Surviving boot camp – Part 2: the never-ending exercise

9 Nov

As I attempted feebly to gather my breath at the top of a rather unfriendly sand dune, I looked down at the surrounding Woolacombe beach and took it in, in all its splendor.

“Well, at least if I collapse here, I will have a nice last view of things and an easy roll down this hill,” I thought feebly.

And then I contemplated simply rolling down the sand dune instead of lugging my tired calves through it squishy wake. A quick sight of Shane – one of the personal trainers – changed that for me; I knew he’d just make me do the climb a few extra times if I took any shortcuts.

It was day three of my trip to NuBeginnings, a boot camp in North Devon. We’d gotten up at the crack of dawn (okay – it was 7am but that’s still pretty early) to lug our exhausted limbs over to Woolacombe beach for a morning of circuit training in the sand. The previous day, Sunday, I had hiked for 10 miles, while on the Saturday, I’d climbed the seemingly never-ending, steep Torrs, a killer on the thighs, calves and butt. Even two deep tissue massages hadn’t cured the pain, so by the time I found myself perched at the top of a cresting sand dune, I was nearly ready to collapse in a pile of aching grumpiness.

However, I’m rarely one to give up on a challenge so, instead, I lifted up the heavy exercise ball I’d climbed the hill to collect, and shifted my way down the sand dune. Once at the bottom, I gathered up all my will power and started up again – there were two more balls to collect.

While this might all sound like torture, it was actually rather satisfying – once all the activity had been completed for the day, of course. That day we were put through our paces, doing push ups on logs on the beach and playing quasi rugby while throwing heavy medicine balls to each other. Later, we’d head back to Westwell Hall – our place of residence for the week – and partake in a boxercise class, and after lunch go on an hour long jog with Kieran. On other days, long hikes took us winding over valleys and up to steep cliffs for miles on end, while sessions of pilates and circuits kept our muscles in check.

A sight from a hike, at Woolacombe.

Luckily, while both the personal trainers – Kieran and Shane – kept each of us moving as much as our individual fitness levels could handle, they also got to know us, joked, chatted and kept us motivated. There was no screaming, just banter – all of which I found much more inviting than a screaming army instructor.

As I’d not done much exercise for a long while (other than walking, which I do constantly in London) I was surprised at how quickly my body rebounded into enjoying the workouts. I may have been aching and ever so slightly whiny from time to time, but I also felt hungry for more.

We also learned a lot about exercise in general – Kieran and Shane are the perfect double act and made lectures on the topic interesting and the information easy to absorb. From teaching us the ‘four pillars’ of healthy living (nutrition, activity, sleep and hydration, all of which need to be balanced out to keep a healthy foundation) to getting us to better understand each of our body’s limitations, the guys know their stuff and workouts with them were some of the most engaging I’ve had ever.

Hiking guide Cap talks about the countryside to NuBeginnings guests.

Outside of the workouts on the beach and in the gym, we also spent much time hiking. My guide – Cap – was a former fireman who, while retired, looks much younger than his age. Years of hiking the local area has made him incredibly knowledgeable about the local area, so hikes were filled with facts about everything from the coastline, to the birds and local history.

And while there were many times in the evening after a day’s exercise when I’d ring the boy to tell him I didn’t think I could possibly do any more, I still found myself getting up every morning, stretching my aching limbs and craving more.

By the end of the trip – six days of exercise – I’d lost four pounds and two inches off my waist. But more than that, I felt fresh and buzzing with energy, something I’d not experienced in a long time. And my shoes were looking considerably more scuffed than they were upon arrival. I can only say I was left surprised by how pleasurable I found this whole exercise malarkey – who knew it could be so much fun?

In my final NuBeginnings post, I battle cravings for caffeine, find myself sneakily eating mints and avoiding a secret bag of crisps, and meet Gary, the chef behind the pleasurable food at the retreat.

I was a guest of NuBeginnings. For more information on the boot camp, visit:

Surviving boot camp: Part 1 – the arrival

2 Nov

When I was 18, I bought myself a shiny new pair of Canadian made Saucony running shoes. I had dreams of going off to uni, clad with these shoes, with the full intention of becoming ridiculously fit and healthy.

