Food, wine & markets in Portugal

cascais food market

Mercado da Vila, Cascais


When I travel, if possible, I would always try to visit a local food market as I believe it is the most authentic place to be in any city/town/village. At the food market, not only you would find the best local produce, but you would also see how the locals interact with each other, and it’s unlikely that you would be ripped off if you shop with the locals!


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Cascais: Mercado da Vila; 6th row middle & Bottom left: Grão damor


In Cascais (the seaside town 30 minutes from Lisbon), there is a bustling municipal market (Mercado da Vila) that sells fresh fruits, vegetables, flowers, seafood and other local produce such as cheeses, bread, olives, pastries and sweets etc. And on Wednesdays, there is a jumble sale type of market that sells cheap clothing and shoes etc just outside of the food market.

Usually the eateries in or near the markets are most likely to be reliable due to its proximaty to the fresh produce. I discovered a cute cafe Grão damor on top of the market and had a small fish soup full of fresh fish for €2.50, a real bargain!


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Fish market and Marisco Na Praca


The market is also home to one of most popular seafood restaurants in town, Marisco Na Praca. Everything is ordered by weight, so the customers choose their seafood preferences and they would suggest the cooking methods. The prices here are low but the quality is very good. My favourites were the local shrimps since they taste different from the standard shrimps, and judging from other tables, their seafood rice dish seems like a popular choice too.


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Top row left, middle and 2nd row: Botequim da Mouraria and the owner/chef Domingos; Bottom left & middle: Salsa Verde; Bottom right: Cafe Alentejo


I have heard a lot about Alentejo cuisine and wine before I visited the region, but I wasn’t quite sure what to expect until I arrived. Unfortunately for a pescetarian like myself, I struggled to order at some restaurants as most items on the menus seem to be geared towards meat-eaters. From what I have seen and tasted, this region’s cuisine is hearty, simple and slightly peasant-like with a lot of cheeses and sausages.

In Evora, the bar-like Botequim da Mouraria is one of the most well-known restaurants in town to experience typical local cuisine. The wine collection here is huge as well, and instead of going through the list, I simply asked the owner pick a local red wine for me. There are only 12 counter seats, the best part is that you are mostly to end up chatting to your neighbours like I did. I spent much of my meal chatting to a Russian lady and her architect daughter with the owner joining in occasionally. It was relaxing, cosy and fun, probably the most memorable evening during my trip.

And after being deprived from vegetables for days, I was more than relieved to find Salsa Verde, a vegetarian buffet-style cafe for a light lunch. Fresh juice and a plate of vegetarian meal was less than €8, an affordable and healthy option for vegetarians.


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Pastelaria Conventual pão de rala; 2nd left: Sign for Cafetaria Páteo de S. Miguel


I am quite sure that most Portuguese have a sweet tooth! I seldom eat sweets and desserts, but I felt ‘obliged’ to taste the local sweets and pastries while I was there. In Evora, Pastelaria Conventual pão de rala is THE place for those who are addicted to sugar! Most of the sweets here are made on the premises from recipes originated in the local convents. The cafe is cosy and friendly, but after one bite of their famous pão de rala, I felt like I was consuming my whole year’s worth of sugar in one go! I later tried their Queijinho do Céu back in the hotel, and found it less sweet and more ‘edible’ for my taste bud.

Behind the Cathedral, there is another cafeteria that is well-known for their Patéis de Nata (custard tart). The cafe is called Cafetaria Páteo de S. Miguel and their tarts are considered to be as good as the famous Patéis de Bélem!

After consuming so much sweet stuff, I was beginning to wonder about the statistics on diabetes in Portugal… and guess what? I later found out that Portugal has a higher rate of diabetes than any other country in the EU, according to a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development published in 2012. And boy, I am not at all surprised by this!


