Sometimes you get a tempting Groupon deal and a Japanese afternoon tea at Zoo Sushi in Stratford upon Avon for £10 ahead was extremely enticing.  

Japanese afternoon tea at Zoo Sushi17

Zoo Sushi is just a short walk from Shakespeare’s birthplace and I’ll confess that I’d never heard of it and I certainly had no idea that there even was a sushi bar in Stratford. It’s a small place with a colourful frontage and a handful of covers inside. 

Japanese afternoon tea at Zoo Sushi1
Japanese afternoon tea at Zoo Sushi13

As with all Groupon vouchers, it can be hit or miss. I booked in advance, about two weeks ahead for a table for two at two o’clock. It was busy when we arrived but there were a handful of tables free, although it was evident from the waitress that she was glad we’d booked a table, she’d obviously had to turn some others away. When we were there, the sushi bar and tables were managed by two staff, the server and sushi chef. 

Japanese afternoon tea at Zoo Sushi7
Japanese afternoon tea at Zoo Sushi23

It was clear that the sushi was all made fresh to order, whilst some elements of our afternoon tea could be pre-prepared. Zoo Sushi has got a distinct animal vibe going with its decor and we had two mugs of green tea served in a giraffe and a zebra. 

Japanese afternoon tea at Zoo Sushi5
Japanese afternoon tea at Zoo Sushi1

Our afternoon tea was served on a three-tier stand and consisted of several different types of sushi – sashimi, California rolls and nigiri. I’m not a fan of sandwiches so it was good to have something a bit different and there was a really good selection include prawn, tuna and salmon.  

On top of that, we had a slice of matcha flavoured sponge which had a tiramisu type texture, plus a vanilla sponge and creme brulee. And the top tier included two fruit pots with whipped cream and several different flavoured macarons. It was a good amount and we left full. 

You can get that Groupon voucher here https://www.groupon.co.uk/deals/zoo-sushi. We’ll definitely go back next time we are in Stratford and looking for a spot of lunch.  I still think Zushi in Banbury is probably better for food choice and general ambience. 

It’s also worth noting that there’s no loo at Zoo Sushi, you’d need to walk to the one across the car park!  Or just go steady on that green tea. 

Back in November, we were gifted a stay at The Plough Inn in Cold Aston, which is just between Cheltenham and Bourton-on-the-water, as the team launched their new winter menu. The Plough is a proper country pub, 17th century in fact, with Cotswold flagstones, original beams and a roaring fire. It was bought by Tom and Josie a couple of years ago, after deciding to follow their foodie passions. The team is completed with Cliffy, assistant manager and Jonathon, head chef. 

Winter stay at The Plough Inn, Cold Aston
Winter stay at The Plough Inn, Cold Aston

The pub is an ideal stop if you’re out in Bourton, and are looking to avoid the hordes of tourists which cram into the tearooms and pubs in the village – being just a short drive away.  We arrived at 7pm after a long week at work and were ready for something hearty as befits the season.

Winter stay at The Plough Inn, Cold Aston

The Plough is a big supporter of local farmers and had recently changed to a winter menu – a mixture of classic and more unusual pub dishes. To start, Tom and I shared the English charcuterie board with remoulade, cornichons and toast (£9) and a side of sea salt coated padron peppers. 

Winter stay at The Plough Inn, Cold Aston

For our mains, it was a really tough choice but between us, we had the slow-cooked beef shin with tagliatelle (£12.50) and the loin of local venison with dauphinoise potatoes, seasonal greens and a Madeira jus (£21) – read all this with the Masterchef voice-over lady in your head! It’s not often that we see venison on the menu and having tasted Tom’s, it was beautifully cooked, tasty, tender and just slid down your throat.  The kitchen at the Plough has a charcoal-fired Bertha oven which added an incredible flavour to my slow-cooked beef shin. 

Winter stay at The Plough Inn, Cold Aston
Winter stay at The Plough Inn, Cold Aston

And with dessert, I had the blackberry and Wood Brother’s gin posset with homemade shortbread and Tom the warm treacle tart with Devon clotted cream. Two very solid choices (£6.50 each). 