Nine years later, they’re still in rather good shape. I’ve not, actually, worn them much. Oh, there was a brief period in uni when I joined the gym, played a couple of rounds of squash and did some work on the cross trainer. And another few months when Fitness First roped me into its web when I first moved to England. My shoes got a good workout then.

It’s not, I should mention, that I intend to be lazy. It’s more that I find myself getting too caught up in work or distractions like refiling my paperwork or drinking whisky to actually get around to going to the gym.

So when I was recently invited to attend the UK’s only ’boutique boot camp’ it was with slight concern – mostly over whether my body would cope with repeated bouts of exercise. It also didn’t sound terribly ‘pleasurable’, which tends to be the focus of my posts on here.

But, I decided I couldn’t be seen to be a wimp – and I had, after all, been attempting to ‘get fit’ for nearly a decade (ugh, I hate when things can be calculated in near double-digit terms).

After reassuring my friends I would likely survive, packing my rucksack with lots of ‘sporty clothes’ and waving goodbye to the boy (who, I should mention, is much better at the ‘attending the gym’ thing than I am), I hopped on a train westwards – I was Devon bound.

The ‘bootcamp’ destination is a place called NuBeginnings, which finds itself tucked away in a small village called Ilfracombe in North Devon. It’s an hour away from the nearest train station, so I was picked up by Dave, one of the managers. During our trip, he told me about what I was likely to experience during the week long retreat, from the hikes and personal training, through to the psychological side of things, which is looked at through hypnotherapy and acupuncture sessions, among other things.

As background, NuBeginnings was set up by a woman named Victoria Wills in 2008. Wills had experienced issues with her weight for many years, bouncing from one crazy diet to the next. After quitting her job, she spent time traveling to different ‘boot camps’ around the world, finding interesting angles in places as diverse as Canada and Hawaii. Through those, she learned that a combination of sensible exercise routines, streamlined nutrition plans and psychological treatments (to get to the root cause of any potential food dilemmas) worked a treat. When she returned to the UK, she realised there were no ’boutique’ boot camps over here – unlike the US, where there are many more. So, she worked to find a space (Westwell Hall in Ilfracombe) and set up the business with partner Frank. It focuses on teaching guests about all three arenas (exercise, nutrition and mental health) to help them get into a healthier frame of mind and lose up to one stone in a week.

Now, I have to admit – I was a bit skeptical. I was expecting for this to be, either, a bit of an ‘alternative lifestyle’ place with crystals and hypnotism tapes to set you to sleep to, or a crazy, military style boot camp where you find yourself squirming through the mud at some ungodly hour. Luckily, I soon learned, NuBeginnings was neither.

Upon arrival at the listed mansion, I was greeted by Dave’s partner Jennie who manages the retreat with him. Both are former teachers who have a wealth of experience dealing with a range of attitudes and life backgrounds, and both were unendingly friendly in helping each guest pursuit his or her ambitions.

I was shown up to my room – an oasis of welcoming calm, and asked to get changed and be downstairs as quickly as possible for my weigh-ins and personal training assessment. I was loath to leave, however, as the plump feather bed, and large cushioned window seat both looked terribly welcoming after my long journey.

However, in keeping with the plans, I headed down to meet Kieran, one of the personal trainers who would be working with me throughout the week. He tested my blood pressure, asked me about my goals for the week (at that point: not collapsing from the strain of exercise) and weighed me (something I’d not done in a rather long while, since I tend to eschew caring about all things weight loss in favour of eating whatever the hell I want, when I want). It was clear from the start that he was not there to kill me, nor to make me do push-ups in the mud – a fact I was grateful of. He very clearly accentuated the fact I would be working just above my skill level to maximise my heart rate and get the most out of the workouts.

After our chat, and my ‘measurements’ with Jennie, I met the other guests (who ranged from a 64-year old with a recent hip replacement, to a younger City worker keen to get fit again after a bad ankle injury, and a photographer who was focused on getting back into the fitness swing of things) ate a very small dinner ascribing to the GL diet (something I’ll come onto in a later post), partook in some meditation and finally fell down into the soothing comfort of a feather bed.

