Where to go on a weekend away

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Every year, my dearest magical friend Craig and I have our annual day trip to the seaside.This year, as we both turned 30, we decided to ramp up the activity a little and go away for a day and a NIGHT! This meant we could travel a little further afield, and so we chose to zoom off to Norfolk. We both crawled out of heavy busy work weeks, and were in need of coffees the size of our heads at the thought of the long journey stretching out ahead of us. I picked up a car picnic of cherries, crisps and fizzy percy pig tails and soon our zip car (named Charlize!) was heading the right way from London. The journey took about 3 hours; mainly because the one road that takes you in and out of Norwich is currently being expanded. That’s great news for future visitors, but less great for people who want to drive down it now and its single carriage is packed with road works AND slow moving tractors. We also hit the tail-end of hurricane Bertha, which made for some tricksy driving conditions.

We stuck to our California road-trip specialist subjects (Craig driving, Me navigating) but this time my role extended to passing him water and also pouring crisps into his crotch (!) so he could chow down and keep one hand on the wheel. Some things you really can only do with close friends, and this is one of them. There was a reason we chose Norfolk, and that’s because it’s where Nick & I are getting married next year. Craig is (among other very exciting roles) chief of decoration, as I really don’t have the first clue and he made his music-festival-30th look so chic. So our first stop for the night was my Gran’s house, in order for Craig to recce the venue and start making some plots and plans. As soon as my Norfolk-based family hear there might be fresh meat in the vicinity, they flock down, so Craig spent the first night having an official “induction” which involved a frantic card game of Racing Demon with my cousin, aunt, uncles and gran. At 95, my gran still thrashed all 3 generations of us.

After an epic sleep (there’s definitely something in that Norfolk air) we started the day in the best possible way. Home-made ginger cake for breakfast, followed by a lesson on the spinning wheel, which Craig previously thought only existed in fairy tales.

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Then it was time to take a scamper around the grounds where Nick and I will be getting married. I won’t include too many photos because, well no-one wants too much of a spoiler before the big day surely. The sun was shining and the flora and fauna were in fine form; we’d be so lucky to get a day like that. I picked an apple that was as big as my entire face, and I reckon will be enough to fill a pie. There’s something so enchanting about this place!

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After another slice of cake, and an hour or two of my gran telling us incredible childhood and war stories; it was painful to tear ourselves away but we really did have to get a wriggle on and do what we came to do… see the sea! Also, thanks to Craig for being my stylist for the weekend. I had stupidly forgotten a spare tee-shirt so he kindly leant me his I <3 LA one which fitted a little too perfectly and is currently being held hostage. Not quite sure I am ready to give it back! The drive from Norwich to Cromer took about an hour. My gran was born in Cromer, therefore it’s a place I visited tons as a child but haven’t been to since my teens. I stuck to tradition, and we parked on the road my gran was born on (which is also handily free parking; therefore more money for tat from the tourist shops). I had a good peer at the house where my life-idol came into the world, the original name “Yerbury” is still etched into the gate, which is also my mum’s middle name in honour of it.

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Our first effort to fully de-Londonify ourselves was to head out towards Over Strand, where the beach is nestled next to miles of wild scrub. I love that Cromer has shingles and pebbles, but also soft sand and rock pools. We walked as far as we could see, stopping to scavenge for shells and to hunt for anemone. It was amazing how quickly we left the chaos of the town centre behind and were soon alone with the lapping sea and ramshackle abandoned beach huts.

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I don’t know how we manage it, but every year our day trip takes place in a different month and a different day, but whatever the weather forecast (usually beefy thunderclouds or remains of hurricane) we get tropical temperatures. As we stared out to sea, I felt the most at peace since I came home from travelling. You don’t need to get on a plane to find that sunny sweet spot when we get summers like this. The one thing I haven’t missed about UK beach offerings though, is these pests. Creepy wormy weirdos!

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After a good dose of salty air and stomping around, we headed back to dry land to explore the pier. Cromer is the only pier in the UK to still have a regular Pier Show, although we weren’t organised enough to catch it. We also discovered that the thing to do at Cromer pier is to go crabbing! Every inch of pier-side was packed with families who were hanging fishing rope off the edge, with bacon on the end to tempt crabs into the nets. The unlucky crabs are then collected in a bucket in order to show off to everyone else how many have been snagged. I wasn’t sure what the point was, so asked a local man who recoiled in horror when I asked if he ate them (Cromer is famous for it’s crab!) but these were just little nippers and he told me they catch them for fun, but they are all chucked back in the sea at the end of the day.

