Ready, Steady …. Hop!

Watching Michael Palin travel shows as a kid certainly gave me a travel bug I still haven’t managed to shake off, but also introduced me to the world of Monty Python and all the spin offs it produced such as Fawlty Towers with John Cleese and the lesser know Ripping Yarns by Michael Palin and Terry Jones.

Meeting Michael Palin & Terry Jones

To my surprise and delight when I first started writing this blog, I had a quick Google search for “Michael Palin”, mainly to see if he had any new travel shows in the pipeline. It turns out he does, it’s set in Brazil and comes out sometime in 2012, however the best thing I found was in the Ham & High about his attempt at a world record for hopping. The reason it turned out was to commemorate the re-release of Ripping Yarns on DVD. The first episode of the series involved a parody of public boarding school rituals, in this case involving a 30 mile hop – it makes much more sense if you watch it!

Hopping 400m around Hampstead Heath Athletics Track on a Saturday morning seemed like a pretty daft idea but this was a chance to a) meet Michael Palin and b) do something totally random I’ll probably never do again so I was in, and so was Kat. And after all it was only a 20 minute walk up the road.

So on a Saturday morning, instead of enjoying a lie in or nursing a hangover from the night before, Kat and I found ourselves arriving at the venue to find a random collection of people young, old, in fancy dress, sports gear, normal clothes all ready to take part in the hop. We  were all given t-shirts and waited for the arrival of Michael Palin and Terry Jones. It’s kind of strange to see a person you’ve admired for a long time, often they don’t meet your expectations and you come away disappointed however the former Pythons were amusing and friendly in front of the crowd of about 100 people.

After an explanation of the rules (you are only allowed to hop on the same leg, although you are allowed to stop and rest) we were taken through a short warm up where even Palin joined in for most of it, not bad for 68 years old. A few minutes after that, a handful of late entries from a military fitness class and the obligatory press calls had been completed, we were off!

Now I don’t care what you say, but hopping 400m turns out to be a lot harder than some people thought. I think I had only completed the first 150m or so, my right leg feeling the impact of me (quite a large chap) jumping up and down on it and I had to stop for a few seconds. Upon going again it was clear this wasn’t going to be easy, just a few metres further and I stopped again. By the time I’d reached the 3rd bend the leaders were crossing the finishing line, a minor embarrassment but I was at this point ahead of Kat. By this point I was probably doing 10-15 metres in between short breaks when I realised a man dressed in a banana costume had crossed the finishing line.

Spurred on by the slight shame, I continued, thinking not far to go and cheered on by the two Pythons crossed the line in a time of …. um err… actually I never even thought about that. Kat was just a few metres behind me with Michael approaching to give her some words of encouragement but as soon as she saw a video camera, cut short the conversation just feeling the need to finish.

Michael encourages a Hopper at the finish (Taken by Kat)

As every following hopper approached the finish the crowd grew louder with cheers of encouragement, some were struggling however crossing the line was an achievement. As the last person crossed the line, having completed the course in fancy dress there was some relief. The winners received medals to congratulate them and their winning legs from Palin and Jones.

Sadly the solo hop, nor the following relay competition were able to beat the Guinness Word Records but maybe we should consider including hopping as a late addition to the London Olympics this year? There might be some sore limbs afterwards, I think I’ve developed a funny little limp – Ministry of Silly Walks anyone?

You can see a video of the hop and an interview with Michael Palin and Terry Jones here.


5 UK Destinations to Escape London 2012

Before I leave Britain for a little while, I thought it would be good to say something about the place. Where better to start than the Olympics, something that has been in the papers every day for what seems like forever now.

It’s a big project, anyone who goes to Stratford (not the Shakespeare one, the former ghetto one in East London) can see that. Thousands of acres of contaminated land has been turned into a giant construction playground that is bearing fruit. It’s phenomenal what they’ve built there and even more astounding when you consider 5.5m people will visit with many from outside the UK.

There’s just one big problem, London may be a big city but the parts of it that will be used for the games are actually quite small. It’s the Olympic Park for much of the sporting action while most of the visitors and some other events are held in Central London which really isn’t very big, you can walk across much of it in less than an hour. That means London is going to be bursting at the seams with people, lots and lots of hot sweaty congested people. If you don’t like the traffic normally, the special Olympics lanes won’t help; and if you don’t like the Tube to commute, it really won’t be fun; and if you hate queues, well you get the picture.

So for many people, why not get out of London? Or if you’re a tourist here for the games, see another part of a wonderful country? I’ve listed my top 5 places to visit.

5. Nottingham

Often when I’ve met local people on my travels in some more random parts of the world and I’ve told them I’m from England, after the excitement of them recalling David Beckham and their love of football, the next name to be said is ‘Robin Hood’. It’s party because of this and partly because I went to University in the city that I’ve listed Nottingham here.

