My favourite places in London

One of my favourite quotes of all time is from the 18th-century writer, Samuel Johnson: “a man who is tired of London is tired of life”. It’s a quote, and a sentiment, familiar to many Londoners – and one which I thought of regularly when I first moved here as an 18-year-old. I would be filled with a sense of endlessness as I navigated the streets, this city seemingly limitless in its possibilities.

It took me a long time to feel I knew this place, but no time at all to feel at home. That is one of the many wonderful things about London. Now, almost five years to the day since I returned to the city of my birth, I am leaving it.

Yet I am not tired of London – and certainly not life. My reasons for leaving are multiple, but mainly it’s the pull of a long-held desire to work in mainland Europe, hastened by Brexit. Unlike many who become weary of London’s expense, I think the premium you pay to live here is 100% worth it. But I don’t want to just accept that this is the peak of human happiness; precisely because I love it so much, I have to go. There is so much more to see. I am spilling over with it.

And so partly for sentimental reasons, and partly to ‘put to paper’ what I’ve carried in my head these past five years, I wanted to compile a list of my favourite spots in the city. There are so many places I’ve been; I notice that all of my most memorable are north of the river. Perhaps when I return, I need to dedicate more time to the south, where I spent the first few years of life. But for now…

City farms

I’ve written a whole post about my love of city farms. Visit them all if you can!

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Exmouth Market

A charming, pedestrianised road near Farringdon, I’ve spent many a happy Sunday wandering here. I’d recommend the restaurant Caravan for its great coffee.

Somers Town

I once stumbled upon this area between Euston and King’s Cross. It feels suddenly, quietly Dickensian among the chaos.

Victoria Park

Many students who live in Central London never make it out this far, but Victoria Park is probably my favourite of them all. I love going for a stroll or a run here, watching people walking their dogs, or getting lost in its vastness.

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Victoria Park in autumn

Ethiopian restaurants

I’ve covered, enthusiastically, the places offering my favourite cuisine in the city.

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Fish Island 

There’s an amazing outdoor space called Swan Wharf, with a cafe serving great food called The Plough. I love it because it’s right next to the canal; the surrounding area is known for supposedly having more artists per square metre than any other European city. It feels quiet, industrial, and spacious, reminding me a lot of Berlin.

Stoke Newington 

My life changed when, fresh out of my bachelor’s degree, I was hired to work with the Stoke Newington Literary Festival. I had never been to this part of London before, and it made me realise that it’s still possible to have that village feeling even in a big city. Stoke Newington is adorable, full of independent coffee shops and with the fantastic Clissold Park nearby.

Kelly Street

Just my favourite-looking street in London.

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Kelly Street in Kentish Town – image via Ewan Munro at Flickr

Keystone Crescent

My other favourite street.

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Keystone Crescent near King’s Cross station – image via Barbara Smith at Flickr

Dalston Curve Garden

Definitely one of the best discoveries of my time here. The Dalston Curve Garden is a community initiative, tucked away off the bustling Kingsland Road, and sells pizza, homemade lemonade, and cakes. There are beanbags and benches and a lovely chilled-out vibe – there are blankets for colder weather, and you can stay as long as you like. It’s really one of a kind, and I desperately hope it survives.

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Dalston Curve Garden (I appreciate their flying of the EU flag after Brexit)
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Dalston Curve Garden – image via Alper Cugun at Flickr

Broadway Market

I’ve been lucky enough to live very close to this lovely street for the past year. Every Saturday they have a spectacular (if unaffordable) food market, which draws people from all over without feeling touristy. I’d recommend the Turkish-run Broadway Cafe for their delicious in-house gozleme, a kind of flat bread filled with spinach and cheese, which costs £3 and fills you up for hours.

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My beloved Broadway Market – image via Kotomi_ at Flickr

Highgate

I once wrote about a lovely wintry Sunday spent wandering around Highgate. It’s got such a pleasant village feel, and spectacular views of the city if you know where to look.

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Gothic architecture in Highgate.

My Village Cafe

This friendly, hippie cafe in Camden serves great vegetarian food and is full of board games.

Free bookshop, the Kindness Offensive

Up near Camden Road is this bookshop, perched on a corner and housed in what used to be a pub. Run by the charity the Kindness Offensive, you can walk in and take up to three books, free, and drop off old books yourself. I once volunteered with this wonderful charity and they’re very special people. Plus: they have a very cool ‘magic bus’.

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London Fields lido

I’ve been so fortunate to live five minutes from this lovely outdoor swimming pool. It’s heated, so stays open in winter, and is situated within the lovely London Fields park.

