on another journey, was a chance to chill out in the comfort of the Sir Christopher Wren Hotel and Spa – the town of Windsor is gorgeous.
After touring the Tower of London and Poppies Display, staying in the Mad Hatter, I hopped on a direct train from London Waterloo to Windsor & Eton Riverside. Trains are frequent and cosy, A return price varies but mine cost just over £20 and the journey takes around 50 minutes. Here are some of the sights to take in while in Windsor, though there is easily enough here to occupy you for a couple of days – Legoland on its own can be a day trip.
Windsor Castle - this is the number one sight — remember the Queen lives here! Tourists from all over the world come here to see this glorious English building.
The rule is that if the Union Flag (Union Jack) is raised, then the Queen’s at home and it was when I was there. So for one night I was sharing a town with Queen Elizabeth the Second! Admission to the Castle is free to residents of the Royal Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead with an Advantage Card.
The Thames — the Thames is at its most tranquil and idyllic here. Away from the bustling smoky fumes of crowded London, take some time to relax by the Thames here in Windsor. The Sit Christopher Wren Hotel has a fantastic Thames side restaurant and you can walk at leisure along the river feeding the swans and ducks.
The Crooked House - this house is one of the most peculiar and famous pubs in all of England — a house that is tilted on its side. Pop in for a pint or a cup of tea. In fact, Windsor is an awesome town for a pub crawl.
The Crooked House Pub in Windsor, Berkshire, England.
Legoland Windsor – it’s famous and definitely worth a stop if you have kids in tow.
Eton College – most people know the town as Windsor, but it’s actually two towns joined together by a bridge across the Thames. Walk across it and you get to the town of Eton, which of course houses the world famous Eton College, a mere 5 minute walk from the bridge. Tours of Eton College can be organized from £7.50. Famous people like Prince William, Antarctic Explorer Lawrence Oates, Adventurer Bear Grylls and authors George Orwell and Ian Fleming went to school here.
Halls of residence at Eton College.
Eton has also produced a whopping nineteen British Prime Ministers, including Sir Robert Walpole, William Pitt the Elder, the first Duke of Wellington, William Ewart Gladstone, the fifth Lord Rosebery, Arthur James Balfour, Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan, Alec Douglas-Home, and the current Prime Minister, David Cameron.
I recommend staying at the Sir Christopher Wren Hotel and Spa:
Sir Christopher Wren
Hotel and Spa
Berkshire SL4 1PX
t: +44 1753 442400
f: +44 1753 442490
Photo credits: Top photo from uclu.org, all others from Jonny Blair.
Since I hate mundane, repetitive routines when I travel, I found myself in Romania recently. I flew into the capital city of Bucharest, based myself in the heart of the Old Town and planned my next few weeks of travel from there. It was a spontaneous decision and I ended up on a rather bumpy, busy ride.
I loved looking at maps as a kid and one of the first things I checked out when I arrived in Romania, was where I was, where I could get to next and the approximate routes I would take. Romania’s location became instantly nostalgic. I glanced over at the Hungarian city of Debrecen, which is close to the Romanian border, the one I had visited back in 2009 when in love with local dancer Noemi Linzenbold.
I thought of the day we saw the road sign for Romania. I had been close to Romania one day, but now here I was. A part of me couldn’t help think of her and that day. But I placed the thought at the back of my mind and at the same time decided I wouldn’t visit the west part of Romania at all. Tinged by the memory, it couldn’t have been a good idea at all. Every time I’d see a road sign for Debrecen, something would strike in my brain again and I didn’t want that.
Debrecen, Hungary – the Nagytemplom.
I first looked far north, and the area known as Bucovina, which is north east and the largest cities are Suceava and Iasi. Having read about the tremendous UNESCO World Heritage Site Monasteries, I decided to head there. It was a double train ride from Bucharest with a choice of day or night trains. This time I opted for day trains, so that when I got there, I could sleep straight away and get up early the next day ready for the touring.
Dor de Bucovina Hostel in Campulung Moldovenesc, Romania.
