Monday, 19 December 2016

It's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas!

This Christmas I know I am greatly blessed. Not only am I healthy (a big deal for me) and I am looking forward to hitting the jackpot on my bucket list in January with a trip to the other side of the world, but, most importantly I have all my children home for Christmas. When your children are young, you can't imagine that there will ever be a time when they won't be coming home for Christmas but now we know that the years when they are all with us will be rare and therefore to be cherished. In the years to come they may be working or traveling or with their in-laws - and quite rightly so. And I never want to be the parent who makes a big fuss when they can't come home. But I do appreciate it very much when they can. And since my two married daughters have shown excellent taste in their choice of husbands they are wonderful additions to our family festivities.

It's funny that through all the Christmases at our little home, it's the ones where things have not quite gone to plan that are the ones that we remember. The one where the village postmistress joined us for Christmas dinner. She was recently widowed and would otherwise have spent Christmas alone and we couldn't have that. So she arrived looking elegant in smart dress and high heels having driven down our muddy, rutted lane, which was, incidentally, muddier and more rutted in those days - yes, hard to believe but true!  When she left, sometime later having enjoyed a festive feast and quite a few glasses of wine, darkness had fallen.  We then set about the mammoth task of clearing up the debris. After about ten minutes there was a knock at the door. The postmistress had returned, slightly dishevelled and rather muddy wearing only one shoe! She had missed the track near the cattle grid in the field beyond our own where the cows had cut up the ground to a miresome stew and got her car stuck in the mud. She had then got out and had lost one of her shoes in the mud! My beloved returned her to her car having got it out of the mud though we didn't find her missing stiletto until the next day but it was all in one piece and apparently had not been worn by any of our bovine friends! 

The other memory that is always front of mind at Christmas concerns my in-laws. Not having been first choice (or any other choice, come to that) of my beloved's now late mother for the position of daughter-in-law, the years (i.e. every other year, at the very least) when they visited us were always more stressful. I would be desperate for the house to be immaculate, the food perfect, the children spotless and minding their ps and qs etc. One year, all of the above had occurred and wonderful smells were emanating from the oven, the house tidy and the children on their best behaviour as I took the ocelot fur and sheepskin coat from the aforementioned in-laws. My beloved offered them a glass of fizz which was promptly accepted and he set about filling the ice bucket to pop the bottle in. He had, earlier in the week, filled a number of sandwich boxes etc with water and frozen them so the lumps of ice were very large - too large, in fact, to fit into the ice bucket. So he set about smashing the ice in the sink. Now for those who don't know, we are a non-dishwasher house (it's a long story, don't ask) so we wash up by hand in the sink. I was chatting politely to the in-laws when I heard a massive crash which turned out to be the bottom of the sink cracking in two and falling through the bottom of the kitchen unit. In my head, I worked silently through the entire and very extensive range of expletives in my vocabulary and smiled at the assembled family as if nothing terrible had occurred. We washed up in a bucket until the first week in January that year. 

One of my favourite parts of Christmas when the children were young was reading A Child's Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas before they went to sleep on Christmas Eve. We still read it every year except that now everyone reads a few pages. It's a reminder of the magic of Christmas and I love the skating postman and Mrs Prothero and the cats. Special moments on a hectic day when the television is turned off and we are 'just us' with no outside distractions. The other part of Christmas Day when the twins were little that was always my best moment on Christmas Day was when the children would all jump on our bed on Christmas morning with their stockings, so full of excitement that Santa had so brilliantly chosen gifts that they loved and wanted - even if they hadn't known before that they wanted them. The older two absolutely played along with this till long after they had gone to university. 

So I will be not counting my blessings on Christmas Day because there are just too many but I will remember how fortunate I am. You only have to turn on the news to be reminded how lucky and how privileged we all are. I wish you all good health, family and friends and most of all,
peace this Christmas.

And in case you would like to read the charming story by Dylan Thomas, here's the link:

Numbers 4 and 3, JS and number 2 already in festive mood! Just waiting for number 1 and her husband, the intrepid granny and the maiden aunts for the full festive team 2016 (and me and him, of course!) 

Friday, 2 December 2016

Holding my breath

You're right! I haven't written a blog for ages and yes, I have been out and about playing and watching lots of sport, living it up in London and Dublin and doing all the kinds of stuff that I love to do and am well aware that I am absolutely blessed that I am able to do it.

