The Saturday Six – Always Twirling

Welcome to the first in a series of conversations with some of my favourite people on the web.  My only criteria for this is that they’re people who are interesting, have a story to tell, and that I’d like to have a drink with.

Peter and Susana are a Canadian couple who set off last year on a round the world journey that’s taken them to southeast Asia, Australia, London, Italy and Africa over the past eight months.  I came across their blog Always Twirling as we were setting off on our travels and enjoyed following their experiences and getting to ‘know’ these fellow travellers.  Their images are vibrant, their writing is accessible and friendly, and the site design is fresh and easy to engage with.  Peter is an keen user of travel technology and a judicious user of social media.  Unlike a *lot* of travel bloggers’ Twitter feeds, theirs is not an endless stream of self-promotion; if they’ve chosen to retweet something, odds are pretty good it’s going to be worth reading.

I caught up with Peter and Susana back in Canada on a break from their travels.

Welcome back! How does it feel to be in Toronto after 8 months on the road?

Peter:  It feels strange.  You do feel like a visitor in some ways. Since I don’t have a job, it’s also weird to be able to wander the streets without any particular purpose or imperative.  I can feel how the road has changed my perspective and overall mindset but I find it hard to describe to others.  In some ways even, I feel a bit more distant from my friends now that I’m back than when I was on the road.

Susana: Coming home after such a long trip is disconcerting.  Everything is familiar but you can’t shake the feeling of being just a bit off balance.  It is also, in many respects, strangely lonely.  Our 8 months around the world have been absolutely amazing but this experience has also built distance between us and our friends and family.  They all unfailingly ask about travels and some are even genuinely interested beyond the required polite inquiry.  But try as we might we can’t adequately convey what we’ve seen and experienced in words or even photos.  You really had to be there.

I also suspect that we simply don’t relate to each other the same way anymore; we don’t have those common threads of job, family, kids, etc. and what we’ve done is frankly something quite foreign to most people.

You seemed pretty taken with southeast Asia. Did you find any other destinations as inspiring?  And is it possible to maintain that initial enthusiasm for the new as the journey lengthens?

Peter: I really loved South East Asia.  We just finished our overland trip trough southern and eastern Africa.  That really blew our minds.  The people, the landscapes, the wildlife.  It’s incredibly beautiful but also equally sad in lots of ways.

…you can’t find wildlife that comes close to Africa anywhere else.  There’s nothing more incredible than watching a pride of lions eat a zebra while a pack of Hyenas stand by, waiting for their turn.  It’s thrilling and life affirming stuff really.

There have been a few moments of low energy for me.  Leaving Thailand for Australia was one moment for sure.  But then again, our Africa overland tour threw a lot of energy back into me.  I think the change of pace and scenery helped to re-invigorate.  It is possible to maintain the excitement but you have to change it up somehow to keep it fresh.

Susana: Africa had some awe inspiring sights.  I can’t possibly do justice to the beauty of a red African sunset, or what it feels like to be three feet away from a wild lion, or the experience of being surrounded by the never-ending planes of the Serengeti.  Australia is also a very special place for me – to dive at the Great Barrier Reef is to immerse yourself in a whole other world full of wonders.  Lastly, if you’re looking for art and romance, you simply can’t beat Italy.

In terms of enthusiasm, I’ve been able to maintain my level of interest fairly steady.  I generally try to approach each country with no expectations and hope to be delighted.  Most times it works out.  I do have my occasional moments when I’m tired of having to constantly figure out what to do, where to stay, and all the daily basics that you take for granted at home.  Whenever that feeling strikes we tend to stop for a few days and give the sightseeing a break to recharge our batteries.

Does the reality of long-term travel as a couple match up to your expectations?  Have you had to re-adjust your goals or priorities as a couple or individually?

Peter: I’m not sure that I really had expectations.  Actually, I know I didn’t which looking back seems so naive.  From the traveling perspective, our goals and destinations remain the same.  We didn’t pick destinations where one of us would feel out of place.  In terms of priorities, I’m not sure how that will play out.  When I set out, I really wanted to make a strong thrust into the digital nomad lifestyle.  However, I’m not sure if Susana has the same interest in perpetual motion.  We also talked about possibly changing countries permanently if any place we visited captured our hearts and we thought it viable to change.  I’m not sure any have so far but we’ll see what the rest of the trip holds.