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By this point in the day we both had a hive-mind desire for one thing, and one thing only. A GIANT fish (and chips). We found somewhere called the No.1 Fish & Chips, so we figured that must be the best in town and we were not disappointed. We tucked into the feast whilst gazing back out to sea and with sand between our toes; which I swear improves the taste by 80% at least. It’s so special when you have a friendship that never suffers an awkward silence. Even after spending 36 hours together back-to-back, we were nattering none stop. It feels like we never run out of conversation, I guess because we are at that age were lots of big life things are happening; which need endless analysis – in between chip mouthfuls.

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After a doze in the sunshine and a stop off at the amusements and funfair, it was time to bid Cromer farewell. I was tempted by the teacups but have learnt from sickly experience that swirly-round-&-round rides do not mix well with having just eaten a giant fish dish. This has definitely been one of my favourite day trips of all time; as the town and beach were just the right amount of buzzy Vs busy; and there seemed to be an infectious good mood in the air. Almost everyone we passed smiled, said hi or just looked happy with life. This is something that is sorely missing from the London rat race sometimes! This, coupled with my gran’s endless wise sage advice and life lessons, left us both really inspired and feeling zen as we headed back to the M11. I say this every year, but I really need to do this more often. A day at the seaside felt as good as a holiday.

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If you’ve never visited Norfolk, I highly recommend it. And if you have, but never went to Cromer, then do that too! Just remember to pack your sunglasses.

Read all about or previous day trips here:

2013: Rye & Camber Sands

2012: Reculver

2011: Isle of Purbeck

2010: Eastbourne

 

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Last week was a killer. Due to various zz work/health/life woes I had spent quite a lot of the week fretting and stressing and slowly losing my mind at my desk. Add to that the fact I wore KNITWEAR three times, and a thermal once. It’s JUNE. Anyway all the more reason that my annual mother-daughter foreign adventure couldn’t have been better timed. This year we chose Lille. Our criteria for the trip had been:

  • Somewhere we could reach on the Eurostar (we’re train geeks)
  • Not too far to travel / no connections
  • Reasonable weather
  • Walkable once there
  • Delicious Food / Wine

And Lille stepped up perfectly! With the trip taking only 1.5 hours from London (it takes me longer to get home to Yorkshire..!) and we also really lucked out, with glorious 25 degree+ sunshine every day of our trip. We stayed Friday – Sunday in the Hotel Flandre Angleterre , now usually anything containing any word  resembling “English” has me envisioning horrific Brits-abroad images of lobster skin, faux fry-ups and posters of Beef Eaters. Luckily there was non of that in sight at our cheep and cheery little home-from-home. The staff were all so endlessly patient and friendly, and we had a light blow out in our room, which they fixed about 5 minutes after us asking! Upon arrival we instantly stumbled across the best water feature either of us has EVER seen, which sits outside the Gare de Lille (the Eurostar train station). If you took an initial look at the shallow concrete pool filled with questionable looking water, you could easily just pass on by with your nose in the air. However, every 15 minutes or so, water vapour steams urgently out of pipes around the pool! There is a wooden decking you can go stand on and be immersed in clouds of water.  It doesn’t feel wet, just cold and refreshing and lovely.

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Safe to say we spent about an hour scampering around, pretending to be in Jurassic Park or some misty Sherlock Holmes style London night. Aside from this, our first impressions were of “New” Lille, eg the bits around Lille Flandres which is the central station. I remember feeling twinges of disappointment at the sights that greeted us; huge commercial centres, casinos, sprawling shopping malls and modern student apartment blocks. Not exactly the France I had dreamt of. We had to kill a couple of hours before we could check in, so set off to the Parc Henri Matisse where we sat planning an itinerary using our guide book and a set of tips from the Eurostar site. Although in theory the park was pretty with lovely tunnels into overgrown greenery and an adventure playground, we felt quite intimidated walking around. Like most very-central urban parks it suffered from being full of some slightly unsavoury characters and we did get approached a couple of times and had to scuttle off. It wasn’t a great start… but don’t worry it gets aLOT better. There are much prettier green spaces, so if you visit I’d give this park a miss.