So... holding my breath - why? Because once a year I have to go to see the kind and very clever people at York District Hospital Cancer Unit. And when I start unconsciously counting down to the date, I feel increasing degrees of either panic or pessimism - or both. When I was first diagnosed, I was very conscious that I did not want to lose my sense of self, my 'me-ness' for want of a better word. I did not want to be the woman with cancer, the woman who had had cancer, the woman who always talked about cancer. And boy, oh boy, I try not to be that woman! Sometimes I fail. I know. Like when I say to my family if they complain of feeling poorly "Don't ever try playing 'illness top trumps' with me because I will always win!" Apparently, according to them, the statute of limitations has now run out on this joke. Hmmm.

But this year the panic/pessimism has been worse than last year and could only be satisfied by the actual trip to see the consultant at York and that has been done today. And yes, I am clear for another year! Hurray! Two years with no cancer and let me tell you, if you don't have your health, you don't have much. So I am now in full-on acceleration mode for planning more exciting things to do and places to go and am not going to spend the next four weeks wondering whether every ache, cough and any other imaginary symptom is a sign that the cancer may be back. It does that to you - the monkey on your back, always.

So back to jollier things as this is the season to be jolly, as it were! Since our super-fab visit to Apartment Antonia in Turkey with number 2 and JS, I have managed to stagger round a Tough Mudder (rather faster than last year but that is my last one ever - because a promise is a promise and my beloved really doesn't like me doing them) and had three back-to-back weekends of lovely folks coming to stay here with much wine consumed and general indulgence.

Since then, in line with my project 'Leading the Life of Riley', I have been indulging my sports-watching passions with trips to Kingston Park, the O2 for the ATP Finals, two trips to Twickenham and one to Lansdowne Road. I can't name a favourite because they were all top trips with family and friends and apart from the O2, the others were washed down with a fair amount of Guinness. It's good for me - it must be!!!

So now we begin the run-in to Christmas. Am I ready? Well, more than usual thanks to my more relaxed lifestyle and there's even a new Christmas jumper hanging in my wardrobe. And most of all, there is a warm place in my heart because all the people I love most in the world will be sharing Christmas Day with us here.

Now breathe...

Friday, 14 October 2016

Turning Tables

For the past 30 years we have been taking children on holiday - mostly our own, but occasionally other people's too, in order to provide the necessary distraction during the turbulent teens.  We've taken them to places we hope they'll like or love as much as we do and, on the basis that most of my bucket list comprises places we've already visited, we've obviously had some very good holidays. We have even ventured to places which were not on any bucket list I might construct in a million years. The case in point being my 50th birthday adventure which started with my beloved, two teenish daughters and a brace of 10 year olds in a boutique hotel in Paris with a fabulous dinner ("What's the problem here?" you're thinking...) and morphed into 3 days at a very wet and cold EuroDisney with just the younger pair where "It's a small, small world" played relentlessly from morning till night and even the bathroom tiles in the hotel had hippos dressed in pink tutus on them. Some people love theme parks, my beloved and I are not amongst their number.

Moving on 10 years from the theme park experience and the tables have been well and truly turned. My 60th birthday present from number 2 child and her lovely husband JS is a week's holiday with them at THEIR apartment in Kalkan in Turkey. And no amount of skypeing and pictures had prepared us for how lovely Apartment Antonia is. (I must point out that any further purchases of this type are unlikely to be called Apartment Jonathan but he seems cool with that.) When they made this momentous purchase earlier in the year there was a lot of skypeing to us at home showing us not just 'hot dog legs' but views and the pool and the dining room and three bedrooms etc etc accompanied by excited squeals. And now that we've been, the excited squeals were no exaggeration - it is stunning, and spacious and very beautiful indeed. 

Also we had never been to Turkey before. We went unresearched with no preconceptions and though this isn't always a good plan, having an open mind about the people, the beaches, towns, bars and restaurants meant that we were up for trying things and going with the flow. When you have swapped positions with your children in terms of who is in the driving seat, literally as well as metaphorically, this is definitely a good thing. 

