My trek along the Great Wall of China for Alzheimer’s Society

Standing in Huangyaguan, a small rural Chinese town, we see the Great Wall for the first time – majestic and daunting, rising into the mountains behind us. Most tourists visit the busy, restored sections of the wall, but with local guides we’re fortunate to start our trek in this beautiful valley in the heart of the Yanshan Mountains.

We’ve just spent the night in a traditional mountain hotel. At breakfast I’m not the only person unable to eat very much – after a year of fundraising, training and planning, I’ve been swinging between feeling nervous and excited since arriving.

I decided to sign up for the trek because my Grandad suffered with Alzheimer’s disease. I’ve experienced first-hand what a horrible, life altering disease it is. Having this personal connection gave me the determination to raise the target of £3,350 for Alzheimer’s Society and, on the wall, to keep going, one step at a time.

Before even arriving in China, fundraising was a huge challenge, but (although it seems impossible at first) raising such a large amount of money is achievable. With the help of friends, family and generous business owners, I planned various events, stalls and collections. Fundraising truly helped restore my faith in the kindness of strangers – just one small conversation can result in donations and support.

Our first day’s walk lasts for five hours in unseasonably hot weather, but the views are breathtaking. Our guides stop regularly for breaks and, by the end, our group of 50 people has gelled into a team – laughing, cheering and supporting each other. That lunchtime we learn that so far we’ve raised £170,000, a figure that I keep in my mind when the trekking becomes tough. I don’t think anything can prepare you for the endless steps and hills of the Great Wall; it really is never flat! At the end of the day, as we descend back into the village, my legs are wobbling and my knees ache.

Waking early, our second day takes us up Heaven’s Ladder, a steep climb of over 200 steps leading us up the cliff face. Ascending into mist, we walk along narrow paths with sheer drops and meander through a forest neighbouring the wall. Even with limited visibility, the area is stunning and peaceful – we hardly meet any other people during the challenging seven-hour trek. Gathering at the top of one of the wall’s old towers, I take photos before we slowly work our way down an uneven, rocky trail into the village of Qian Gan Jian.

After a night around the campfire, we walk through the farming village and back into the mountains. Here, we follow an unrestored, crumbling section of the wall, carefully walking along narrow paths and over trails of flagstones. Although tired and achy, the group support each other, and throughout the walk I take moments to absorb the views and think about my Grandad. After lunch we walk along a quiet road and through beautiful valleys, dotted with flowers, fire-red trees and passing tuk-tuks. From here we travel by coach to Jinshanlin, where we spend the night.

The following day we walk from the village of Gubeiko and back to Jinshanlin, starting the day with a steep climb to reach the wall. The views are incredible. The mountains dot into the distance for miles and the Great Wall snakes amongst them from watchtower to watchtower. Climbing and descending the unpredictable steps, I scramble up towers dating back to the Qing Dynasty to enjoy the stunning panoramas. At first the trek seemed overwhelming, but as my body adjusts and the adrenaline kicks in, the walking becomes more and more enjoyable. Our guide carefully leads us along sheer pathways through farmland and past a few local cafés. Despite the language barrier, the local people are friendly and welcoming, and I feel fortunate to experience this unseen, rural side of China. We spend the night in Jinshanlin and, after eight hours of trekking and a traditional Chinese meal, I sleep well.

Our fifth day of trekking is spent mostly travelling through mist and light rain, passing 22 of the iconic watchtowers. It’s a very tough trek and includes some of the steepest sections of the wall. At points, we need to clamber up near-vertical steps of old bricks and sheer ramps along the top of the wall. My knees are really aching, but with support from newfound friends and a knee strap, I complete the walk. We’re treated to a night in a ‘western-style’ hotel in Old Badaling – I’ve never seen a group of people so happy and relieved to see comfy beds. We celebrate with a quiz and spirits are high; our local guide even volunteers to have his hair cut off in aid of the charity.

The weather holds out for our final day of trekking, which takes us up onto Shixiaguan (stone gorge) wall, at ancient Badaling for an emotional finish. Tired, I find the trek tough, but don’t want the experience to end. We’re challenged by walking up and down steep brick slopes, often without walls on both sides. The team cheer for each other after each ascent and the views (if you’re brave enough to look down) show the unbelievable heights, distance and achievements we’ve shared. We climb to a height equal to that of Ben Nevis, where our brilliant guides greet us with Chinese ‘champagne’ and medals. I feel overcome, honoured, joyful and sad all at once, and we share photos, hugs and tears.

As we descend from the mountains for the final time I reflect on the amazing journey we’ve shared. Trekking for a week, pushing yourself to unimaginable limits, raising money for Alzheimer’s Society’s vital work and meeting a group of inspiring people is an incredible high. It has truly been a life-changing experience and such a confidence booster. I return home with smelly boots and memories to last a lifetime.


