Black cab tour of London

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‘Cabbies’ as they are known in the UK, are the best trained taxi drivers in the world. To become a custodian of one of London’s most iconic vehicles, a black cab driver must do ‘the knowledge’; a rigorous examination, both written and practical, that tests aspiring taxi driver’s knowledge of London’s roads and landmarks. Ask any driver and they will tell you with pride that ‘the knowledge’ takes two to three years to prepare for and is a rite of passage that only the best will pass.

While cabbies are renowned for their expertise on the roads they are also well known for liking a chat. Let’s face it, it can be a lonely business sat in the front of a cab for hours on end so having the gift of the gab can help pass the time.

Given their intimate knowledge of London and their loquacious nature, black cab drivers should make the perfect London guides. So, it was with high expectations that I met with Andrew on Tuesday this week to have my own, private black cab tour of London.

“Do you think you know London well, Jarrod” Andrew asked.

I’d lived in London for ten years but had moved out long ago. I still regularly visit the city so I know my way around.

“I think so…” I answered hesitantly, knowing that Andrew of course knew the city better than most.

“Today, I am going to show you a few sights that I doubt you’ve seen before. Tower of London, Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace are all very nice but I prefer the places that few tourists know about.”

I immediately liked Andrew; he was about forty years old and looked sharp in a blue, tailored suit and polished, brown brogues. He had a London accent, as you would hope from a London cabbie, and he spoke with a soft yet purposeful cadence that portrayed authority and honesty.

We drove along The Strand, one of London’s oldest roads that runs for about a mile parallel with the north bank of the Thames. The Strand is one of London’s most important arteries, dotted with iconic buildings – theatres, embassies, historic pubs and famous hotels like the Savoy. But it was James Bond that dominated our conversation that afternoon, with the two of us desperately trying to outdo each other by recalling obscure sites in London where Bond had been filmed. Andrew pulled over to the side of the road and pulled out a portable DVD player from the glove compartment of the cab and put in a disc that comprised of an anthology of clips from Bond films.

“You know this film, right?” said Andrew

“Goldeneye,” I said without a moment of hesitation.

“And where is this scene set?” Andrew asked, pointing to the screen of the portable DVD player.

“St Petersburg.”

“Correct, only if you look ahead of you, you’ll see the right hand turn that Bond is about to make in the middle of St Petersburg is actually the turn up ahead into Somerset House. Right here on The Strand. In the middle of London.”

Game, set and match to Andrew. After that point, I knew better not to try and compete on Bond trivia, let alone London.

Andrew put the DVD player away and decided we would leave the taxi parked up in order to stretch our legs for a while. That’s the beauty of having a London black cab – within reason, you can park it wherever you like and while most of the tour is done from the cab there is ample opportunity to get out and explore London’s sites on foot. Andrew suggested we take a look at a modest church, situated on an island in the middle of the Strand, where the road splits. It is a church I have seen countless times and never really given a second look. The church of St Clement Danes was bombed heavily during the Blitz in the Second World War and a quick inspection of its original exterior shows extensive shrapnel damage. One particular bomb destroyed most of the church and so the Royal Air Force adopted it and paid for its restoration. Under the royal coat of arms is an inscription in Latin that succinctly outlines the church’s history:

“Christopher Wren built it 1672.

The thunderbolts of aerial warfare destroyed it 1941.

The Royal Air Force restored it 1958”

We walked inside and I was immediately touched by the serenity of its interior, in stark contrast to the hubbub of one of London’s busiest roads outside. We spent time reading the many plaques and memorials that adorn the walls, poignant reminders of courage, sacrifice and loss. The floor of the church is made from Welsh slate and is inscribed with the badges of over 800 RAF squadrons, groups and stations. In one corner of the church floor is an impressive memorial to the Polish airmen who died in the protection of United Kingdom while in another corner is a huge, leather bound book of remembrance to the American airmen based in the United Kingdom who died during World War Two. We left the church in contemplative mood and rightly judging that we needed a tonic, Andrew pointed to a shop just across the road, called Twinings.