Kalkan itself proved to be lively without being overbusy. The maitre d's and bar and shop owners stand outside their establishments on the pavement calling to passers by, inviting them to come and try. But this is not in the way of the only other Muslim destination we have been to of late. They were happy to let you go with a smile and a wave and a 'come back tomorrow'. In Marrakech, street traders were much more persistent and occasionally overly so. And everywhere we ate was excellent with, for me, the highlight being dinner overlooking the sea at the Mahal Beach Club where the waves lapped against the cliff walls just inches from our feet. Here the innate hospitality of the locals stretched to the barman driving us home in his car which turned out to be a proper banger with a massive crack in the windscreen! Other great picks included The Fish Terrace, Baharat and Gironda and everywhere we were welcomed and the service was faultless.

Part of the children's plan was to familiarise us with where to go in Kalkan so we can return without their stewardship on other occasions so naturally there was an outing to the tennis court where I was treated to a 6-2 drubbing by my son-in-law and a morning run along what was described as a 'relatively flat' route. Hmmm...

We also ventured to the beach to swim in the incredibly clear turquoise waters of the Aegean and share the beach with other tourists and locals. This latter included bikini- and burkini-clad and some fully covered from head to foot (including socks) ladies; interestingly,  the last two types accompanied men who had totally adopted the Western way of dressing with board shorts and sunglasses. Who are we to judge? They all looked happy inasmuch as you could tell from their faces (where visible) and perhaps the Western world is

too quick to try to implement its ways across parts of the world with other traditions and mores. 

But best of all was seeing our daughter and son-in-law in the place that they find special and knowing that they wanted to share it with us. 

So now we are heading back across the airways of Northern Europe to Yorkshire where apparently the weather is windy and doubtless a lot colder than the 30 or so degrees we have been enjoying for the last week. But importantly we are about to take up the reins of parenthood again as number 3 managed to dislocate his shoulder doing the Yorkshire Warrior at the weekend and instead of being at university in Newcastle he is flollopping around at home being catered for and generally indulged by our friends in the village. Seemingly we are rubbish parents for being on holiday in his hour of need and he has been attempting to put himself up for adoption. I'll let you know how that goes! 

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Something Auld, Something New... Something Blue?

No, it's not another wedding blog though I imagine from the title you might think it may be. No, I think we might be 'weddinged out' - at least for now, though before I move on, I must say I am massively touched that Harriet, another of the Salcombe holiday children, with whom we had jolly family holidays many moons ago, has chosen as one of her readings at her wedding next weekend something I wrote a while ago on this very blog spot. Wishing her and her fiancĂ© masses of love and good wishes. And we are going to a wedding party this weekend ... No, stop it, move on.

So back to the real subject of this blog. Now that I have cut down my working week to a level of appropriate slobdom, I theoretically at least have more playtime. And more time to travel to those places which populated my bucket list when I was poorly. And I have to be truthful here, a lot of those places are not new to me but old favourites where we have had happy times.

And so last weekend we returned to Edinburgh, scene of much jollification over the years from school lacrosse tours with children one and two (not forgetting the Barnsley Lodger) and visits to Number One in her fairly unhygienic flats when at university (always clean the bathroom before use of any sort), to exciting Fringing with the full range of drama, music, comedy, amateur, professional and every type of performance in between. Not to mention Skip's magnificent birthday weekend and a number of fabulously nail-biting and alcoholic trips to Murrayfield. 

We are now fortunate to have Number Four child in residence in Scotland's capital at university and that's the best excuse of all for heading North of the Border. So on the agenda for this weekend was a bit of furniture-purchasing and assembly for her new room, some stand-up comedy at the Fringe, street theatre and lunch at Tom Kitchin's restaurant, imaginatively named The Kitchin. This was a Christmas present from me to my beloved in the form of a voucher for set lunch for two which morphed into set lunch and a la carte for three with a dazzling but not bargainious selection of wines. It was incredible. How can a Michelin-starred chef (who was most definitely visible behind the glass screen in the kitchen) produce such amazing food? Suffice to say, Number Four has bagged it as the venue for her post-graduation lunch and I can't think of a better way to spend a Friday afternoon than sampling the delicious tasting menu served by just about the best team of waiting staff I've ever come across.

Next up is Alistair McGowan, a superb impressionist with a huge arsenal of voices at his disposal. His Andy Murray may well be more convincingly dour than the real thing! He raced from one character to the next and either he is the master of appearing to ad lib whilst being well rehearsed or we were treated to a few diversions on his meanderings through the topical landscape of the day. By the time he was done, we were too - a big lunch does that to you. But we sneaked in a visit to a bar which I can only describe as a speakeasy. I like a bar that you have to enter through a bookcase.

