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

Back in October, Tom and I were invited to stay at the Marlborough Arms in Woodstock, which is one of those towns that Tom drives through every day on his way to work but one where we never seem to stop for a walk around. So this was a perfect excuse (not that an excuse was needed!)

Marlborough Arms Hotel in Woodstock

The Marlborough Arms, Woodstock is a historic coaching inn and has been welcoming guests since 1450. It’s one of those properties that would feature in a Dickens or Austen novel when weary travellers stop for the night having spent the day trundling along on horseback.  It’s been elegantly refurbished and has been managed by the same family for over a decade.

Marlborough Arms Hotel in Woodstock

As a result of the coaching inn’s historical background, it has an amazing location – in the heart of Woodstock with Blenheim Palace just a stone’s throw away. In fact, there is only one other hotel between it and the Palace. Plus the B&B has its own parking which is at a premium in Woodstock. 

Marlborough Arms Hotel in Woodstock

We entered from the car pack at 7 pm, so it was already dark and raining – we really did feel like Dickens’s characters. There’s a really large public downstairs area with comfy leather sofas and a pleasing roaring fire. We were the only souls about at this time accept for Alina, the on-duty manager, who was extremely welcoming, full of useful information and was quick to get us settled in. 

Marlborough Arms in Woodstock

We stayed in the Crimson Room, a superior deluxe double. The floorspace was nearly as big as our entire upstairs at home and comfortably sat a huge bed, two-seater sofa, desk, and an ample bathroom. Alina was right about the beds – they are wonderful and you certainly did want to take it home. 

These rooms come with a Nespresso machine and despite overlooking the main road, the double glazing does a good job of keeping the noise out – it certainly did not trouble our slumber. 

Interiors at Marlborough Arms Woodstock

Chatting with Alina, we had a glass of fizz from the bar, whilst she gave us a tour of the downstairs areas – which can be hired out for meetings, parties, and weddings. There are lots of period features that are lovely to see and as I mentioned before it has been lovingly refurbished to celebrate its heritage and pick out those features. 

Marlborough Arms Hotel in Woodstock
Marlborough Arms Hotel in Woodstock

There’s an interesting fresco that lines the walls of the main lobby depicting the first Duke of Marlborough (his lineage live at Blenheim in case you are not familiar with the local history) and in the meeting room, the marble fireplace is covered in ancient graffiti. The oldest I could spot was dated 1797. 

La Galleria, Woodstock

As there’s no restaurant at the Marlborough Arms, Alina recommended an Italian restaurant in Woodstock, La Galleria, so we headed there for dinner. It’s quite a traditional Italian with white tablecloths (particularly important in Alina’s opinion) and it was an intimate cosy space that served good pasta and a mean tiramisu. For the full continental experience, there was even an altercation in the kitchen in full-blooded Italian that could be heard across the restaurant floor. 

Breakfast at Marlborough Arms, Woodstock

I couldn’t really fault the Marlborough Arms, except for just one oddity, which might just be personal preference, and that was at breakfast. Tom had a tasty full English and we both enjoyed the plentiful breakfast buffet with rounds of toast.

Marlborough Arms Hotel in Woodstock
Marlborough Arms Hotel in Woodstock

But I also opted for bacon with pancakes, which I assumed would be in the American style with streaky bacon. Instead, I had quite a thin crepe with some very thick back bacon in the middle and by the time we’d added the maple syrup – it had all gone a bit cold.  With that in mind, I’d say stick with any other of the cooked breakfast options and there are lots to choose from. 

The Marlborough Arms makes a great base for exploring both Woodstock and Oxfordshire, and it’s worthwhile simply for Alina’s local knowhow. 

We were given a complimentary stay here, but all thoughts are our own. 

Birmingham Frankfurt Christmas MarketThe Birmingham Frankfurt Christmas Market is the biggest in the country with over 180 stalls located in Victoria Square and running the length of main street.

Birmingham Christmas Market

Birmingham Christmas Market

Tom and I spent our day off last week enjoying the biggest German Xmas market outside Germany and Austria and mainly, when it comes to my betrothed and I, eating our way down the high street.

Birmingham Frankfurt Christmas Market

I love Christmas and all things Christmassy, a few years ago my family and visited Prague just a few weeks before the main event and every year I’m desperate to go back.

Birmingham Christmas Market

But with Tom and I becoming homeowners hopefully very shortly, more foreign destinations have been but on hold but the Frankfurt Market in Birmingham brings all that Christmas kitsch straight to our front doors.

Birmingham Frankfurt Christmas Market

The streets are lined with wood clad stalls selling a variety of traditional German imports from Bratwurst sausages, Knoblauchbrot and highly decorated Lebkuchen (gingerbread).

Birmingham Christmas Market

(Lebkuchen is a particular favourite as it reminds me of trips to Munich in the Autumn when I was a teenager on a German exchange and my host family would send me home laden with Lebkuchen – to the point where Airport Security gave me suspicious looks.)

Birmingham Frankfurt Christmas Market

The market is affiliated with the Frankfurt Christmas Market, which is one of the oldest markets in Germany dating back to 1393. The market has grown staggeringly over the last decade since Kurt Stoscher, Frankfurt City Council’s director of festivals and event, first brought traders over to launch the event.

Personally I was rather underwhelmed by the Christmas Craft Market which rather feels like its been tacked on the end of the main drag and the ice rink and wheel are a nice idea but didn’t really add anything for me.

Birmingham Frankfurt Christmas Market

I’m not going to lie, there is a lot of repetition amongst stallholders…Mulled Wine, Bratwurst, Chocolate, Christmas Decorations, Mulled Wine, Bratwurst, Chocolate, Christmas Decorations…. you get the picture. However, I don’t necessarily think that takes away from the market.

