Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Review of The Magdalen Chapter, Exeter

Entrance to The Magdalen Chapter
There's a sign inside The Magdalen Chapter hotel in Exeter which states that visitors are only allowed between 2.30pm and 3.30pm on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Thankfully this refers to a time when this fascinating hotel was the West of England Eye Infirmary.

The red-brick Victorian exterior belies a contemporary, welcoming interior and is one of the most convivial hotels I have stayed in. Whilst residents, dressed in towelling robes, slip through the bar into the garden for a dip in the pool, locals congregate in the fabulous lounge areas for some early evening tapas or the ever-popular half price Friday Fizz. Mums meet for coffee and a session in the spa or treat themselves to afternoon tea. All ages relax on the comfy sofas or, on warm afternoons, pull up an old-fashioned deck chair in the sunshine.

We have stayed twice in The Magdalen Chapter, whilst visiting Rory in Exeter, and both times have appreciated the buzz of this top quality hotel whether we are reading the papers in the library, sharing a cocktail in the bar or making the most of half price steak night in the restaurant. You can have a holiday at the Magdalen Chapter without ever leaving its grounds.

Free mini-bar in the
bedside table - very handy!
The Rooms

There are four types of double rooms: Regular, Superior, Deluxe and Feature. Our deluxe room had a large bathroom separate to the shower/loo and had a skylight above the bed. However, on our second visit, the regular room was perfectly adequate in size and had the same amenities: towelling robes, free mini-bar and a Nespresso machine. The mini-bar is stocked daily with water, a couple of bottles of beer and some soft fizzy drinks - now that's a refreshing change.

The rooms are light and airy due to the high ceilings of the original hospital. The beds are comfortable, with good quality white bed linen. Bathrooms hint at the hotel's past with traditional brick-style white tiles. REN products are available to use and the quality of the towels is excellent.

All rooms have their own iPads to access hotel information as well as the rest of the internet using the free WiFi.

My only grumble is the wooden floor, which looks stylish, but if you have a heavy-footed family running around above you, the sound most definitely carries. I will pick a room on the 3rd floor next time. Thankfully the upper floor corridors are carpeted so noise from outside the room was minimal.

Great vibe in the restaurant
The Food

Breakfast is extremely good value. If you are on a room only basis the price is £10.50 for a hot breakfast including your visits to the continental buffet. Watching the food coming out of the theatre kitchen is a treat: the atmosphere is friendly yet efficient. For a change, try the vegetarian option, shakshouka, a spicy dish of poached eggs, tomatoes and onions. The sausage sandwich also went down rather well.

We tried a selection of tapas one afternoon, a great way to stave off hunger before dinner. It cost £10 for three dishes. We chose lamb koftas, teriyaki chicken wings and tiger prawns. All excellent.

Rory and his girlfriend, Juliana, joined us for dinner on the half price steak night and, apart from one of the starters, the meal was very good. The restaurant is a great space, with a huge patio window looking out onto the garden. I loved the pendulous lights and the supremely comfortable red leather chairs.

The Swimming Pool

We loved this feature: a cosy inside pool/jacuzzi, heated by a wood-burning stove, leading to a warm outside pool. The pool isn't manned so children have to be supervised but this little oasis in the middle of the city was a great plus for us and many other residents.

Checking in at the large oak.
The Artwork

The public areas and the bedrooms are home to many superb examples of modern art. Alison Crowther's magnificent piece of oak, Font II, graces the reception area and Tracey Bush's intricate Worldwide Butterflies, made from vintage maps, can be found in the main lobby.

The Parking

There are only a few spaces available so not all guests will be lucky enough to secure one. An adjacent  public car-park, free from 6pm to 8am, solves the problem to some extent. If you feed the meter the night before, the time will be added onto the next day, avoiding the necessity of jumping out of bed early in the morning.

Overall Experience

On previous visits to Exeter we have chosen the cheaper option of a functional, chain hotel on the edge of the city. Deciding to spend a little more (and not necessarily that much more if you keep an eye out for late deals) turned a trip to see our son into a proper holiday. Having the pool, gardens and public rooms to relax in, made a huge difference to our stay. The Magdalen Chapter provides its guests with a chic, sociable place to unwind. Staff will welcome visitors at any time - not just Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays!

More photos...

18th century fireplace, moved from the original house on the site, into the hospital in 1899.

Library for residents - great selection of books.

Another spot for chilling

Hotel grounds with in/out pool to the left. 