Susana: Peter and I were good friends for about 10 years before we became a couple, which means we know each other really well and generally really enjoy each other’s company.  We had friends who wondered how we would get along being together 24 hours a day but we’ve actually gotten along really well throughout our trip so far.  We’ve learned when to give each other space and when to pursue separate interests.

I didn’t have any fixed goals other than to get out and see the world.  It is something I’ve dreamt of for years.  For me, whether we achieve a digital nomad lifestyle or find inspiration for new careers/ventures is all gravy.

I certainly have my eye out for new opportunities and places to settle but I don’t consider it a failure if we end up going home to Toronto and finding regular jobs. Peter is right in that I’m not keen on permanently being as nomadic as we’ve been on the trip.  I would love to live in other countries but I would like to settle somewhere for at least a few years before picking up and going again.

The travel blogging world is getting ever more crowded.  How do you make your blog stand out and what tips might you offer to other travel bloggers looking to do the same?

Peter: I’m probably the worst person to give advice on this matter.  We avoid flagrant self promotion as much as possible in favour of trying to build readership organically and authentically.  I prefer this approach as it feels closer to how I would like to engage a blog as a reader.  Promotion and sharing is important but hitting someone over the head a million times to get more “likes” drives me crazy.

If you would like to stand out, I think it takes patience and a serious effort to improve the quality of what you produce.  Quality content matters significantly more than quantity and I’ll be the first to admit that I have been learning this lesson over the past 8 months of travel.  So advice to others (and myself included) is focus on quality and making your content as good as it can be.  Readers will find you without being force fed Facebook “Likes” and Tweets.

Susana: As Peter said, we’re not big self promoters.  I don’t worry about the number of Facebook likes or twitter followers we have.  I’m interested less with numbers than with engagement.  I love it when people comment on our blog or Facebook page, reach out to us via email or twitter.  That connection with people is what interests me.  In the end, I think what sets anyone apart is a unique point of view, good writing, and content that touches and connects with people.  I’m still trying to find my voice with every post I write.

One thing I’ve enjoyed about your blog is how you’ve reached out to others involved in travel, be it bloggers or those on the tech side of travel.  Have the connections you’ve made enriched or helped your travel experience?

Peter: The blog as a whole and the connections we make through it enrich me personally.  They open random doors and lead me down different lines of thinking.  In that way, our website has been very similar to our travelling; random and with a curious mind looking to explore.  I think it has provided some mental exercise and filled some personal needs I have to document and share the trip as well as just letting me learn more about blogging while on the road.  But we haven’t walked up to the Four Seasons front desk yet and said “Hey, we’re Always Twirling!  I’m sure you’ve heard of us since we’re kind of a big deal.  How about a free room!”.  In that sense, the rewards of the blogging have not been financial.

Susana:  I’d like to think that we long term travellers are a bit of a unusual breed, so I love it when we get to learn about the experience of other travellers.  These interviews not only satisfies our natural curiosity about others on the road, it also gives us ideas about place to explore and ways of travelling that we hadn’t thought about before.

What’s on the horizon?   Do you see yourselves becoming fully location-independent?

Peter: We are heading down to South America.  Probably until Christmas time or so.  From there, I don’t honestly know yet.  I have some thinking to do around this and so does Susana.  The next couple of weeks should allow us to digest the past 8 months of travel, look at some options and make some kind of decision around what we want to focus on for the next 6 months or so.  Do we keep pushing the blog and get serious about online revenue streams? Or just enjoy the trip and look for traditional employment options back home in Toronto.  I’m honestly not sure just yet.  In either case, I know that travel and the way I travel will never be the same.

Susana: As Peter said, we’re headed down to South America, where I will hopefully get my Spanish back up to snuff.  Becoming fully location-independent will depend on what opportunities we encounter/create over the next 6 months.

I genuinely don’t know where it will all lead but I’m excited to find out.  Even if we come home and end up in regular jobs, I know that seeing the world will always be a priority for us and we’ll find our way to somehow keep on twirling.

