Untitled London: Winter's Return

When I was on my recent holiday, it occurred to me that I don’t write often about my daily life in London or what is going on in my personal life. A million blog years ago, I used to post a photo of the book I was reading and a cup of coffee on my rare lunch hours but life is completely different now. I rarely read books now that I have a Kindle, I always take a lunch hour so they aren’t unique anymore and I spend so much more time walking and exploring London now than sitting in coffee shops!

I’ve come up with an idea for an Untitled London series. These are photos that I take on my travels each day and often they won’t have a title other than the date and time that they were taken. The idea is to chronicle the passing seasons and trends in London and to capture all the magical things I see. These photos will all be taken on my iPhone and many of them will be filtered and edited in Snapseed, VSCOcam, Color Efex and Photoshop.

This instalment is Winter’s Return because I’ve returned to work and yes, it has been a rather wintery surprise after three weeks in South Africa. Our offices have moved and I’m no longer working in the Peter Pan building in WC2N but am now in east London in E1. I have a brand new walk to work and get to explore a whole new area of London. It is no secret that it is fast becoming my new favourite part of London.

City Hall and the Shard

8.05am, Monday 5 January 2015

Tower of All Hallows Staining

8.00am, Tuesday 6 January 2015

All that remains. This is the Tower of All Hallows' Staining built c1320. The church survived the Great Fire of 1666 only to collapse in 1671. It is believed that the large number of graves in the surrounding area weakened the foundations. Rebuilt in 1674, it was eventually torn down in 1870 when the Parish of All Hallows' amalgamated with the nearby Parish of St Olave, Hart Street. St Olave, Hart Street was gutted in the Second World War.

Dwarf (Walkie Talkie)

9.05am, Wednesday 7 January 2015

Dwarf. (Walkie Dwarfie? Dwarfie Talkie? The things I ponder on a mid-morning tea break). The first of many, many photos you’ll see of the Walkie Talkie Building at 20 Fenchurch.

Wet London

8.00am, Thursday 8 January 2015

Walkie Talkie Building

8.10am, Friday 9 January 2015

The Ship EC3

8.15am, Monday 12 January 2015

At the Foot of a Giant.  20 Fenchurch Street

7.50am, Tuesday 13 January 2015

Early morning in St Dunstan in the East

7.50am, Wednesday 14 January 2015

Taken inside the bombed out church of St Dunstan-in-the-East.

Boris Bikes on Great Tower Street

8.10am, Thursday 15 January 2015

The Guild Church of St Margaret Pattens

8.15am, Friday 16 January 2015

The only news in my personal life at the moment is that I don’t really have one during the week. It is financial year end at work and I’ve clocked up the kind of overtime worthy of an accountant at year end. Luckily for me that means some time off later in the year so I’m looking forward to taking some afternoons off – do let me know if you’d like to join me for an afternoon tea or some exploring.

The weekends have been blissful so far. I’m catching up on all the sleep I lost during my exams and in South Africa (my nieces wake up at the crack of dawn!) and I’m going on a date tonight (with Le Husband!) which I’m insanely excited about. Tomorrow I’m venturing into a hopefully snowy London to try out the Chinese Afternoon Tea at Millennium Hotel which I hope to tell you about soon.

What have you been up to in 2015?

A Bicycle Tour of Soweto

Soweto Bicycle Tours

I grew up in Johannesburg, and I admit that like any future expat who dreamt of living and working abroad, I often took my hometown for granted. Over the past eight years, I’ve made a concerted effort to rediscover Johannesburg and am proud to say that I’ve seen many of the sights.  Nevertheless, it becomes increasingly challenging to find new things to do and I was thrilled when my gorgeous friend Jeanette recommended Soweto Bicycle Tours.

While many visitors to South Africa focus on our fantastic cuisine, incredible wildlife and unparalleled luxury, a Soweto Bicycle Tour is highly recommended if you are interested in our history, urban culture and indomitable spirit. The tour will take you off the beaten path and show you a side of South Africa you wouldn’t necessarily see and you get to sample traditional food and drink while learning about the struggle and Apartheid.

About Soweto

Soweto is a massive urban area south west of Johannesburg. The name is in fact an abbreviation for ‘South Western Townships’ and was designated by the Apartheid government as a racially segregated area where the black working class could be relocated after forced removals from areas such as Newtown and Sophiatown. Soweto was home to Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu and it is known as the seat of anti-Apartheid activism and the setting for the 1976 student uprising.