We have stayed twice in The Magdalen Chapter, in June and August 2015. The first time we booked a Deluxe double, finding an excellent late deal online with the hotel. For our second visit, at peak holiday time, we opted for a Regular double, obtaining a small reduction on our room rate in exchange for a review. 


Friday, 14 August 2015

Which occupations make the best bakers?

bubble wrap cake with maltesers
Bubble-wrap mousse made with 
maltesers was a success of mine!
I'm a keen viewer of The Great British Bake Off even if my own efforts are few and lacklustre. My column in this week's Lincolnshire Free Press expressed my excitement that the programme was back and pondered over cracks in Madeira sponges and whether the first contestant to go, Stu, was wearing a Pork Pie hat or not?

I'd like to expand on the second half of my column and bring it to my blog - as I'd love your contributions to something which amused Dougie and me for hours last week.

Have you noticed that the bakers are using their own trades to help them in the competition? In 2014 Richard, the builder, often seen with a pencil behind his ear, put his plastering skills to good use with any icing requirements. This year we have already witnessed anaesthetist Tamal syringing his cake with lemon syrup and the nurse, Alvin, thermometer in hand, had no problems ensuring his tempered chocolate reached the magic number of 32 degrees.

This had me thinking. Which jobs would add something extra to the Bake Off tent?

Gardeners -  a bit heavy-handed with the icing, doubtless laying it on with a trowel.

Plumbers -  a dab hand at piping.

Jockeys - experts at whipping.

Dentists - the perfect choice for fillings.

Cleaners - excellent when doing the final dusting.

Mathematicians - in their element during 'Pi' week.

Lawyers - the experts when it comes to torte.

Bankers - they would know what to do with dough.

Hairdressers - perfect for cake decorating: a comb to create patterns and plenty of delicate curls.

Window cleaners -  no difficulty with glazing and would always have a moist sponge.

Come on, friends, add your own to this list!


Monday, 10 August 2015

A summer together

I don't know why I'm sitting inside typing. It's a lovely day out there and I really should be making the most of it: at the very least I should have some washing on the line. Thankfully, I had lots of fresh air yesterday when Dougie and I had a long walk along the sea bank of The Wash. Normally we have to travel nearly an hour to reach the proper coast/beach in Norfolk, but only 10 minutes drive away are the mudflats and reclaimed land of Lutton Marsh and Gedney Marsh where you can just about see the sea in the distance. It's a strange place - rather wild but with those massive Fenland skies which were just beautiful in the sunshine.

Despite it being the summer, Rory is still away in Exeter. He came back for a couple of weeks work experience then returned to Devon to be with his girlfriend, Juliana, as they set up their fabulous little apartment in the city centre, in preparation for their second year. It's a gorgeous new flat and, as it was unfurnished, they have surprised us with their ability to sort out utilities and purchase bargain furniture from Ikea and several online retailers. Rory has proved to be excellent at furniture construction - all those years of Knex and Lego play have proved to be most valuable.

Of course, we have missed him and I was keen that he should join us when we visited my mum and family in Newcastle last weekend. After looking at options for trains/coaches etc, we made the brilliant discovery that there are cheap flights with Flybe from Exeter to Newcastle. Far cheaper than the train, he was able to take a 10 minute bus ride to Exeter airport, a quick flight just under an hour and we picked him up at Newcastle. He stayed a couple of nights and then we drove him back to the airport. He was back in Exeter while we were still chugging down the A1.

Do you fancy finding out what else has been going on in Empty Nester Towers? My latest columns are, as usual, a complete pick n' mix, from Dougie's volleyball success, end of term plays, packing suitcases, hotels with history and wasting time doing quizzes on Facebook! Have a gander: hope you enjoy them.

Spalding firepower spikes Cannon's guns

Treasure final weeks at school

My man's a master at packing

Magdalen chapter hotel eye hospital

Checking into hotels with history

Having great fun with Facebook


Tuesday, 28 July 2015

The benefits of a Helsinki Card

Purchasing a tourist card  is something to consider when taking a city break but is it good value or do you worry you may end up visiting a whole host of mediocre museums to ensure you have saved money?

Having tried these cards on several European city breaks, I can honestly say they have certainly been worth having, particularly if you opt for the 72 hour card, which is proportionately much better value.

In Helsinki I was given a complimentary 72 hour Helsinki Card for my own use, courtesy of Visit Helsinki: my husband Dougie purchased his own. The cost of one card is 64 euros for 72 hours (54 for 48 hours, 44 for 24 hours).

We tried not to make sightseeing decisions based purely on whether they were now 'free' but this is a hard habit to break. One of the great advantages of the card, however, is that, if a museum doesn't inspire, you don't have the overwhelming urge to stick it out because 'we've paid so we'd better get our money's worth'.