Day two and we're off to IKEA (pronounced 'I key are'  in my world but apparently now 'ik' - as in 'I'm feeling a bit ik' 'eee ah'). It's been a long time since I've been to Ikea and I've remembered why now. Yes, you have to follow the arrows, no diversions or short cuts, even if it turns out that what you want is right at the end. But Number Four needs a hanging rail for her new room in the same flat as last year and my beloved is remarkably (yes, really!) adept at assembling it. Who knew? Perhaps more diy jobs will be heading his way in future.

Number Four and I thought we'd do a bit of light shopping whilst parking my beloved in a familiar tapas bar which seemed like a good idea until he was sending pictures on the family whatsapp group of all the things he'd ordered for himself to eat. So we had to go back and save him - from himself! 

Our second stand up was Viv Groskop, the journalist and frequent Radio 4 quipper. Her act was called 'Be more Margo' and loosely, very loosely as it turned out, based on the comedic qualities of Margo Leadbetter in the much loved television comedy The Good Life.

Actually the stand-up was mostly about her rather tricky relationship with her Daily Mail-reading mother and the less said about readers of that work of fiction the better. Anyway, she was entertaining, not least when she had a Margo face-off between two prospective Margos in the audience and selected my beloved as the man most suitable to be Jerry, Margo's husband. Number Four's giggles were barely controllable at this point. At the end of the performance, Viv shook hands with us all like a school headmistress at prize giving. So lost for words was I that all I could muster was 'I'm married to Jerry.'

So Auld Reekie is my something old, the Kitchin is my must-be-repeated something new and the blue thing? Based on last weekend's experience, is Edinburgh the capital of blue hair? They were everywhere...well done, badly done with hideous roots, wearing matching blue ensembles... Is it the Saltire? Is it homage to Braveheart? Who knew... Maybe I'll go blue! 

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

"Red hair, sir, in my opinion, is dangerous"*

A few weeks ago, shortly before the fabulous and fantastic family holiday in Portugal, I received an unscheduled call from my goddaughter whose wedding we were due to attend in Guernsey in July. "Will you make a speech at my wedding please?" Which speech? Best man, groom...? But no, the speech which is usually the honour of the father of the bride in this day and age was, back in the day of our own weddings, assumed by a close friend of the family and that turned out to be me. I did stop and think about my answer over a few hours because it is a big thing to do, the potential for stuffing up fairly enormous, and, if we're honest here, aside from work-related presentations, most of my public speaking over the last 10 years has taken the form of alcohol-fuelled ramblings of an off-the-cuff nature spoken from the position of standing on a chair late in proceedings.

"Yes! It will be an honour!" Did I really say that? I need to point out at this time that my goddaughter is a redhead and as the mother of another formidable redhead, I know that a negative response is not an option. So over the next few weeks there were Skype calls, phone calls and emails to family and friends of the bride until I had amassed sufficient information to write something half decent. First draft completed but it felt clunky and distinctly unfunny.

Meanwhile there were two trips to London in a week (that's a lot for me) - firstly with number 3 to Wimbledon where we were treated to Federer and Murray and generous hospitality from the CBs, and then for a luvvielicious press night at the Royal Court for number 1's (well, strictly speaking Matt Smith's) new play, Unreachable Very funny and a good move for number 1 career-wise. Then it's on to the after-party (careful, or I shall burst into Remix to Ignition by that fine Yorkshire singer, Our Kelly) where there are so many luvvies that my beloved kept saying "It's him off..." which is how our late friend Richard Whiteley used to refer to himself. 

Back to Yorkshire and the reality of the clunky speech and time running out. Number 1, when she is not gainfully employed in the acting profession is a mean motivational speaker and was my saviour. "Help!" I said. And she did. The clunky speech was returned to me with all my bits in tact, except for references to Meat Loaf, but reordered and with a few extra jokes which totally worked. And actually the first time I read it, it was funny.

Fast-forward a mere two days and we are on Guernsey the night before the wedding and my goddaughter, the bride, makes a cracking unscripted speech at dinner which reminds me that, as probably the only person in the room who didn't go to university, I am the least qualified to face the task ahead. "The mountains that must be climbed in unsuitable shoes..."

Before we head out the following afternoon, me in my totally ridiculous hat (but I love it) I practised my speech for the 25th and last time, and for the first time in front of my beloved. "You'll have to stop for the laughs," he said. "What laughs?" I wailed, "it's not funny!"