A big thanks to Peter and Susana for sharing their thoughts. You can follow them on Facebook and Twitter too.


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Photo essay – Ennerdale, Lake District

Even though summer comes in fits and starts, many flowers have come in to bloom around the edge of the lake.

The path curves inland before meeting the lake again, where you have to scramble over rocks well above the water.

Our drinking water comes from Ennerdale, since it’s also a reservoir.

Sheep trying to hide from us or at least move faster uphill. No contest sheep, you’ll always win.

The path was frequently submerged by streams running into the lake; sometimes it’s hard to tell where the water ends and the land begins.

As we walked we discussed what the future might hold and the pros and cons of where we might live next.

Wherever we end up, odds are it probably won’t be this beautiful. Unless we move to New Zealand.

To circle the lake only takes a few hours, depending on the path you choose. It’s a fairly gentle walk with only a few steep climbs and descents.

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Elective Affinities – Turner Monet Twombly at Tate Liverpool

The greatly anticipated summer exhibition at Tate Liverpool has all the hallmarks of a blockbuster–record-breaking attendance at its previous locations and rave reviews emerging from the press event. Does it deserve the hype?

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Northern Delights – Fellwalking in the northern Lake District

Derwentwater from Cat Bells

Living in Cumbria, as we are at the moment, you get fairly used to having stunning landscapes in your backyard.  You also get used to appreciating them from indoors since the weather doesn’t tend to be on your side.  So when there’s a break in the rain, you have to grab the chance to hike with both hands.  We had a rain-free day recently and decided to revisit one of the more popular fells in the northern Lakes, Cat Bells.  Its summit is 451 meters/1,480 feet.

Cat Bells Summit

I am not a great walker.  I’m fine on long hikes with moderate terrain and I actually quite like scrambling over rocks and leapfrogging over streams.  But when ascents and thus descents are involved, I get sweaty, red-faced and generally cranky about my lack of fitness.  Sometimes it takes me a little while to find the right frame of mind to get over myself. I think about the miners who used to walk these paths every day, regardless of the weather, to get to work.  I pause and look out over the valleys when I need a breather or a slurp from the water bottle.  And I remember that the views always make it worthwhile.

View from Maiden Moor

Last time we hiked up Cat Bells, I was getting overtaken by small children on the rocky paths.  One fell was about all I had in me on that occasion.  This time we carried on to the next fell, Maiden Moor, where we sheltered from the wind while eating lunch.  Maiden Moor is over 100 meters higher than Cat Bells, and our final fell of the day, HighSpy is 653 meters above sea level.

High Spy with my little eye

Our descent brought us to a path that followed the Newlands Beck waterway and led us to the accurately named village of Little Town which has a lovely bed and breakfast, Littletown Farm. They cater for walkers during the day, and we couldn’t resist stopping for an ice cream, afternoon tea, or some combination of the two. His raspberry ripple dairy ice cream and my scone with jam and fresh whipped cream were both satisfying.  One of the owners was a friendly chap originally from Aviemore in the Highlands and he was very welcoming.   I got the feeling guests were well looked after there and it would be a cozy rural retreat.  As it’s also a working farm, there were plenty of chickens and dogs about, so it helps to be an animal lover.

One of the regulars, Littletown Farm

The walk back to the car from Littletown took us through a few fields and the village of Skelgill.  As ever when hiking in Cumbria, there was an epic amount of sheep and cow poo along the trail, so be prepared to clean your boots or at least have a plastic bag ready for them when you change into everyday shoes.

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Northern Delights – Manchester by bike

My first visit to Manchester in 2003 was less than thrilling and I’ll admit my relationship with the city didn’t get off to the best start.  Much like Glasgow, I found it full of oppressively red brick Victorian buildings, difficult to navigate, and rainy.  I’d been living in Edinburgh for the last several months and  much preferred the city’s medieval and Georgian architecture, which was far less stifling.

Time passed, I ended up in Liverpool and started to make the jaunt up the M62 more regularly.  The city grew on me; I began to find my way around the city centre and get to know outlying areas like Stockport and Chorlton.  I know my way around the tram network and the odd bus route.  The galleries and museums intrigued and impressed me, as did the biannual Manchester International Festival.  I have some wonderful friends scattered around the area, so I enjoy spending time there when I get the chance.

