Shakespeare’s paper trail


This year, it’s 400 years since Shakespeare died and from February 3 until May 29, his last known work – his signature on his will – is on display at By Me, William Shakespeare, A Life in Writing. It’s a once-in-a-generation chance. After the exhibition, the will goes back into storage.

The will is famous, of course, for that bequest of his second-best bed to his wife.


The exhibition includes four of Shakespeare’s six existing signatures, including the first on record, brought together for the first time, in a creatively curated exhibition which brings to life Shakespeare’s time in London.


The will itself is faded and creased, and it’s easy to see ‘By Mr William’… but the surname is rather hard to read. Although authorship of his plays may be argued over, Shakespeare’s will is definitely all his own work!

Shakespeare400 is a consortium of cultural, creative and educational organisations, which will mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 2016








Why I love the Big Garden Birdwatch


Screen Shot 2016-01-29 at 15.15.29I’ve written about the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch for the past six years, so it would seem odd not to do it this year (just because my ex-employer closed the website I worked on.)

And I’ll be taking part in it, too, as I have every year for the past six, except last year. Last year I was in Finland. Just for fun I kept a lookout as I ate breakfast, and I saw one magpie in the hotel grounds in an hour. It’s pretty cold 200km north of the Arctic Circle!

I love the mass participation idea of the Big Garden Birdwatch. And I love the idea that the nation is taking notice of everyday birds. As a travel writer (part of the time), I’ve seen some impressive birds in impressive locations: penguins in the Galapagos Islands (above), flamingos in France, puffins in Newfoundland, and red-whiskered bulbuls and weaver birds nesting in Mauritius (below). But I still love to see a robin sitting on my fence.

Perfect for commitment-phobes, Big Garden Birdwatch is one hour, once a year (this weekend, January 30-31 2016). And the RSPB couldn’t make it any easier, short of elbowing you out of your chair and seeing your birds for you. So do it – and don’t forget to send your results!

Update: just finished on Saturday morning, having seen: dunnock, two great tits, robin, two nuthatches, blue tit, wood pigeon, two coal tits, collared dove, blackbird.


The trials of travelling light


Teva sandalsAs a travel journalist, people expect me to be good at travelling light… I wish!

I’ve written features about the theory of packing the perfect (lightweight) suitcase, but it’s always easier to give advice than take it, so when it comes to choosing a holiday wardrobe, I really struggle.

I’m in awe of light-travelling friends and colleagues, like Alyson, of top style-at-any-age blog That’s Not My Age and award-winning travel writer and photographer Jan Fuscoe, both of whom I’ve been away with. And they seem to manage with less than me.

But for me, it’s always about weather and what-if’s. It could start raining. What if I get sunburn? In the mornings it’s chilly there. And up the mountains. What if I spill that local delicacy down my only smart top? There’s a stiff breeze off the sea. What if I want to go cycling? Or running? It’s incredibly humid in the afternoons. What if I sweat so much I can’t wear the go-with-everything garment more than once?

The packing issue is pressing because I’m off to India soon, and have two climate zones to contend with, and a smaller-than-usual baggage allowance. Although the airline I arrive with has the usual limit, I’ve got several internal flights, and Air India’s is 15kg.

In Delhi, the start of the trip, it’s about 23°C by day, dropping to 7°C overnight, and in Kerala, end of the trip, it’s 36° by day, dropping to 22°C overnight. And, of course, I need to keep my shoulders and knees covered!

Clothes-wise, I seem to be going for trousers and tops. Lots of tops, so that I can layer as many as I need.

Rab jacket from Cotswold OutdoorAnd my Rab jacket from Cotswold Outdoor that kept me cosy in Finland’s Arctic Circle (at -33°C) last year. That might seem too warm to take to India but it weighs practically nothing, I may wear it over just a T-shirt, it squishes up really small, and I can wear it to and from Gatwick.

I’m not buying anything new, except the Teva sandals (above), which I plan to wear with everything, all day long. And I’ll take flip flops (slippers, change of footwear), barefoot trainers and possibly lightweight pointed flat pumps for dressing up.

And if anyone knows where to buy the perfect all-purpose shoes that work for hours of pavement-pounding sightseeing, look equally good with shorts and smart dresses, can go for a hike or a paddle and are comfortable enough to wear around the clock, let me know. They don’t exist. Last year I took eight pairs of shoes narrowboating. And wore them all.

