We made it out of 2020, hooray! Wishing a heartfelt Happy New Year to you all.
We will probably (/ hopefully) never have a Christmas and New Year like this again in our lifetimes. In the UK, no one can avoid the fresh restrictions, the moving to higher tiers and establishing of new lockdowns. Even post has been slow to get through and many of us are indoors for the foreseeable future.
I count myself in that; the NHS app told me last week (for the second time) to self-isolate. So here I am, sofa-bound, looking out at freshly-laid frost, wrapped up warm.
It’s rare for me to feel truly bored at this time of year – I have a ‘things to watch’ list that’d rival Santa’s presents list – but being stuck inside the house, unable to walk further than our garden, I’ve had some extra time to think.
Take them or leave them, but I thought I would share some activity ideas and recommendations, for those of you still in holiday mode, furloughed / locked-down or just plain needing a distraction. And this being Kate on her travels, most are on a travel theme.
Wherever you are and however you’re spending these fledging days of a new year, here’s hoping things can only get better from here…
1. Board Games, games, games within games
Christmas holidays in the Crowther household without board games would be like a pen without its ink, sandwiches without a filling, a novel without words. Doesn’t work.
I write this sitting alongside a coffee table stuffed underneath with board game adventures to Florence, Brugge, Mexico, Paris, The Roman Empire and Middle Earth. But our vintage games are probably my favourites because of all the memories of playing growing up.
There are however more ways to game than with a board, and given the current/ recent postal system problems in the UK, I know the chance of buying games isn’t open to everyone, so I’ve included some easy to organise alternatives too.
One of my all time favourite board games. In fact we played it the other night and I won! Thus ending a very long Christmas losing streak…
The premise of GO! is simple. You travel on a route of your choosing with the aim of collecting a souvenir in each country you visit, with the person who races back to London with the right number of souvenirs first the winner. My winning route was quite the enviable itinerary: London – Casablanca – Cairo – Cape Town – Buenos Aires – Rio de Janeiro – New York – London.
Count yourself lucky if you don’t end up diverted to Christmas Island, in quarantine (seriously) or losing a precious souvenir on your travels. The game came out in the 1960s so European mainland currencies like the Italian Lire and French Francs no longer exist, which adds to the vintage glamour of the game. If you’re interested, there are pre-owned versions available on eBay.
I’ll take the Silk Road
Anyone who knows me may have heard me mention playing an epic board game called Marco Polo.
A few years back we decided we needed to try some new games, not always rely on the vintage games or our love of any Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter tie-ins. And Marco Polo was the game that spawned a whole new age of board gaming for us.
We even took it with us to Canada and Alaska, playing in the dim light of our tent in Banff National Park and on multi-day train and ferry journeys to British Columbia and Alaska. (Guess who ended up having it in their rucksack…)
The conceit is simple: you play as different historical figures related to the Silk Route, bartering goods like silk, gold, jade and spice and building up a camel train to travel the world in search of humble riches, which translate into victory points needed to win the game.
It’s probably not for the casual game player as it takes quite a bit of time to set up and get going, but its complexity and strapping sense of adventure and history is what makes it so fascinating. Every time you play you tend to be a new character with different benefits which keeps it varied, and there are very good expansions once you’ve mastered the original.
Permit one plug
We love board games so much we ended up selling them too, on eBay and on greenzinkgames.com. My brother and my mum are involved, and it all stemmed from us getting into the popular Carcassonne series, a game originating in Germany but easily playable anywhere as there are no words in the playing of it, just imagery.
In 2017, when my mum took to eBay to feed her habit for it and realised there were lots of other like-minded people looking for expansions, a lightbulb lit in all our minds.
Carcassonne is a tile-based game where you earn points for building castles, abbeys, roads. It began as European/ Medieval themed but now covers more themes than you can shake a cudgel at, including an animal Safari edition and Amazonas (pictured), where you build and travel down the Amazon river, scoring points for creating settlements and floating along tributaries as you go. It’s been out a
Everything is going quizzingly
The pandemic revealed to everyone in the UK especially how much we love a good quiz. So you don’t need me to give you advice on setting up your own.