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After we dumped our bags, we headed towards the Grande Place and suddenly Lille transformed into everything I’d have dreamt of. We passed really quirky French houses, with beautiful wooden shuttered windows, gaping wrought-iron gates and cute window gardens. I also made an AMAZING discovery about Lille – it’s the home of Speculoos! You may remember I got obsessed with Speculoos whilst over in New York, as Nora had tipped me off about purchasing some “Speculoos Cookie Butter” from Trader Joes. I came back with a jar of it (cursing myself for not buying 20 jars) and the rest is an addicts history. Whilst pottering around we replaced lunch with… a MASSIVE ice cream. I’m so glad my mum is a giant kid at heart too. I had a scoop of nutella and a scoop of speculoos ice cream and it was beyond good. The Grand Place is so beautiful, where we spent a lot of time gazing at buildings and the amazing statues that dot the tops of the architecture. There was always something lively going on there too, it’s quite similar to the main square in Bruges.

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After walking 8 miles (I wear a FitBit and am a bit of a QS junkie but even so I was gobsmacked that we’d walked so far) we decided we’d prefer to take another mode of transport than our legs to explore. We hopped on an open roof mini-bus tour from the Tourist Office, it cost 10 Euros and consisted of an hour zooming around all of Lille with an audio tour and a nice added bonus of TV screens set up to show you the inside of all the key buildings. I have to confess a combination of all the walking, ice cream and hot hot sun shining on my noggin’ did mean that I snoozed away for twenty minutes of it… but my mum assured me it was a very thorough tour. Woops! After a freshen up and extended disco nap, we decided to take a punt on a restaurant I had seen from the mini bus (in the bit I was conscious for) and thought had looked pretty dreamy. Luckily, it was! Le Petit Barbue serves traditional French cuisine, and damn good wine. A helpful girl at the Tourist Office had recommended we try Carbonade which is a traditional French slowcooked beef stewed with Speculoos (!) and brown sugar. We also got a portion of brown shrimp Crevette & frites. The food was so delicious, every bite was perfection as we sat outside in the setting sun looking out onto the lawn with a beautiful golden angel statue towering over us, supping local red wine.

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We kicked off Saturday by taking a pearl of wisdom from the guide book (which applies to any city really) by not opting for the expensive hotel breakfast buffet. Instead we wandered up to the Grand Place and went to the original Paul bakery. You may have visited the Paul kiosks in London, and this is where they all began! We tucked into a giant plateful of pastries, mainly of the chocolate variety, and a warm baguette to smother in salty French butter and confiture. As France isn’t very decaf friendly I just had to order a hot chocolate which was basically a cup of molten green & blacks. Beyond sinful! We ate their both days as it was too good to resist.

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Saturday was one of those rare, sparkly, shiny gems of a day where everything went right. We got seats at Paul, despite it being heaving, and the sun was out and beaming on us as we embarked on our 20 minute stroll through “Old” Lille (cobbled streets, quirky buildings) to the city’s “green lungs” which consist of the Zoological Park and Bois de Boulogne which sit snugly up against the river. We started off at the Zoo, which is worth going to in the morning, before it’s swarming with families. The zoo was hands down the best zoo I have ever been to in my entire life. Considering I still have Valley of the Birds post traumatic stress disorder I was really nervous about another foreign wildlife enclosure encounter, but I was to be proved entirely wrong. Every animal was happy… gleeful infact! Each animal had public facing elements to their cage, but also vast space hidden from public eye. The zoo sprawls for miles and has just about every animal your heart could desire; red panda, the biggest owl EVER, tortoises, snakes, gibbons, pelicans, rhinos, alpaca, zebra… did I mentioned its FREE! FREE! Considering you can pay £20+ to get into London Zoo which looks bleak in comparison. I also discovered my all-time new favourite animal. This my friends is a mouse-deer. Two worlds of cute collide to create the perfect pocket pet.

