London day trip: Anglesey Abbey

London day trip, Anglesey Abbey
London is one of the great cities of the world and you can spend weeks, even years, exploring it. Sometimes, though, it’s good to get out. The towns and countryside near London make for fun day trips and one especially pleasant destination is Anglesey Abbey, six miles northeast of Cambridge.

The Abbey got its start in 1236 when Master Lawrence of St Nicholas sold 600 sheep to pay for the construction of an Augustinian priory. It survived until its 400th birthday, when Henry VIII shut it down as part of his dissolution of the monasteries following his break with Rome and setting up of an independent church.

It then became a stately home and changed hands several times. It was spruced up in the twentieth century by Lord Fairhaven, who installed his large collection of art, remodeled much of the interior while leaving many medieval elements intact, and added a sumptuous garden. He left it to the National Trust when he died in 1966.

The 114 acres of gardens, lawns, wildflower meadows, and wildlife habitats make for a relaxing stroll. In winter months there’s still some color thanks to a special winter garden with 150 perennial plant species. There’s even a working watermill. The interior is preserved from another age, when lordly manors were still common. There’s the drawing room, the banquet room, even his Lordship’s wardrobe. The whole thing looks like something out of Brideshead Revisited.

This week archaeologists announced they had discovered artifacts possibly dating to the Bronze and Iron Ages (1000-100 BC) while excavating at the site of a future parking lot at the Abbey. This pushes the history of the site back many centuries. Once researchers study the artifacts, they hope to set up a display at the Abbey.

The best way to get to Anglesey Abbey, assuming you don’t have a car, is to take a train from London to Cambridge and then the number 10 bus from the station to the Abbey. Click here for more London day trip ideas.

Photo courtesy Martin Pettitt.

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Best ice cream in America not just from a shop

best ice cream AmericaSince Memorial Day is past, I think it’s safe to say we’ve officially entered ice cream season (National Ice Cream Day is July 17) Unless you live in Seattle, in which case, it’s still winter, but never mind. We still have great ice cream.

What makes for acclaim-worthy ice cream? Food writers like me tend to look for an emphasis on local/seasonal ingredients, including dairy. I love high butterfat ice cream, because my feeling is, if I’m going to indulge (I’m also lactose intolerant, so it’s really taking one for the team) I want something insanely creamy and smooth, with a rich, full, mouthfeel. Gummy or chewy ice cream is the hallmark of stabilizers such as guar or xanthan gum. The fewer the ingredients, the better, in my book. Hormone/antibiotic-free cream, milk, eggs; fruit or other flavoring agent(s). That’s it.

Much ado is made of unusual ice cream flavors, and I agree that creativity is welcome, as long as it remains in check. But there’s something to be said about purity, as well. If you can’t make a seriously kickass chocolate or vanilla, you may as well shut your doors.

Below is a round-up of my favorite ice cream shops, farmers market stands, food trucks, and carts (the latter two a growing source of amazing ice cream) across the country. If your travel plans include a visit to one of these cities, be sure to drop by for a dairy or non-dairy fix; most of these places do offer sorbet, or coconut milk or soy substitutes. Some also sell via mail order and at other retail outlets; check each site for details.

1. San Francisco: Bi-Rite Creamery & Bakeshop
When I lived in Berkeley, I used to make special trips into the City just to shop at Bi-Rite Market, a beloved neighborhood grocery in the Mission District that specializes in all things local, organic/sustainable, and handcrafted, from produce to chocolate. When they opened a tiny, adorable creamery across and up the street a few years ago, it was with the same ethos and business practices in mind. Organic milk and cream are sourced from Straus Family Creamery in adjacent Marin County, fruit from nearby family farms. Salted Caramel is a best seller; I’m a slave to Brown Butter Pecan, and Creme Fraiche. Every rich, creamy mouthful is about purity of flavor, but sundaes and new soft-serve flavors are also available.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Barbara L. Hanson]best ice cream americaRunner-up is three-year-old Humphrey Slocombe, also in the Mission. Personally, I can live without Government Cheese, Jesus Juice (red wine and Coke), or Foie Gras ice cream, but I can definitely get behind Secret Breakfast (bourbon and corn flakes), Prosciutto (somehow, it makes sense, whereas I just don’t like my diseased goose liver in dairy form), Honey Thyme, and Cucumber Ice Milk. Like Bi-Rite, dairy also comes from Straus, and local food artisans and farmers provide the goods for most of the esoteric to downright freakish flavors. Bottom line: what doesn’t repulse you is good stuff

