London Day Trip: Cambridge

London day trip, Cambridge
London is an amazing city for art, culture, dining and nightlife. It can get a bit overbearing at times, though. If you want to get away from it all you’re in luck. There are plenty of day trips you can do.

One of the best destinations is the university town of Cambridge 60 miles to the north and easily accessible by train or bus. With its Gothic towers, verdant gardens and storied history, it makes for a pleasant change from the big city. The university was founded in the 13th century and is divided into several colleges each with its own character and traditions. In the town itself, winding streets lead to atmospheric pubs, medieval churches, museums and shops. Cambridge is compact and walkable, and it’s easy to get out into the beautiful Cambridgeshire countryside.

Sights
The colleges are one of the main attractions. King’s College is the most spectacular and also one of the oldest, having been founded in 1446 by Henry VI. The chapel with its 16th century stained glass and the “Adoration of the Magi” by Rubens is a memorable sight. Its soaring fan vault ceiling can be seen in this photo by Tom Thai. Another popular college is Trinity College, which has graduated more than 30 Nobel Prize winners. Sir Isaac Newton used to teach there. The 17th century library designed by Sir Christopher Wren is a must for any bibliophile and features an incredible collection of rare manuscripts including an 8th century copy of the Epistles of St. Paul.

The Fitzwilliam Museum is the university’s art museum and has a large collection of European masters, Asian art, a medieval armory, illuminated manuscripts, artifacts from ancient Egypt, plus lots more. An unusual aspect of the displays is that most are simply hanging on the wall or on shelves as if they were the collection of some eccentric and vastly wealthy collector. Unfortunately, someone stumbled on the stairs in 2006 and knocked over a Ming vase. Luckily he was British, so there wasn’t an international incident, but please be careful.

St. Bene’t’s Church is the oldest of Cambridge’s many churches. Much of the original Saxon construction from c. 1020 is still visible, including the tower, which you can climb to get a photogenic view of the town.

%Gallery-159413%Eating
Step into a bit of English and American history at The Eagle, a traditional English pub that started serving in the 15th century and became popular with American aviators from the nearby air base during World War II. Many of them wrote their names on the ceiling of the back room with candles and lighters, and you can still see their burnt scribbles. The Eagle serves the usual pub fare, including real ale and a fine Sunday roast.

The Cambridge Chop House
is set in a medieval wine cellar opposite King’s College. You can’t get much more atmospheric than this. The cuisine is a mix of traditional British and Continental favorites.

If English cooking is getting a bit too heavy, try the Rainbow Vegetarian Cafe. This cozy little place serves some of the best vegetarian food in England, literally. It was named cafe of the year by the Vegetarian Society. Besides vegetarian food, it also serves a good variety of vegan and gluten-free choices. Even a dedicated carnivore such as myself can appreciate the friendly service, heaping portions and internationally inspired dishes.

Outings
If you walk through town you’ll be sure to get bushwhacked by touts hustling boat rides. Boats generally hold 3-4 people and the punter stands on the stern with a long pole and pushes along the shallow River Cam. You can hire someone to punt for you or do it yourself. Either way it’s a serene way to spend a lazy afternoon.

My personal favorite outing from Cambridge is the walk along the River Cam to Grantchester. It’s only 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) and you can do it on foot or by punting. Grantchester is a little cluster of thatched roof houses and a famous tea garden called The Orchard. Lawn chairs, a sparkling river and high tea make this one of the most relaxing spots in England. I simply can’t sink into one of those chairs without drifting off to sleep. The Orchard was founded in 1897 and soon became a favorite for university students. Before World War I it was the meeting place for the “Neo-Pagans,” a literary group that included Virginia Woolf and Rupert Brooke. Check out the free Rupert Brooke Museum at The Orchard to learn more about the life of one of England’s most cherished early 20th century poets.

Looking for more London day trips? Check out my articles on Oxford, Anglesey Abbey, Bletchley Park, Bath, St. Albans and Canterbury.

