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The Swan Hotel, Lavenham

Sowerby & Luff write…

Located in the centre of England’s most perfectly preserved medieval town, The Swan at Lavenham is one of the UK’s finest examples of a 15th century coaching inn, and we eagerly looked forward to staying there.

Local tourist information doesn’t seem to be able to decide if this is Constable Country or Gainsborough Country, but whichever Old Master lays claim to it, Suffolk has a wealth of delicious eye candy to offer its visitors.

Amid the tall, oak framed halls, huge fireplaces, and long, creaking corridors, The Swan Hotel takes you on a romantic journey though 600 years of English history. It’s like being catapulted into a lavish costume drama about Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. You don’t often get the chance to actually eat and sleep in a building with so much history, so its something of a privilage. But The Swan at Lavenham is not just about the past – it’s about unashamed modern luxury and fine dining.

Click here to listen to exclusive interviews with the General Manager and the Head Chef of The Swan

Extensive refurbishment of the lounge and bar areas has taken over two years, and is virtually complete. It’s not easy to blend ancient architectural features with contemporary decor and design, but the hotel appears to be achieving this balancing act with flair – adding modern touches and convenience throughout, while at the same time maintaining the hotel’s very traditional Tudor flavour.

The original oak beams in our en-suite room were made even more atmospheric by clever use of soft uplighting, and the furniture in the room was plush and comfortable – incorporating wool carpets and upholstery in order to reflect Lavenham’s proud past as a centre of the wool industry.

The bar at The Swan was once frequented by bomber crews from the USAF, and many of their messages and signatures are still lovingly preserved on the walls, along with a fascinating collection of WWII memorabilia from nearby air bases. There’s a good selection of traditional ales on offer, many of them brewed at the nearby brewery in Bury St. Edmunds.

Guests can choose between two restaurants – a stylish new Brasserie, or the more traditional Gallery Restaurant – which focusses on British cuisine, and features a stunning vaulted, oak-beamed ceiling.

We plumped for the more atmospheric and candlelit Gallery Restaurant, and enjoyed a starter of cured boar, soft boiled quails eggs and asparagus.

Our chosen mains were rack of lamb with a carrot puree, and beef with a Choron sauce – both served with a selection of locally produced summer vegetables. The dishes were cooked to perfection and artfully presented. We finished with a miraculously light apple crumble, cleverly served with cider jelly.

At breakfast time we had an opportunity to sample one or two of the excellent speciality breads, baked fresh every day in The Swan’s own bakery. It’s little touches like this that make this hotel such a very special place to stay.

We thoroughly enjoyed our short time at The Swan. I only wish we could have stayed for longer.

Official web site: http://www.theswanatlavenham.co.uk/

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Transatlantic Chat with the Wrinklies

Sowerby and Luff write…

One quiet Wednesday afternoon we got an email from an agent who booked acts for cruise ships. He said that he had been let down at the last minute by a man who gave talks about comedy on a Fred Olson ship called the Boudica. Would we like to do the job instead?

“What would we have to do?” I asked.
“Simple,” he said. “You just have to give five 45 minute talks.”
“How long do we have to spend on the ship?” I asked.
“Three weeks,” he said.
“Where’s the ship going?” I inquired.
“Barbados,” he said.

“What???” screamed Georgina when I rang her and asked if she fancied three weeks in the Caribbean.
“How much do we have to pay?” she asked.
“They’re paying us,” I said.

So, we had apparently landed a dream job. But there’s always a catch, isn’t there? The catch on this job was that the passengers on the ship were mostly over seventy-five years old and not one of them had heard of podcasting. Neither had the ship’s entertaiment manager, who looked and sounded exactly like Ted Bovis out of Hi Di Hi.
“What the hell is podcasting?” he asked me.
“It’s what we’re going to talk about in our act,” I replied.
“You’re going to crash and burn, son!” he said, and then he walked away smiling.

Ted was right. We crashed and burned during our first two lectures. I went into the ship’s library and wrote three completely new talks. But it was too late. We turned up for our third talk, and we were the only ones there.

Luckily Fred Olson were not able to put us off at Barbados. They had to bring us home. So we still got a free three week holiday in the sun and a nice little fee.