The wedding was beautiful and one of the readings had been mine at number 1's wedding a few weeks before - surely a good omen? Back at the reception, the godfather is minding me like a stalker. He knows that if I turn and run now, he's in the frame for speechifying. Stone cold sober, unlike the audience, with just a gin and tonic stiffener 10 minutes before, and I'm up. Here we go...

They laughed - and apparently they cried too - but in a good way, if there is such a thing. Mission accomplished. The groom and best man were awesome and I did some speed-drinking on red wine and mohitos to catch up with everyone else.

Brilliant wedding, gorgeous bride, great times with good friends and now, sitting in the departure lounge at the airport, a massive sense of relief. Thank you, Guernsey! I'll be back soon (hopefully with rather less responsibility!)

*PG Wodehouse 

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Farewell to Acorn...

Over the last seventeen years, I've written many thousands of words about the Acorn Charity in the form of press releases and newsletters. Now with a little breathing space since the final Acorn event, the 100k Bike Ride, it feels like the right time to sum up the things about Acorn that have made an impact on my life. This is very much my take on the events and the people and I guess that if each one of the thirty plus committee members over the years were to come up with their favourite bits it might look very different to this. But, for the record, and not necessarily in the right order, here's mine.

1  Louise. What can I say about my dear friend that hasn't been said elsewhere? Acorn was formed out of her passion for making things better for people with dementia having watched her own father and family suffer so badly. Her immense contribution is in memory of her father, Luc and I know he would be so proud of her. She has been an inspiration, a driving force (sometimes with no brakes!) and has stood up for people with no voice and sometimes no help in the community. Without her, none of this would have happened.

2  The Girls. What began as a group of girlfriends sitting round Louise's table with me very much on the sidelines morphed into a seriously powerful and professional organisation. But through all that time we never lost touch of the friendships that bound us together, and we made new lifelong friends. Everyone of us will have had our moments of comradeship - whether we were washing up together interminably (and there was a lot of that) or running a half marathon, helping with the singing group or wrestling with the database. The ties between us are unbreakable now and that is beyond price.

3  Kieran. Without Acorn I would never have met Kieran. We met, argued about everything under the sun and banged heads on every possible occasion, with Louise,  mostly serenely, trying to keep the peace. And then, when we were both ill we found a friendship and a ridiculous sense of humour that got me through some very dark days. Sadly Kieran did not make it through and I shall never forget standing outside her funeral with Robert. But Acorn gave me my friendship with Kieran at a time when I needed it - and for that I shall always be grateful. RIP

4  The Challenges - Great North Run. I remember the conversation going something like this..."Well, if David can run a marathon across a desert, then surely we can run a half marathon in Newcastle for Acorn?" And like lemmings off a cliff, we hurled ourselves into training - the most unlikely bunch of runners you'll ever come across. And then, having coerced various friends and family to join in, we piled into a bus to Newcastle on the appointed day and, some slower than others, completed the Great North Run. Great sense of pride and for me, the start of my love of running (not very fast and not very far) and yes, I've done the Great North Run again since then and two of my children have too.

5  The Challenges - Lyke Wake Walk. For me, the wettest (because I have refused to swim the Channel for Acorn on more than one occasion) night of my life. "If we can run 13 miles, then surely we can walk 40 miles in 24 hours?" Like lemmings again, we piled into training - which took ages because going for a daily trundle with the dog doesn't really do it. There was a similar amount of 'encouragement' for our friends and family to join us, support us with bacon sandwiches which proved very important, and we set off to walk from Osmotherly to Ravenscar starting at midnight on a date specifically chosen because it was a full moon. Oh how we laughed when it rained so torrentially sideways for the whole night as we made our way across the moor with not even the smallest amount of light pollution and every (and I mean every) article of clothing wet through. So much for the full moon then! But we made it, and even now, when someone suggests a really long walk, that night on the moors pops into my head. Seriously, never again!