Port Eliot: a festival like no other

Without a doubt, Port Eliot is my favourite festival of the year. Set on the beautiful St Germans estate along the River Tiddy, it’s a one-off blend of music, arts, food, words, wellbeing, workshops and more – inspiration for all. I love Port Eliot because whether you’re with family or friends, every person’s experience of the festival is different.

The festival is small enough for you not to feel lost, but big enough that whilst some enjoy an early morning yoga class, others might be listening to an author speak or trying their hand at woodcraft. There’s workshops (most of which are free) and oodles of inspiration throughout the days, and as the sun sets you can experience eclectic to well-known music. Sit and unwind around a riverside campfire, dance all night at the ‘Boogie Round’ or wander and see what you discover.

Forget frantically running around to tick off every chart musician on the programme – at Port Eliot the magic is in discovering a new artist and seeing where the weekend takes you. This year, I especially enjoyed Martha Tilston’s beautifully powerful acoustic performance in the estate’s church (the oldest in Cornwall and a truly magical music venue). The Black Cow Saloon, on the fringes of the festival by the river, is also a favourite of mine – every band I’ve seen perform there (night or day) has been brilliant.

This year Port Eliot’s wellbeing and healing area, know as the Lark’s Haven, has also grown. The area offers an exciting range of debates, workshops and classes. Whether you’re new to yoga, meditation, tai chi, pilates (and more) or you’re a pro, the classes are accessible, inclusive and mainly included in your ticket price. New for this year, you can even try SUP or aerial yoga.

The Lark’s Haven’s location along the river is idyllic (even in the rain!) and this year a highlight was Joanna Hulin’s mindfulness classes with practical tools that you really can use in your daily life. I also enjoyed an incredibly relaxing and moving class with Tobias Kaye’s unique sounding bowls. And aroma yoga with Jess North at 8am on the Sunday morning was more than worth waking up early for – such a refreshing way to start the last day of the festival.

This year the festival marks the 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love; and despite the British rain, the love for Port Eliot is clear. It’s already been confirmed that Port Eliot Festival 2018 will run from 26 to 29 July on the ancient estate at St Germans, south east Cornwall. Tickets will be on sale in October from See you there.

Photos: Louise Roberts and Beth Druce.


Walking holiday in Brighton’s South Downs

I’ve got many happy memories of exploring Brighton – throwing stones into the sea, eating chips on the pier and shopping in The Lanes. Brighton is one of my favourite towns, but I’d never strayed far beyond its centre. So I packed up my car, Bella the dog on the backseat and my walking boots at the ready. We were staying in the town centre, but looking forward to embracing the South Downs and Brighton’s local walks.

Arriving late on Friday, we drop off our bags and head to the beach, keen to make the most of the warm spring evening. Dogs are welcome on the beaches in Brighton & Hove from October until the end of April, and only in certain areas for the rest of the year. Walking along the promenade, chips in hand, with Bella running down to the sea is such a treat. We follow the coast along to the marina and back past the historic Volk’s Railway, meeting local walkers and enjoying the evening air.

National Trust’s Devil’s Dyke

The following morning, we decide to explore the South Downs at the National Trust’s Devil’s Dyke in West Sussex. You can take the number 77 bus from in front of the pier, directly to Devil’s Dyke, but we choose the easy 20-minute drive. Arriving in the South Downs I feel the calmness wash over me – the landscape is a patchwork of fields, stretching for miles and undulating with the shape of the land.

At nearly a mile long, the Dyke valley is the longest, deepest and widest ‘dry valley’ in the UK. From here you can see as far as Ashdown Forest, Kent and even the Isle of Wight. Local myths believed that this valley was formed by the devil digging a trench to try and flood the area. After lunch at the charming, and dog friendly, Devil’s Dyke Hotel, we head out across the Downs. There’s a number of trails you can walk on the National Trust website and we decide to follow the top of the valley, passing through fields of calves and fresh rapeseed. From the peak you can see the lights of Brighton beyond – surprisingly close and yet up here it’s so quiet.

Dog friendly pub

That evening, back in Brighton, we enjoy dinner at the cosy gastropub The Ginger Dog. Located in the Kemptown area of Brighton (an easy walk from the centre) the pub is dog friendly and boasts real ales, fine wines, friendly staff and delicious interpretations of traditional pub food; even Bella gets a treat before snoring on the floor for the evening.

We try their sourdough with wild garlic butter followed by the creamy feta, spinach and courgette pie for my guest and I enjoy the tasty miso roasted aubergine. As a vegetarian it’s a delight to have more than just mushrooms on offer and I’d really recommend a visit.

To finish our trip, we go for an early morning walk along the beach and spot some brave swimmers venturing out into the waves. As Bella chases stones and paddles in the water, I sit on the beach watching the ocean wash in and out, making the most of the fresh sea air. What better way to wake up on a Sunday?