On the last weekend of good weather in May, I was staying with a good friend who is also a keen cyclist and told me about the Brompton Dock bike rental scheme at Piccadilly station.  She’d already picked up a bike for a week’s trial and it sounded like a pretty good way to hire a bike for a few days and explore the city on two wheels.  It’s really easy to use; create an account online, decide which membership plan you want to pay for (trial, occasional or frequent rider) and enter your mobile number so you can receive access codes to the lockers.  The trial membership is only £10 for a week’s rental, which is by far the cheapest way to rent a bike in Manchester.  It’s a lot easier to use than the Boris bikes in London, which required a card with chip and PIN to rent one, last time I was there. Meaning of course that a pretty big group of tourists is excluded from turning up and renting a bike.  Visitors from non-C&P countries can use Brompton Dock provided they have a UK mobile number. You can reserve a bike online or via text and then you get an access code to open the designated locker.  There are instructions on the lockers on how to fold and unfold the bikes as well as demo videos online.  Not being mechanically minded I wasn’t sure how easy it would be, but I got the hang of it pretty quickly.

Brompton Dock Manchester, image via

The Brompton was easy to ride, very manoeuverable and light.  I had no trouble getting it on and off the tram or getting it indoors when needed. It’s great on paved surfaces, but you’re going to feel it on cobblestones as there’s nothing to absorb the shocks.  The saddle is the only real drawback; we agreed that it was not comfortable, it’s somewhat narrow and doesn’t have much in the way of padding.  There’s a non-standard bolt securing it to the frame, so swapping it over for your another saddle isn’t an option.

So I have a fun little bike–what did I do with it?

On Friday, I joined my first Critical Mass ride–a monthly mass cycling event encouraging people of all ages and experience to get out and ride together through the city.  The route is spontaneous, changing each time.  The sunshine brought out about 150 riders to central Manchester’s and with such a large group no one was going to be setting any landspeed records, which suited me fine.  The route rambled through the Northern Quarter and Great Ancoats Street before eventually turning south and finishing in Platts Fields Park, near the space run by bicycle co-operative Pedal Manchester. It was a lot of fun and we had a good chat with some fellow riders afterwards.

Sunday’s journey was the more sedate Gabardine Ride, which was something of a warm up for June’s Tweed Ride. Anyone who wished was welcome to put on some summer finery and meet in Albert Square for a leisurely ride towards Chorlton.  Given that I was travelling out of a backpack, I pulled together an ensemble consisting of a top somewhere between a dress and a tshirt, leggings, and a pair of Campers that are half-brogue, half-trainer. With some borrowed pearls for that finishing touch.

Gabardine Riders, image courtesy of Mad Cycle Lane Manchester

There were about 10 of us in total, and their knowledge showed me parts of Manchester I would have never seen otherwise.  We stopped at the Whitworth Art Gallery for some refreshment partway through; their cafe has garnered a fair bit of attention for its seasonal and locally sourced menu.  I couldn’t resist a slice of deep dark chocolate cake to help fuel the remainder of the ride.  Winding through Moss Side, Fallowfield and taking in some lovely shaded cycle paths, we arrived in Chorlton for a quick pint in the sun at The Beech Inn’s beer garden.  Chorlton is one of my favourite towns in the north and its village green was a happening place with a family-friendly festival in full swing as we biked past.  Word of another cycle group at Jackson’s Boat pub near Sale got us back on our bikes and following part of the Mersey river near the Sale Water Park.  It was really tranquil and felt worlds away from Manchester city centre.

Eventually it was time to head back to the city and we were guided to Stretford tram station by a local rider.  It was easy to get the Bromptons on and off the trams and then return mine to the dock at Piccadilly.

Me with the Bromptons on the tram, Manchester

It was a fantastic weekend to explore Manchester by bike.  Cycle events take place across the city regularly and if you want to find out more, the Greater Manchester Cycling Campaign is a good place to start.


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Northern Delights: Five Views of York

Next up in the series of Northern Delights is York. The city has most of the qualities visitors want in an historic destination: winding medieval streets, charming views, recognisable landmarks, and some interesting places to eat and drink.   It’s probably one of my favourite days out in the north, and on this occasion I walked part of the city walls for the first time.   Here are some views from the periphery of York’s former boundaries.