I don’t think the architects of Apartheid could ever have predicted the resilience of strength and spirit that would come to characterise modern day Soweto. Today you will visit Soweto to sample traditional beers and food, to learn about Sowetan culture and music and to visit some of the historical sites that helped make Soweto what it is today. Make no mistake, twenty years after the fall of Apartheid, it is clear that the South African government still has a lot of work to do and Soweto remains one of the most impoverished and disadvantaged areas in the country. I hope that my photos can reflect some of this.

The Soweto Bicycle Tour

Soweto Tuk Tuk Tour

Firstly, let’s get something out of the way. I’m sure you’re all massively impressed that I signed up for a bicycle tour in the first place given that the most active thing I ever do is walk but honestly, there is no need to be. What we actually signed up for (and paid half for ahead of time) was a 4-hour Soweto Tuk Tuk tour but when we arrived at Lebo’s Backpackers Lodge, it turned out that they had forgotten to check their system for bookings from the previous evening and thus no drivers were available. Definitely make sure you phone ahead to confirm your booking before travelling 50km across Johannesburg (details below).

And so it was that I got on a bike for the first time in twenty years and went on a two-hour cycle tour of Soweto. I have to admit that after the first five minutes and a slight incline, I thought that I wouldn’t be able to do it but the tour is designed for people like me and there are frequent breaks to rest and look at the scenery.

In the distance below you can see Orlando Towers – the towers I jumped off two years ago to cure myself of my fear of heights.

A View from Orlando West to Orlando Towers

Mzimhlophe Hostel

The first stop on our tour was perhaps the most poignant for me. When I went to university in the early 90s, one of my key areas of study was the violence taking place across South Africa at the time. One of the most unstable areas was in the hostels, vast single-sex institutions where migrant workers lived in appalling conditions. This was the first time I had been inside a hostel and the echoes of the past raced through my mind as we stood there.

Mzimhlophe Hostel

Ntando - Soweto Bicycle Tour

Mzimhlophe Hostel - Soweto Bicycle Tour

Mzimhlophe Hostel - front door

Mzimhlophe Hostel - ablutions

At the end of Apartheid, hostels were torn down and families began to move in to these areas and establish informal and semi-formal settlements. Conditions are not great today and these houses do not have running water or sewerage. Our tour guide Ntando explained to us that there is one set of latrines and washing facilities for every six to eight families. The families co-operate with one another to take turns to clean and maintain the facilities.

Mzimhlophe Hostel - child

Mzimhlophe Hostel - shebeen

While in Mzimhlophe, we visited a shebeen where we sampled traditional beer and everyone but me ate traditional meat cuts such as heart and lung. We passed around a giant calabash and sampled some traditional beer which tasted like fermented sour milk. I didn’t like it but can see how it could become an acquired taste.

Shebeens were originally unlicensed drinking establishments that arose because Apartheid laws prevented black people from owning or entering drinking establishments. They form a very important part of South African culture today and the photo above shows you how people sit together side by side to drink. The spirit of ubuntu and oneness is very important in South African culture.

Mzimhlophe Hostel - Mzimhlophe Hostel today

Soweto Bike Tour

All too soon it was time to get back on our bikes again. On our way out, we passed a newly constructed apartment complex. Our guide mentioned that the flats were being built to provide dignity to the citizens of Mzimhlophe and would be ready for occupation early in 2015. I can’t begin to explain how very sad this made me. In my head I know just how many RDP houses the South African government has built since 1994 – about 3 million to date – but it seems that progress has come awfully late to this area of the world.

Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum

Jazz - Soweto Bicycle Tour

Our large group split after Mzimhlophe and the four-hour cyclists took off on a different route. At this point Jazz took over as our guide and the first place we visited was the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum. This museum marks the events of 16 June 1976 when school children took to the streets of Soweto to protest against the Afrikaans Medium Decree of 1974. This decree forced black school children to take half of their subjects in Afrikaans, a language that many of them did not understand. Shots were fired on that day and Hector Pieterson was one of the first children to die. What began that day was the Soweto Uprising and between 200 and 600 people died in the violence in the following days. (Do click the link above for more information).