However, my brother and I enjoyed testing each other’s travel and geography boffiness each week with the Lonely Planet website’s Friday Quiz, usually compiled by the writer Annemarie McCarthy. It was a test actually finding the quiz sometimes, so below I’ve included all those we found.
Being a publisher at heart (at one point in time, at least), Lonely Planet have a quiz book too, with over 2,000 brain teasers, from easy to hard. Most of the questions are general knowledge but there are also sections covering food and drink, sports, museums, space, islands. All the good stuff.
But for now, here are all their free quizzes, best viewed on desktop I’ve found:
Where in the World…? (A picture quiz)
And for a bonus non-Lonely Planet quiz, try these 12 questions about polar bears.
Don’t be clueless
The past week I’ve taken the NHS app’s orders not to venture further than the garden to heart. I masterminded a treasure hunt for my brother to do around the house and our very frosty garden, as an extension of his Christmas presents.
Clues were hidden in or written on a miniature hot air balloon, giant map of the world, favourite stuffed animal (shout out to Beaver the Beaver), envelopes, board game boxes, the shed, an empty jam jar.
The main aim of the clues was to find the next clue, but I also included letters that had to be unscrambled at the end to provide a keyword, and each object was itself a clue to the experiences my brother could choose as a present; a tiny bottle of (fake) whisky in a jar representing a visit to the Dartmoor Whisky Distillery, or an air balloon in the clouds suggesting a visit to our nearest night sky observatory.
There are loads of ways to have a treasure hunt, and it is a guaranteed good way to look at where you live differently, despite all the time you’ll have spent inside this past year. And no-one is too old to take part, before you play that card.
Call on the search
Not got the energy for the above? Get a free Amazon Prime trial instead and watch this year’s Grand Tour Christmas special, A Massive Hunt, which sees a gung-ho Richard Hammond, an overtaxed James May and a reluctant Jeremy Clarkson search (in cars, need you ask) for the much-searched-for buried treasure of the real life French pirate La Buse (‘The Buzzard’), on Madagascar.
We watched it recently and I laughed all the way through with complete abandon.
Animals are crossing
If you own a Nintendo Switch but you haven’t played Animal Crossing yet, it is completely worth the dosh! We were lucky and ordered it before the pandemic – then everyone went mad for it and it sold out everywhere.
The craze has subsided a bit, but it remains a brilliant form of escapism. An island that you create, inhabit and adventure on and from (with a bit of help from businessman and Japanese raccoon dog Tom Nook – pictured above with co-workers Timmy and Tommy), that changes with the seasons.
The seasonality is one of its biggest strengths. Right now, for example, snow is on the ground, you can catch snowflakes in your nets, there are rooms to make cosy with furniture you’ve made and there are new species of sea creatures, plants and insects to learn about or donate to the local owl-run natural history museum.
There’s so much to discover and do, plus you can visit other islands if you want. You’re very welcome on our island, Pentecost Island, any time.
Have a rummage through your house
A further idea of something to do about the house is one specifically designed to be played with family and friends living elsewhere: a selfie scavenger hunt.
Elect someone in your group to be the judge who will set the different scenarios and objects each competitor has to find and photograph themselves using around the house and garden. All within a set time limit (the shorter, the more hilariously frantic), either using Zoom or by texting or emailing photos and videos to the judge as you go along.
My friend Poly arranged a scavenger hunt back in April and set 20 photo tasks, including asking us to photograph ourselves ‘ringing a bell’, ‘washing hands’, ‘with something stolen from work’. You get a point for every task you complete, and bonus points for the best photos of the bunch. I came last despite some very proficient beach photos and video hand-washing.
A lot of fun!