But the relaxation was not to last long…by 6:30am, I would need to be getting dressed to face the first day of workouts…would I survive?

In my next post, I find myself lugging heavy exercise balls up and down sand dunes, going hiking at 8am on a Sunday morning, and seeing if all the exercise made any difference at all.

I was a guest of NuBeginnings. For more information on the boot camp, visit:

On the hunt for standout wines: Virgin Wine Fest 2012

26 Oct

It’s amazing how quickly a year can fly by. This year, in particular, I’ve felt has been sped up by some time-controlling madman.

And so it was with surprise that I found myself consulting my diary recently only to find the Virgin Wine Festival had come around again.

Last year, the boy and I headed there with zealous joy – a whole day of wine tasting at the Royal Horticultural Halls seemed too good to miss. And at £15 a ticket, a few hundred other people seemed to wholeheartedly agree.

This year, Virgin had decided to up its pedigree and move events to the Waldorf Astoria hotel in Aldwych for its eighth annual festival. As a change, the event was held on two days – a shorter evening slot on the Friday, followed by a five hour session on the Saturday. As we couldn’t attend the longer one, we showed up Friday evening (at 6pm on the dot, just as the doors opened) to try out what was on offer.

The evening event had fewer wines and was held in a smaller section of the hotel’s Palm Court room. Regardless, with 97 wines on the list, there was more than enough to satisfy the taste buds for three hours.

Using our (highly technical) check-mark system (with an X meaning the wine is a no go through to three ticks, symbolising a stand out wine) we proceeded to fill our glasses repeatedly to really get a feel for the online wine company’s offerings.

This year, I found a greater proportion of highly rated wines than last. Maybe it was just good luck, but a vast majority of the wines received two ticks rather than an X.

Of those I tried, my favourite five were the following:

  • Finca Manzanos Seleccion de la Familia Rioja: Of the five wines on offer from Finca Manzanos, this one stood out for me. It smelled of autumn: brambles, wet leaves and crisp air. But there was also an exuding warmth from this – no don’t borne from the beautiful setting on which it’s grown: a plateau overlooking the confluence of the Ega and Ebro rivers in northern Spain. It wasn’t overly heavy, and could be considered a good wine for sipping on a cool, autumn late afternoon. It retails at £9.99.
  • De Martino 347 Carmenere Reserva 2010: I’ve recently become a growing fan of Carmenere, which is a big change since I used to rule out any wines from Chile after having many an unpleasant one from that country. One of my friends, however, is a big advocate after spending time in Chile and she introduced me to this grape varietal. This wine from De Martino is highly drinkable and comes from the highest vineyards in that country. It was bold without being too harsh on the palate, coming across with flavours of plump fruit and vanilla. A great wine to have with friends during an evening meal. It costs £9.99.
  • Reina Mora Special Selection Malbec Bonarda 2011: Like Chilean wines, Malbec is one I quickly avoid if I see it coming near my glass. I’ve had many that overwhelm my mouth with a distinct bitter, smokiness that I just don’t enjoy. But, never one to give up on a drink entirely, I gave this wine from Argentina a go. And I was surprised. It was far fruitier than any Malbec I’d tried in the past and softer on the taste buds as well. It was bold and fruity, but it wasn’t at all pungent. The boy gave it the thumbs up as well. It will set you back £8.99.
  • Laurent Espinasse La Cote Sauvage 2010: This is produced by small winery, which has been nurtured by Gavin Crisfield, a Englishman who fled from his job as a sommelier at top hotels here to become a winemaker in the Languedoc. I enjoyed many of his range, whose grapes come from various small producers in the region, but this was my favourite of the bunch. Grown at 500 metres above sea level, this was a perfectly balanced, black current, berry and bramble wine with heart. It’s one to sit back with and sip with a loved one after a long day. It costs £11.99.
  • Finca Las Moras 3 Valleys Gran Shiraz 2006: Continuing a theme of loving South American red wines that evening, this was one of the stand outs for me of all the ones I tried. Made in Argentina from a combination of grapes from three Shiraz growing valleys (the Pedernal, Zonda and Tulum Valleys) this was a belter of a wine – really bold and brash, and definitely crying out to be paired with a rare steak. It was slightly smoky with great fruity overtones. I loved it. I think it will be on my Christmas dinner list though, as it’s more of a ‘special occasion’ wine at the cost of £19.99 a bottle.

