Writer Samuel Johnson once declared expansively that "when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford".
That was indubitably a romanticised vision since London in the 18th century was an overcrowded city bursting at the seams from unplanned urban expansion, non-existent sewage systems and a polluted Thames river that also supplied the city's drinking water. The dangers of drinking water indirectly contributed to the popularity of gin.
Gin, as I discovered on a recent trip to London, is experiencing a resurgence in, not just London, but across England. Practically every bar I passed was offering hot gin and tonic, a bracing beverage to ward off the winter chill. And even the neighbourhood pubs offered a range of gins, with Sipsmith's lemon drizzle and Warner Edwards' rhubarb gin topping the popularity lists.
It is easy to become jaded with England's familiar offerings, given the plethora of exciting new destinations crowding Singapore's well-connected airport. But on my jaunt through England, I have come to realise that part of its charm is its constancy and historicity. And of course as an English literature nerd, there are must-visit literary landmarks.
So here are two fun weekend jaunts if you are planning to visit old Blighty. Tally-ho!
Being a long-time fan of Emily Bronte, I built my weekend trip to Yorkshire around a pilgrimage to the Bronte Parsonage Museum. As it turned out, the village of Haworth where the museum is located offered unexpected pleasures.
The weekend I visited was Steampunk Weekend. This meant the streets of Haworth were full of cosplayers togged out in their steampunk best, which brightened up a dreary day tremendously.
But it also meant that the few bed and breakfasts in town were all booked out. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise as I ended up discovering an equally charming bed and breakfast in the neighbouring town of Thornton.
WHAT TO DO
Bronte Parsonage Museum
The museum is where the famous Bronte siblings - Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne - lived and died. It is run by the Bronte Society, one of the oldest literary societies in the world and is a remarkably well-preserved home, with plenty of original Bronte family possessions.
My guide explained that when the family patriarch Patrick, who outlived all his children, died, many of the items in the Bronte home were bought by Haworth villagers. The village families kept the items as cherished heirlooms.
The house was bought by Sir James Roberts and gifted to the society in 1928, and once the museum was established, many people donated their Bronte heirlooms.
However, one of the most valuable items had to be bought at auction. The dining room table - where Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre, Emily penned Wuthering Heights and Anne composed The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall - was bought for more than £580,000.
I opted for a personal guided tour (£50 per person, £75 for two) - definitely a must-do for Bronte fans as the guides are knowledgeable. Plus, you get to see the library, which is generally not open to the public.
Where: Church Street, Haworth, Keighley, BD22 8DR, United Kingdom
Open: 10am to 5pm daily
Admission: £8.50 (S$14.72) for adults, £4 for children, £20 family concession ticket for up to two adults and four children
Info: E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or go to www.bronte.org.uk
Keighley & Worth Valley Railway
Two words: Steam trains!
The Keighley & Worth Valley Railway visits just six stations, including Haworth, and is run entirely by volunteers.
It is quite an experience to travel in the old-fashioned coaches, hear the chug-chug-chugging of the steam engine and smell the kettle boiling scent of the steam. You can stick your head out of the windows to take selfies, but watch out for smuts, flying particles generated by burning coal.
Having consumed a steady diet of crime fiction by Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle, my head was instantly filled with thoughts of murder mysteries when the train puffed its way through a pitch-black tunnel.
The railway is a branch line which British Rail closed in 1962, but local enthusiasts lobbied to save the line and it reopened in 1968. Now, the steam locomotives are a tourist attraction and the line is thriving with events such as Santa Steam Specials.
Tickets can be bought on the spot at any of the six stations along the line, but advance booking is advised for special events. You can also book online at the website.
Admission: £12 per adult for a round-trip ticket, £6 for a child. Tickets for special events cost more. Check the website for details.
WHERE TO SHOP
The Cabinet Of Curiosities
Think Lush meets Victorian apothecary with a dash of oddball curio shop. This shop with its elaborately curlicued signboard is a magical space, decked out in authentic period shop fittings, crystal chandeliers and the odd human skeleton.