Normally one of us is driving, but as we were staying over, so we had a couple of glasses of orange wine. Now, this is not some sort of fruit punch, but a wine that has an aromatic flavour and golden colour. It’s actually a type of white wine which is made by leaving the grape skins and seeds in contact with the juice, creating that deep-orange hued finish. Ask the team for their recommendations. Tom also commented on the fact that the pub had a good selection of craft beers, he had the Beatnik Dark IPA. And to top it off a gin flip nightcap – gin, conker coffee liqueur, egg and a double espresso. 

So, fully sated, we headed to bed, we were staying in the Notgrove room. Each room is named after a local village and The Plough Inn has three letting bedrooms above the pub which are accessed from a different entrance rather than through the pub. 

Winter stay at The Plough Inn, Cold Aston

The rooms have been renovated and decorated sympathetically to preserve the character of this grade II listed building. Our room was decorated in a cool blue with a super king bed and a cosy faux, sheepskin rug which was a delight to bury your feet into in the morning. The bathroom was also stocked with 100 Acres Apothecary toiletries, a brand I’m particularly fond of for its use of natural and indulgent ingredients and is made in the Cotswolds. Our room is available from £130 a night. 

Winter stay at The Plough Inn, Cold Aston

The Plough has a straightforward breakfast menu – full English with whatever combination you may like, plus plenty of hot coffee and freshly brewed tea. I heard several guests comment on the crockery, which we all liked very much.  

Winter stay at The Plough Inn, Cold Aston
Winter stay at The Plough Inn, Cold Aston

There’s no dedicated parking for the pub, but enough space in the village to park (although I don’t know if that annoys the neighbours?) Having said that, it’s clear that the pub is both popular with visitors and locals, as the bar area was packed on Friday night with friends and family enjoying a couple of pints. It’s also a good spot for walkers, as there were plenty of muddy boots left in the hallway before ascending the stairs to the bedrooms.  So if you’re looking for a getaway to blow away the post-Crimbo blues, then this might just be the spot for you!

More information available at http://coldastonplough.com/

The Jacksons perform ABC during Motown the Musical
A scene from Motown The Musical, UK Tour @ The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham. ©Tristram Kenton

There’s still time to just catch the New Theatre’s Christmas Box Office musical – Motown the Musical which runs until Saturday 4th January 2020.  We were gifted two tickets for the opening night gala which was the perfect way to kick off the party season. 

When it comes to theatre reviews, I’m often able to get the inside scoop as I’ve a good chum who works in theatre marketing in the West End and she’s often my first port of call. Her immediate comments on Motown, which she saw during its original run, was that there were so many recognisable songs – a whirlwind of musical hits. 

A young Diana Ross falls for Berry Gordy
A scene from Motown The Musical, UK Tour @ The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham. ©Tristram Kenton

And that’s exactly what you can expect. With music and lyrics from the Motown catalogue and book by Motown founder Berry Gordy, Charles Randolph-Wright’s production features a live orchestra playing 50 Motown tracks including Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, I’ll Be There, Dancing In The Street, Stop! In The Name Of Love, My Girl, I Heard It through the Grapevine and tells the story behind the classic hits.

Berry Gordy, played by understudy Cordell Mosteller in the role on opening night, founded the Motown label in 1959 and the production tells the story of how with just $800 borrowed from his family he went from a featherweight boxer to heavyweight music mogul, discovering and launching the careers of Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson, Marvin Gaye and many more.  

A scene from Motown The Musical, UK Tour @ The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham. ©Tristram Kenton

This year marks the 60th anniversary of Motown. The musical is set against the backdrop of the iconic 25th anniversary concert which saw iconic acts return to celebrate Berry Gordy’s role in their careers. 

The ensemble cast slip in and out of characters – playing the Four Tops, then the Temptations and back to Commodores. It’s a testament to their versatile and melodic voices. The lad playing young Berry, young Stevie and young Michael had some really difficult shoes to fill but did a sterling job, especially during the Jackson 5 medley. 

A performer from Motown the Musical
A scene from Motown The Musical, UK Tour @ The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham. ©Tristram Kenton

Tom and I haven’t been to Detroit, but we did visit Sun Records during our trip to Memphis. Standing in the recording rooms where Elvis and Roy Orbinson created number one hits, certainly gave us a greater appreciation of the music (without wanting to sound like a cliche). It was also eye-opening seeing the challenges that artists faced, overcoming prejudices and poverty. 