Lee Valley river

A few summers ago, I cycled up the Lee Valley towards the town of Cheshunt. It makes you feel you’ve escaped London for a while, surrounded by fields and nature, and makes for a lovely cycling day out.

Ziferblat 

I wish I’d discovered this place sooner – only in these final few months have I been hanging out at Ziferblat. Run by volunteers, you pay for time spent there rather than what you consume. There’s a kitchen where you can help yourself to cake and coffee, and a truly special community vibe. It’s situated near Old Street.

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Russell Square Gardens

Many a memorable day was spent here during my first years of university. Russell Square will always hold such a special place in my heart.

Natural History Museum

My favourite museum in London. I have very strong memories of my parents bringing me here as a child; the dinosaur collection used to terrify me, but to this day this museum remains a wonder to me.

Lincoln’s Inn Fields

Situated right next to my university this year, LSE, Lincoln’s Inn Fields was a firm favourite for my friends and me when we needed to relax. There’s a cheap coffee place offering student discount, and on hot days people spilled from their offices into the park, filling it with warmth and bustling contentment in the sun.

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Lincoln’s Inn Fields on a hot day this summer

Waterloo Bridge 

I’ll end where I began: staring out across Waterloo Bridge as a girl, this was the place where I felt most in awe of the city. I knew I wanted to be here. I once wrote about which bridges in London have the best views, and Waterloo wins by far.

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Some of my family on Waterloo Bridge – taken the day I moved into my halls of residence in September 2011. (Note how the skyline has changed in that time!)
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London’s best Ethiopian restaurants: Kokeb, Wolkite Kitfo, Mesi’s Kitchen, Andu Caf‎é

It’s hard to overstate the transformative effect of Ethiopian food on my idea of “going out for dinner”. Since discovering the cuisine here in London a couple of years ago, the delicious blends of aromatic spices with deceptively simple ingredients have shaken up my palate and induced a ravenous single-mindedness when it comes to choosing a restaurant to dine at. There’s no turning back now!

I was lucky to live in North London for a year or so, in which a cluster of Ethiopian restaurants can be found. My first experience of Ethiopian food was at Kokeb, a tiny family-run restaurant tucked away on a quiet residential street, Roman Way, near Caledonian Road. The place is beautifully decorated and always busy; the food, of course, is heaven-sent.

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Kokeb Ethiopian restaurant on Roman Way. [Image: Kokeb]

Kokeb celebrated its 15th birthday in 2014 and, impressively, is run single-handedly by a lady named Getenesh. You won’t forget her in a hurry – she’s funny, charismatic and stern, and doesn’t allow food wastage, taking it as a personal insult to her cooking.

Because we’re officially regulars there now, I’ve tried pretty much everything on the menu – Getenesh, with her encyclopaedic memory, even calls us out when we try to order a dish we’ve had before, urging us to sample something new.

Even so, I have my preferences: a firm favourite is Key Minchet Abish, a divine spicy beef dish seasoned with ginger, cardamom and onion and described as “a dish for royalty” (I no longer eat this, as I’m vegetarian, but the flavours exist in other dishes so I don’t miss out). I’d also highly recommend the Ye-Misir Key Wot (red lentils) and Ye-Alicha Kik Wot (yellow split peas), both simmered in wonderfully flavoursome spices.

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Image: Kokeb

Ethiopian food is eaten hand to mouth with injera – a flat, spongy sourdough bread with which you can scoop up fingerfuls of the other dishes. Vegetables aren’t merely a side order in Ethiopian cuisine; they actually form the core ingredients of many dishes. This makes it perfect for vegetarians, or even vegans.

The plot of my love affair with Ethiopian cuisine positively thickened when I found Kokeb closed one day. Such was my craving that another Ethiopian restaurant had to be sought with immediate effect. My search led me to the wonderful Wolkite Kitfo.

Situated right near the Arsenal Emirates Stadium on Hornsey Road, Wolkite Kitfo is run by a very friendly, gracious family and offers dishes which are nothing short of sumptuous. Like Kokeb, it’s very affordable; two people can easily have their fill for less than £20.

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A mixture of vegetable dishes served on injera. [Image: Wolkite Kitfo Facebook]

I’d highly recommend the honey wine, as well as the curried beef dish (the proper name of which escapes me) and alicha wot. You also can’t go wrong with mixed vegetable dishes – they’re a great way of getting to sample as many flavours as possible on the delicious spectrum of Ethiopian cuisine.