Orlando Towers from Orlando West

Hector Pieterson Memorial

This is the memorial to those that died in the Soweto Uprising. I would highly recommend a visit to the museum, if you ever get a chance. It is an excellent multi-media display featuring photographs, audio and video recordings, first-person testimonies and background into the events both leading up to and following the events of 16 June 1976. I won’t say it is an easy museum to visit - the first time I visited the museum back in 2012, I was so moved that I was unable to talk for two days afterwards. Entrance to this moving exhibit is only R30 or about £2.

Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum

Curios at Hector Pieterson Museum

Protest Art in Soweto

Street art in Soweto

As we rode on, we saw many instances of street art and installation art along the way. The photo below depicts the events of June 16 where a police man and dog faces the crowd of school children. The police dogs were later set free to attack the crowd of children who responded by stoning them to death.

Installation art in Soweto

Nelson Mandela’s House

Nelson Mandela's House

Our next stop was 8115 Vilakazi Street, better known as the former home of Nelson Mandela. He returned to live here on his release from prison in 1990 before moving to his presidential house in Houghton when he was elected. Today it is a museum and you can visit Mandela House for between R40 (AU residents) and R60.

8115 Vilakazi Street - Mandela's HouseSignposts outside Nelson Mandela's House

Tutu House

Stop Violence Against Women and Children

The final stop on our tour was a visit to the home of Archbishop Desmond Tutu who still resides around the corner from Nelson Mandela’s old house. The house looks very much inhabited so I decided not to take a photograph of it but I really liked the mural on the wall opposite which is against abuse of women and children.

Tutu House Soweto

Bunny Chow

The last stretch home was the most difficult for me and I have to admit that after over 2.5 hours on the road, I walked much of the last mile back to the hostel. Still, that is not bad going at all for someone who had not been on a bike in twenty years. Actually, I think my last bike ride was in 1987 now that I think of it.

Bunny Chow

We returned to Lebo’s Backpacker’s Hostel where we were treated to a delicious lunch of bunny chow. Bunny chow is a traditional South African meal where you hollow out half (or in this case a quarter) of a loaf of fresh bread and fill it with a stew (or curry if you’re in Durban). I opted for the vegetarian option which was cooked to perfection in a potjie on an open fire. You can just see the potjie in the photos above and below – it is a cast iron pot that looks like a witch’s cauldron.

Lebo's Backpackers Hostel

Despite the mix up with our booking, I would absolutely recommend the Soweto Bicycle Tour and would certainly do something like this again. We saw so much on the tour and learned much more than I could capture in one blog post!

I’d like to thank our excellent guides Ntando and Jazz for their detailed, fascinating and inspired guiding. These guys are really talented and I see a great future for them all.

The prices and details for the tour are as follows:

Soweto Bicycle Tours
Lebo’s Backpacker’s Hostel
10823A Pooe Street
Orlando West, Soweto

2.5 Hour Soweto Bicycle Tour – R550 (about £28)
4 Hour Soweto Bicycle Tour – R660 (about £33)
2 Hour Soweto Tuk Tuk Tour – R570 (about £29)
4 Hour Soweto Tuk Tuk Tour – R690 (about £35)
Prices correct at April 2021

High Tea at the Palazzo Montecasino, Johannesburg

High tea at the Palazzo Montecasino

South Africans are inherently curious about the concept of afternoon tea, so it is a wonder that they don’t partake in this wonderful activity more often. My friends and family wanted to know all about my experience at the Palazzo Montecasino and on seeing the photo above, the response was inevitably, “how many people was that for?”

Well, the spread above was for two people (this elicited gasps from my audience) but I can tell you that what you see above is not the whole meal and I would have needed a wider angle lens to capture my gluten-free sandwiches on rye bread. It also cost us £11 per person.

The terrace -Palazzo Montecasino

Let me tell you a bit more about our afternoon tea experience. I was joined by my dear friend Sarah on a very hot summer afternoon. We sat in the shade on the terrace of the Palazzo Montecasino Hotel while the sun beat down on the gardens beyond. Sarah and I have known each other for over 20 years and after studying together at university, we travelled to London to see as many bands as we could see at Glastonbury and Reading. Needless to say, we always have a lot to catch up on and so you’ll have to excuse me for not actually taking photos of my sandwiches.