The shop's offerings are very much contemporary hipster, and include skin and bath products. You can pick up mini-bath bombs (four for £5), or bath melts shaped like cupcakes (£2.50 each). In the curio section, you can buy the articulated skeleton of a crow (£18.50) or the anatomical model of the human heart (£49).
Where: 84 Main Street, Haworth, BD22 8DP
Open: 10am to 5pm
WHERE TO EAT
The King's Arms
After a morning at the Bronte museum, head down Church Street to this cosy old-school pub, which dishes out classic hearty Sunday roasts. I had the pork roast, which came with a giant Yorkshire pudding that was bigger than my fist as well as a generous pile of cabbage, carrots and peas.
And of course you need an ale to complete the traditional pub lunch. This pub offers four beers on tap, brewed by local brewery Bridgehouse and named after the Brontes. Try the Charlotte IPA, which is "fruity with a hoppy finish". Or if you prefer something stronger, Branwell Porter Ale has "strong toffee and liquorice notes".
The menu also offers an eyebrow-raising section titled "Yorkshire tapas", including such items as Pigs In Blankets, Halloumi Fries and Mini Yorkshire Puddings (pork/beef/ham filling + gravy).
Budget about £15 a head for lunch with drinks.
Where: 2 Church Street, Haworth, West Yorkshire, BD22 8DA, United Kingdom
Open: 11.30am to 10pm daily
WHERE TO STAY
Ashtree House Bed And Breakfast
This is the family home of Chris and Bev Hughes. The Victorian-era house was built by a prosperous brewer who lived on the premises and ran a pub in the front room, which now serves as a cosy dining room where Bev serves a full English breakfast in the morning.
The Hughes decided to convert their home into a B&B after their children grew up. The rooms are beautifully appointed, with bright wallpaper, modern plumbing and lovely homey touches such as homemade cookies with the tea set in the rooms.
The compact bathroom in my room reminded me of Japanese facilities, with a toilet and shower as well as a warm towel rack packed into a corner of the room suite. Given Yorkshire's chilly weather, I was very glad for the efficient heating and warm towels.
Another highlight of the stay is Bev's homecooked food. The couple raise chickens in their beautifully maintained backyard garden, where they also grow vegetables. So breakfast offerings include fresh-laid eggs cooked any style you wish, as well as Bev's lovely jams made with their garden bounty. The rhubarb and ginger jam was so good I had to buy a bottle (£2).
Where: 840 Thornton Road Thornton, Thornton, BD13 3QB, United Kingdom
Prices: From £80 a night
AUSTEN AND ROMANS IN BATH
Author Jane Austen lived in the city of Bath for a brief period, and it features as a significant backdrop in two of her novels - Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. So the city has smartly capitalised on this with a Jane Austen Centre.
But of course Bath has a long illustrious history, including a 300-year period during which the Romans built a temple complex over its famed hot springs.
These two attractions are reason enough to spend a weekend in the city.
WHAT TO DO
The Jane Austen Centre
Jane Austen's parents were married in Bath, and her father chose to retire there in 1801.
In Austen's lifetime, Bath offered quite the popular party stop on the social calendar, with fancy balls and elegant shops. Some of the places she visited are still open to the public, including the Assembly Rooms, public rooms which once hosted balls but now house a fashion museum, and the Pump Room, where you can pop in for a posh afternoon tea (from £18).
The Jane Austen Centre is located a few doors from her actual family home and some hardcore Janeites (as Austen fans are known) might think that it is a wee bit too touristy. Staff members, dressed in period costume, will talk you through the Austen family history and its associations with Bath.
What is most intriguing about the centre is its waxwork likeness of the author. The only contemporary image of Austen was drawn by her sister Cassandra, but family members forbade Cassandra to finish her sketch as they thought it a poor likeness of Jane.
The centre's waxwork is the product of the combined efforts of artist Melissa Dring, who has experience as a forensic sketch artist with the police, and Mark Richards, once a senior sculptor with Madame Tussauds. The figure is startlingly lively and rather pretty.