I found out about the Dor de Bucovina hostel which is run by the Pura Vida Romania Hostels group – the best hostels group in Romania. The Dor de Bucovina is based in the town of Campulung Moldovenesc, which handily enough has a train station.
Train station in Campulung Moldovenesc.
So I headed from the Little Bucharest hostel in the Old Town, on the metro at Piata Unirii in Bucharest to Gara de Nord. On arrival at Gara de Nord, I headed to the ticket office, which is on the corridor on the right before you get to the McDonalds on the corner. I needed a double ticket. The first would be the 11 am train from Bucharest to the city of Suceava and then transfer for a train to Campulung Moldovenesc to Campulung Moldovenesc.
I boarded the train on carriage 1 and went to seat 62. I remembered how much I love train journeys – the memories of that train to Baku, the overnight Mashhad train, the long train journeys through China down the years and the Western Wilderness Railway which I wrote about 10 articles on.
Soon, Bucharest was a distant memory. I made a note of some of the stops and times along the way, but not all of them. After leaving Bucharest, one of the guys came and gave me a free local newspaper.
I met a group of ladies who were interested in chatting immediately. It is not often they see foreigners in their lives and 2 of them spoke a bit of English. French and Spanish worked too and we intertwined the languages until we understood each other. The ladies were Anika, Jetta, Maria and Andrea. All Romanian and all had boarded in Bucharest, heading to Suceava. None would be connecting with me all the way to Campulung Moldovensec, which I assumed would be a remote town and a lonely journey – yes it was.
Another stop on the journey at Ramnicu Sarat.
Darkness fell on northern Romania by the time we passed through Pascani and it was here that I said farewell to Jetta and Maria – you just know those travel moments are over. We enjoyed our chats on the train, Jetta also kindly gave me some tissues on the trip (I was blowing my nose a bit) and we said our goodbyes. By the time we arrived in Suceava, a typical Eastern European darkness was in evidence. You know the type – no lights on at stations. Everything dark and grey. Barking dogs. Not many places open. Barely a street light. Local people know their way in the dark. Station workers and porters shine their torches everywhere. I said goodbye to Anika and Andrea at the station and saw a shop and a cafe so I popped in.
Darkness on arrival in Suceava.
At the start I was the only customer, and I ordered a Timisoreana Beer in a bottle – it was only 3.5 Lei (about 70pence). Cold and fresh and as I sipped it the place got busier. Romanian bars are smoky and I don’t smoke. I don’t enjoying smoking or the smell it brings. But alas it was warmer inside so I stuck it out.
I found a compartment with a local girl in it so I sat down and asked her just confirming I was on the right train (I always confirm just to be sure). It was lucky I asked her as this was the wrong train!! The journey up to the mountains took around 2 hours and it was dark and stale when I arrived (with at least 2 other passengers – both locals) in the town of Campulung Moldovenesc.
Eerily quiet, dark and deserted as I arrive in the town of Campulung Moldovenesc.
There were dogs on the station approach and derelict dogs seem to be a theme in Romania. However there were nowhere near as many as I was warned about in advance. I had taken a photo of the map from Google Maps on how to get to the hotel and for once, it was easy as I assumed. I headed onto the main street in Campulung Moldovenesc and walked all along it out of town to the college, after which I took a right down the lane by the river to 8 Simion Florea Marian Street.
Walking all alone in the darkness of Campulung Moldovenesc.
And the long day was over – door to door it had been over 12 hours.
It was another inspiring journey as I left behind the lights of crowded London for a night of relaxation and luxury by the River Thames in the town of Windsor in Berkshire, England. While I took in the sites of Berkshire, I stayed in the exquisite and elegant Sir Christopher Wren Hotel and Spa.
The Sir Christopher Wren Hotel and Spa is a luxurious 4 star hotel on the River Thames and its benefits range from a great central location to design, history and architecture to food, events, romantic getaways and weddings. The hotel is situated overlooking the River Thames, which makes for excellent views, quiet strolls and a decent place to watch sunrise or sunset.
