Glamping at Elmley National Nature Reserve

I previously wrote about our stay at the Saltbox but I had so many photos from our stay that I thought I’d do a separate post to give a bit more of an idea of our time staying on Elmley National Nature Reserve.

Elmley is the only National Nature Reserve in England in which you can spend the night and we woke every morning in The Saltbox to the sunrise and to see the cows grazing in the distance.

The 3,200 acre reserve is located just on the Isle of Sheppey and is accessed via a two mile gravel road through the reserve, which means that it’s quiet and peaceful and the ideal place to get away from the city.

There are four bird hides on the reserve, all offering different views and wildlife viewing opportunities, the furthest of which is a 5.5 km walk from the farmyard. However, you really don’t need to sit in a hide in order to spot wildlife, just walking through the reserve is enough. Lapwings wheel lopsidedly through the skies and you can hear birds everywhere, even when you can’t see them. There were binoculars provided in the Saltbox and I had my DSLR with me. I don’t birdwatch or anything like that so I only had my general walkabout travel lens (18-200mm), I definitely recommend something longer if you have it to really get a close up of the wildlife.

As we were staying for a few days we decided to get out and about one day to visit a beach on the Isle of Sheppey that we’d read about in the pre-arrival information pack, Shellness beach.

Shellness beach is located down a track full of potholes – take it slow and you’ll be fine, my little rented Fiat 500 coped well, although your low slung sports car definitely wouldn’t. It’s remote for a reason, part of it is a naturist beach. On the day we visited it wasn’t particularly warm and so there weren’t many people there at all, let alone unclothed. The real appeal for our visit was not to feel the air on our bits, but rather to check out the shells. Shellness beach lives up to its name and is covered with thousands of shells.

We picked our way along the beach, stopping to examine the prettiest shells as we went.

Located at one end of the beach are a number of beach houses/huts in varying states of occupation. As we strolled towards them we came across a dead cormorant on the beach, now ordinarily that wouldn’t be great, I mean nothing dead is great but everything has to die eventually and somewhere. However, the thing that made this the stuff of nightmares was that halfway down its dead gullet was a dead fish. Clearly its eyes were too big for its stomach and the cormorant paid the ultimate price for it. Seriously traumatising, and oddly compelling, I posted a picture to my Twitter in case your morbid curiosity overcomes you. As we got closer to the huts they got a bit creepier and it with miles of empty beach, we started to feel more and more like we were in a horror film. The ramshackle huts, the desolation and approaching overcast skies had us totally convinced we were going to be murdered. We beat a hasty retreat back to the car and headed back to civilisation.

Our hasty retreat let us back to the mainland and The Three Tuns pub in Lower Halstow. We secured ourselves some comfy armchairs and settled down to get some lunch. As my boyfriend left his seat on the sofa to go and wash his hands after our morning at the beach, pub cat Fluff meandered over, jumped up onto the sofa and flopped down on my knee for a bit of a stroke and a fuss. My boyfriend came back to find he’d been well and truly replaced.

The food at the Three Tuns was great, we started with baked camembert served inside sourdough with chilli jam followed by a great dish of pork belly and sweet potato mash for me and smoked haddock with mashed potato, topped with a poached egg & mustard sauce.

We spent the remainder of our time just pottering about the reserve, animal spotting and sitting in bed watching the clouds and eating birthday cake (Colin the Caterpillar, of course).

These last few photos came from our final drive out of the reserve. The birds aren’t particularly scared of the cars that crawl by and so it was possible to get decent close ups with even my relatively short (in bird watching terms) zoom lens.

We also spotted a stoat, but he was far too fast for us to catch on camera. Either way, a lovely way to end our stay.

Before we crawled back through the Blackwall Tunnel into London again on Bank Holiday Monday, we diverted to Whitstable and between rain showers strolled along the front, ate fish and chips and bought books.

Whitstable is beautiful, although I’m not sure that May Day Bank Holiday was the time to go really as it was rather busy with people. One day we’ll definitely go back when it’s a bit quieter (and probably when there are fewer morris dancers.

All in all, not a bad time at all, despite the intermittent rain showers (and the dead cormorant of nightmares).

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L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele

There’s been an awful lot of fuss made over a tiny no reservation pizza joint in Stoke Newington, an import from Naples and made internationally famous by Eat Pray Love, which was originally a book about a woman who runs off to Italy, India and Bali in an attempt to find herself (or at least that’s what I gathered from its online synopsis, I haven’t read it), it was later turned into a film with Julia Roberts. L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele features in both the book and film.

It opened in February and it was an obvious choice for my week of solo dining in no-reservation restaurants (see my post of yesterday). Today I made my way up to Stoke Newington to see what all the hype was about. It’s a bit of a trek (even from Whitechapel) for a pizza, so I was hoping that it would live up to the hype.