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Raffles Hotel, Singapore

Sowerby & Luff write….

We didn’t know much about Singapore, but we’d certainly heard of the world-famous Raffles Hotel. We got out of bed and took a shower. Then we had some coffee, took a shower, had breakfast, took another shower and jumped into a taxi outside the apartment. 
“The world-famous Raffles Hotel, please,” we said.
“Can you give me directions?” asked the taxi driver.
“No,” we replied confidently.

Had it been practical to take a shower in the cab on the way to Raffles we would have done so. But sadly it wasn’t possible. The cab finally pulled onto the crunchy gravel drive at the front of Raffles, and the door was held open for us by a bearded man in a turban and a smart white uniform. Raffles was declared a national monument in 1987, and the hotel is seen as the Jewel in the Crown of Singapore’s tourist industry. When it opened in 1887 it was nothing but a rather sombre-looking old bungalow known as the Beach House, but it’s now a splendid white wedding cake of a building.

Raffles has welcomed innumerable celebrities, including Rudyard Kipling, W. Somerset Maugham, Charlie Chaplin and even Michael Jackson. But it’s most famous guest was undoubtedly Noel Coward, who must surely have been thinking of Singapore when he wrote Mad Dogs and Englishmen Go Out in the Midday Sun.

Raffles’ latest pair of C-list celebrity visitors, Georgina and I, were shown into the Billiard Room, and we ordered Earl Grey tea and a tray full of cakes and sandwiches.
“Do you think they have showers here?” I whispered.
“Ssshh!” hissed Georgina.
We pressed the record button on Roland. “I keep expecting to see Denholm Elliot come bumbling in,” I said “wearing a sweat-stained white linen suit and sipping a Singapore Sling.”
“That’s it!” screamed Georgina. “That’s what we should be ordering. You can’t come to Raffles without having a Singapore Sling!”

The Singapore Sling was created in the Long Bar at Raffles at the turn of the 20th century by a Chinese bartender called Ngiam Tong Boon, and it was so exclusive they used to keep the recipe in a wall safe. It was originally designed as a woman’s drink, hence its rather attractive pink colour, but today it’s enjoyed by everyone – even a couple of oiks like myself and Georgina.
“Two Singapore Slings, please,” I said to the waiter.
“Make that three,” said a voice.
 It was our man in Singapore Lord Kibble.
“What’s in this cocktail?” I asked His Lordship, as Georgina and I sipped our Slings a few minutes later. 
“I have no idea,” he said. “But I shall find out for you.”
It turned out to be gin, Cherry Brandy, pineapple juice, lime juice, Cointreau, Benedictine, Grenadine and a dash of Angostura Bitters. The whole thing was garnished with a slice of pineapple and a cherry on the top.
“I’m not sure it needs the cherry,” I said.
“Just neck it,” said Georgina.

As we left Raffles, Lord Kibble took a photograph of us standing either side of the smart uniformed doorman, and then we jumped into another cab and headed for the Botanical Gardens.
“The world-famous Botanical Gardens, please” we said to the driver.
“Where’s that?” he said.

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Singapore

Sowerby & Luff write…

The Republic of Singapore is a tiny island nation located at the very southern tip of the Malay Peninsula, and it’s actually 85 miles north of the Equator. The heat hit us like a wall. Even Wikipaedia cannot prepare you for the barrage of such heat. Just a few hours before, Crouch End had just experienced its first snow of the year, and we alighted from Singapore Airport into 94°F. Our jeans stuck to our pants and our pants stuck to our bottoms within a nano second. We’d missed a full night’s sleep and the humidity weighed heavy upon us – our eyes red and puffy, our limbs heavy.

Of course, everyone in Singapore spends their entire lives huddled in freezing cold, air-conditioned apartments, offices and cars, so exposure to the country’s extreme climate rarely lasts more than a few seconds. Most of the time you’re indoors, blowing on your hands to keep them warm, and wearing a polo-necked sweater.

We Brits, in the form of the East India Company, first established a trading post on Singapore in 1819, and for years we used the place as a strategic trading post, until it was occupied by the Japanese during World War II. When peace broke out in 1945 it reverted back to British rule, and in 1965 became independent. Now it’s the 17th wealthiest country in the world, despite having a tiny population of less than 5 million.