Wish me luck!

Head for the hypermarché


AuchanboulognemapAuchan (Mon-Sat, 8.30am-10pm) is a 10-minute drive from Boulogne – take route nationale 42, follow the signs for St Omer and turn off when ‘centre commerciale’ is signposted.

It’s staggering in its size and breadth of product ranges: TVs, toys, slippers, fishing tackle, bedlinen and homewares, shoes, suitcases, pushchairs…

It’s generally recognised as the cheapest French supermarket. Handily, the cheapest of a given product is labelled ‘le moins cher’ (the least expensive) which saves time if you’re after a bargain.

There’s a special ‘heart of our region’ section, with local produce that found its way into our trolley. Staff are very keen for you to try before you buy, and we were offered cheese, kippers, strawberries, wine… along the aisles. We were impressed with the cosmetics section, which had organic and upmarket stuff, like Weleda.

Don’t miss ‘Save money on crossing the Channel’ and ‘Show us the savings’


Cross-Channel shopping: the savings


Bonne Maman Strawberry ConserveShow us the savings

You can make great savings buying alcohol in France, because of the exchange rate and, more importantly, the tax. In the UK we pay £1.90 in tax on a bottle of wine; in France it’s 2p. Beer in the UK is taxed at 50p a pint; in France 14p. The difference for spirits is not as large: 46p and 22p.

Freixenet cavaFrench products will generally be cheaper, as you might expect. This includes Bonne Maman jam and Blanquette de Limoux, which is the forerunner of Champagne. I’ve been buying it since it was recommended in the Telegraph Sunday Magazine before my first trip through the tunnel back in 1994.

Here are some of our supermarket savings (UK prices from

Product Price in €/equivalent in £ Price in UK Saving in £
Bonne Maman strawberry jam €1.42/£1 £1.70 (special offer) 70p
Organic rapeseed oil (75cl bottle) €2.10/£1.48 £2.25 77p
Blanquette de Limoux (75cl bottle) €3.90/£2.73 £8.50 £5.77
Freixenet cava (6 x 75cl bottle) €32.82/£23 £10 £37

Inspired by Marianne Power’s piece on saving money on make-up in France I bought Nuxe make-up remover and Roc moisturiser, although my savings weren’t as impressive as hers. However, these were items that I was about to run out of, so I would have bought them anyway. The cheapest I could find for Roc Pro Renove Creme Anti-rides was £18.99 online – I paid the equivalent of £18.66. Saving: 33p. Nuxe Bio Beauté Eau Demaquillage cost me the equivalent of £8.82 and it’s on Amazon for £13.41. Saving: £4.59.

Don’t miss ‘Head for the hypermarché’ and ‘Save money crossing the Channel’


Save money: shop across the Channel


EurotunneltrainDo the booze cruise in style with this money-saving guide to crossing the Channel: where to save money and spend time…

Eurotunnel for free

Shop at Tesco? Got a Clubcard? If you live in the Southeast, it’s a great idea to spend Clubcard points on Eurotunnel crossings. For £10 in tokens, you get £30 to spend on Eurotunnel. You receive the voucher codes by email, then phone Eurotunnel to book (at least 14 days before travel). Eurotunnel crossings cost from £23 each way, so you can get a return crossing for £20 worth of tokens.

Eyes on the exchange rate

At today’s rates, your pound buys you €1.42, ie €1 = 70p. For a quick calculation, take a quarter off, so an item at €8 will be roughly £6 (£5.64 to be precise).

Take an empty tank

Fuel prices in France are lower than in the UK. At today’s prices, in euros, a litre of unleaded costs, on average, €1.3 across the Channel, €1.5 in the UK. Savings on diesel are even better: €1.1 in France, €1.5 in the UK. Convert euros to pounds (at today’s rates) and see the savings: unleaded costs £1 a litre in the UK, 91p in France. Diesel is even better value at 78p per litre in France, compared with £1 in the UK.

Trolley dash

If you’re in a hurry you can drive to Cité Europe, five minutes from the tunnel. It’s the largest shopping centre in northern France with lots of high-street names – 150 shops including Yves Rocher, Zara, Sephora – plus a Carrefour hypermarket and loads of parking. You can apply for a loyalty card, which gives you discounts and other offers. Convenient, but I’ve found it a bit empty and soulless.