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Saturday food market in Estremoz; 6th row middle & Bottom: Gadanha Mercearia; 6th row right: A Cadeia


One of the main attraction in Estremoz is its weekly Saturday markets in the town’s main square. Aside from an antiques/car-boot sale type of market, there is also a food market selling fresh vegetables, fruits, bread, cheeses and sausages etc. I couldn’t resist buying strawberries and satsumas here as I felt like my diet had been rather unbalanced since my arrival here.

Not far from the square, Gadanha Mercearia is a modern restaurant/cafe/deli to sample local cuisine with a contemporary touch. The wine here is produced locally, and the a glass of wine is cheaper than a cup of coffee in London!

In the evening, I had dinner at the prison-turned restaurant A Cadeia Quinhentista near the castle on the top of the hill. The prices are not cheap here (in Portuguese standard), but I didn’t think the food lived up to its reputation nor did I like the formal and rather cold service. It was one of the most expensive but also most disappointing meal of my trip!


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First 3 rows: Mercado da Ribeira; 4th to bottom rows: Mercado de Campo de Ourique


Finally, I was glad to be heading back to Lisbon as I was feeling rather bloated after 2 days of substantial Alentejo cuisine! In Lisbon, the newest and most popular food market/court is the Time out Lisboa’s recently renovated Mercado da Ribeira near Cais do Sodré train station. The 5-million-euro project restored and transformed a 13th century former fish/food market into the hippest culinary destination in town. With seating for 750 people, there are 35 establishments selling and serving a variety of local specialties and international cuisines. Prices here are reasonable, and best of all, you can pick and eat and drink your way around the market provided your stomach can handle it!

Elsewhere in Campo de Ourique, a quiet residential area where I was staying, there is another smaller but less touristy food market/court Mercado de Campo de Ourique. Although the food hall here is smaller than the Time out one, there are still plenty of choices available, and it is especially popular with the locals who live nearby.


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Top & bottom left row: Linha d’Agua in Jardim Amália Rodrigues; Bottom right: a wise ‘motto’ found at a local wine shop!


One of the best parts of this trip was having alfresco lunches in the midst of winter, and I became addicted to eating outdoor whenever it was available. In Lisbon, my favourite outdoor cafe is Linha d’Agua on the top of Jardim Amália Rodrigues. I loved the tranquil and relaxing setting, the cafeteria-style food here is simple but fresh and reasonably priced, and it seems to be a popular choice amongst local students.


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Top & 2nd rows: A Tentadora; 3rd row: A Padaria Portuguesa; 4th & 5th rows: Pastelaria Aloma


When I visited Lisbon previously, my friend and I visited many well-known cafes and pastelarias recommended by guidebooks including the famous Pastelería de Belem. But on this trip, I decided skip these places and headed for the local ones instead. In Campo de Ourique, I stumbled upon an art nouveau style cafe that is great for people-watching called A Tentadora. It is full of elderly locals, and prices are cheap as well (an expresso for €0.60 and €1 for a white Americano), so if you are skimped, spending a few hours here is not a bad option!

If like me, you don’t want to travel all the way to Belem and queue for some pastel de Natac (custard tarts), then the orginal Pastelaria Aloma shop in Campo de Ourique is a must! The 70-year old Lisbon institution is not as touristy as Pastelería de Belem, and it has won the best Pastel de Nata award (yes, there is a competition for it) in Lisbon in two consecutive years, so their tarts are definitely one of the best in town. The shop has recently expanded and opened 3 new outlets (including one at he Time out Mercado da Ribeira), but the friendly and cosy original one is my favourite.

Bakeries and pastelería are ubiquitous in Lisbon, but curiously, the local chain bakery and cafe A Padaria Portuguesa seems to be very popular amongst locals. I didn’t realise it is chain until later, but I think the shop stands out for its contemporary style interior. The food and service here is good, so it is easy to understand why it attracts mostly younger customers.