Usually, an afternoon tea is served on a three-tier platter with sandwiches on the bottom, scones in the middle and pastries on top. The remarkably generous afternoon tea at the Palazzo Montecasino consisted of a plate of sandwiches and a plate of savoury tarts each, a plate of scones to share with lavish helpings of jam, cheese and fresh cream plus an entire three-tier stand of desserts. It was a lot of food but I can confirm that Sarah and I valiantly made our way through most of the food and ensured that we had at least one bite of absolutely everything. We also couldn’t move for several hours afterwards.

The Savouries

When we booked our tea, we were advised that the hotel would be able to assist us with some of our special dietary requirements but not others. In this instance, that meant that I would not be served salmon (to which I am allergic) and that my sandwiches would be gluten-free but that the scones and sweets would not be. This is in fact not unusual in Johannesburg with many establishments not catering to gluten-free diets at all. Hopefully over time this will change. On this occasion I didn’t really mind because it is bread disagrees with me the most but the higher fat content in pastries actually makes them easier for me to digest.

I really enjoyed my rye bread sandwiches, especially the cheese and tomato and chicken mayonnaise ones. The rye was very moist and not at all dry and I was relieved to take a break from the standard sandwich options that we receive for afternoon teas in London.

The cheese and tomato spinach quiches were also delicious and Sarah said that her salmon ones were too.

Afternoon tea at the Palazzo Montecasino

The Scones

It may seem a little unusual to see cheese and fresh cream served with the scones but this is how they are served in South Africa. In fact, it was quite a leap of faith for both Stephen and I to eat clotted cream during our first afternoon tea experiences but I am happy to say we are both converted now. Nevertheless, the scones were perfect – slightly crispy on the outside and as fresh as could be on the inside.

During our meal, the executive chef Phumlani Shongwe came to chat to us. He explained that he had worked at Sun International before moving to the Palazzo a year ago and that he had served under top international chefs to learn his impeccable pastry skills. Phumlani wanted to ensure that the afternoon tea met our expectations and we ensured him that they had far exceeded them!

Lamp - Palazzo Montecasino

The Pasties

I’ve always said that it is the sandwiches, scones and tea that draw me most to afternoon teas but on this occasion, the pastries and desserts were incredible.

I’m hesitant to pick favourites as everything was so good but everything on the second tier was amazing. The custard and fruit tart was delicious as was the chocolate tart. We picked up a hint of mint or liquorice in the chocolate tart which was very subtle but very, very nice. We initially though the cake in the foreground to be red velvet cake but it was more of a raspberry chocolate cake and it was the best thing I tasted all day.

Pastries - afternoon tea Palazzo Hotel Montecasino

On the bottom tier, I really enjoyed the granadilla cheese cake and the lovely, moist apple cake. We left the top tier until last, correctly predicting that we would be very full by the time we reached it, but even so we were able to appreciate the delicious vanilla cake with the cherry on top. I was very sad to observe, however, that Sarah doesn’t eat the edible silver balls and picked hers off her cake. If I’d discovered this 20 years ago, we might not have become friends.

Cake at Palazzo Montecasino 

The Tea

While the tea wasn’t a visible focus of the afternoon tea offering, we were able to have a choice of teas during the afternoon which I greatly appreciated. Sarah had Earl Grey tea and I started off with rooibos tea, to celebrate being home in South Africa, followed by a green tea to cleanse my palate during the sweets. We also had a lot of water to cool us down while temperatures soared to over 30°c.

We had a fantastic time at the Palazzo Montecasino and were able to chat for well over three hours. I will definitely return one day when I am in Johannesburg again. I would highly recommend the afternoon tea and give my compliments to Chef Phumlani Shongwe!

The Grounds

After our meal, we took a much-needed walk around the grounds and interior of the Palazzo Montecasino. I have only stayed here once when I was given a night here as a wedding present but it is just as beautiful as I remembered.

Palazzo Montecasino Fourways

Palazzo Monte

Palazzo Montecasino

Pool area - Palazzo Montecasino

Inside Palazzo Montecasino

The Palazzo Montecasino
Montecasino Boulevard
South Africa
+27 11 510 3000

Cost: currently R195 per person (about £11) – booking and prepayment essential