Peeking over the wall towards York Minster

The beer garden of my favourite pub in York, Lamb and Lion Inn

View of the inside of the wall

Peace and quiet along the wall. The embankment is a more recent addition to the landscape.

Perfect to grab and sit on the grass on a summer-y day. If you’re in York and the sun is shining, go find this ice cream.

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Northern Delights part 1 – 36 Hours in Liverpool

We’ve had some pretty glorious weather across Britain this past week.  Since it’s entirely possible that this is all the summer we’ll get, I’m going to celebrate by sharing some of my favourite places across the North.

Albert Dock and Liverpool One

Back in Liverpool for the first time since January, my first stop was my spiritual home in the city centre, Bold Street.  It’s where you can find some of the city’s best independent shops, cafes and venues. Leaf tea bar and cafe serves excellent food, dozens of loose leaf teas and has a cracking line up of events, from vintage fairs to live music to social media gatherings like Ignite

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If coffee is your preferred caffeine delivery method, then a visit to Bold Street Coffee is a must.  They’re dedicated to serving hand-roasted blends and do a mean flat white. It was just as good as I remembered from my last visit five months previously. They’ve opened a sibling branch, Duke Street Espresso, near Liverpool One.

There’s no shortage of museums in Liverpool, and some of my favourites are along the waterfront. Open Eye Gallery, one of the only dedicated photography galleries in the northwest, moved to its new home on Mann Island last year.  They have a great programme of contemporary and archive exhibitions. The current shows deal with conflict and genocide in different fashions–I found Simon Norfolk’s photographs particularly striking.

The building is a controversial addition to the waterfront Open Eye takes up a small part of the overall space, which is still being developed.

The Maritime Museum, International Slavery Museum, and Museum of Liverpool are along this stretch of waterfront–you could easily spend a weekend only visiting museums.  I carried on to Tate Liverpool in Albert Dock to see the latest exhibitions from the permanent collections, as curated by milliner Philip Treacy and musician Marianne Faithfull.  Both were playful and had a fascinating mix of objects.  I particularly liked the wooden forms used for hat design in Treacy’s atelier. Tate’s upcoming summer exhibition brings together three well-known artists for the first time: Turner Monet Twombly promises to be a fascinating look at the later works of each artist, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing it.

I met up with a couple of food-loving friends for dinner at one of the most interesting and promising new venues in town, Camp and Furnace.  Located in the former home of A Foundation, it’s a multipurpose space which has already hosted some great events this year as part of the Threshold Festival and Liverpool Light Night.  It’s comprised of multiple open spaces (the furnace and the blade factory to name two) with its industrial past visible. The kitchen is run by the extremely capable Steven of Rhubarb & Custard catering, and their menu offers a refreshing twist on standards like sharing platters and classic comfort food as well as inventive changing specials.  Their locally brewed Brown Bear ale is worth a taste, and not too heavy in the summer heat. The three of us shared a ‘Berber’ platter–broadly Mediterranean themed, it featured prawns marinated in a spiced tomato and feta compote, lamb merguez sausages, thinly sliced courgette in a refreshingly light lime and dill sauce, with yoghurt and pitas on the side.  Each element was well prepared and the overall mix of flavours was fantastic.

The obligatory ‘what I ate’ food blogger photo – spiced crab salad with sourdough

As the night cooled we curled up by a roaring log fire.  They plan to have an indoor caravan park hotel (hence the ‘camp’ in Camp and Furnace) and if it  were open in time for the Euros, (they’re showing every single match in their fan park), I would seriously consider taking up residence.

The glorious weather seemed to have retreated a bit the next morning, so I warmed up with some earl grey and porridge at Bold Street coffee.  I just had time for a quick visit to some outdoor shops hunting for a new backpack before meeting up for a coffee at the Italian Club before catching my train to Yorkshire.

I’ve only scratched the surface on this visit to Liverpool, but it was good to be back.  Next time I plan to visit The Brink and hopefully check out the newest branch of my favourite scouse pizza parlour, TriBeCa.

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