Other walks near Brighton:

The Stanmer Park estate in the South Downs (about 20 minutes outside of Brighton) covers approximately 5,000 acres with a pretty village, manor house, farm, church and café.

brighton walks_0

Find out more and find inspiration on Visit Brighton’s website, here.

Images: Adam Bronkhorst/Visit Brighton. 

Piece taken from my review for Psychologies.

Vegetarian delights at Food For Friends in Brighton

As a vegetarian, eating out can often become an inevitably dull round of mushroom soups. Whilst in Brighton, I enjoyed dinner at the award-winning vegetarian and vegan restaurant, Food For Friends.

Set in the heart of The Lanes, Food For Friends offers exciting and artfully presented dishes with fresh ingredients served in imaginative combinations. The atmosphere is welcoming and there isn’t a dry vegetable in sight. I haven’t eaten meat for over ten years, so a menu packed full of original veggie options is a delight.

I start with the beautiful sweet tofu pockets, stuffed with stir-fried shiitake, spring onions and brown rice. It’s so refreshing to be served a vegetarian dish that’s both beautiful and tasty – an inventive twist that even meat-eaters would enjoy. The starter is served with marinated pak choi, pickled ginger, wakame and hot Gochujang pepper sauce.

The menu is all so inviting, but I choose the king oyster mushroom Katsu curry to follow. It’s beautifully served with pickled daikon and ginger, fresh red radish, a sugar snap pea salad, kimchi and sticky rice. The dish is also delicious and, although mushroom based (I eat my words), it’s flavoursome and filling. We also enjoy the restaurant’s signature cocktails – pieces of art in themselves.

I couldn’t resist dessert and choose the molten chocolate pudding, accompanied by salted caramel sauce, vanilla ice cream and crushed pistachios. It’s honestly the best desert that I, and my guest, have ever tasted – warm, chocolaty bliss!

I’ll definitely be returning to Food For Friends and truly recommend their creative and delicious menu – a treat for any vegetarian, vegan or meat eater.

Find out more about Food For Friends here.

Find out more and find inspiration on Visit Brighton’s website, here.

Piece taken from my review for Psychologies. 

Gifted film review

gifted film review

From Marc Webb, the director of (500) Days of Summer, Gifted is a beautiful and inspiring story of love and finding the strength to speak up.

Living in a small town on Florida’s coast, Frank Adler (Chris Evans) is left to raise and home-school his seven-year-old niece Mary (Mckenna Grace) alone. But, determined to give her as normal a childhood as possible, he insists, despite her protests, that she goes to school.

Able to master complex sums and equations, Mary soon stands out among her peers, attracting the (often ill-intentioned) attention of her teachers and otherwise disinterested grandmother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan).

As the film unfolds, we witness Mary’s battle over following an academic path or finding what’s really right for her and makes her happy.

Gifted will make you laugh and cry – a must-see.

Watch the Gifted trailer here:

Film review: The Sense of an Ending

Directed by Ritesh Batra.

This is a film about life and how we routinely stroll through it without stopping to really look at our story. Tony (Jim Broadbent), retired and living alone, is doing just that until a diary, left to him by an old acquaintance, knocks him from this cycle and forces him to look back.

Journeying through old love, childhood friendships, long-lost memories and regrets, Tony realises that ‘what you end up remembering isn’t always what you actually witnessed.’ He’s stuck between choosing to live in the present and retracing, trying to understand, the paths he followed, the impact of his actions and what really happened almost 50 years ago.


Based on the award-winning novel by Julian Barnes, this psychological drama is beautifully reflective, touching and real.

Review taken from my piece for Psychologies.

Interview with street artist Harriet Wood, aka Miss Hazard

Harriet Wood has been voted by The Guardian as one of the top five female graffiti artists in the UK and The Huffington Post as one of the top 25 female street artists worldwide. I spoke to Harriet, know as Miss Hazard, about her crowdfunding community arts project.

How and why were you inspired become a graffiti artist and illustrator?

I have been spray painting for 11 years – I have always drawn and my favourite thing has always been art. My dad is an amazing designer and illustrator, so for as long as I can remember I have pursued a creative career. The first time I saw big artwork on walls and graffiti I wanted to try it – there’s something about giant art on a wall in a public space that totally transforms an environment.

What is the Ajo Street Art Project and how did you get involved?

I’ve started this fundraiser to gather the amount needed to travel to Ajo in the border regions of Arizona-Mexico and take part in the Street Art Mural Project. The project, which lost funding this year, is a coming together of artists, diverse in culture, disciplines and practice – started on the intersection of three nations – the United States, the Tohono O’odham Nation and Mexico.