2. Brooklyn: Van Leeuwen
While in Williamsburg two weeks ago, I stumbled upon one of Van Leeuwen’s famous, butter-yellow ice cream vans (co-founder Ben Van Leeuwen used to be a Good Humor driver). It was tough to decide on a flavor, given the lovely, lyrical sound of the mostly botanical flavors such as ginger, currants and cream, and Earl Gray. I chose palm sugar, which was an ethereal blend of sweet, high-quality dairy Van Leeuwen sources from a farmer he knows in Franklin County, and the caramelly richness of the sugar. Props too, for using all biodegradable materials. Van Leeuwen also has stores in Greenpoint and Boerum Hill. A trusted friend in Brooklyn also highly recommends the Asian-inflected flavors at Sky Ice, a Thai family-owned spot in Park Slope.

3. Chicago: Snookelfritz Ice Cream Artistry
Pastry chef Nancy Silver stands behind her unassuming little stall at Chicago’s Green City Market in Lincoln Park, dishing out some of the most spectacular ice cream in the country. Snooklefritz specializes in seasonal ice creams, sherbets, and sorbets using Kilgus Farmstead heavy cream and Meadow Haven organic eggs. The result are creations such as the deeply flavorful maple-candied hickory nut, and heavenly brown sugar and roasted peach ice creams, and a creamy, dreamy Klug Farms blackberry sherbet.

4. Seattle: Full Tilt Ice Cream
The city’s most iconoclastic ice cream shop (on my first visit, the ska-punk band Three Dead Whores was playing…at the shop) has opened several locations in the last two years, but the original is in the ethnically diverse, yet-to-gentrify part of South Seattle known as White Center. That accounts for flavors like horchata, Mexican chocolate, ube (purple yam), and bourbon caramel (if you saw the patrons at the open-at-6am tavern next door, you’d understand). Enjoy Memphis King (peanut butter, banana, and chocolate-covered bacon) with a beer pairing while scoping out local art on the walls or playing pinball. Over in hipster-heavy Capitol Hill, Bluebird Homemade Ice Cream & Tea Room does the PacNW justice by offering an intense, almost savory Elysian Stout (the brewery is two blocks away), and a spot-on Stumptown Coffee ice cream. Not as high in butterfat as the other ice creams on this list, but well-made, and full of flavor, using Washington state dairy.
best ice cream america
5. Portland, Oregon: Salt & Straw
“Farm to Cone” is the motto at this new ice cream cart/soon-to-be-storefront in the Alberta Arts District. Think local ingredients, and sophisticated, fun flavors that pack a punch like a lovely pear and blue cheese, honey balsamic strawberry with cracked pepper, hometown Stumptown Coffee with cocoa nibs, and brown ale with bacon. The 17% butterfat content is courtesy of the herd at Oregon’s 4th generation Lochmead Dairy.

6. Columbus, Ohio: Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams
Jeni’s has a clutch of stores now, but the family-owned original is in Columbus. The Brown Swiss, Jersey, Guernsey, and Freisan cows at Ohio’s Snowville Creamery produce high-butterfat milk and cream, which, according to Jeni’s, goes from “cow to our kitchen within 48 hours.” The result are flavors ranging from signature Buckeye State (salty peanut butter with chunks of dark chocolate) and Riesling Poached Pear sorbet, to seasonal treats such as Backyard Mint, Goat Cheese with Red Cherries, and Strawberry Buttermilk. Down home and delicious.

7. Boston: Toscanini’s
From Burnt Caramel to Grape Nut, Cake Batter, Cardamom Coffee, or Banana sorbet, this wildly popular Cambridge shop is, in the words of a colleague, “consistently original and good.” Equally wonderful is Christina’s Homemade Ice Cream, also in Cambridge. It’s attached to the family-owned spice shop: the results are fresh, potent flavors such as Cinnamon, Herbal Chai, French Vanilla, Fresh Rose or Mint, and Bergamot. Five sorbets are available daily, as well.