There were, of course, many other great wines but these five really caught my eye. The boy was slightly more lax in his tick system, preferring to focus on refilling his glass than on rating the wines – which makes perfect sense, since that’s what we were there to do. I look forward to discovering more from Virgin wines. It’s ever so pleasurable!

Thank you to Virgin Wines for inviting the boy and I along to try some fantastic wines. For more information on Virgin Wines and its suppliers, visit:

A palace of Bombay’s delights

18 Oct

A giant prawn takes over the plate.

They were the biggest prawns I’d ever seen. Giants, which one could only assume had been caught by a sea-faring laird wielding a trident.

I encountered these beasts during a recent meal at the newly refurbished Bombay Palace near Marble Arch. The restaurant – which has been open since 1981 – has had a full interior makeover complete with dark purple accents and contrasting crisp white features to turn it into a more modern space for dining. There are eight locations of Bombay Palace globally – from Beverly Hills to New York and Toronto (though, I never came across it in my former hometown).

The jumbo (read: humongous) prawns are called Tandoori Jhinga on the menu. And while my fellow diners and I implored the head of house to give up his secrets as to where these creatures had been spawned, we were turned down in our requests. My belief: he has a nuclear breeding tank in the basement! But regardless of their origins, a few of those bad boys would constitute a main meal for most people. Spungy and spicy, the prawns oozed juices and tangy flavours – definitely a must try if you visit.

But this was only the beginning. Also on the menu to start were Shikampuri kebabs (ie: lamb kebabs), chicken tikka skewers and Dahi Batata Poori. The latter was by far my favourite – the crisped lentil puff (like an air popped crisp) was filled with bean sprouts and coriander, and topped with yoghurt, mint and tamarind. Every bite was seduction – from the first crisp crunch, to the cool gooey yoghurt and finally the sizzle on the tongue of tamarind and coriander.

Beautifully coloured curries tempt me for my main.

For mains, I tried a selection of interesting foods – from the more standard tarka dal and changezi champen (grilled lamb cutlets), to the less common Goan fish curry and Jaipuri bhindi (shredded, deep fried okra). The Goan fish curry was the standout for me – a perfect combination of sweet and spicy, garnered from a balance of chillies, mangoes and coconut, with tender dollops of fish dotted throughout the thick sauce. And while I prefer my tarka dal with a bit more of a buttery flavour, the other dishes pleased as well.

A towering dessert pleases.

Despite being stuffed, I plowed through and gave the gajar halwa (grated carrot fudge) and kulfi a try as well. The former was a bit like gulab jamun – a sweet, doughy dessert commonly found floating in a sugar syrup. But this had the texture of fudge. The cool kulfi made from pistachios and saffron helped balance out what could have been too overpoweringly sugary, making it a nice note to end the meal on.

And so, if you find yourself in the streets behind Marble Arch (north of Oxford Street that is) and fancy a meal away from the touristy places that dot central London, consider Bombay Palace. Just don’t expect to find out about the prawns…

Bombay Palace is located at 50 Connaught Street, W2 2AA. For more information about menus and contact details, visit:

A little wine education

7 Oct

Recently the boy and I ventured down to Bermondsey, an district in south London, to check out the area’s annual street festival. From the top to the bottom, Bermondsey Street was packed with happy families all celebrating a sunny autumn day and felt very ‘villagey’ despite being in fairly central London.

But we weren’t just there to wander around the well-packed stalls and to take in the sights. We had, in truth, been lured south of the river to take in a wine tasting being put on by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) at lovely little restaurant, Delfina.

If you don’t know of the WSET – which, I admit, I knew not much of until recently – it has been around since 1969 with the goal of providing high quality education and training in wines and spirits. It’s now considered the premiere international body in this field offering qualifications. Last year, 43,000 people sat exams with them.