As much as I enjoyed eating and drinking in Portugal, I felt that a week of indulgence was more than my stomach and liver could bear. It is true to say that good things come in small doses, because all that I craved for by the end of the trip were just fruits and vegetables! And I am most likely to stay away from the sweet stuff for quite a while…




Winter getaway in Portugal

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Like always after the busy Christmas season, I longed for a holiday/getaway to revitalise myself. As I discovered, January is the perfect time to travel to the southern part of Europe; it is warmer, sunnier, less touristy, and best of all, much cheaper than London.

Portugal has become one of my favourite getaway destinations in recent years. I first visited Lisbon with a friend in 2009, and I was smitten by this historical, charming, laidback and friendly city. A few years ago, I visited Porto with another friend for a long weekend; and again we had a wonderful time and spent many hours port tasting at various port cellars!

Whilst planning my trip, I wanted to revisit Lisbon but at the time venture beyond the city. I decided to spend some time by the seaside and explore other provincial cities/towns away from the hustle and bustle.


I didn’t realise how much I had missed the sea and the beach until I saw it! I am not into sunbathing/sun-seeking holidays, but I love hearing the sound of the waves, and seeing the sea and beaches alone fill me with immense joy.


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I spent two nights (which was too short) staying in a studio minutes away from the beach in Estoril (half and hour’s train ride from Lisbon), and I strolled to the nearby Cascais along the promenade everyday (which took about 45 minutes). With the sun on my skin, the sea next to me and joggers running past me, I felt mere bliss and gratitude to be there.


Historical city & town

I left the Lisbon region and traveled eastwards to the Alentejo ( also known as the “bread basket”) region, where it is especially well known for their wine, olive oil, cheeses, smoked hams, cork and marble (apparently, Portugal is the second largest exporter of marble in the world). I first visited the Unesco World Heritage site Evora, and then took a bus to the nearby marble-town Estremoz.

There were few tourists about and thus I was able to enjoy these places in a relaxing pace and observe the locals getting on with their daily businesses.


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Blue sky & white walls

Traveling in this region, the colours that you are most likely to encounter are: blue and white. The blue coloured sky is so sharp that it reminds me of the TV screen when it goes all blue at times, which creates a huge contrast against the white walls and buildings. Estremoz is known as “Cidade Branca” (white city), not only for its traditional white houses but also for its marble architecture. Arriving into the town via a local bus, I was astonished to see an entire bus station built from marble including all the seating, flooring and toilets!

To call this town ‘sleepy’ would be an understatement. With an university situated in Evora, one can still see young people; in Estremoz, I seldom saw people under the age of 50 on the streets. There was not much to do or places to visit, so I spent most of my time wandering around the small town and randomly stepping into public places with their doors opened!


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Portuguese are one of the friendliest and hospitable people I have encountered throughout my travels. Perhaps it’s to do with the weather and their laid-back attitude, most of the people I met are welcoming, patient and calm. People here enjoy a slower pace of living; they are more concerned with the quality of life and this is something I miss living in the stressful and unfriendly London.


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I always enjoy visiting parks and gardens whenever I travel. Yet I didn’t expect to see chicken walking freely, nor peacocks posing complacently on a wall of a ruined former palace within the public gardens! And even in the midst of winter, there are still tropical plants and flowers to be admired, as well as orange and lemon trees everywhere.


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Quirks and unusual sights

There are always quirky and unusual sights to be found while traveling. One of the quirkiest was when I came across a front garden covered with about 20 or more soft cuddly toys on sticks! Unfortunately, there was an elderly couple in the garden and I couldn’t take a proper photo of the garden, but I found the idea utterly amusing!


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It is rare to be able to watch beautiful sunsets on almost daily basis while traveling, but I was able to do so on this trip. The sunsets in Portugal are mesmorising and the colours are stunning; whether I was by the sea or up on a hill, these were precious moments that would stay with me for a long time.


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Silent nights

It is not easy to enjoy silence and solitude in cities like London at night. Yet there were times during my travel when I noticed that the streets were almost empty, it was strange for someone like me who is used to seeing people around or hearing traffic all the time except for when I am in the countryside. Silence and solitude is something that city dwellers require from time to time, as it is the best time to wind down and clear our minds.