How did we use the Helsinki Card? 


Image: Visit Helsinki
If there is any likelihood of you using public transport in Helsinki, the card will make the whole process so much easier. Yes, you can don your sturdy shoes and walk to many of the attractions in the city but it's lovely to know that if your feet are aching, you can always take a tram to bring you back to the centre again. On one rainy afternoon, we jumped on a tram and completed a figure of eight around the city until the weather changed.

One of the main attractions in Helsinki is Suomenlinna island - you can't 'do' Helsinki without taking a trip there. With the Helsinki card you don't need to pay for the ferry (5 euros return)

Another beautiful island is Seurasaari. With our Helsinki card we were able to take the bus to the water's edge before crossing the bridge on foot - a saving of about 5-6 euros on the return ticket.


Suomenlinna Museum (Free, saving 6.50 euros )
The museum tells the history of the fortress from the 18th century to the present day. Our favourite part was the 25 minute widescreen film which was surprisingly informative. I normally switch off or become fidgety when museums show films but this time I kept my headphones on to the very end - so it must have been good!

Suomenlinna conducted tour (Free, saving 10 euros).
If we had been paying as we go, I doubt we would have chosen to take the tour and yet this proved to be one of the highlights of the day with guide, Michael's knowledge and sense of humour.

Museum of Contemporary Art, Kiasma (Free, saving 12 euros)
An eye-catching building on the outside matches the contemporary work shown within: a variety of changing exhibitions showing the latest developments in visual art. The Face to Face exhibition appealed to me and, in particular, a video exploring the reactions of Alzheimer's sufferers to a pianist playing music from their youth.

Design Museum (Free entry, saving 10 euros)
An enjoyable, if rather short, canter around Finland's national design and industrial art museum. We loved the Finnish fashion exhibition and these crazy outfits.

Kunsthalle Helsinki (50% saving on 10 euro ticket)
We made a bee-line for the Taidehalli to see the current Julian Opie exhibition. Despite him being a British artist, the only time we had seen his work up close before had been in the elevators of The Thief Hotel in Oslo. Strong colours, the use of graphic LED animations, huge 3D sculptures and intricate mosaics made for a stunning exhibition.

Sports Museum of Finland (Free, saving 5 euros)
Located at the Olympic stadium, this proved to be a super little museum. Dougie, being more sporty than me, found it all fascinating stuff, reading about all the famous sportsmen including the Flying Finn, Paavo Nurmi. He also spent an inordinate amount of time playing X Box tennis and downhill skiing, until I had to drag him away as there was a young child eager to have a try. Whilst the Flying Scotsman was hitting the virtual slopes, I rather enjoyed reading about Finland's more unusual sports such as wife-carrying, mobile phone throwing and swamp volleyball.

Olympic Stadium Tower (3 euros, saving of 2 euros)
A fabulous way to see the views across the city. A quick elevator ride up to the top of the 72 metre tower and Helsinki in all its glory is laid before you. The entry fee also allows you into the stadium itself. I would recommend a cushion for the wooden slatted seats if you were actually going to watch something there.

Finnair SkyWheel (free, saving 12 euros)
Another super way to see Helsinki from on high, the SkyWheel operates all year round. Like all the other attractions we visited during our stay, there were no queues. The ride last 10-12 minutes, taking passengers to a height of about 40m.

What else could we have done?

The choice of a Panorama sightseeing tour by bus (free, saving 31 euros) or a boat trip on the canal route (free, saving 24 euros). I can't believe we didn't take the opportunity to choose from either of these amazing offers. Next time...

There were many more 'free' museums we could have visited - military, photography, architecture - but there is a limit to what you can reasonably do in 72 hours and still have time to eat, drink and sleep.  There were also discounts for attractions such as Helsinki Zoo, Linnanmaki Amusement Park, Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, a number of restaurants and a selection of shops.

Not counting transport, we would each have paid about 66 euros for the attractions we visited in three days. If we add in ferries, trams and buses on top of that you can see that 64 euros for a 72 hour card is good value - even more so if we had taken one of the special inclusive tours.

The Helsinki Card will save you money even if, like us, you aren't trying to fit in as many museums as possible. But the fact that it takes the hassle out of visiting places - not having to find the right money or use credit cards to buy tickets - makes for a less stressful experience. And psychologically, although you have paid an upfront fee, you can't help but feel you have complimentary access to much of what Helsinki has to offer when you wave that orange card around.

Thank you to Visit Helsinki for my 72 hour card.