Outside of the professional side of the business, the WSET also does a whole load of consumer courses, which are led by Russell Dent, who was appointed in 2011 to put together a full-time programme for this group of wine and spirit lovers.

Russell was heading up the short tasting the day the boy and I visited Delfina and we learned loads in a very short space of time about how to taste and recognise wines through the company’s ‘Systematic Approach to Tasting Wine’ outline.

Primed with a pocket sized guide to lead us through, the boy and I sipped and swirled our way to greater wine knowledge, learning about clarity, intensity, colour, aroma characteristics, sweetness, acidity, tannins and much more.

Afterwards I spoke to Russell – who has been with the WSET for 18 months after five years with Majestic Wines – about the courses on offer to those keen to brush up on their wine or spirits skills.

“In response to the growing number of ‘wine enthusiasts’ the WSET has been keen to implement a programme of fun and educational non-qualification courses,” he said.

But, unlike other one-day courses or wine-tasting evenings, which are often sponsored by a company, Russell said those from the WSET stand out because they are only promoting fuller knowledge.

“Our unbiased nature means that samples are always selected for their suitability and typicity, rather than a need to drive sales or promote relationships,” he explained, adding courses are mainly taught by certified WSET educators.

In the past year, Russell has helped introduce “Vine to Glass” and “Introduction to Fine Wine” classes,  that are focused on getting new customers with basic knowledge to try out the courses. But, increasingly, he told me he is seeing interest from people with a lot of expertise wanting to take courses as well.

“I hope to be able to introduce a series of masterclasses looking at specific wine styles/regions (such as Barolo, Ribera del Duero) and iconic producers,” he said.

The company – based in London Bridge – currently runs three events, every two weeks but Russell said they’re hoping to increase that to two courses per week in the near future.

And if you can’t get to a course in London, don’t despair. The WSET has a great ‘three-minute wine school’ online, which can be viewed here.

Finding the perfect match

1 Oct

The new gin from Heston.

Pairing food and drink is becoming a particular interest of mine. I love playing around with how a food tastes when paired with one wine or another or, even more so, with one whisky or another. And it’s something I’m seeing more and more companies and restaurants taking on board. We’ve suddenly moved past simple wine and cheese matching, into whisky and food, and beer and food combinations.

Recently, I was invited to try out some of the new collection of beers and spirits being released by Waitrose. And while it was rather delightful to have access to a room full of whatever alcohols I fancied trying (including the new earl grey tea and lemon gin being released by Heston Blumenthal) I was mostly keen to check out its food and alcohol matching class.

On hand to take a group us through the various matches were Alex Buchanan, marketing manager of Thonbridge Brewery, along with Jamie Baxter and Alex (the new distiller) from Chase Vodka, along with chefs from the Waitrose cookery school.

We started out with a damson vodka infused wild salmon gravalax with a fennel salad paired with the Sipsmith damson vodka. The vodka was served icy cold and the fruitier flavours were meant to bring out the fishy and acidic flavours in the dish. While I enjoyed it, I found the damson vodka too sticky and jammy for my taste buds, but I bet a lot of people who enjoy densely sweet drinks would like this match.

We then moved onto Thornbridge’s Wild Swan ale matched with dressed crab. This, for me, was a glorious coming together of flavours. The ale is crisp and wheaty, with hints of lemon and grapefruit, which really brought out the fishy goodness of the crab. I recommend!

The next two dishes – a rich meat stew and a sausage stew – were paired with a few beers. The former matched, for me, best with the Fuller’s ESB because, while the ale is malty and rich, it has fruitier flavours which helped to cut through the intensity of the beef. The latter, meanwhile, paired perfectly with the Beglian Tripel Karmeliet (one of my favourite beers) due to the yeasty sweet flavours in the beer, which helped accentuate the slightly sweet flavours in the dish.

The event was finished off with a pairing of one of the most gorgeous trifles I’ve ever tasted (concocted from roasted panettone soaked in gin, with jelly, gin-soaked figs and spices) and Janneau Armagnac. This was, quite simply, gorgeous. And while I don’t normally opt for puddings when out, if this were in a restaurant I would happily snap it up.