A scene from Motown The Musical, UK Tour @ The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham. ©Tristram Kenton

Segregation and racism are even more prevalent in the story of Motown, but I felt that we saw a more sanitised version of this, but perhaps that is more appropriate for a musical’s family audience. Similarly, from what I’ve read about Berry Gordy, who could be hard-nosed and encouraged keen competition between his acts, Cordell’s Berry was less mean-spirited.  

The cast for the UK and Ireland tour includes Edward Baruwa who plays the leading role of ‘Berry Gordy’, Karis Anderson as ‘Diana Ross’, Nathan Lewis as ‘Smokey Robinson’ and Shak Gabbidon-Williams as ‘Marvin Gaye’.

A scene from Motown The Musical, UK Tour @ The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham. ©Tristram Kenton

Edward Baruwa’s previous credits include the West End productions of “Motown the Musical” at The Shaftesbury Theatre, “Les Misérables” at the Queen’s Theatre, “Five Guys Named Moe” at the Marble Arch Theatre and the UK Tour of “Sister Act”.  Karis Anderson is best known as being one third of pop band ‘Stooshe’ who celebrated a top five single ‘Black Heart’ in 2012 for which they received a nomination for Best British Single at the 2013 Brit Awards.

Nathan Lewis was a finalist on ITV’s The X Factor in 2016 as part of boyband ‘Five After Midnight’. Nathan makes his stage debut as ‘Smokey Robinson’. Shak Gabbidon-William’s previous credits include ‘Young Simba’ in “The Lion King” in the West End and most recently starred as ‘Seaweed’ in the UK tour of “Hairspray”.

The ensemble includes, Dayo Adeoye, Scott Armstrong, Simeon Beckett, Natalia Brown, Ethan Davis, Andrew Dillon, Akeem Ellis-Hyman, Christopher Gopaul, Daniel Haswell, Olivia Hibbert, Karis Jack, Michael Jeremiah, Amana Jones, Abz Kareem, Kane Matthews, DeeArna McClean, Matt Mills, Cordell Mosteller, Nicole Nyarambi, Spencer O’Brien, Perry O’Dea, Alex Okoampa, Reece Richards and Emma Robotham-Hunt.

A scene from Motown The Musical, UK Tour @ The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham. ©Tristram Kenton

Tickets can be purchased from the New Theatre box office on George Street, by ringing 0844 871 3020 or by visiting our website at www.atgtickets.com/oxford (phone and internet bookings subject to booking/transaction fee. Calls are charged at 7p per minute, plus your phone company’s access charge.).

Last year Tom and I spent our first wedding anniversary at Winchester – a surprise his good self organised. 

Winchester Cathedral's Christmas Market

If you’ve read our wedding post (or just attended!) you may remember that when we got married we had a beautiful winter’s day, but the day after we had a foot of snow and many of our guests ended up with an extended stay in the Cotswolds. And as a result of the weather, our mini-moon to Hamburg’s festive markets was cancelled. (Don’t feel too bad, we did get away eventually…) 

Me and Tom at Winchester Cathedral's Christmas Market

Our wedding date was partially picked simply because I fucking love Christmas. And our anniversary I hope will be forever dominated by the festive spirit and Christmas markets. And we got off to a great start with Winchester. 

Where we stayed – The Hayloft at Crabwood Cottages 

We stayed just outside of Winchester at the Hayloft, Crabwood Cottages in Sparsholt which is just two miles from Winchester city centre and is ideal for two people. A converted hayloft, it has a view with a veranda overlooking the surrounding farmland.

Downstairs features a small living area with kitchen, but really upstairs was breathtaking, opening up into a large open plan bedroom.  There was even enough space to do a few yoga moves in the morning. The owners kindly provided breakfast – local bacon, eggs, homemade granola and homemade jam for toast.  It was a tad difficult to find, down a dirt track, past farm buildings, but that just added to the charm. 

We were here for two nights, to give us a chance to spend the full day exploring Winchester.  On the first night, Tom had brought dinner with us to simply pop in the oven, they had everything we needed in the fully equipped kitchen. 

What we did: Winchester’s Great Hall 

Winchester has a long history, it was first settled by Romans and known as Venta Belgarum. Once the last Roman soldier left and some decades later the Saxons moved in, it was referred to as Venta Caestar, then Wintancaester – the early origins of today’s Winchester

Winchester Cathedral's Christmas Market

The city’s most famous son is Alfred the Great, who became ruler of the West Saxon’s after he and his brother defeated the Danish Vikings at the Battle of Ashdown and by 871AD, at just 21, Alfred was crowned King of Wessex, establishing Winchester as his capital. And had the most influence on the city’s structure, laying it out in a grid pattern and fortifying its boundaries. 