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The best part of the zoo by far was the white-handed gibbons. Usually you go to a zoo and see the huge monkey adventure playground and absolutely no monkey action. In fact the last time I was at London zoo, the gorilla was sat miserably trying to put a Hessian sack over his head, it was pretty heartbreaking. In Lille the gibbons were on FIRE! They were so happy, scampering around and playing, feeding and playing in the sunshine. It was so joyful to watch and we were hypnotised for an hour just staring. As we left the zoo, another primate in the zoo started making a low grunting noise, which set the gibbons off on a mad moment of squawking and shouting. This carried on for at least 30 minutes, and wherever the other primate was he was sure winding them all up a treat. After the zoo we went for a huge walk around the Bois de Boulogne, through forest and woodland canopies, riverside paths and wildflower meadows. It was so idyllic, and of course we got lost so had some extra walking around time that took us to the old city wall ruins and then a random military base. Eventually the noise of all the fun at the fair quavered through the air and, despite the fact it was a funfair meant for tiny children, we decided that since no one knew us and we didn’t speak the language, we’d have a go on some of the rides! Not before stocking up on fairground treats too – Nutella waffles, ice cream & hand-spun candy floss.

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After a truly perfect day, we were worried our final meal in Lille had a lot of expectation groaning on it’s shoulders. We headed for Old Town again and if you go, I’d recommend you eat here rather than New Town. The narrow winding streets are packed with restaurants, all of which looked tempting. We headed to the Rue Saint-Jacque and found a tiny little traditional restaurant, which incredible bric-a-brac covered walls and even stuffed lapan on the window sills! We were very happy to see the other Lille-special on the menu that we had been told we HAD to try; welsch. It’s basically the BEST welsh rarebit you’ve ever eaten in your life, served bubbling away in a deep dish. My mum opted for one with a local cheese called Maroilles and I boldly opted for a mega stinky blue. They came with fries and a fresh lettuce salad and although we were groaning after consuming a vat of cheese between us, it was so tasty. We had to practically roll each other home though.

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On our last morning we walked to the outskirts of Lille centre to the weekly flea market held the in residential area at Quartier de Wazemmes. I’ve been to plenty of markets and souks in my time but this was by far the biggest! It must have been over a mile long, with stall after stall of heaped spices, fresh herbs, fruit & veg, north African clothes, cheeses, knock off electronics, religious materials, antiques etc The smells are as impressive as the sights, and we must have looked like cartoon characters following our noses around to the most tempting stalls. The market is chaotic, slow moving, jam-packed down every strip of stalls. Your senses are absolutely plunged into market madness, and it’s a real experience. The nicest part was that we were the only tourists! I didn’t hear any accents other than French, and you can tell it’s mostly visited by families flocking there to stock up and bargain hunt. I was on the hunt for a nice Breton style top as it is true, French people LOVE a striped top and I had serious style envy. Sadly there wasn’t a stripe in sight at the market so I left empty handed and obsessed with tracking down the perfect stripe. I’m currently lusting over this Claude Pierlot number thanks to Wish Wish Wish’s recommendation but even IN the sale, it’s a little over budget. If you find yourself in Lille over a weekend – then the city centre shuts up on a Sunday, so Wazemmes is really the only thing you’ll find to do.

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And there we go, that’s Lille. I felt like in 2.5 days we saw pretty much everything we wanted to (we aren’t really museum people, but I could see there were tons if you are) and it was just the right amount of time to soak everything up. I’d highly recommend a weekend in Lille to anyone. It was remarkably cheap – we did a cheapy train+hotel Eurostar deal, and I spend about £70 in total over the whole weekend and that included a little Sephora spree. As it’s so walkable there are no transport costs, and Paul bakery’s prices makes it hard to spend over a fiver in there. Lille’s finest quality is that despite it being on the Eurostar, it hasn’t started pandering to tourists. We barely saw a menu in English, there wasn’t a single tourist shop (no “I heart Lille” tees to be found) and we saw no hen do’s or gangs of ladz (sadly unlike Bruges and Prague). It has its problems (it smells of wee, basically all the time in the centre, and I saw 4 men just peeing in broad daylight on the street…) and the homeless issue was quite tough to take in. Obviously I live in London so it’s not new to me, but with that in mind I was still shocked by some of the scenarios and we only saw one police officer the whole trip, which makes me wonder if it’s just a situation that’s being ignored. That said, these are issues that any large city has to some degree, and Lille certainly will go down as one of my favourite weekend excursions. It really did have it all.

And next? Well despite having only been to France twice in my whole life, I am visiting it twice in two weeks! On Monday I jet to Nice, to spend a week in Cannes. Sadly this one isn’t a wine-and-cheese fest, it’s for work. I will spend 80% of the week in a conference centre BUT… I will try to escape and take some snaps of palm trees and beach parties when I can. Bon voyage (again)!

 

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