Birmingham Christmas Market

We visited during the afternoon which good time because it’s not too packed – and the market does receive a lot of visitors – over 5.5million in total. But its when the lights go down that Victoria Square really comes alive with the Christmas lights, even in the rain its cheery. Tom and I felt super festive with our gluwhein and with my furry hat, I felt very much the fairytale Bavarian princess!

Birmingham Frankfurt Christmas Market

Birmingham Christmas Market

What you need to know:

  • For atmosphere, visit early evening. It’s very conceivable to visit the entire market in 2 or 3 hours.
  • Wrap up warm, it’s all outside.
  • Birmingham Christmas Market

The current production of Grease at New Theatre, Oxford uses the original, early 70s script written by Warren Casey and Jim Jacobs. It's different from any other version of Grease you've ever seen!

I like to consider myself quite a musicals aficionado. I’ve now seen Grease at least three times on stage and the 1978 film countless times. I was well aware that there were a number of songs from the stage show that were cut from the film, but I didn’t really realise just how different the original show was to the iconic Paramount picture which holds legions of fans. 

The current production of Grease at New Theatre, Oxford uses the original, early 70s script written by Warren Casey and Jim Jacobs, which is set in a Chicago high school (rather than California like the film.) We were gifted tickets as part of press night. 

The current production of Grease at New Theatre, Oxford uses the original, early 70s script written by Warren Casey and Jim Jacobs. It's different from any other version of Grease you've ever seen!

“People know Grease through the film as a candyfloss, rose-tinted, cartoony approach to Americana. It’s an escapist look back at the rough-and-tumble of girls and boys making it through high school,” says Director, Nikolai Foster in the show’s programme. 

“[Casey and Jacobs] originally wrote Grease as a play that detailed their own lives growing up as working-class kids on the South Side of Chicago in 1950s. It’s a very different proposition from the beautiful bubblegum bounce of the Hollywood show.” 

“It was about kids battling through high school, bullying, adolescence and sexuality. As the stage show became more successful, more songs were added and the original heart of the piece was taken over by the exuberance of rock and roll. Our script goes right back to that gritty, greasy truth of who those kids were.”

On reading the programme interviews after the show, a lot now falls into place. This production felt different to previous shows I’d seen (for example, the previous touring production we saw in 2017).  For starters, Martha Kirby’s Sandy Dubrowski is far less of a pushover. 

When she catches Rizzo taking the Michael, she properly gives the bitch what for and as for Danny, acting like a right chump as soon as school starts, she’s quick to call him out – “Tell me, one thing that any of your friends have really achieved…”  

The current production of Grease at New Theatre, Oxford uses the original, early 70s script written by Warren Casey and Jim Jacobs. It's different from any other version of Grease you've ever seen!

As an adult, I’ve always felt that Sandy’s big transformation at the end of the show, although impressive, rather sent out the wrong message: ‘Change who you are for someone else…’  In this sense, I felt that it was right that Sandy’s behaviour should have a bit of an update. 

Sandy’s big entrance is proceeded by dialogue between chief cheerleader and teacher. Miss Lynch says to Patty Simcox, who is crushing on Danny, that she too fell for a boy from the wrong tracks but never did anything about it and let it pass her by. Her advice to Patty being to go out and embrace life. 

The current production of Grease at New Theatre, Oxford uses the original, early 70s script written by Warren Casey and Jim Jacobs. It's different from any other version of Grease you've ever seen!

Of course, the audience knows that we’re building to Sandy’s grand entrance, new rebel leather jacket and all.  But here I think that sentiment is more about Sandy’s choice to make a difference in her appearance, to grab life by the balls as it were and to meet Danny halfway, after his pathetic attempts of joining the track team. 

There are several new-old songs in this production. And by that, I mean songs which were in the original stage show and which were dropped from the film as others were added. This includes ‘How Big I’m Gonna Be’ sung by Danny, played by Dan Partridge. Danny sings this after Sandy tells him he’s never going to be anything and the song is about his frustration, pride and defiance as a working-class boy. 

DJ Vince Fontaine, played by Darren Bennett, played a particularly pervy, sleazy radio host which often left my skin crawling.  

Of course, Peter Andre stars as Teen Angel and ‘Beauty School Dropout’ was an excellent number – in some respects it was a shame to only see Peter for those five glorious minutes. 

The current production of Grease at New Theatre, Oxford uses the original, early 70s script written by Warren Casey and Jim Jacobs. It's different from any other version of Grease you've ever seen!

Watching this musical, there were times when I wondered if we’d strayed into West Side Story. The Burger Palace Boys (or T-Birds as many would know them) square up to rival gang The Flaming Dukes for a rumble and the police officer is particularly keen to avoid delinquency. I don’t think that this was a coincidence. 

As director Nikolai Foster explains: “There is a reason all these great musicals, whether it’s West Side Story or Grease, last through the decades. It’s not simply because people what to have a good time and have a bit of a dance at the end. 

“It’s because the characters and story are rooted in the political and social landscapes of the times the plays are set. People recognise the truth and reality of these lives and the daily battles that people like them are faced with on a daily basis.” 

In many respects, the characters through dialogue were grittier than their film counterparts. Dom Hutchinson’s boy-next-door charms meant his Kenickie seemed more sensitive than rebel-maker, whilst Ryan Anderson’s Roger had a great voice ala Frankie Vallie. Rhianne-Louise McCaulsky’s Rizzo was both sassy and cutting.  

“We’re going to the original source material and serving it well, with imagination and integrity. All great musicals are rooted in a social reality; audiences recognise this and respond positively when treated with respect and presented with intelligent productions of musicals.” 

And that’s exactly what you can expect from this tour – an intelligent musical, a grown-up Grease. 

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