Nottingham proudly claims to be the home of Robin Hood and despite Doncaster’s claims that it is the home of Robin Hood, I’d rather send a visitor here. No offence Doncaster.

Nottingham is a small city with 2 big universities. This has helped provide it with a bit of a cosmopolitan feel to it with plenty of bars, restaurants and clubs to keep your typical visitor happy. I particularly like World Service, Warsaw Diner, Cucamara’s and Rock City.

Not many cities have their own deer!

With visitor attractions such as the castle, Wollaton Hall, caves and a good shopping centre there is enough to keep you occupied for a decent day out as well as a couple of good hotels in Hart’s and The Lace Market Hotel for a decent night’s sleep or otherwise.

4. Gower Peninsula

I never thought I’d be suggesting the Gower as one of the best places outside London to visit, I had it in my head that Swansea and the surrounding area was a bit of a dump. How wrong I was when I went there to visit a friend last year.

Just 30 minutes drive out of Swansea you will find spectacular coastal scenery, empty beaches, rolling hills, rocky cliffs and even some good surf spots. Prices around here are very cheap in comparison to London so if you get out here, hire a car and explore. I especially enjoyed Rhossili.

How about this all to yourself?

For the night owls and party animals, head to Mumbles for the ‘Mumbles Mile’, a stretch of pubs by the sea for a pint in each one.

3. Manchester.

Manchester is one of those cities with a soul, it’s gritty, northern and cool – if you don’t believe me then go pick a fight with one of the Gallaghers (either the musically talented but squabbling brothers or the fictional characters of the TV series Shameless).

Manchester is home to the best football teams in the country with United and City currently fighting it out for the Premier League, a whole host of musicians from the Smiths to Oasis to Elbow to up and coming artists like Ren Harvieu. Be sure to catch a gig there.

Despite being down on it’s luck a few times in recent years with the collapse of industry and events such as the IRA attack, the city has always re-invented itself with areas such as the Lowry and Media City in Salford or the trendy bars and shops of the Northern Quarter.

It’s well worth a weekend and to top it off you can stay in Europe’s tallest hotel, the Hilton on Deansgate.

2. Cotswolds.

There’s a reason many of the richest and most well known people in Britain have made the Cotswolds their home. Think Jeremy Clarkson, Kate Moss, Liz Hurley and a whole host of bankers, lawyers and directors. It’s because the Cotswolds offers some of the most attractive countryside in England while only being an hour or two’s drive or train journey from London.

With all this upmarket gentrification (thank you GCSE Geography) the area is full of gorgeous country cottages, gastro pubs, boutique hotels and luxury shops for you (or your significant other) to make a dent on the credit card while at the same time enjoying a bit of peace and pampering.

My personal favourites are the Lords of the Manor Lords of the Manor in Upper Slaughter for a bed and/or a cream tea, the Horse And Groom in Oddington for dinner/drinks and Stow on the Wold for a bit of retail therapy. If you’ve got the kids with you they’ll love the maze and other attractions in Bourton-on-the-Water.

To tie in with the Olympic theme, the Cotswolds has actually been home to the ‘Olimpicks’, their own quintessential sporting event for the past 400 years!

1. Glasgow

My winner and top recommendation for anyone visiting somewhere outside of London during the Olympics, or just needing somewhere to get away to is Glasgow.

Glasgow has never had the best of reputations, many simply recognise it as being run down or dangerous and although like most cities it has it’s dodgy areas they could not be more wrong. Glaswegians are just about the friendliest people in the UK and the most likely to get chatting to total strangers at the bar, in the street or when queuing at a shopping till.

The city itself may not have a castle like Edinburgh as its postcard image but it is littered with attractive architecture throughout the city, partly thanks to previous residents such as Charles Rennie Mackintosh whose famously designed tea rooms exist to this day. Other gems include the Kelvingrove Art Gallery, Botanic Gardens, SECC Armadillo, Necropolis or the more modern Riverside Museum designed by Zaha Hadid.

The River Clyde, you can see the stunning SECC on the left

To get around many of the places to see in the city, visitors will need some energy or just a place to chill out afterwards and the city doesn’t disappoint. With trendy but homely bars such as McPhabbs, Brewdog and The Blind Pig there are plenty of places for a refreshing pint. Gourmet’s will love the city’s restaurant scene with highly acclaimed chefs serving local produce at Stravaigin or the Ubiquitous Chip in addition to Italian places galore such as Sarti or La Fiorentina.

And if that isn’t enough to persuade you to go, you are only an hour from the scenic Loch Lomond or the much visited Clyde Coast.

Anyone actually heading to Glasgow should check out WhickApp, an iPhone travel application I made with @andrewsmatt.

As good as London is, it’s very different from the rest of the United Kingdom and this summer should be the perfect opportunity to experience it.

Do you agree or disagree with my selections? Would love to hear other people’s thoughts on where they’d sent people to visit?