2. Music that will fly you to the moon
A while back, when I had no money to travel and needed to save up (nothing much has changed, really) I created my own mixtape playlists on Spotify to transport me somewhere, anywhere, far away.
They’ve kept me going at times in the past year too, so here they are:
- If you’re craving relaxation, but you also want to feel the sun on your face, the sand in your toes, smell the perfume in the bazaar, sense the waves crashing below you. You will enjoy Travel Mixtape Vol. 1.
- If you need to feel the headiness of being on the chaotic streets of a new city, of just making that once-a-week bus into the mountains, of dancing all night in harmony with perfect strangers (God I miss that), Travel Mixtape Vol. 2 will be your vibe.
- And if you’re a time traveller wishing yourself away on a vintage vacation, I prescribe Travel Mixtape Vol 3.
3. Nine films and online streams that are a bit festive but a lot fantastic
Big Read’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
This is much more than just a poetry recital. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Big Read is a digital work of art, three years in the making; Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s epic 1798 poetic voyage around themes of isolation, loneliness and redemption.
The project features actors, artists, performers, poets, and writers collaborating across the 40-part series. When I first heard about it I assumed it was a really long piece but it’s a perfect length really – just over 40 minutes long!
Beginning with the timeless, Guinness, oak sound of Jeremy Irons’ voice and the fascinating face of artist Glenn Brown’s portrait The Shallow End, I’m hooked already…
Catch Me If You Can
Teenage con man with family issues who scrubs up nicely as a Pan Am pilot. Towards the end when Nat King Cole starts singing The Christmas Song and Tom Hanks finds Leonardo DiCaprio holed up in a paper factory in a small French village on Christmas Eve… it’s a shivery moment in the best sense of the word.
Royal Ballet’s The Nutcracker
The Royal Opera House have done their best this year to keep their dancers and singers training and rehearsing, but the pandemic has hit them hard. They managed three performances of their Covid-safe version of The Nutcracker before London went into Tier 4, and then everything had to be cancelled.
But you can watch a 2018 Royal Ballet performance of The Nutcracker on Netflix featuring a wonderful group of dancers, from rising stars Marcelino Sambé and Anna Rose O’Sullivan to company celebrities Marianela Núñez and Vadim Muntagirov.
You can also download and rent lots of wonderful opera and ballet concerts on the ROH website.
A bittersweet and beguiling storyline set in snowy Manhattan. Mesmerising, hypnotic, graceful acting. With sound, music, lighting and cinematography that will leave you melting.
Shakespeare’s Globe‘s Christmas at the Snow Globe
Staged in an unfamiliarly-empty Globe Theatre, watch Sandi Toksvig and a merry company turn it into a winter wonderland. Filmed earlier in the year and streaming until midnight on Twelfth Night (5th Jan), it comes complete with a song sheet for joining in (because it’s never too late for carols IMHO).
They’re asking for a £15 donation and once purchased you can watch it multiple times until midnight Tuesday. Otherwise, you can rent, stream, buy full length past productions on the Shakespeare’s Globe website.
Not much to help keep a phenomenal theatre operating.
If escapism and classic fantasy are what you’re after, then it is what you shall have in this delicate and wonderful film from 2004. Yes, there are sad bits but the real life story behind the creation of Peter Pan is told so eloquently and with such a memorable film score too.
Royal Geographical Society film collection on BFI Player
A great array of films, many digitised for the first time. And it’s all free! Visit the BFI Player website to start watching films including The Conquest of Everest, pictured.
Recently I’ve really been yearning to rewatch Eastern Promises, the 2007 film starring Viggo Mortensen and directed by David Cronenberg.
A violent film about the Russian mafia may not sound like spot-on ingredients for a festive film but it was shot in winter and it definitely counts as a redemptive fable, which is what this time of year calls for.