6  The Challenges - 100k Bike Ride. "We can run 13 miles, walk 40 so cycling 62 miles must be a breeze" ... it wasn't quite like that but the first Acorn Bike Ride was most definitely not for the cycling community. Bikes with baskets, cyclists dressed in chinos with a cashmere sweater knotted round their shoulders, and someone who cycled the last few miles with two pints of beer on his handlebars (oh yes, that would be my beloved!). We raised an amazing £42,000 at the first Bike Ride and the beast was born. Now, and appropriately this was our last event, it's chocka with lycra-clad cyclists on bikes that cost far more than the car my children have learnt to drive in, and we raised over £60,000. The Bike Ride is poignant for me because having completed it every year bar one when I was unwise enough to marshal and vowed I would never do that again (my sympathy to the marshals - they are absolute stars), last year I was recovering from breast cancer and though I knew I couldn't finish I was damn well going to start. With my cycling buddy, Tim, at my side, who was very strict with me about distance and speed, we made it to Stillington before I threw in the towel. Further than I had intended and a big achievement for me after all that had gone before. And this year Tim and I finished the Ride (he was still being strict with me) and now I feel, thanks to the NHS, that I am completely rebuilt (in the manner of the Six Million Dollar Man, if you know what I mean).

7  Chapel Allerton. I freely admit that there was a time when I wondered how important our contribution to research into Scleroderma at Chapel Allerton Hospital really was. Surely the amount we gave them each year was very small beer compared to the mighty NHS (of which I am a huge fan, obviously) but Professor Emery and his team made me realise that though our contribution in real terms was relatively small, the freedom to use it for specific projects, equipment and treatments was an invaluable tool. Scleroderma is a 'cinderella disease' affecting small numbers of mainly young women, but its effects are devastating. I hope we made some small progress through our efforts. Visits to Chapel Allerton as a committee have always left me moved beyond words and in awe of the staff there.

8  Singing.  It's one of those things when people say "you have to be there...". When Acorn first kickstarted the singing group for people with dementia and their carers at Christ Church in Harrogate, it was hard to imagine how important it would become as a lifeline for people so isolated by their condition. It is impossible to place a value on it. Husbands and wives (and sons and daughters) who daily care for a loved one who is slowly disappearing before their eyes find succour in the rare companionship of others in the same situation. And people who are losing their independence find their voices in joyful singing of songs old but never forgotten. I will never forget some of the people I met there and their appreciation of precious times when they could enjoy life once more.
David Andrews, conducting the singers at Singing for Fun on a Thursday morning

9  Running with Alan. For me this is perhaps the big one. The misconception that Alzheimers or dementia is 'confused old people in chairs' is an easy one to accept but often a very long way from the truth.  Alan had been a marathon runner - competitive times at marathons all over the world. And now he had dementia. I had the absolute privilege to run with him under the great care of John Ashfield who was then a Wellbeing Support Worker, part-funded by Acorn. We ran the Seven Bridges at Studley Royal (part of the National Trust Fountains Abbey Estate). At the start, I found Alan's speech hard to understand and worried that this might be a difficult afternoon, but once we started running together, I found him easier to understand and his complete joy of being able to run despite the debilitating regime of drugs was just wonderful - beyond words for me. The last part of the run was the straight downhill slope to the gates and he (in the manner of proper runners) kicked for home. There was no question that he wanted to win the race. Me, very one-paced, was a long way behind but I could have laughed with joy watching him sprint ahead to the finish. I met him a year or so later and he could no longer run and certainly won't have remembered running with me. I reminded him gently and he managed to say "I hope I beat you."

So that's my Acorn story. I could have talked about the balls and celebrities we met, about fashion shows and Christmas Fayres and coffee mornings, about the bridge and tennis and golf days because there were so many things. But those are my stand-out experiences of time very well spent in a very good cause where perhaps like all of us, we got out so much more than we put in. Acorn was epic and it will always be one of my proudest achievements. Thank you!

I forgot to mention my golf team, Mrs Barr's Boys. Always so tastefully attired! 

Friday, 3 June 2016

Roman Holiday!

Well, what else could I call it?! Not only am I a lifelong admirer of Audrey Hepburn but recently I saw the fine film, Trumbo, about Hollywood scriptwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was blacklisted by the McCarthy anti-American hearings but went on to write Roman Holiday starring Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck under an assumed name. He won an Oscar which he couldn't collect but which his widow accepted on his behalf in 1993, some 40 years or so after it had originally been awarded. So obviously I packed my Audrey Hepburn print skirt and included a visit to the Trevi Fountain on our latest trip to The Eternal City - some things just have to be done.