Make a break for Boulogne

If I’m making the effort to visit another country, I like to feel that I’m abroad, rather than zipping along a featureless autoroute. Granted, Calais has more supermarkets, but Boulogne has authentic French ambience. Oh, and shops. With its market, speciality shops and hypermarket within 10 minutes’ drive, it’s perfect for stocking up with advance supplies for Christmas, New Year, parties, weddings, birthdays, any excuse really…

Drive the 42km south of Calais to Boulogne-sur-Mer, taking the coastal road, the D940, which has great views of England – and the Côte d’Opale, as this area is known. The name ‘opal coast’ was coined by the French painter Édouard Lévêque in 1911, referring to the quality of the light. Personally, I think Côte de Perle is more accurate..

On the D940 you’ll pass through town and villages, including the lovely coastal resort of Wissant, and Cap Gris Nez, at 34km, France’s closest point to the UK.

Le shopping

The market, Place Dalton (Wednesday and Saturday, 8.30am to around midday) Head for the haute ville to park for free outside the 13th-century city walls, then take a short stroll downhill.

Wander round the market square packed with stalls stacked with fresh local produce, like chickens (still with feet and heads on), gorgeous seasonal fruit and veg, herbs, flowers and plants, cheese, charcuterie, chickens on a rotisserie, a stall with bubbling cauldrons of hearty cassoulet (bean and sausage stew) and paella, not forgetting the mini oyster and champagne bar set up around a barrel table. We bought some fresh butter from a local farm for just over a euro, 10 heads of garlic for €4 and a cauliflower as big as my head for a euro. Everyone carried a basket or bag, because refreshingly, this functions as a proper market where local people come to buy everyday food to eat, not as some kind of art installation full of Instagramming tourists. Although the food is treated with respect, and rightly so. One woman carried an armful of leeks as carefully as a bouquet.

Specialist shops

IMG_5789The square is ringed with bars, cafés, bakers and patisseries. At Dessert ou Dessert Autrement (35 Grande Rue) the window was a feast for any ‘lèche vitrine’ (French for window-shopper; it means lick-window), and a steady stream of shoppers gazed in anticipation at glistening tarte aux framboises for €30, and all the French cakes you saw on Bake Off, like religieuses (choux pastry iced nuns), opéras (perfectly rectangular layered almond sponge, ganache and chocolate glaze). Also on the square is Fred (30 Place Dalton), a patisserie and boulangerie where you can buy fab French bread.

Just around the corner (at 43 rue Thiers) is one of France’s best-stocked and most famous cheese shops, Philippe Olivier. The ripe, pungent aroma hits you in the face as you enter. I wanted a cheese that tasted like the shop smelt and we weren’t disappointed with our Vieux Boulogne, a rind-washed, unpasteurised, unpressed cow’s-milk cheese which has been scientifically tested and declared to be the stinkiest in the world. And I won’t disagree, given the ripe stench emanating from the kitchen at the moment. We lovingly refer to it (apologies for un-PC term) as being like a tramp’s crevices.

Along the street is another appetisingly aromatic shop, Les Chocolats de Beussent-Lachelle (56, rue Thiers), definitely another lèche-vitrine stop. The owners take chocolate seriously; they own a cocoa plantation in Ecuador and this is the flagship branch of 10. Prices aren’t cheap, but I’d say they’re worth it. Mendiants (chocolate rounds topped with nuts) are €14.40 for 200g. Slabs of chocolate are encrusted with nuts, candied fruit, dried figs, pine nuts, salted caramel, and a 250g box of your choice of the exquisite chocolates is €18.75.

Freshly caught fish and seafood is prepared and sold every day on the Quayside Boulevard Gambetta.

If you prefer a specialist wine shop to a supermarket, head for Le Chais (49 rue des Deux Ponts/30 rue Brequerecque) where the third generation of a family selling wines for 150 years runs a warehouse with 800+ wines.

Stop for lunch

There’s an obsession with Welsh rarebit or ‘le welsh’ in this part of France. The Welsh Pub (Place Dalton) has a ‘les welshs’ menu section with a choice of seven types, served with frites or green salad. Or try the galettes (buckwheat Breton pancakes) and crêpes at the Breton Crêperie St Michel (43 rue de Lille). We tucked away two delicious courses and draught cider in stoneware cups for €25.

Don’t miss: ‘Head for the hypermarché’ and ‘Show us the savings’