Museum Month: JEATH War Museum, Kanchanaburi, Thailand

bridge on river kwaiHistory has never been my favorite subject, but once I began traveling in earnest, I discovered something. If I visited a destination, I usually became obsessed with its history or indigenous peoples. Unfortunately, I didn’t discover this in time to save the downward trajectory of my GPA when I was a student, but it’s made me sound infinitely more worldly in daily life.

I found the JEATH War Museum in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, purely by accident. Anything historical pertaining to war is a subject I normally avoid – I’m a girl like that – with the exception of the “Platoon” soundtrack. Thus, the most I knew about “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” which is located in Kanchanaburi, is how to whistle the tune. The town and bridge are actually located at the confluence of the Rivers Kwai Noi and Kwai Yai, at the headwaters of the Maeklong (Mekong).

I ended up there because I had a few days to kill prior to flying home, and it’s less than a two-hour bus ride west of Bangkok. Kanchanaburi sounded peaceful, and is a popular getaway for backpackers and Thai urbanites. The main activities are dining in the many “floating restaurants” on the river, taking cooking classes, hiking in beautiful Erawan National Park and sightseeing (more on that after the jump).

I ended up meeting two fun Australian girls at my riverfront guesthouse, and we proceeded to spend the next three days together. On our first afternoon, I asked them how they’d ended up in Kanchanaburi, and they told me they were there to visit the JEATH War Museum and pay tribute. I looked at them blankly.

“The what?” I asked. They looked at me with pity, thinking, like millions of Aussies before them, that the American educational system is an abysmal failure (no argument there).

“The Japan, England, America, Australia, Thailand, Holland War Museum,” one of the girls said patiently. “Y’know, it’s dedicated to the thousands of Allied POWs who died while constructing the Bridge and Death Railway from 1942 to 1943.”

Cue crickets chirping.JEATH war museumThe girls, to their credit, didn’t make fun of me, but instead explained that the JEATH Museum details a tragic episode in Australian (and, to a lesser degree, Kiwi) military history, and it’s something that schoolchildren learn about at a young age. Within the hour, we’d rented bikes and were pedaling through stultifying heat and humidity to the museum.

The JEATH Museum is located at Wat Chai Chumphon temple, and is housed in an exact bamboo replica of a POW sleeping hut. Inside is a horror house of relics, photos, letters, and descriptions of events and forms of torture carried out by the Imperial Japanese Army, as well as depictions of daily life for the POWs. We spent hours there, alternately sickened and fascinated by how 60,000 Allied prisoners and 180,000 Asian laborers were tortured and forced to labor under unspeakable conditions. Sixteen thousand men were worked to death or perished from starvation, dysentery, or other disease.

According to the museum’s website, the photographs on display were taken of “real situations by either Thai’s or POWs. There are also many real accounts written by former POWs, their relatives, friends, and authors that interviewed the many prisoners that suffered at the hands of the Imperial Japanese Army.”

Like the Holocaust and other genocide museums and concentration camp memorial museums, the JEATH museum is testimony to man’s ability to perpetrate atrocities against his fellow man. I suppose it’s also a tribute to man’s ingenuity when it comes to inventing new and exciting ways to torture other humans, as well as a nod to the resilience of the human body and man’s will to live. Ultimately, I believe museums such as this are also about man’s capacity to forgive: we saw visitors of all nationalities at JEATH, including many veterans.
death railway
In the days that followed, I grew obsessed by the story of the POWs. I took a ride on the famed Death (also known as the Thai-Burma or Burma) Railway, and visited Hellfire Pass, a cutting through sheer rock that earned its name due to the fatalities its labor incurred. It’s said that by night, the flashlights of toiling POWs resembled a scene from hell.

I’ve since told dozens of people about the museum and the events that occurred in the region during the Second World War. While I’ve obviously met Americans who know about the Bridge and Railway, none have been aware of the POWs and loss of life that occurred. My assumption is that because only 356 Americans died – as compared to over 2,800 Australians – it’s not considered one for our history or schoolbooks. It’s a shame, because despite the tragedy, it’s a part of human history that should be remembered, both in tribute and as a warning.