Where: 40, Gay Street, Queen Square, Bath, BA1 2NT
Admission: £12 per adult, £5.20 per child, discounts and concessions available for early birds and families
THE ROMAN BATHS
No visit to Bath is complete without a trip to the famed Roman bath complex, built over a hot spring that produces more than a million litres of water, heated to a balmy 46 deg C, daily. It is no wonder the Romans chose to build an enormous complex here, centred on the town of Aqua Sulis, in AD44.
Today, the well-preserved ruins also house a fancy, multimedia-rich museum full of video recreations of ancient Roman characters and a dramatic light projection which shows what the famed Gorgon's head in the temple pediment might have looked like back in the day.
End your tour with a sample of the spa water, which gushes from a tap. This used to be available only at the Pump Room where you had to pay for a drink, but now it is free for museum visitors.
Where: The Roman Baths, Abbey Church Yard, Bath, BA1 1LZ
Open: 9.30am to 5pm daily
Admission: £16 per adult, £8.50 per child, concession tickets for students and seniors
WHERE TO EAT
Sally Lunn's Eating House
Billed as the world's oldest eating house, founded in 1482, this Bath institution is now a touristy must-stop.
I popped in for brunch at about 10.45am, and by the time I came out at 11.30am, there was a queue of about 30 people, mostly Asians. So if you are planning a visit, I would advise going early or late to avoid the meal-time rush. And if you are planning dinner, make an advance reservation on the website.
The star attraction here is the original Bath bun, created in the 17th century by Huguenot refugee Solange Luyon (renamed Sally Lunn by her English colleagues who could not pronounce her French moniker).
If you like fluffy Japanese breads, you will enjoy this French brioche bread that is super light and airy. The restaurant serves it in both savoury and sweet styles, with prices for tea sets starting from £4.58.
I tried the smoked salmon (£9.88) and the coffee and walnut butter (£4.58). The coffee and walnut butter, made in-house, was a winner, redolent with coffee fragrance and oozing decadently into the crisp toasted half bun.
Where: 4 North Parade Passage Bath, BA1 1NX
Open: 10am to 9pm
This modest eatery is located a little off the tourist path, but the fact that it is patronised mainly by locals is its best recommendation. The crowd starts streaming in around 7pm, so I would highly recommend making reservations if you are planning to dine here.
The special is the fish and chips, offered in three variations - cod (£13.95), haddock (£13.95) and hake (£14.95). The beer batter is light, and the texture is closer to Japanese tempura with its greaseless crunch than the heavier batter of old-fashioned versions.
The grilled skate wing (£13.95), aka stingray, is a delicious, lighter option. But the star of the show turned out to be the fresh mussels (£6), cooked with garlic, shallots and parsley - deliciously creamy with a flavourful sauce that will make you clear out the bread basket sopping up every last precious droplet.
Where: 22 Monmouth Place, Bath BA1 2AY
Open: Noon to 9:30pm, Mondays to Saturdays; Noon to 4pm, Sundays
WHERE TO STAY
Francis Hotel Bath - MGallery by Sofitel
I visited Bath during the pre-Christmas rush, when the multiple open-air fairs attracted busloads of domestic tourists. So the cheaper hotels were all snapped up three months ahead of time.
I decided to splurge a little more, and ended up at this gorgeous hotel located in a stretch of refurbished Regency-style townhouses. It is mere minutes' stroll to the Jane Austen Centre, the Roman Baths and The Scallop Shell, and has the added advantage of being within walking distance of the bustling city centre, yet far enough from the madding crowd to be a quiet oasis.
My room was tucked into the third floor, which meant it had a sloping attic roof and the charmingly wonky wooden floorboards could be felt even under the lush carpet pile. But rest assured the fittings are all 21st century - from the fancy plasma TV to the efficiently heated shower and heating facilities in the striking, striped bathroom.
Weekend prices start from £159, but there are bargains to be had for weekday stays (from £85.55). Check the website for details.
Where: Queen Square, Bath, BA1 2HH, United Kingdom
Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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