Matchings such as these are taught at the Waitrose Cookery School’s cocktail and canape class, which the company says is about “showing customers how versatile spirits can be.” But it also does classes on more traditional matchings, such as a wine and gourmet food class coming up on 10 October, which is being put on in conjunction with the Wine & Spirits Education Trust.

After trying all the lovely foods and innovative drinks coming from British distillers and brewers, I felt thrilled to learn of new things I could try at home. And I recommend all of you to give it a shot (or, if all else fails, have a shot) – whether in a class or at home. It’s a great way to learn about flavours and how your personal palate responds to different groups of foods and drinks. Plus, you’ll probably have a rather pleasurable time doing it!

Gin, jazz and teacups – The Langham’s Palace

24 Sep

A London gin palace of the 19th century.

In the early 19th century, gin palaces were all the rage. They sprouted up like mushrooms around London, pulling lovers of ‘mother’s ruin’ easily into their web and fascinating people with their use of gas lights both inside and outside of their buildings. They were known for being overly inviting, with riche interiors, and were – along with the huge numbers of beer houses – responsible for helping many on their way to drunkenness.

Fast forward nearly 200 years and one of London’s most luxurious hotels – The Langham – has resurrected that 1820s style by installing a Sipsmith ‘gin palace’ in the hotel’s Palm Court, an opulent ground-level tea room normally known for serving up teas and cakes.

The Langham’s version of a gin palace.

Now, every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night, patrons will be able to eschew petit fours and tea for hot jazz and G&Ts, concocted by Sipsmith’s master distiller, Jared Brown, and The Langham’s head mixologist Alex

The boy and I headed there on opening night to find out what it was all about.

Outside, throngs of teenage girls lined the pavement (an odd sight, indeed, until we realised a certain Canadian teen idol was stalking the floors). Once we’d realised they weren’t there to welcome us in, we headed into the grand, marble lobby and up into Palm Court. We could already hear the gentle reverberation of jazz as it drifted out the doorway and, once inside, we swiftly found a comfy chaired corner and coddled glasses of champagne to get the night going.

The room was dimly lit, with gold flecked walls picking up the sparkling lights from the oversized chandeliers. All around us, the well-heeled circulated the room with glasses of gin cocktails, while perfectly turned out waiters carried heavy looking, glass orbs filled with a bright orange liqueur that was being poured into tea cups. It seemed to be a cross between Victoriana and Alice in Wonderland.

After the first jazz set, we took a ‘turn about the room’ picking up some saucy, spicy ginger and lily cocktails on our way. Served in a leggy cocktail glass, this drink was sharp but satisfying, heating the taste buds with the gin and ginger combination, before ending with a wee sweet hint garnered from the lily cordial. It was delicious and if they had made cocktails like this in the early 19th century, I think there would have been even more turning towards the dark side of gin consumption.

With one cocktail down, we decided to have a rest in another lounging chair and opt for the teacup cocktail. Gin in a teacup – how could I resist?

This drink – called the Ginervistic – is made from a Dutch gin-style liqueur called Loyaal Zeer Oude, along with Sipsmith gin, lime and lemon juice, Champagne and The Langham syrup. It was mouth-puckeringly sharp – a bit too much for my taste. But, as the waves of sulty jazz rolled over us, and as I asked for a refill of my teacup, my taste buds became more accustomed to the bite of the drink.

When finally we decided to leave the cushy surroundings and head back into the chilling autumn air, it was with a sigh. The Langham does luxury like few others (maybe that’s why the Beibermeister – who the boy and I just missed apparently on our way to the loo – decides to rest his pop-fuelled self there). And the hotel’s gin palace is just as divine. Cocktails are of the higher-end London varietal (£15) but if you can spare the change, I recommend taking in the surroundings over just one cocktail and allowing yourself to be transported back to a bygone age. After all, it’s not everyday you’ll drink gin from Wedgwood china.

For more information on The Langham’s Gin Palace at Palm Court, visit:

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