By 1066, King Harold’s widow, surrendered Winchester to invading Normans and William the Conqueror rebuilt the city’s Saxon royal palace and began construction of the Cathedral we see today. Winchester remained important for hundreds of years witnessing royal marriages, births, deaths and coronations.  

Winchester Cathedral's Christmas Market
Winchester Cathedral's Christmas Market

We had the full day in Winchester and as wonderful as the Christmas market was, it wasn’t going to keep up occupied for the full day. So we started with a walk around Winchester’s Great Hall.

The Great Hall was part of Winchester Castle, an enormous fortification began by William the Conqueror in 1067 and added to by Henry III between 1222 and 1236.  The hall is also home to one of the greatest symbols of medieval mythology, King Arthur’s Round Table and ultimately the hall is all that remains of the castle. For an adult, it’s £3 to have a wander around and leads onto Queen Eleanor’s Garden. 

Winchester Cathedral: history you need to know

Winchester Cathedral has more than 1000 years of history and is Europe’s longest medieval cathedral. It has its roots in the 7th century when England’s pagan monarchy first became Christians. Cynegils, King of the West Saxons in 635, was first baptised and his son, Cenwalh built the first church in Winchester which became known as Old Minster. 

Old Minister morphed into a cathedral under a bishop whose diocese spread from the English Channel to the Thames. By the 10th century, it also housed a  community of St Benedict monks and the bones of a former bishop, St Swithun, hailed for his healing touch, were housed in a splendid shrine, making it a place of pilgrimage. 

And then William the Conqueror came along, out went the Saxon bishop, in came a royal chaplain, Walkelin, who set about building the cathedral we see today. After 450 years, Old Minister was demolished. Its stones used in the new Norman Romanesque style.  The new cathedral was consecrated in 1093 to great fanfare and was attended by almost every bishop and abbot in the land. 

In the 12th century, a magnificent illuminated Bible was commissioned for the monks of the St Swithun’s Priory attached to the cathedral, you can still see it when you visit today.  Winchester like most cathedrals was deeply affected by Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries. The priory was dissolved, the shrine of its patron saint ransacked. 

By the early 16th century, much of the cathedral which we recognise today was complete. The vast gothic arches were added in the 14th century and made even more ornate over the years and wealthy bishops commissioned their own chantry chapels so that priests would continue to say prayers over their tombs and help speed them on their way to heaven. 

By 1900s, quite a few people were worried that the cathedral’s east end would completely collapse due to centuries of subsidence – large cracks appeared big enough for owls to roost in. The cathedral sits within the valley of the River Itchen on peaty soil with a high water table – the walls needed to be underpinned. As trenches were dug to be filled with concrete, they filled with water. Deep diver William Walker was sent into work underwater in total darkness to excavate the trenches and line them with concrete – but ultimately he saved the Cathedral. 

It’s this high water table that inspired artist Antony Gormley. In the Cathedral’s crypt, a lifesize man stands contemplating the water. The crypt regularly floods and will obscure the man.  You can see the watermarks on the walls. 

And finally, Winchester Cathedral’s Christmas Market 

I think it is important to understand Winchester’s ancient history to fully appreciate the awe-inspiring sight of the Cathedral and its Christmas market. 

Winchester Cathedral’s Christmas Market has been recognised as one of the best Christmas markets in Europe because of its unique location within the shadow of the ancient building. It’s been voted 2nd best in the UK by Booking.com and one of the top 8 in Europe by the New York Post. 

It’s styled in the traditional German, with wooden chalets in Cathedral Close surrounding an open-air ice rink. It receives half a million visitors every year. 

It’s made up of different areas: the craft village features artisan producers including jewellers, painters, glassmakers and textile artists; food and drink village with bratwurst, raclette and churros; and the nativity scene. You can also take a seat in the Cathedral Refectory or the Ice Rink Bar and Kitchen for a warm snack. It’s actually very hard to leave this area when it’s freezing outside. 

When we visited last year we had very traditional British winter weather – cold and drizzle. Plus Cathedral Close acts as a wind tunnel with an icy blast – so I’d recommend either many layers or tucking into the plentiful mulled wine on supply. 