“Come on, let’s have a cup of tea” he said, running across a zebra crossing and provoking a volley of abuse from a fellow taxi driver whom needed to brake hard to avoid running over his colleague.

Twinings is no ordinary tea shop. It has been trading for over 300 years and in 1837, Queen Victoria gave Twinings a royal warrant. The company has been making tea for the royal family ever since and its shop on the Strand is a great place to taste some of the world’s most exquisite teas. The interior of the shop is like a long, wide corridor with both walls covered in shelving containing hundreds of jars of tea leaves from traditional Earl Grey to Lapsang Souchong, Assam to Darjeeling and English Breakfast to Chai Latte. But it’s the aroma that impresses most. Stepping into the shop is like giving your olfactory senses a great big herbal hug. We were greeted by one of the shop’s tea connoisseurs and invited to do a tasting. The spicy chai blend won me over, while Andrew was more traditional and favoured the English Strong Breakfast blend. Having bought enough tea to start my own shop we left Twinings and returned to the cab as darkness began to engulf the city.

Before dropping me at a pub in Soho, Andrew gave me a tour of the Christmas lights on Regent Street and took me to St James’s Street to visit London’s oldest cigar shop (a favourite of Winston Churchill), oldest milliners (used in the past by the likes of Oscar Wilde, David Niven and HRH Princess Diana) and oldest wine merchants. Between them, these shops have been trading for almost six hundred years.

So, next time you come to London, don’t just think of a London cab as a means of getting from A to B. If you know the right people, a ride in a black cab can be much more than this. It could actually be the most memorable experience of your holiday in England.

If you would like further information about arranging a holiday to the United Kingdom please contact Charlotte or telephone 01285651010.

Discover the wildlife of the United Kingdom with Fergus Beeley

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Stoat

My poor mother. She was so patient with me. I had found a spider’s nest, a tiny ball of cream coloured silk. I was thrilled. If I placed the nest in a matchbox at the top of my bedroom wardrobe, then they would one day hatch. No one would find them there and I could watch them grow.

But I soon forgot about them and instead attended to my snail collection which was growing by the day in jars in a Victorian brick bread oven in the scullery.

I was nine years old. It was 1971 and clearly there was no going back on this interest I had in nature. By the way, the eggs did hatch and all the gorgeous spider-lings would tip-toe out at night and return to the matchbox for the day. Irritatingly, my mother found both the spiders and the snails in the end, but she was gentle in her reproach, knowing my fondness and passion for wildlife.

By twenty seven I was a producer with BBC Natural History Unit in Bristol, and camping in the remotest corners of the Planet while making wildlife films like ‘Realms of the Russian Bear’, ‘Wildlife on One’ and ‘Life of Birds’ with Sir David Attenborough. I remained very at home in this environment over the following 20 years and was lucky enough to produce many films for BBC ‘Natural World’ and the award winning series ‘Planet Earth – the future’. The truth is, I’m still profoundly captivated by the beauty and the astonishing variety of life.
This last year I have partnered with a few very special hotels across the south of England to offer 2-day ‘nature retreats’. These are attracting newcomers to nature, tired mothers, soul-searchers, all kinds really, but they all want to feel more connected to the natural world; more tuned to it.

The hotels I have chosen are fantastic places to stay are also surrounded by fabulous countryside rich in wildlife. Over the two days, we go out on quiet walks, directing all our senses in a ‘mindful’ way to notice more – underfoot – overhead – the calls of birds; the wonders of the miniature world. I give talks on the way colour and sound is perceived differently by animals. We look at films after dinner. We even hold up and admire a tiny arthropod in a jar in front of each of us (not a spider!) to realise the immensity of its success as a species to survive unchanged for over 70m years.

Hotel Endsleigh in Devon, for instance is a Grade I historic house set in 100 acres of fairy-tale ancient woodland, with brooks and ponds, magnificent gardens and the river Tamar flowing peacefully through the valley. I’ve seen otters, even stoats here.

There is a pair of kingfishers, too, but they fly so quickly and low over the water that few people get to see them. I will point out the distinct call of the kingfisher — a very high pitched whistle. Once this sound is recognised, most people get to see the bird. I remember so well my own first-sighting of this gorgeous bright blue jewel.