[Photo credits: bourbon, Flickr user gigaman; bacon, Flickr user miss_rogue]

This eggnog ice cream from Van Leeuwen is admittedly Christmasy-sounding, but just think of it as “custard” ice cream (and a way to subconsciously cool off, while watching this clip). Pair with luscious summer fruit, such as sliced nectarines, cherries, strawberries, or plums.

Van Leeuwen Eggnog Ice Cream Recipe

Cambridge named UK’s most boring place to shop

Cambridge is high on many visitors’ lists of places to go in England. The historic colleges of Cambridge University are almost as impressive as those of Oxford, and punting on the River Cam rivals a boat journey on the River Isis.

Oxford and Cambridge have always been rivals, but now Oxonians can sit back, smug in the knowledge that the “other” university is in a town deemed the blandest place to shop in the UK. The New Economics Foundation just released a list of 117 UK cities and towns ranked by the variety of shops in their centers. Cambridge came in dead last.

In a scathing review, the NEF described “a bland homogeneity” in the city center with only nine different types of shop.

Perhaps Cambridge students are too busy preparing for Suicide Sunday to think about shopping, or perhaps like many university students they only want to go to the same old, predictable stores. The study’s organizers point the finger at the university, the town’s main landlords, for pushing up rents too high for independent businesses to afford. Personally, I’ve been to Cambridge several times and while I’m not an avid shopper I didn’t notice it to be terribly homogeneous. At least the range of independent used bookshops is great thanks to students unloading their books at the end of term. But I haven’t been since 2004, so perhaps things have taken a turn for the worse.

So who ranked the best? Whitstable, a seaside town near Canterbury, which the survey said had an amazing variety of independent shops.

[Photo courtesy Andrew Dunn]

Cambridge Hyatt lures Facebook fans with free internet access

Do you like Hyatt? Wait, let me rephrase that: do you “like” Hyatt? Not in that way … in the Facebook way.

Here’s the deal: if you like the Hyatt Regency on Cambridge on Facebook (in the manner that used to be called becoming a fan), you’ll score a night of free internet access. When you figure the $12.95 that the hotel is sacrificing, according to AllFacebook, the cost per lead is pretty low, and it’s already led to close to 400 fans.

According to AllFacebook, the Hyatt Regency Cambridge picked the right lever to pull:

Running a wireless service within a venue is ultimately a flat cost. There’s no additional cost per user, although the fixed costs of a wireless system for a hotel that sleeps 10,000 people a night will be much more expensive than for one which sleeps 100 people each night. Anyways, the interesting strategy highlights just how far companies will go to obtain “Likes” and it also illustrates an interesting strategy for attracting new fans.

White Collar Travel Extra: Charles Hotel, Skype and the Business Traveler

The Charles Hotel‘s recent small gesture may actually be a bold move. The hotel, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has decided to add Skype and video cameras to the free computer station that occupy rooms once dedicated to ice machines. It doesn’t look like much more than a small concession to weary travelers who want to stay in touch with their loved ones, but it’s actually a fairly hefty commitment.

Though the proliferation cell phones has made using the hotel phones unnecessary, the Skype-equipped stations still undermine a hotel revenue stream, which is tantamount to the hotel’s announcing: “We’ll take money out of our pocket to keep our guests happy.

The stations obviate the need for guests to lug around laptops and cameras and such, which would seem like a natural benefit to the business traveler. Of course, I toted mine around on most of my trips because of the business need, and I don’t see many of that ilk dropping their laptops.Nonetheless, there is an upside for the road warrior. In addition to not having to deal with a camera, the stations obviate the need to install Skype on their business computers. This can help business travelers remain compliant with company IT policies while still having the opportunity to see their friends and family every night when they’re on the road.

Of course, this is only one gesture from one hotel. If it works, however, it won’t take long for the competition to notice – that’s when we’ll see it start to pop up everywhere.

Read more White Collar Travel.