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To be continued…


Modernist architecture in Hampstead

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Isokon building/ Lawn Road Flats in Belsize Park


A lot of Londoners and foreigners love Hampstead for its history and villagey ambience, and the heath is considered a refuge for wildlife and nature in London. This area has always been a magnet for the rich and famous, as well as the artistic and intellectual elite; and it is not hard to see why.

Yet this area is also home to many well-known modernist architecture, notably the iconic Grade I lised Isokon building (also known as the Lawn Road flats) in Belsize Park. This minimalist architecture comprises of 32 flats was designed by Canadian architect Wells Coates for Jack and Molly Pritchard in 1934. Its early famous residents included Bauhaus émigrés Walter Gropius, Marcel Breuer, László Moholy-Nagy and even Agatha Christie. The building was restored about 10 years ago by Avanti Architects, and to celebrate the building’s 80th birthday, the Isokan Gallery was opened to the public from April until October. Unfortunately, I missed the opportunity to visit the gallery (hopefully it will reopen in March), but I was still impressed by how timeless and striking the building’s exterior looks from street level. The architect was said to have been inspired by the works of Le Corbusier, while the original Isokon plywood furniture (produced by a company founded by Pritchard) was predominately inspired by the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto (click here to read my earlier post of my visit to the architect’s studio and home in Helsinki).


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3rd row & bottom left: Stanbury Court on Haverstock Hill; Bottom right: A WWII bunker in Belsize Park


Not far from the Isokon building is a less well-known Stanbury Court, built only 2 years after the Isokon building in 1936. The massive (when compared to the nearby buildings) and conspicuous white block consists of 53 flats, and has some interesting art deco features on its facade.

On the opposite side of the road further uphill, there is a white circular World war II deep level shelter built in the early 1940s that can be easily missed by passerby, even though it is fairly distinctive.

Another hidden ‘secret’ in the area is Parkhill Road and Mall studios (now privately-owned and forbidden to outsiders) where famous artists such as Henry Moore, Piet Mondriaan, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, Sir James Linton and Sir George Clausen once lived.


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Moving up towards Hampstead, 2 Willow Road is another iconic Modernist architecture designed by architect Ernő Goldfinger in 1939 for him and his family. Now run by the National Trust, and the house is open to the public by guided tours. It is well worth visiting if you are interested in Modernist architecture and design because the interior and furnishings have left unchanged since his death in 1987.


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Top 3 rows: 66 Frognal; 4th & bottom left: Sun House on Frognal Way; Bottom right: Former Gracie Field’s house


On Frognal Lane, one house stands out from the rest, and it is the Grade II listed 66 Frognal designed by Connell, Ward and Lucas for solicitor Geoffrey Walford in 1938. The house was subject of a lengthy planning battle with oppositions from local residents and planning officials before it was built (thankfully, the plan was granted in the end). Over the years, house had been altered by different owners and finally in 2000, Avanti Architects was commissioned by the new owner to rebuild and restore the house in a manner sympathetic to the original design including the colour of the facade. The commission won a RIBA Conservation Award 2005, and you can view the interior of the house (including an indoor swimming pool) via the firm’s website here.

Round the corner on Frognal Way is the Sun House designed by the renowned English modernist architect E. Maxwell Fry and built between 1934-5. This was the first Modernist concrete house to be built in London, and many of its features like the balcony and columns resemble Le Corbusier‘s Villa Stein in France. At the end of the street, you can also find the former house of Gracie Field built in 1934.


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Top row: Frognal Close; 2nd row: 41 Frognal Lane; 3rd & 4th rows: 13b Arkwright Road; Bottom: University College School & Frognal garden


A few minutes downhill you will find Frognal Close, a cul-de-sac of six houses designed by Ernst Freud, son of Sigmund Freud (whose museum is about 5 minutes’ walk away) in 1937. Slightly further down on 41 Frognal Lane, another interesting modernist home was built later in 1968 by Alexander Flinder.