Another of my favourite Ethiopian restaurants in the area is Mesi’s Kitchen. Run by lovely, smiling Mesi, the best thing about this place is the fact that they serve all the usual dishes in ‘side dish’ form, so you can pick one main and one side and mix them all up a bit. It’s affordable and has a relaxed ambience, tucked discreetly on the busy Holloway Road nearer the Highbury Corner end.

I haven’t yet discovered the magical ingredient in Ethiopian food, but I suspect it might be something to do with the special Berbere sauce, which adds a spicy yet delicate flavour. Anything which contains it, I’m guaranteed to love.

I wouldn’t like to call it an addiction … but it’s pretty close. Having recently moved to Hackney, one of my biggest worries was that my proximity to Ethiopian restaurants would dramatically shrink. Thankfully, there will always be a brilliant excuse to head back to Caledonian Road and Holloway – but in the meantime I haven’t been disappointed, and instead visit the charming Andu Cafe on Kingsland Road. It’s a 10-minute cycle from my home, all the food is vegan, and their takeaway costs just £5 – injera included. It’s spectacular value for money and delicious.

 

 

 

A day out in the New Forest

One of the wonderful things about travelling afar is that it gives you a deep and true appreciation of what you’ve left behind. While I explored the majesty of the Peruvian coast or drank in the pure magic that is the Brazilian landscape this spring, I realised that there is so much to discover on home turf, too. So, as part of our plan to see more of the UK this year, it was with childlike excitement that my girlfriend and I boarded the Saturday morning train with our bicycles to the tiny town of Brockenhurst in the New Forest. 

  

It was a brisk grey day, and we arrived at Brockenhurst’s surprisingly large train station just as our stomachs rumbled for a countryside lunch. Later, full of gravy, roast potatoes, Engliah breakfast tea and shortbread biscuits, we cycled south of Brockenhurst for our main challenge: to get to the coast.

The journey took about an hour and led us down through another charming small town, Lymington. We sweated up difficult hills beside grazing New Forest ponies and felt the relieving swoosh down the other side, past acres of barren land scattered with hardy foliage. It was all very Wuthering Heights.

  
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We eventually made it to the sweeping flat marshland that borders the sea, and walked along its edge.

   
 
We spent the rest of the afternoon cycling back to tiny Brockenhurst and warming our hands around mugs full of creamy coffee.  

  

  

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Going up the Gherkin – one of London’s most iconic buildings

Quick back story: Open House London is an annual festival celebrating the best of London’s architecture and design, and it’s been going for over two decades. Every September, for one weekend only, the doors to some of London’s most iconic and protected buildings are cautiously unlocked to the general public.

My choice was the Gherkin, as it’s affectionately known. I arose at the crack of dawn (okay, 06:45) to race down on my bike to 30 Mary Axe Street in 10 minutes flat. I joined a quiet queue of 50 or so people and waited an hour to be let in for 20 minutes. It was a perfectly crisp, sunny September morning.

London’s skyline is changing. Every time my father comes here, it is with astonishment that he notes how the view has altered from Waterloo Bridge since his last visit. Its wonderful conglomeration of narrow alleys with misshapen old pubs, the aesthetic curves of St Paul’s with angular blocks of flats in the Barbican, is rapidly falling under the shadow of modern, some would say monstrous, skyscrapers in the City, the Southbank and beyond.

“Incredibly, some 250 or so tall buildings, of 20 storeys or more, are currently consented or proposed across London,” writes Josh Sims for Raconteur. “Some 30 of the 250 will be more than 40 storeys high, 19 of them over 50.”

To put that in perspective, the World Trade Center had 94 floors. The Shard has 87.

I have mixed feelings about skyscrapers. I don’t wish for London to become like Manhattan – fabulous from afar, but sun-starved and myopic from within its formidably high walls. I love London’s openness, physically and in spirit.

On the other hand, London is bursting at the seams. A tube strike sends the whole city grinding to a halt; housing is in painfully short supply. I was told by the occupant of the place I applied for on SpareRoom last Autumn that 90 other people had enquired in a 24-hour period – and this for a roomshare in a tiny flat in North London. Skyscrapers don’t tend to be residential, but perhaps it’s time to think that way. When constrained by space, the only way is up.

Tall buildings can be dazzling, too, and in London they have acquired comical names as people warm to them: the Cheese Grater; the Gherkin; the Walkie Talkie.

And the view from the Gherkin is so phenomenally beautiful that I found tears in my eyes when I ascended it as part of Open House this morning. Love for this city pours forth no more readily than when confronted with its magnitude and beauty from above.