So after that long off-piste ramble, yes! we have just been to Rome for a post-wedding short break. Not our wedding, of course, though that would surprise the children. No, number 1's amazing and extraordinary wedding which has taken a full week to clear up and even when we left on Thursday morning, parts of the marquee were still awaiting collection and there are still a few items which need returning to kind friends and neighbours. 

After number 2's fabulous wedding in November I had ignored advice that I would need a holiday and had ploughed on wearily to Christmas with an extra dog on board and a houseful of family. Not wanting to be caught out twice, I booked our four day trip to Rome well in advance and timed it to fit in with the Rome Masters 1000 event so a bit of top class tennis-watching as well as all the other delights which Rome has to offer. Then my dear friend and tennis buddy who will shortly be heading off to live in Cyprus with her husband decided that that they would join us. Great timing because I will really miss my buddy so we could have some quality fun in Rome with them too.

An early flight from Leeds meant a very antisocial wake-up call but by 12.45 we're on the Court Centrale watching Roger looking rather lacklustre against Dominic Thiem. The ladies match that followed was the perfect time for some very nice antipasti and pink fizz in a smart bar for, Wimbledon organisers please note, not stupid money. Then back to court side for the crackerjack that is Nick Kyrgios against Rafa. Great tennis, plenty of drama - could Nick keep his head? Would Rafa's body hold out? Then on what is effectively an outside court ie with no pre booked seats, just a ground pass required, where Andy Murray demolished Jeremy Chardy in an inch-perfect couple of sets of tennis.

Dinner on night 1 was booked by the lovely Nige and we had some traditional fare in a restaurant which was largely populated by locals.  Great food with a waiter who did a passing impression of Lurch (not intentionally of course!). We had had just thirty minutes between returning from the tennis and heading out to dinner to check into our hotel. Situated by the Termini in the centre of Rome the Palazzo Montemartini is a classic Roman mansion which houses a modern, funky hotel. It has only been open a couple of years and is immaculate. The staff were attentive and charming and everything from the rainwater shower in our bathroom to the beautifully presented breakfast buffet was spot on. Well done, Fern Hodges from Spear Travels who booked it for us and is rightly shortlisted for Young Travel Agent of the Year - good luck, Fern! 

On Friday, having been to Rome a few times before, we chose a relaxing trundle round the cobbled streets, happy to admire the Colosseum from the outside, sipping a cappuccino in the dappled sunshine whilst others were shepherded round in crocodiles. I love the Colosseum - it speaks to me. Yes, I did say that to my beloved who thought it hilarious and worthy of repeating on several occasions. It does though. The thought that thousands of slaves entered its magnificent portals in the certain knowledge that they wouldn't come out alive. That even if they defeated their opponent in battle, weren't ripped to shreds or gored by any number of wild animals, they might yet have their fate decided by the thumbs up or down of the partisan crowd. "We who are about to die salute you!" Now I have to watch Gladiator again!

Then we navigated our way though narrow streets teeming with selfie-wielding Japanese tourists and teenagers too busy on their mobile phones to look where they were going (didn't have a sense of humour failure - just mild disappointment in my fellow man) to the Piazza Farnese where we had eaten four years ago with other friends on a 40th birthday trip. Lovely traditional food sitting on the pavement in the midst of a bustling food market. People-watching, with a glass of pink wine and ricotta served with walnuts, rocket and honey - that's definitely something I can store in my memory to relive on a cold, winter's day in Yorkshire. We lingered over wine and coffee and watched the world go by. 

I have developed a yen for including a Cosmopolitan in a rooftop cocktail bar as part of any city break and Rome certainly had a challenge to improve on the one I had in Barcelona at the Majestic. Our own hotel's rooftop bar was closed because the weather was turning a bit iffy but we knew there was one at the nearby Exedra (though at a price). So we headed there to be joined by our tennis chums on what was their last night. The view wasn't as spectacular as it might have been but the Cosmopolitan hit the spot and we were only a little late at the funky Culinaria. Cutting-edge, inventive cooking and really delicious and we were last to leave - again. Special times with good friends.

The weather on Saturday had been forecast as wet so we needed some indoor stuff to do so we headed next door to the Baths of Diocletian which had originally been a vast Roman baths. Sometimes I wonder why it took the museum curators of the world so long to realise that you can make history come to life. There was so much to see  in this wonderful museum that by the time I was nearing the end, I had had a text from my beloved asking me if I was still in Italy?! 