We took a taxi from the airport into the centre of Singapore, where you can almost smell the money as you walk around in the financial district. The city centre is crammed with glinting silver skyscrapers, and everything looks as if it’s just been vacuumed, waxed and polished. In fact, Singapore is so clean and well kept it’s like the entire city suffers from some kind of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. We got the feeling that if you dropped a piece of litter it would be swooped upon by a cleaner before it even reached the ground. The whole place seemed to embody extreme anal retentiveness.
“This is the cleanest place I’ve ever seen,” I said, as we strolled through the Downtown Core.
“It’s even cleaner than Svendborg!” said Georgina. “In fact, there’s something almost sinister about it. As if someone has just tidied up after a crime.”
“Oh, there’s no crime in Singapore,” I said.
“Why not?” she asked.
“Because virtually everything is punishable by execution,” I said. “I’d be careful where you put that cigarette butt if I were you. You’ll find yourself on Death Row.”

Georgina and I were genuinely dumbfounded by the list of fines for doing almost anything in Singapore; smoking, littering, sneezing, walking, not walking, or just simply being in the place. The locals call it a “Fine City”. Of course, the bonus side to all of this is that you feel extremely safe everywhere. Even walking around in a park at 11 pm at night, there is no sense whatsoever of personal danger.

There are 63 islands in Singapore, and the government are busy trying to join them all together into one big land mass. Everywhere you look they’re digging up earth and pouring it into the sea to create some new real estate. In Singapore, the tide doesn’t come in, the beach goes out.

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New York Marathon 2007

Sowerby & Luff write…

“What do you mean, you’ve lost your voice?” said Georgina. “We’re supposed to be recording at the New York Marathon this morning”.
I held up a piece of paper. “Fuck,” it said.

It was a bright, crisp morning, and as we walked along 3rd towards Bedford, we heard the unmistakable sounds of a huge crowd cheering a sporting event. As we turned the corner, we were greeted by a spectacular scene. The leading runners were sprinting through a water station, set up at the top of our street, and on either side of the road there were thousands of New Yorkers screaming encouragement for the runners.

Only a few seconds before we arrived at the corner of Bedford – roughly the halfway mark in the race – the world famous British runner Paula Radcliffe had sprinted past, en route to her second New York Marathon win. She was running in her first marathon for over two years, and bravely fought off her great Ethiopian rival Wami to finish in an amazing 2 hours 23 mins and 9 secs. A piece of British sporting history. If we hadn’t stopped for breakfast on the way, we’d have seen it with our own eyes. But hey, those pancakes at Aldo’s Diner…

The New York Marathon starts on Staten Island, then goes through Brooklyn and Queens before crossing the Queensborough Bridge into Manhattan, where it makes its way up to the Bronx and then south again to the finish at Central Park, through which we had walked ourselves just a couple of days earlier.

We stayed at Bedford Avenue until every single one of the 39,000 runners had flowed past us towards McCarren Park. The cheers from the locals were incredibly supportive of the competitors, and strangely moving. In fact we both got quite tearful at one point.
Calls like “stay strong” and “you can do it” could be heard all along the street, as spectators joined in the spirit of the day, whether they knew anyone in the race or not. Georgina quickly got caught up in the excitement, and was soon shouting encouragement to all the runners with names printed on the front of their shirts.
“Go Bob!” she’d shout.
“Go Barney!”
Of course, not having a voice, I was unable to join in with this ritual, but I’d occasionally give the runners a wave or even high-five them as they went past.

Many spectators wore matching shirts and hand-painted signs to show extra-special support for their friends or favourite runners. There was a girl standing opposite us holding up a big sign which read “Go Sue!”. As soon as Sue had run past, the girl turned the sign over, and on the back it read “Go Carol!”

In Williamsburg, former marathon runner Luis had been standing watching the runners from this exact spot for almost 20 years. “It’s never disappointing,” he said. “The energy is fantastic.”
“It sure is,” said Georgina.
Someone once said that if New York is a human being, then the marathon is its heart. I think Georgina and I would both agree that’s very well put.