The JEATH War Museum is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Click here for more information on visiting Kanchanaburi; you can purchase inexpensive bus or mini-van tickets at many guesthouses, backpackers and travel agencies in Bangkok. On a more pleasant note, Kanchanaburi is a lovely town, and the region is definitely worth a visit for its more bucolic charms.

Click here to watch an episode of Gadling’s “Travel Talk” on Kanchanaburi.

[Photo credits: bridge, Flickr user David McKelvey; sign, Wikipedia Commons; train, Flickr user nova031]

Craft foods calling: nationwide schools, seminars and workshops teach you how to launch your own business

craft foodsMost children don’t dream of selling cheese or hacking apart animal carcasses when they grow up, but it’s a popular fantasy for many adults. Like most romantic-sounding culinary vocations, making craft foods and beverages can be hard work, and a risky business enterprise. “No matter how passionate someone is about their product,” says Heidi Yorkshire, founder of Portland, Oregon’s Food by Hand Seminars, “without business skills, they’ll never survive.”

Yorkshire, a small business consultant and former food and wine writer, was inspired to launch Food by Hand in 2009 because she saw a niche. “Our courses are mini-apprenticeships in running a sustainable business.” Past curricula have included butchery and craft distilling.

Food by Hand offers two-to-three-day intensives that teach the “craft and business of artisan food.” While the courses are designed for prospective business owners, they’re open to anyone wanting to know more about handcrafted foods.

[Photo credit: Flickr user mystuart]craft foodsFood by Hand has an artisan cheese program that teaches everything from tasting, buying, storage and shop design to creating a business plan. The course is led by esteemed Portland cheesemonger Steve Jones, the son of a Maytag Dairy herdsman. Additional instructors include an expert on business planning and a tax specialist.

Jones has been in the business for over 17 years and is now on his second retail cheese venture, Portland’s Cheese Bar. He’s an industry badass and the winner of the 2011 Cheesemonger Invitational (yes, it really does exist and let me tell you, as a cheesemonger, it’s a pretty intense occupation and competition).

Food by Hand’s fourth annual seminar on The Craft and Business of Retailing Artisan Cheese will be held in Portland from May 30-June 2, 2012, and costs $1,795 per person; a $1,595 early enrollment tuition fee is available if paid in full by April 1. Click here for details on how to register.

In Spokane, Washington, Dry Fly Distilling’s aptly named Distilling School teaches their “farm to bottle” ethos (they use only locally, sustainably-grown raw ingredients in their vodka, gin, bourbon and whiskey) in two-day and one-week courses designed to “provide a variety of hands-on training opportunities to aspiring distillers.”

Opening in Oakland’s Jack London Square in April is the Food Craft Institute. Supported by sponsors and partnerships with some of the Bay Area’s most renowned artisan food organizations, farmers and food artisans (some of whom are also the instructors) the new school aims to “reinvigorate the creation and success of artisan food craft business in the U.S. through a combination of…training courses steeped in technical techniques along with a rigorous entrepreneurship program.”
craft foods
It’s easy to poke fun at the overuse of words like “artisan” and “handcrafted,” and even I cringe when I hear naifs dreamily speak of quitting their six-figure tech jobs and buying a goat dairy. The reality is that unless you put in the hard time doing internships and learning the business end of things — and that’s assuming you have real, honest-to-god talent and passion — you’re not going to succeed at any food business. Having seed money or disposable income doesn’t equal good product.

On the positive side, my former employer, a Seattle cheesemonger, did her homework and spent two years interning, developing a business plan and taking Jones’ workshop as well as making him her mentor. Her business has been a success from day one. If you’re serious about getting (food) crafty, you can run a viable business. Just don’t think it’s going to be easy.