Plus, Viggo’s method acting talents really know no boundaries… in a break during filming he unwittingly scared some diners when he went for a meal in a Russian restaurant using his adopted Russian accent, still wearing his incredibly realistic mafia tattoos. The entire restaurant was silent for fear of him…
The kind of dinner party / weekend away you fantasise about hosting, but with an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery thrown in. And what could be more festive than that?
4. Walk these ways
Some ways to get out and exercise somewhere new, even if you think you’ve walked EVERYWHERE near your house.
Worth prefacing this by saying that new lockdown rules state (in England anyway) that exercise is allowed but only once a day, close to home and with one person from another household max… nothing to stop you planning some bigger post-lockdown walks though!
- Find your local council’s Rights of Way map. It’s as easy as typing ‘rights of way map [name of council or area]’ into Google.
- Be part of Slow Ways, the project to connect up walking routes between cities, towns and villages. They’re after volunteers to test routes but also for feedback on their soon-to-be-fully-launched website. I wrote about them in a recent blog.
- If you’re looking for bigger walks away from your local area (and it’s allowed), good website hubs with UK trail ideas include the National Trust walking website which has a great list of walks which cross their land, the Countryfile website too, and if you live in Scotland in particular, look up Walk Highlands if you’ve not heard of it. Their grading system for each walk is top notch.
- Or if you’re near the sea (that’s everywhere in the UK, with the possible exception of Birmingham) look up your local coastal path website for a proper blowing away of the cobwebs.
- Equally, if you’re lucky and have a bit of garden or a nearby park, go out with an aim to spot something you might normally overlook. I went out into our frosty garden the other day and spotted some lovely yellow and white pansies, their petals looking beleaguered but ready to battle on through winter all the same.
Here are a few sweet and savoury recipes from around the world you could try if you feel like shutting yourself away in the kitchen with a glass of wine…
Korean walnut and cinnamon-stuffed ‘Hotteok’ pancakes
Found this recipe in a November issue of the Waitrose newspaper, available online too. Hatteok are a popular type of Korean street food during the winter months. The name pancake is a bit deceptive, as they’re more like cinnamon buns crossed with English muffins in terms of taste and texture I’d say.
Very sweet and very delish!
Mezzeluna stuffed pasta
Adapted from a recipe in Gennaro Contaldo’s Pasta Perfecto! book.
These are satisfying to make and look nice and dainty once you get the hang of working with the dough and folding your half moon shapes. (You can tell the ones I made first in the photo above!)
Make yourself a batch of fresh pasta (150g pasta flour, 50g semolina, mix then break two eggs in and form a dough using a fork, then knead until all the flour is well combined). After 30 mins in the fridge, roll the dough out very thinly (thinner than you think you need, because each shape will double onto itself) or use a thin setting on your pasta machine.
Filling idea: sauté 30g finely chopped pancetta for a few mins, then add chopped needles from a medium sprig of rosemary. Sweat half a finely chopped banana shallot for a few mins and then add 125g of cubed butternut squash (or a mix of winter veg like sprouts, turnip, swede, celeriac) and a few tbsps of water. Cook with a lid on for 12-15 mins then mash the mix so it’s quite smooth. Stir in 25g of cubed Taleggio (or a similar semi-soft cheese), 1/2 tbsp of breadcrumbs and 1/2 tbsp of flaked or chopped almonds. Season.
When you have your filling made, cut circles out in the dough using a stamp or a pastry cutter (around 6cm), brush them with beaten egg or water and fill with small blobs of your filling, before folding over into half moon shapes and pressing to seal the filling in. Remember fresh pasta can dry easily, so you might prefer to work in batches, keeping dough wrapped up until you need it.
They’ll take a minute or two max to cook in a pan of salted water. Meanwhile you could make a quick sage butter by melting 50g unsalted butter, adding 3 tbsp stock/ bouillon then 20g parmesan, stirring fast when it goes in to help the mixture gel. Add more butter or stock if needed. Pour over your pasta before devouring it in seconds.