The aim is to provide Ajo with artists to occupy and decorate the buildings in this unique place in the Sonoran Desert. The project is a framework for larger national and international dialogue to promote socially engaged practice and community based arts.

Why is public art so important for communities, in particular Ajo?

I believe street art enhances its own surroundings and provides an opportunity for public interaction and community conversation. I think street art is one of the most effective ways of projecting a voice. Not only do the border regions of the USA and Mexico really need this right now politically, but Ajo itself has been struggling for some time.

Ajo is a tiny, hopeful town in which nearly all of its residents (for generations) worked in the enormous copper mine up until 1985. The sudden closure of the mine threw the majority of the town into unemployment. Ajo’s hope lies in the arts, with a series of arts events being funded over previous years, igniting the revival of the town. The Ajo Street Art Project is an event that brings the community together, celebrates its history and brings artists of all practices together.

What will the project involve?

The project will involve me heading out to Ajo and spending a week or so helping to prepare the walls so artists can paint their murals on them. I will then get to paint a mural of my own. The mural project invites artists of all ages, cultures and experience. The idea is to brighten the walls of Ajo whilst hosting an event – inviting the community to come together and enjoy the experience over a weekend in March.

Have you taken part in similar community arts projects?

I previously took part in a huge community-led street art project over three months. A rundown neighbourhood of a town outside of Bristol was selected as a community area in need of redesign – to reduce antisocial behaviour, strengthen intergenerational bonds and bring the community back together.

I was selected to take on the lead role in the redesign of the high street, which housed a butchers, take-away, café and a mindfulness centre. I interacted with people of all ages to ensure that all of the community would appreciate my design. Workshops with the local schools, art classes with the local youth club, communications with the business owners and feedback from the local church and retirement home determined the final designs for the mural which covered the shutters of the entire high street’s shutters.

My passion is creating large, public art that involves working with people and creating an impact in the community.

I was also a graffiti art tutor for The Prince’s Trust providing an Urban Arts Award to young people who weren’t in education, employment or training. I also taught art to over-50-year-olds and graffiti workshops for teenagers in Pupil Referral Units.

What do you have in mind for this project?

My favourite thing to paint is human characters and I definitely want this piece to have really strong native, historical and geographical elements to make it unique to its location. I think it’s important for street art to have a situational awareness.

Harriet aims to raise £3000 in support of this project. This will cover all logistics and equipment costs to create a huge hand painted mural in and take part in the project in Ajo, Arizona in March.

You can find out more and pledge to the project here.

Learn more about the project in this video:

Pictures: Harriet Wood

Interview taken from my piece for Psychologies.

Film review: Miss Sloane

Fierce, determined and undefeated, Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) is a powerful American lobbyist – described by her colleagues as an ice cube personified. ‘I was hired to win,’ she states. ‘And I use whatever resources I have.’

But when she abandons a high profile client to fight the side of a small campaign to improve gun legislation, Elizabeth sees it as her personal duty to overthrow the current laws, regardless of the price.

Talented, but isolated, Miss Sloane struggles against the opposition, the courts and her own anxieties in her unwavering need to win.

This political thriller is rich in twists and, although fictional, gives a poignant look inside policymaking through the eyes of Chastain’s ruthlessly brave character – a role you might typically expect from a male character.

A must-watch for fans of House of Cards.

Watch the Miss Sloane film trailer here:

Theatre review: BIANCO

BIANCO is a spellbinding circus experience like no other. Ellen Tout reviews the show at Southbank Centre’s Winter Festival.

We’re stood in Southbank London’s Big Top tent, anticipation floating in the air. It’s bitterly cold outside, but the warmth of the crowd fills the tent as they nurse cups of mulled wine. Performers begin to appear, circling the tent – expectation building.

This is an intimate circus experience like no other and as the show progresses the audience and performers move around the Big Top in unison. Acts spin and dance around you with their unique blend of theatre, circus and dance, accompanied by a moody live band and shifting set.

The performances take place largely in the centre of the tent, so be prepared to stand during the two hours – but don’t let this put you off. There’s plenty of space and you’re free to move to enjoy the best view of each act.

The BIANCO experience is brilliantly bizarre – there’s no linear narrative, but each performer brings their own character, making you laugh and gasp in equal measures. Francois Bouvier effortlessly flips along the tight wire and Ella Rose shows her incredible handbalance skills.

The show captures the ethos and excitement of being transported to a traditional travelling circus – fuelled purely by the strength and talent of the performers. The acrobatics are breathtaking and, at times working without support or harness, the skills of the performers are captivating.

As the show closes, snow rains from the top of the tent and showers the crowd – a nod to the show’s festive run. Embrace the curious world of BIACNO and you’ll be mesmerised throughout.

BIANCO from NoFit State Circus runs as part of Southbank Centre’s Winter Festival until 22 January.

Watch the BIANCO preview video here:

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