Nearby on 13b Arkwright Road, you will find a house that stands out from the rest because of its unusual glass brick facade and a side elongated porthole. The house was designed by Godfrey Samuel of Samuel and Harding in 1939, and it has two front entrances including one slope that leads to the basement.


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Spedan Close/ Branch Hill Estate off Heysham Lane


One of hidden modernist architecture gems in the area is probably the Branch Hill Estate or Spedan Close. Designed by Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth from Camden’s Architect Department in 1978, the estate resembles the Grade II listed modernist housing estate, Dunboyne Road (see below) in the nearby Gospel Oak. This estate is a fine example of social housing in modern times, yet it was also the most expensive at that period.

The secluded estate is located off Branch Hill next to a care home, and it is not visible from the main road. It is hard to believe that this is a purpose-built housing estate because it looks more like a set of Mediterranean villas! Built on a steep hill, the main entrance is from the top with a car park under a grass/concrete roof.


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The facade of Dunboyne Road estate designed in 1966 by Neave Brown from the Camden’s Architects’ Department and built between 1971 and 1977


The 21 pairs of 2-storey semi-detached houses are built on 3 rows, and in order to access to the bottom, one would have to walk down some ‘dangerous-looking’ (see above) sloping steps that are unlikely to be granted today. Aside from a small front garden, each house also has a roof top terrace. And since the houses face west, most residents would be able to watch sunsets from their homes.

While Modernist architects’ utopian housing ideal has failed, this estate is one of the few that can be celebrated. It works because of the smaller scale, green and quiet environment; and besides functionality, the quality of living seemed to be a priority for the architects. Along with estates like Dunboyne Road, Barbican and Golden Lane (see my earlier post on it here) etc, these successful cases of social housing prove that utopian housing could work if the focus was more on the quality rather than the quantity.


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Top left & middle: Blackburn house; Top right: A house on 49 Denning Road; 2nd row: New house by Guard Tillman Pollock Architects; 3rd row: The Priory by Rick Mather (1997) Bottom row: A mews house off Belsize Place; Bottom right: 40 Ornan Road designed by John Winter in 1971


If you spend some time walking off the main street in Hampstead and Belsize Park, you will come across many intriguing white modernist houses. One of them is Blackburn house located in Rosslyn Mews just off Hampstead High street. This mews house was designed and remodelled by Peter Wilson and Chassay Wright for Janice and David Blackburn in 1988. The house is used a residence, an office and a gallery, which was a new concept at the time when it was built. There are several notable postmodern architectural features on its facade like the use of white, an asymmetrical extended entrance area, the non-orthogonal framed window and an exposed silver pipe.

Two other minimalist houses that stand out nearby include the New House designed by Guard Tillman Pollock Architects on Willoughby Road, and The Priory on 5 Upper Terrace built between 1993-7 by the late American architect Rick Mather. The former was shortlisted for a RIBA award in 2012, while the latter was the runner up for the RIBA Stirling prize in 1998.


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Top left: A house on Redington Road designed by Webb Archietect; Top right: 6 1/2 Redington Road designed by John McAslam; 2nd row & 3rd left: Hopkins’ house; Bottom middle: 50 Pilgrim’s Lane; Bottom right: A house on Keats Grove


The use of glass is commonly seen in modern architecture, and there are some houses in the area that utilise this material to either allow maximum sunlight or as an prominent element in its architectural style. On Redington Road, two houses stand out from the rest of the Victorian style houses. One of them is a part white, part brick house designed by Webb Architects in 2008; the other is a glass and brick structure that was a former 1950s cottage orginally designed by John McAslam and reinterpreted by Pennington Phillips in 2007. Another intriguing one is the glass and metal box-like Hopkins’ house on 49A Downshire Hill designed by Michael and Patricia Hopkins for themselves in 1976. Minimal and timeless, this house is one of a kind, and one of my favourites in the area.