Tresanton is another place where I run these nature retreats. It’s a beautiful Hotel within walking distance of the Cornish coast on the Roseland peninsula at St Mawes. Banks of wildflower meadows, with scattered gorse bushes and bramble briars rise from the shore. Sitting quietly in the grass one sees many unusual birds (even the Cirl bunting), butterflies (marbled whites, blues) and hear the haunting calls of curlews and oyster catchers. We watch films that I have made, talk over dinner and I make it my mission to help people feel more connected to nature.

I also give nature retreats at Bailiffscourt Hotel & Spa in West Sussex, Lucknam Park in Wiltshire  and for those Londoners with just a day free I’m offering Mondays through June at the London Wetland Centre in Barnes

Fergus Beeley is an Ambassador for Steppes Travel
He can be contacted via his website www.fergusbeeley.com.

Visit Edinburgh

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Edinburgh Castle View

There’s something magical about Edinburgh. Whether it be its incredible geography or its warm and wonderful people.

Surrounded by seven hills (two are in fact extinct volcanoes), the most striking is Arthur’s seat, a cliff-like rock rising above the city with a peak that offers an incredible panoramic view. Equally matched on the other side is Edinburgh castle, high up on a rock, oozing history and folklore from every orifice, spilling out through narrow passageways along the Royal Mile.

The city itself is split into the old and new town, separated by Prince’s Street, a grand wide road flanked by impressive Georgian buildings. Edinburgh boasts everything you’d expect from a multicultural European capital city but by walking around and taking in its sights you can blow away the cobwebs like you’re in the great outdoors. Windswept and eye opening, a rare quality for a city and perfect to build up an appetite, which is good because there are hundreds of fine bars and restaurants ready to welcome you in with a warm embrace.

The Royal Mile runs almost parallel to Prince’s Street with the castle at one end and The Palace of Holyrood House at the other, Her Majesty The Queen’s official residence in Scotland. Everywhere you look your eyes are drawn to a far-reaching vista — a city of spectacles, but also fine details, looking down long, wide avenues with glimpses of the Firth of Forth estuary and out to the North Sea. It’s a fascinating city with so much natural beauty and historical significance it is easy to see why pioneers and modern day heroes from Alexander Graham Bell to JK Rowling have been inspired to spend their lives here. Parts of the city feel as though you are turning the page of your own Harry Potter adventure with its medieval turrets, narrow side lanes and stony architecture it feels unmistakably ‘Hogwartsian’.

Edinburgh wears its past with pride and exudes elegance, with occasional opulence. From the regal splendour of the Balmoral Hotel to the exquisite interior of the Dome Restaurant, the architecture alone is worth a visit.

Three nights isn’t long enough to explore it’s many hidden secrets and it demands a return visit, quite rightly so. The list of sights and delights is too long for one trip, but don’t feel like you’re here to tick things off a list as Edinburgh is one city that doesn’t take itself too seriously and this could not be better expressed than through the numerous comedy clubs, which are famed throughout the town. The Stand and The Guilded Balloon are two fine examples, offering nightly shows in a relaxed environment where you can grab a drink and see who’s brave enough to take a stand. If that’s not your taste then you can fill your ears with live music at any of the pubs that provide the talent for Edinburgh’s fringe festival. There’s isn’t such thing as out of season, just a city with character, a city with charm.

Venturing out of the city

If only in the city for a short time but with a desire to see a little further afield, there is a variety of one day tours from Edinburgh you can do, ranging from visiting Loch Ness, Glencoe and the Highlands to the best of the Scottish Borders. A private driver/guide can easily be arranged or join a scheduled group on a small, 16 seat mini-bus. The local guides are immediately engaging and set the pace for an extremely informative and fun trip. A particularly interesting and varied trip is a visit to Loch Lomand and Stirling Castle. Learn about the land of Scots heroes like Rob Roy, Robert the Bruce and William Wallace and visit the magnificent medieval stronghold of Stirling Castle. The day ends with a gentle walk along the shores of Loch Lomand, in the beautiful forests of Scotland’s first National Park.