Persian Lavash bread
Makes 4 big breads. Adapted from a My Little Persian Kitchen recipe.
In a bowl mix 250ml of Greek yoghurt with 250g of self raising flour, 1/2 tsp of baking powder and 1 tsp of Nigella seeds (or else cumin seeds would work).
Mix and then knead for around 10 mins, until the dough is elastic. Divide into four balls and put back in the bowl, covering the top with cling film – or you could use a tea towel (held down with a board or a book.)
Leave for 15 mins then when you’re ready to cook, heat a little olive oil in a non stick pan on a medium heat. I use an old pastry brush to spread out the oil.
Flatten each ball of dough into a rough circle / oval shape on a lightly floured surface, using your fingertips and palms. Keep some parts of each bread a bit thicker if you want a chewier texture.
The bread will take a couple of minutes on each side to cook.
Vanilla lemon crescents
Adapted from Vegan Cakes and Other Bakes, published by DK.
Continuing the lunar theme… These have various origins, but are particularly popular in Germany (where they are known as vanillekipferl) and Czechia (Vanilkové Rohlíčky).
If you don’t have any vanilla pods (as I didn’t), just add some vanilla essence and more lemon zest, and they’ll still taste great.
Combine 150g plain flour, 50g white caster sugar, 45g ground almonds and add the scraped seeds of 1 vanilla pod, or 1 1/2 tsps vanilla essence. Add a 1tsp of lemon juice and up to 1 1/2 tsp lemon zest, depending on how lemony you want them to be.
Then add 100g softened vegan margarine (i.e. Stork) and use your hands to combine the dough. It should start to breadcrumb a bit and then form a dough quite quickly. Combine well by kneading a little.
Wrap in cling film or beeswax wrap and put in the fridge for an hour. Oven goes on to 190°C / 170°C fan.
Grease a baking tray and then make your crescents, shaping little sausages of dough by bending them, tapering at both ends, and pressing down slightly in the middle.
Bake in the middle of the oven for 15-20 minutes, depending on how fierce your oven is. Dust with icing sugar.
My favourite Irish soda bread
I love this recipe, the bread tastes so fantastic.
It’s borrowed from Val Warner’s book What to Eat Now. He in turn borrowed it from the Anglo-Irish artist Tom Halifax. It’s a knock out, just make sure you score your cross quite deeply in the bread, to give it the best rise and look.
Also, it calls for a 50/50 mix of white and brown flour but you can play around with that ratio and it will still come out great. You just might need a little more buttermilk if it’s all wholemeal flour.
6. Rather interesting things to listen to and read
- The Silk Road’s enduring romance and eternal influence, from the New York Times and T Magazine. ‘Every traveler who leaves home therefore follows in the spirit of our Silk Road forebears, stepping out of our known world in the hopes that we might be dazzled.’
- Shackleton’s sledge and flag from Nimrod South Pole expedition are to stay in the UK. After an intervention to prevent them from being sold oversees, the sledge will go to National Maritime Museum in Greenwich while its flag will go on show at the Scott Polar Research Institute.
- New travel podcast The First Mile de-mystifies travel journalism, featuring in-depth fascinating interviews with writers, explorers, photographers among others and immersing you in adventures from Nepal to New Zealand. I love it!
- Writer and artist Jenny Balfour Paul’s 15+ year obsession with Victorian adventurer Thomas Machell and the history of Indigo dye. Since stumbling on his diaries in the British Library, the journey to discover more has taken Jenny to India, Patagonia, Afghanistan and Polynesia. Published five years ago but still incredibly intriguing.
- BBC World Service’s The Forum is the kind of radio series that leaves you feeling infinitely smarter after each episode. A satisfyingly wide range of topics from Kashmiri poets and the fall of the Roman Empire to Norse mythology, famous artists and the fight to defeat smallpox.
- 10 spectacular stargazing events to watch in 2021, starting on 11th Feb. Compiled by National Geographic.
Bottoms up, folks.