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Top & bottom left: Admirals House; Bottom right: A castle-style house on Belsize Lane


Although not a modernist building, but there is one house that is worth check out while you are in the area and it is the Admiral’s House on Admiral’s Walk. The house was built around 1700 and was bought by a naval officer, Fountain North in 1791 who reconstructed its roof to resemble a ship’s quarterdeck. The house was often painted by John Constable who used to live nearby. The house’s famous former tenants include architect Sir George Gilbert Scott (who designed St Pancras Station and Albert Memorial) and writer PL Travers, whose famous novel “Mary Poppins” was said to be partly inspired by the house.


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Top row: Exterior of Hampstead theatre; 2nd row left & bottom right: Swiss Cottage library; 2nd row middle & right: Central School of Speech and drama; Bottom left: Interior of Hampstead theatre


Finally, moving away from Hampstead and towards Swiss Cottage, there are a few notable buildings worth checking out. One of them is the Grade II listed modernist/ brutalist style Swiss Cottage Library designed by Sir Basil Spence in 1962-64. The library was remodelled by John McAslan + Partners in 2003 as part of the redevelopment project in the area. The interior of the library is spacious and bright, in my opinion, it is one of the finest public libraries in London.

Close to the library is the recently-revamped Hampstead Theatre, the first freestanding theatre to be built in London since the National Theatre in 1975. Designed by Bennetts Associates Architects from 1994-2003, the theatre won the RIBA Award in 2003. The theatre has a 325-seat split-level auditorium and a bar/cafe on its ground floor, and a smaller and cosy free-seating theatre in the basement. I have enjoyed various performances here (both upstairs and downstairs), and I think the close distance between the stage and the movable seating helps to create a more intimate environment for the actors and the audience which is rare to find in the West End theatres.

Right opposite the theatre is another interesting contemporary building which is part of the Central School of Speech and drama designed by Jestico and Whiles in 2005. The bold and slightly imposing structure was shortlisted for the RIBA regional award in 2006; and thanks to the theatre opposite, this building doesn’t look as out of place amongst the post-war buildings and Victorian houses nearby.


Originally, I wanted to create a route/ locate all the buildings for this entry, but I think it is more fun to spend some time exploring the area on foot by yourself. I am sure there are many more hidden gems in the area that I have missed, and for a more comprehensive guide, you can check out the Hampstead section of Modern London houses website compiled by David Anderson, which also includes a map of most modernist houses in the area.



A wet & misty New Year’s hike

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Tillingbourne Valley in Surrey


During this time of the year, guided day hikes out of London are few and far between, so when one came up a few days after the New Year, I was eager to participate. And to my surprise, many other Londoners had the same idea, hence the group was much larger than I had expected. A New Year’s hike is always a good and healthy way to start the year, especially after the excessive indulgence during the festive period.

We have had cold but sunny weather recently, yet on the morning of the hike, it was pouring down and the weather forecast for rest of the day looked fairly grim too. However, having experienced a few torrential downpour on some hikes previously, I was all geared up for the rain this time. And I was glad I did.


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The pretty village Shere is often used as a location for films. The 12th century St James’ church was featured in the Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason.


Our 9-mile hike started at Gomshall in Surrey, we then walked through the historical and picturesque village Shere and along the chalk ridge of the Tillingbourne Valley. On a clear and sunny, the view from the top of the Surrey Hills would have been quite spectacular; yet on a wet and misty day, it was atmospheric and perfect as the setting of a haunted film.




Since trails was very muddy and slippery, we spent most of hike trudging through mud and trying not to slip or fall! This was probably one of the reason why we all felt exhausted after the hike.

Despite the rain, mud and mist, the hike turned out to be fairly enjoyable as all of us were prepared for the worst beforehand. This is the joy of hiking. It is an adventure because you’d never know what lies ahead. Aside from an open mind, be sure that you have the right gear for all seasons, then you are all set to go!