But words can’t really do justice to this one. I’ll let the photos do the talking.

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A visit to Mudchute City Farm & London river bus ride

For August Bank Holiday weekend, we decided to venture east to a part of the city we rarely explore – Mudchute. The weather looked like it was going to hold up as we set out on our bikes through Limehouse; swirling grey clouds fogged the sky, but I’d been *somewhat* reliably informed that they wouldn’t be cracking just yet. Rain wouldn’t dampen our spirits today.

Since stumbling upon Kentish Town City Farm 18 months ago and moving close to Hackney’s own version, I’ve developed an excitable adoration for London’s City Farms.

Kentish Town City Farm is lovely and truly bizarre when you first go there – a farm, in the middle of London, is hard to get your head around. Hordes of little city schoolchildren are always there on trips, marvelling at the goats (probably the first they’ve ever seen).

Ducks, chickens, pigs, sheep and one cow grace the farm, which straddles a railway track.

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The best news, however, came via a recent Kentishtowner article. It informed me that a rare batch of piglets had been born at the farm:IMG_1914 IMG_1907

After a recent move to Hackney, East London, I was thrilled to discover that E2’s own microcosmic animal world lies just around the corner from the flat. I have now made it my duty to visit others around the city, and Mudchute seemed like a great option, being only a half-hour cycle away through a part of town we rarely have reason to go to.

As it turns out, and while I don’t want to form any kind of hierarchy, Mudchute trumps both Hackney and Kentish Town’s bucolic offerings. Mudchute City Farm has tonnes of space, and is even stranger in its juxtaposition of nature and city. Alpacas wander freely barely a mile from Canary Wharf; skyscrapers form the grey backdrop to nonchalantly grazing donkeys in a way that’s almost … trippy.DSC03356

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Yeah, it’s pretty weird. Sonia and the white alpaca thought so too.

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Mudchute CF also hosts a fabulous pig.

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On the way back, we decided to get the Thames clipper boat (“river bus”) back from Canary Wharf pier to Embankment, which took between half an hour and 40 minutes, and provided some absolutely stunning skyline views of the city.

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There was some kind of boat festival going on around Tower Bridge.

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The wharfs looked amazing, too. I love this city!DSC03387DSC03392

Wild swimming on the Welsh coast

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Every year since the age of about eight, I have come to the Welsh county of Pembrokeshire to camp, hike and explore with my family. This little peninsula of the United Kingdom is barely 20 miles from top to bottom, yet it boasts a coastline of over 180 miles.20390529710_d5da32c6ed_kL0orRKsJx3brl4u29L9uviwU8eYAF3KJrpDjIez8POwseals are a common sight around the Pembrokeshire peninsula.

seals are a common sight around the Pembrokeshire peninsula.

Pembrokeshire is also a bucolic paradise, with acres of rolling green farmland. The fields are full of hay bales and silage right to the cliff edge; agriculture sits side by side with the Celtic Sea.

Pembrokeshire is also a bucolic paradise, with acres of rolling green farmland. The fields are full of hay bales and silage right to the cliff edge; agriculture sits side by side with the Celtic Sea.

It’s scattered with sandy beaches like Whitesands and Barafundle Bay, rugged paths tracing the cliffs’ edge, and charming seaside villages like Tenby and Fishguard, their painted houses sparkling on the shore.

Pembrokeshire is also home to the best fish and chips in the world, Fecci’s, and has even been used as a backdrop to the Harry Potter films.

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Tenby
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Tenby
Barafundle Bay. One must walk across the cliffs for about twenty minutes to reach the beach
Skrinkle Haven [left] and Church Doors [right] - two amazing beaches near Manorbier on the southern part of the peninsula
Skrinkle Haven [left] and Church Doors [right] – two amazing beaches near Manorbier on the southern part of the peninsula. Skrinkle can be accessed only via Church Doors, by squeezing through a hole in the cliff which divides them at low tide.
the chink in the cliff which leads from Church Doors to Skrinkle Haven, accessible only at low tide.
the chink in the cliff which leads from Church Doors to Skrinkle Haven, accessible only at low tide.

Unsurprisingly, Pembrokeshire is a gift for wild swimmers, with plenty of pocket beaches to explore (and they’re often deserted). One of my favourites is the Blue Lagoon, a spectacular alcove of freezing azure seawater nestled on the gorgeous coast between tiny maritime village, Porth Gain, and St. David’s, one of the smallest cities in Europe with a population of just 1,800 and an impressive cathedral.