I arrived just as it opened and so there was no queue to bother with, although I’d have been surprised if there had been at 12pm on a Wednesday. Menus were already on the tables, although the size of the drinks menu far exceeds that of the food menu, consisting of only two types of pizza in regular and large sizes, the main difference being cheese or no cheese. I’m not entirely sure I’d refer to the pizza marinara as a pizza, more a tomato bread, but that’s beside the point, I suppose I have to trust that the Italians know their own cuisine.

The restaurant gets full marks from me on design. It’s all brick exposed wall, marble-topped tables, pale blue chairs, blue banquettes and Italian touches. Service, however, was brusque in a way that would be perhaps expected when the restaurant was heaving and people being demanding, but was surprising in a restaurant that was mostly empty while I was there (although a steady trickle of lunch guests was arriving by the time I left). A man turned up with two kids and despite there being four empty tables of two which could have been pushed together to make a four, it was insisted that they sit at a cramped table for two with a chair pulled up, understandable at peak time but not mid-week at lunch when two of those other tables remained during the time I was there.

“Before I left Rome he gave me the name of a pizzeria in Naples that I had to try, because, Giovanni informed me, it sold the best pizza in Naples. I found this a wildly exciting prospect, given that the best pizza in Italy is from Naples, and the best pizza in the world is from Italy, which means that this pizzeria must offer … I’m almost too superstitious to say it … the best pizza in the world? Giovanni passed along the name of the place with such seriousness and intensity, I almost felt I was being inducted into a secret society. He pressed the address into the palm of my hand and said, in gravest confidence, “Please go to this pizzeria. Order the Margherita pizza with double mozzarella. If you do not eat this pizza when you are in Naples, please lie to me later and tell me that you did” – so says Elizabeth Gilbert and so that’s what I did. I ordered the Margherita with double mozzarella.

It arrived at the table full of promise, looking exactly as a pizza should – melted cheese, puffy crust and slightly hanging off the plate. One lone basil leaf looked a little sad adrift in the middle of the cheese – what would Queen Margherita think to the pizza created in honour of her and the Italian flag?

But, is the proof of the pizza in the eating? Unfortunately not. If a pizza is kept simple and only has a few toppings then they need to be great, I need to be able to taste the cheese and tomato and they need to sing. In this instance, they didn’t. They were overwhelmingly overpowered by a slight undertone of charcoal from the base. Sure, there were a few mouthfuls when it was great and the tomato-ey base really hit the spot for me, but largely it didn’t. The base is fluffy and soft and I found myself missing the bite of a crisp-based wood-fired pizza, especially when I got to the middle of the pizza where the juice of the tomatoes had pooled to create a soggy centre.

I had wanted it to be great. I really did. I wanted it to be the best pizza I’d ever tasted, I wanted to be blown away, I almost wanted it to ruin every other pizza I ever had for me, just to know I’d had a truly amazing pizza. Sadly, it wasn’t to be (maybe so much the better for every other pizza).

With two Pizza Union restaurants within walking distance of my flat, serving up crisp pizzas with more than two toppings (I don’t count the sad basil leaf to be a topping), for half of the price of L’Antica together with dessert and friendly service, I don’t think I’ll be switching my allegiances any time soon. I won’t have to lie to Giovanni, but you won’t be missing out if you do.

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Mini Bao at Bao Fitzrovia

I can’t quite remember why I decided to do this bloody MA. I suppose because work had paid for the first half of the course (my Postgraduate Diploma) and I thought it would be a shame not to write a dissertation and get a masters. Right now though, as I’m using my annual leave in order to actually have time to sit down and think (ha!) and write, I’m struggling to remember why it was such a good idea. However, here I am.

It’s not all bad though as my boyfriend is on holiday this week with his family which gives me the run of the flat. I should add that I was invited too but declined because I need to work on this dissertation. I’m not too sad though because I genuinely love alone time. I love my boyfriend too but I am a loner by nature and dislike compromise and in a one bed flat with one TV, there’s often a lot of compromising. So I’m loving some Lisa time. However, I do also need a reason to leave the flat, otherwise I risk becoming a bit of a hermit, so I resolved that this week would be the week that I visited the no-reservation restaurants that I’ve wanted to try for ages but really couldn’t be arsed to queue for on a weekend. I swear that places that don’t take reservations are basically designed to penalise those of us that work in full-time jobs. Is it not bad enough that I lunch at my desk and rarely finish before 7pm but that I can’t visit the trendiest places in London without resorting to a massive queue? No. This week is my opportunity. And hey, a girl’s got to eat. And a girl really does have to eat more than cheese toasties for days at a time, that shit was fine as a 19 year old student, it’s not fine at 31.

Rather than do one big round-up post at the end of the week, I thought I’d do mini blog posts throughout the week and what better place to start than with Bao? Purveyor of pillowy soft steamed buns and tote bags which proclaim that their toter has either braved the queue or has an infinitely cooler and less rigid job than I do. I’ve wanted to visit for ages. This was my chance.