Kickstarter
and incubator kitchens such as San Francisco’s La Cocina have helped many craft food businesses get off the ground. If you’re considering a career in this industry, I highly recommend these and similar programs as resources. And don’t forget: craft foods make excellent travel souvenirs.

[Photo credit: lamb, Laurel Miller; cheese, Flicker user Mitchmaitree]

Why start a craft food business? Because you “can pickle that.”


Ronald Reagan retrospective at Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery

Ronald ReaganRonald Reagan is the subject of a retrospective at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. The multimedia exhibition is called One Life: Ronald Reagan and marks the centenary of his birth.

Most of the material covers his time as president, including the attempted assassination in 1981, his handling of the waning years of the Cold War, and bombing Libya. Yes, Gaddafi has been causing trouble for that long. Visitors will see a variety of photographs and artifacts, including a portion of the Berlin Wall, a portrait by Andy Warhol, and video clips of the 40th president’s speeches.

Space is reserved for lesser-seen images of Reagan from his early years as a sports announcer, actor, and president of the Screen Actors Guild. Yes, Reagan was a union leader! The image above is from his 1938 film Cowboy from Brooklyn. This musical comedy, one of his many popular films, even has Ronny Rayguns singing.

Love him or hate him, Ronald Reagan had a profound effect on the nation’s politics and culture. This show will teach you more about the man everyone has an opinion on.

One Life: Ronald Reagan runs from July 1 to May 28, 2012.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

The best views of Oxford, England

Oxford
Oxford is the most beautiful city in England. Its famous “dreaming spires” have inspired generations of writers, poets, and scholars. The problem is, there are only two easily accessible spots to get appreciate Oxford’s skyline at its best.

This photo shows the Radcliffe Camera, part of Oxford University’s Bodleian Library and where I work when I’m not feeding hyenas in Harar, Ethiopia. I took this from the top of the spire of the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. The tower and spire were built between 1280 and 1325 and are the oldest parts of the church. It’s covered in ornate Gothic carvings and leering gargoyles so don’t forget to take a photo of the exterior before entering the church gift shop and buying your ticket to go up!

The stairs are steep and the staircase is narrow. If you are not reasonably fit do not try to go up. Once you huff and puff your way to the top, you’ll be treated to a 360 degree view of Oxford–its churches, its famous colleges, and the green countryside beyond. You’ll also see the gargoyles up close and personal. The nice folks at the gift shop will give you a free map showing you where everything is. After five years living part time in Oxford I still can’t name all the colleges!

%Gallery-122796%Once you come back down be sure to visit the rest of the church, most of which dates to the 16th century and features some beautiful stained glass. There’s also a cafe serving tasty and reasonably priced food and coffee. There’s something soothing about sipping a mocha under medieval arches. If the weather is good, you can sit in the garden and enjoy views of the Radcliffe Camera and All Souls College.

An even more interesting and much easier climb is up the Old Saxon Tower of St. Michael at the North Gate. While it’s not as high as the spire of St. Mary’s, it’s the oldest building in Oxford. It dates to the late Saxon times and was built around 1040. This used to guard the city gate of Oxford, but all that’s left is the tower. Climbing up here you’ll see a little museum filled with medieval and renaissance bric-a-brac, including a raunchy church sculpture I’ll blog about later. On one landing is an old clockwork mechanism. If you put 20 pence in it, the gears grind to life and chimes start to play. The last time I climbed this tower with a kid I spent a whole pound on it!

Peering over the parapet you can watch shoppers stroll along Cornmarket St., Oxford’s busiest pedestrian road, and you can see birds wheel and soar amidst the spires of nearby colleges. The 13th century church downstairs is worth a look for its rare medieval stained glass and a font that William Shakespeare stood next to as his godchild was baptized. It was the kid of a local innkeeper, and I hope The Bard got a few free pints for his trouble!

If you know anyone who works at or graduated from Oxford, try to get into their college and climb up one of the towers. While most colleges are open to visitors for at least part of the year, the “dreaming spires” generally aren’t, so you need an insider to gain access.