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rough location of the Blue Lagoon

Over the years the Blue Lagoon has become increasingly bustling, with a range of different activities taking place here – people come to cliff jump, kayak and, if they’re brave, swim. It’s damn cold, but it’s a brilliant location for it.

It’s also played host to the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series, with its jagged cliffs, deep waters and great viewing platform in the form of a big outcrop of rock providing the ideal location for such an event.

the Blue Lagoon
the Blue Lagoon

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While part of me wants this place to stay secret, I’m also really happy to see it garnering some outside affection. May it stay as charming as it has been for me throughout childhood, while finally giving Cymru the kudos it deserves.

 

Returning from a long period away – an ode to London 

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Farewell to my final destination: New York City, as viewed from a fabulous balcony in Long Island City

One of the questions long-term travellers dread upon their return is: “so how was it?” You’ve spent three months or more out of the loop, straying from most everything which formed the makeup of your life before, and here’s an old acquaintance asking you to sum up your experiences in a few insignificant sentences. I find I can’t quite bring myself to exclaim what is expected of me; a one-word outburst of “amazing!” followed by a stream of overused adjectives, none of which can really do justice to the world I’ve just come from.

Yet do not mistake me: it isn’t through arrogance or ungrateful ness that the prodigal globe-trotter dispells and despairs at such questions. In fact, she wears the world on her sleeve, bearing the marks of her wanderings, inciting and inviting inquiry – but her recoiling is a result of her own disappointment at realising that travelling is something which is a lived experience, and that by comparison, its verbal replicate is a flat balloon, robbed of the elation that comes with seeing new places all the time. It can be hard to come to terms with when every day used to feel like forever.

Because it simply isn’t possible to describe this kind of travel in conventional terms. People ask, “how was it?” – as though multitudes of cities, all the nuanced cultural quirks you’ve picked up on, all the different and indescribable personalities you’ve spent time with, all the otherworldly sights which have met your eyes, can be narrowed down to a single pronoun. It’s almost like asking, “how was the first six months of 2015?” Well how indeed? How is what is simply life? With everyone taking gap years and air travel becoming more affordable year after year, there’s a tendency to view a long period of backpacking as a necessary rite of passage; a life-changingly significant but ultimately transitory, one-off experience conducted in the throes of youth, before you take on responsibilities and  get serious. As though something life-changing doesn’t have permanent effects, and can be cast off and remembered as a singular “experience”.

In a few days I am returning to London, the place I am so lucky to call home, and I’m expecting such questions. Luckily, I won’t be subjected to reverse culture shock as strongly as if I’d come straight from South America – my past few months in North America and Europe have allowed a mostly painless transition back into the western world. And what better place to touch down? I gave my heart to that city a long time ago, and for this reason there’s a gravitational pull urging my return, to which I’ll always be happy to give in eventually. It’s not somewhere I come back to with the usual dread that things will be exactly as they were when I left – no, London is ever-changing, and it’s continual metamorphosis is what keeps me so excited by it.

Travelling is a wonderful life, and it’s the only life I want. But it’s still a bubble the way work is a bubble, the way being a student is a bubble. You don’t miss anything because you’re so free and happy, yet that freedom still confines you to particular spaces and to a particular life. And it can make you weary. I’m tired constantly; I’m bored with delayed flights and crap, expensive airport food, with not having my own kitchen to cook in, with living out of a bag and having to repack every couple of days just to haul it onto my tired shoulders. I’m exhausted by meeting new people, by always being on the move; by having no money and no purpose other than finding the next place to stay.

I’m not ashamed to admit that travelling is tedious at times. It’s no betrayal to myself, nor to the nomadic lifestyle, to admit that I miss my home comforts. I miss my bicycle, I miss Tesco, I miss reading the newspaper and my Economist subscription. I even miss having some kind of routine, despite this being the main thing I sought to disrupt.

I miss London most of all. London in the summertime, with its outdoor festivals and the sunny splendour of Hampstead Heath. London which has brought together my favourite people, my most beloved and inspiring friends. London with its endless opportunities for exploration, its self-contained diversity; its Sunday markets, its bookshops, its old buildings and 15th century crooked streets, struggling to contain all the modern world. London where I was born, where I came back to, where I wandered as a hapless student and will do so again. London where I fell in love, and fall in love every single day that I ride through it and feel so grateful to be there.

And so as the end of my time abroad draws nearer, I’m actually excited. I know I’ll be planning the next long trip within weeks, yearning to be away again. But I love my city with so much vivacity, I look upon any time I spend there as an adventure in itself. The backpack will be staying at the back of the wardrobe for now.

my journey