Being a solo diner, I decided to head to their Fitzrovia branch as each week, starting on a Monday, they are doing 50 sets of mini bao, smaller versions of the big ones. Not having been before and not being able to share, it was the perfect way to knock out the bao section of the menu in one fell swoop.

For £16 you get mini versions of all five bao: the classic (slow-braised pork, peanut powder, shredded coriander and fermented greens), confit pork, black cod, beef shortrib and daikon plus, a mini-coke or coldbrew oolong tea.

The buns are super soft and all of the fillings are delicious. The most surprising though was the daikon. I definitely wouldn’t have ordered a large one as I normally tend to stick with meat options, but it was two bites of panko-crumbed daikon cake, hot sauce covered deliciousness. Fat thumb for scale:

If you haven’t been already, I thoroughly recommend Bao and totally get why there’s always a queue, although you can make a booking to eat downstairs at the Fitzrovia branch.

Right, back to dissertating…

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The Saltbox, Kent

When I was at university, my birthday always used to seem to fall on a weekend or the run up to it, which is a complete waste when you’re at university because pretty much every day is a weekend (or it was for me, I barely went to any lectures or seminars after my first semester). The problem with that was that after I graduated and started working, my birthday fell on a Monday and slowly worked through the week again, meaning I had to either go to work on my birthday or take a day of annual leave to do something fun. I did get one round of weekend birthdays post-graduation but skipped a Friday birthday due to a leap year. Cheated. This year marks the start of weekend birthdays again, my birthday being on a Friday this year. I knew we had to take advantage of it (the fact that the May Day Bank Holiday tagged onto the weekend too was an added bonus) and we booked a glamping long weekend. Spotted on Canopy and Stars, my favourite website for treehouses, shepherd’s huts and all things glamp, the Saltbox had been on my list of places to stay for a while. It looked super fancy for a hut, had an indoor shower and toilet and being located on a nature reserve on the Isle of Sheppey, it was only a relatively short journey from London. Ideal.

As now seems to be tradition when we glamp, it was raining when we arrived on our first day. We quickly got ourselves in, put our stuff away and put the kettle on, before curling up on the bed to admire the view through the full-wall bi-fold doors. A window wall to the world.

The Saltbox is one of four huts in Elmley National Nature Reserve. Other than the Saltbox, two are wagons and the other is just like the Saltbox but brand new (in fact, so new that it wasn’t an option at the time we booked as it wasn’t there). All are tucked away from the main path of the nature reserve, although we did once during our stay get a couple wandering by our hut who had clearly taken our path by mistake. They were very apologetic as we sat there in our pyjamas watching them and drinking tea one morning, we found their sheepishness funny. Also, it’s worth bearing in mind if you book the Saltbox that the other hut of the same type (the Ferryman’s) now lies further down the path, so you might want to bear that in mind if you’d like your privacy, especially if you do what we did and keep the curtains open pretty much the whole time for the great sunrise view in the morning.

Every morning we would wake early (whether because of the light or because we knew there was potentially a beautiful sunrise to enjoy, I’m not sure), we’d raise a head, open a sleepy eye, make a quick judgment call on whether or not it was worth waking up to watch the sunrise and then either go back to sleep or get up and put the kettle on for a cup of tea to enjoy as the sun rose, with the bi-fold doors open and fresh air pouring in. We were cuddled up in jumpers and duvets of course because it was generally really cold despite the fact it was the end of April. By the way, how has it suddenly switched from winter to summer practically overnight?!

We started our days with sausage cobs (yep, I’m betraying my Nottinghamshire roots there). What do Southerners call sausage in a bread roll? It’s not a sausage roll because that’s obviously a sausage in pastry but I thought ‘bap’ was a more Northern thing.

We would then either go for a walk in the nature reserve or head out in the car to explore the local area. I have far too many photos to include in this post so I’m going to do a separate post on the nature reserve and our little side trips. I got to don my new walking boots, a birthday present from my sister and a nice bridge between what I previously had which was either trainers or wellies.

In the afternoon we’d sit on the bed and read or chat and as we did so we’d watch birds swooping past or, our favourite thing, watch things running or hopping past our hut. Our favourite was the hare that would sometimes run by, although we were also visited by pheasants and a baby bunny (or at least a very tiny one).

As the skies darkened each night we’d settle in to play Scrabble or card games, either ones we knew or found on the internet and one which I only half remembered from Sixth Form free period procrastination, but which came back to me slowly and as we played through, of course my boyfriend accused me of making up rules to benefit me as and when I needed them…

On our final night we decided the time was right to get a fire going with the logs that were provided for exactly that purpose. Unfortunately it was pretty windy during our whole stay and so we were fighting the elements, even more so when it started to rain. However, we got a little fire going after nursing it for a while and giving it some love and attention. Never give up, never surrender!

We managed to make one squidgy s’more before retreating inside to the warm and dry of our little hut to raise a toast to my 31st birthday and our little getaway.

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