From the outside:
A standard room…
From the moment I stepped in the door, Natasha at reception and the managers and waiters always greeted me warmly. Managers Jutta and Jill have been working in the hospitality trade for years and “get” customer service.
Wren’s Club Spa: it was Friday afternoon so what a better time to truly relax and ease my battered travel muscles by enjoying the outdoor saunas and Jacuzzi of the Spa! Pure travel bliss. There’s also a huge gym and massages are available.
For the avid worker on the move, the Sir Christopher Wren also has a business centre and upon check into my room, I received a welcome plate of fruit. The healthy option! Nice touch all around!
In the main restaurant, there’s a massive buffet breakfast with a broad selection. This is a great place to try a traditional English breakfast – they even had black pudding (dried pork slices) which is one of my personal favourites. I washed it down with a juice (they offered strawberry, pear, apple and orange) and a pot of English tea.
The architecture — both inside and out — of the hotel can best be describe as “old school English.” The interior decor is elegant throughout and you can relax in one of the lounges. One, has a fireplace which would be a top spot on a cold winter night and of course, there is also a classic traditional bar.
One of the relaxing lounges.
Fast, Reliable Wi-Fi – while it should be automatic in all hotels, we all know that sadly it isn’t always reliable. They delivered.
Sir Christopher Wren Hotel and Spa also offers all types of functions, private rooms and parties and host a lot of weddings. During summer months with the Thames just out the window and a massive beer garden, it’s a perfect place for your party. Celebs are also known to stay here from time to time, a nice factoid for those who love to people (or celeb) watch!
There’s a lovely area outside to sit and relax at night as well with nice side views of the bridge and other old historical architecture nearby.
I recommend staying at the Sir Christopher Wren Hotel and Spa if you’re heading to Windsor or are in London and would like to try something a little bit out of town and Windsor Castle and nearby attractions are on your list. I also had a tasty dinner in the hotel which I will feature in my Friday’s Featured Food series at some point.
Sir Christopher Wren Hotel and Spa
Thames Street, Windsor
Berkshire SL4 1PX ENGLAND
t: +44 1753 442400
f: +44 1753 442490
Photo credits: Fist shot from World Spa Resorts and last photo (small shot at night) from Guides for Brides (guidesforbrides.co.uk). I took all the other shots.
It might seem strange that a guy from Northern Ireland would wait until his mid-thirties before touring the Tower of London in England. In fact, I’ve lost count of the amount of times I have walked past the beast and always thought “someday I should go there”.
I ended up taking a tour of the Tower of London on my most recent trip.
The Tower of London can be reached through the Tower Hill station on the London Underground or on the DLR Tower Gateway. Alternatively if you fancy a walk, it’s a short walk from Monument, Bank or Liverpool Street.
With your ticket you get given a map and a brochure which has a quick map and guide to the key sights of the tour. I made my way round the sights myself and have highlighted my top picks below.
The Crown Jewels (first photo above). World famous, sparkling and extravagant.
The Line of Kings — inside the White Tower the lasting impression I had was the “Line of Kings” where several former kings of England have their own glass boxes with their armoured suits in them. Horses, weaponry and information accompany the display and photography is allowed.
The Line of Kings
The Royal Mint exhibition gives an insight into the coinage history of England and the UK. You can see how the coins are made and the progression of British coinage over the years.
A raven at the Tower of London. Massive black ravens reside at the Tower of London and you can get up close to photograph them.
The Royal Beasts display is great as it gives a thorough history of the animals that were brought to England from abroad – elephants, snakes and even kangaroos were all once here!
The central White Tower is a must on your visit – it’s the largest display and museum part and takes a good hour to see it all.
The White Tower inside.
This tower is famous for the wrong reasons, as the title suggests. Horrifically , the sons of King Edward IV were murdered here.
The Bloody Tower
The Bloody Tower
The Lower Wakefield Tower was used to torture those guilty of offences not deemed bad enough for death but for torture sessions. You can see the deadly mechanisms used to torture people back in the day.