This is definitely one of my favourite Christmas markets, it’s big enough to worth a day trip, without being overly repetitive (there’s only so much gingerbread you can buy.) Plus it’s by far the most atmospheric as the Cathedral’s dome and spires set the backdrop. 

Good to know: Winchester Cathedral’s Christmas Market 

We visited on a Saturday and although it was busy, it wasn’t heaving. It was nowhere near as bad as the Birmingham Frankfurt Christmas Market which can just be a sea of people if you’re unlucky.  It’s open to 8pm on Thursday to Saturday, 6.30pm Sunday to Wednesday. Opening at 10am. 

We drove into Winchester and parked at Town Street Car Park and paid about £15 for the whole day. You can get a Park and Ride from East Winchester.  

It’s free to enter, prices on stalls are pretty comparative to gift shopping anywhere in the Cotswolds.  

Ice rink needs to be booked in advance. 

It’s fairly wheelchair accessible, with ramps in most main parts. It is a historic area so some parts are more difficult to access. There’s not much seating there. Nearest loo is outside the market. You can take your dog!

This year the market runs until 22nd December 2019. 

Afterwards? Dinner at Kyoto Kitchen 

After all that shopping, festive drinking and local history, Tom had booked us a table at Kyoto Kitchen – an authentic Japanese restaurant serving dishes inspired by gastro scene in Kyoto, including tempura, sashimi and sushi.  It’s highly recommended by Michelin 2019 guide – and us, of course!

Our first day in Brazil on board the Viking Sea was spent docked in Santarem, founded in the Lower Amazon basin in 1661. It lies at the confluence of two rivers the Tapajós and the Amazon.

Because of the town’s poor road conditions, the locals rely on the waterways for transport and the river hosts 62 miles of beaches, earning its nickname as ’the Caribbean in Brazil.’  

Tapajos National Forest

Santarem’s religious centre is the powder-blue Cathedral of Our Lady of Conception, but for Tom, Luke and I, it wasn’t the man-made architecture that we were looking forward too. 

The Tapajós River also gives its name to the Tapajós National Forest, an area of the Amazon Rainforest under protection from deforestation, logging and development to an extent.  From disembarking the Viking Sea it took about an hour to drive through Santarem to the forest’s entrance. 

Entrance to Tapajos National Forest

Created in 1974, the national park covers more than 1.3 million acres of rainforest, lakes, rivers and freshwater beaches. A number of the park’s partners are also experimenting with sustainable logging and use of its natural resources, such as hardwoods and latex. 

Forest floor fo Tapajos National Forest
Entrance to Tapajos National Forest

Karim, our very well connected guide, (he’d just spent several weeks with a Guardian journalist investigating the land ownership chaos in the area) and a forest guide, machete in hand, led our group on a pre-determined trail (number 93). Even following this fairly well-trodden path, the forest canopy is thick, luscious and dense, blocking the sun from the floor – it’s everything you imagine the Amazon rainforest to be. 

Our guide stopped to show us a bullet ant nest – we were told that in one indigenous tribe for a boy to mark his journey into manhood, he’d don a glove filled with bullet ants, named because their bite feels like taking a bullet. On the Schmidt pain index, bullet ants register as the most painful (a level four plus!) and Schmidt himself described them as: “pure, intense, brilliant pain…like walking over flaming charcoal with a three-inch nail embedded in your heel.”

Bullet ant
Look closely, you just about see the ant on the left!
Forest guide at Tapajos National Forest

We also saw native rubber plants and our forest guide showed how the latex is collected. Diagonal grooves are carved into the tree trunk early in the morning, with a bowl left to collect the residue as it trickles down the tree.  The collector returns some hours later to collect the filled pots and so the knowledge was passed from the native tribes to Europeans and so the birth of the golden age of rubber, of which Manaus later down the line is a product of.

The brazil nut tree is also a huge species, whose seeds drop from a great height and can cause serious damage if they happen to bounce off your skull! Lastly, we saw the Samauma tree, one of the oldest and largest trees on Earth, able to reach 240 feet in height and grow to a diameter of 19 feet. 

Tapajos National Forest
Samauma tree
Tapajos National Forest
Termite nest

In all, I reckon our walk lasted just short of two hours, the three of us would happily have kept going for several hours. We did, however, use our afternoon to good effect – with a foot massage onboard in the Live Nordic Spa!

Tapajos National Forest