The torture tower
The torture tower
If you’re lucky you might get to see a Royal – it’s all about the right place and the right time.
Yeoman Warder presentation to the Queen – photo copyright and credit from Tower of London.
Every person and their dog has been to Stonehenge, Trafy’s Q, Old Trafford and Buckingham Palace etcetera and we know a lot about them. There’s beauty in pretty England in the least likely places.
Unmoved by the fact that New Zealand copyist Christchurch takes the headlines and houses more people, the sun shines on the charming English town of the same name. This is the original spot which thankfully holds equal charm as it did 1,000 years ago.
By train, National Rail and government British Rail services passed England by during the years that Maggie Thatcher ruled this land. No harm done and you can jump on a South Western Train direct to Christchurch train station. Once you’re here you can walk your way around the main sights with ease and relaxation and these are the main things to check out when you’re in town.Christchurch Priory — the prominent and lasting image of Christchurch’s skyline tends to be this church – Christchurch Priory. With a graveyard dating back centuries, a church so big it should be a Cathedral and pretty gardens all around, this is a top spot to get your fix of English religion. You are welcome to go inside during services. Be discreet if you’re taking photos and if you want, stop by in the cosy tea shop. Contributions are welcome – the church is well maintained.
Christchurch Town Quay — during the summer months, the town quay and harbour front is a swarm of activity. When the crowds slow down, the leisurely pace of the harbour front attracts students, dog walkers and keen boatsmen. Activities on offer include boat trips on the river, fishing and kayaking.
Christchurch Town Quay — swans and ducks swim in the waters and kids love it.
Swans by the water in Christchurch.
Christchurch Place Mill — it’s a tradition in English towns with rivers for there to be an old mill. Christchurch Place Mill down by the harbour was mentioned in the Domesday Survey of 1086, as being the property of the canons of the Holy Trinity Church. The Mill has medieval stonework as well as Tudor and 18th century brickwork and was using for corn grinding and cleaning/thickening cloth right up until 1908.
Christchurch Place Mill
Christchurch Place Mill
As a bonus there was a spontaneous art gallery inside the Mill during my visit.
Art Gallery in the Mill, Christchurch.
The Great Tower — Christchurch boasts a medieval history and the evidence is clear to see. The Great Tower ruins are still here. They sit on top of a hill and are part of a large Norman Castle which once dominated this town.
The Great Tower, Christchurch, Dorset, England.
The Great Tower, Christchurch, Dorset, England — the first castle dates back to 1107, incredible. The Great Tower has been attacked and parts of it destroyed over the years, but generally it looks great and also serves as a vantage point over the town.
View from the Great Tower.
Christchurch Castle and Norman House – as well as the Great Tower, you should check out the Castle and overall complex. In fact, on a personal level these ruins are the highlight of the visit. The local council know it too and they good care of the ruins, information boards also fill you in on the history of the place. You’ll find out that the settlement was really called Twynham.
The Castle Ruins
The Castle Ruins
Christchurch Crazy Golf England — we all know the Northern Irish are great at golf these days (Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell, Darren Clarke) and I sunk my putts to perfection to beat Austin. The mini golf is down by the Quay.
The Railway Tavern — there are a few pubs in Christchurch though nothing on its Dorset neighbours Poole and Bournemouth. The Railway Tavern makes a decent stop for a beer as it’s next to the train station and also has a bus stop outside it.
Railway Tavern in Christchurch
Christchurch Town Hall — all English towns have a town hall and Christchurch has one on the main street. While not as prominent as it could be, it does have a small and pretty square there too. Typical local shops and cafes give this town a less commercial feel than nearby Bournemouth.
Christchurch Town Hall
New Zealand Gardens — on the edge of the town centre, there is proof that they recognise their twin town, Christchurch in New Zealand. In fact, the New Zealand one is a city not a town. There is a nice garden area to walk around and the sign of the town’s entrance also includes Christchurch on it.
New Zealand Gardens
New Zealand Gardens