I am fully aware that I am lucky to be married to a man who loves to shop. I am almost always shopped-out before he is. The shops in Rome vary from some well-tailored and chic bargains to some seriously expensive designer shops. Me? I think I've lived in Yorkshire so long that I have developed a Northern sense of what represents value for money. I knew what was lacking from my summer wardrobe and two pairs of trousers and a stripy top later and I'm done - with not too much damage. The men's shops are a bit more of a challenge and in one shop we went in, the salesman looked my beloved's fine figure up and down and told him that nothing would fit him. In the words of Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman - "Big mistake. Huge!"

We stopped for what we had intended to be a light lunch at a street bar snugly situated between Christian Laboutin and Yves St Laurent. The mozzarella served with my bresaola turned out to be somewhat larger than a tennis ball. Eventually I had to admit defeat but there were plenty of very smart Italian shoppers to watch in the meantime. Now I realise that I don't live in the fashionable metropolis but surely there can't be as many women in London with the Botox-injected 'trout pout'? Actually once you've seen a few in Rome, you find you're spotting them everywhere! 

Back at the hotel, having tried and failed to get on the night tour of the Colosseum (note to self: next time we go, book this well in advance) my beloved had a cunning plan for dinner on the busy Via Urbana which is lined with bars and restaurants. The first two we tried (having been on a very circuitous route!) dismissed us with waits of at least an hour but the third, Suburro fitted us in with just a few minutes wait (time for another Cosmopolitan) and served us delicious beef and pasta vognole. The staff were charming and it was only when we checked on TripAdvisor the next morning that we discovered that we had chanced upon one of their top rated restaurants in Rome. Lucky us! Then we made our way back to the Colosseum to see it framed against the night sky - such an incredible feat of architecture, truly stunning.

Final day and as it was a Sunday, not everything is open in Rome - apart from the numerous churches of course. Our first choice was the special sensory exhibition of the work of Caravaggio. At the Caravaggio Experience his works were projected on to the walls of the extraordinary space of the Palazzo delle Esposizioni constantly moving accompanied by a sound track with different scents of bergamot and other perfumes. The whole was a totally absorbing experience. Then, with the sun out and, it would seem all the locals outside enjoying the weather, we climbed steadily uphill to the park at the Villa Borghese. The views across the city are second to none over terracotta roofs and towering cypresses all the way to Vatican City and St Peters. A little light lunch (every holiday with my beloved is a gastronomic tour, as you know!) and we walked back through the park and back to our hotel, stopping to marvel at the wealth and beauty of the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore and then to sit in the quiet gardens of the Baths of Diocletian.

So now we're now sitting on our Jet2 plane heading back to Leeds. We may not be physically rested - our feet have done some serious mileage - but mentally we are refreshed. Perhaps I should learn to mix a Cosmopolitan..? 

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

The Wedding Blog - Joyful! Part 2

Back on it!

Outside the church it's a tiny bit drizzly so not too much hanging about but definitely enough time to throw (biodegradable) confetti, most of which had come courtesy of number 2's wedding in November when the wind and rain whistling round us at high speed made any kind of confetti-tossing impossible. Then the bride and groom were first away in one of the three beribboned Land Rovers with Giles, our photographer, in pursuit whilst the rest of us sorted ourselves into various vehicles including minibuses and some even found time for a pint in the Royal Oak at Staveley.

Meanwhile nearly back at base camp, the bride and groom have stopped at the edge of Jubilee Wood which runs along a good length of our lane to have photographs taken amongst the bluebells. For once, Mother Nature really has knocked it out of the park and the bluebells are stunning. I know that from now on, each year when the bluebells bloom I shall be thinking of the happy couple and it will bring a smile to my lips.

Our original plans to have all the guests walk up through the garden (where I had been knocking myself out since September to create something that wouldn't be too far from Harlow Carr) were skuppered by the light drizzle so rather than serving drinks in the garden, the party moved straight up to the marquee in the field. By the time the bride and groom arrived there were a goodly number of guests and number 2 was set the task of marshalling folks for the photographs - and I promise you, nobody marshals like number 2! The very long shot list had been heavily abridged so now the progress was much more rapid though I might have liked a few moments to straighten my hat a tad - multiple hugs from all angles had definitely knocked it off its original perch.

Back in the marquee all our lovely guests are arriving - new friends and family, fellow hens, old family and friends and especially for me, number 1's godmother and my oldest friend, Alps. Alps and I met aged 10 (she calls me Stigs for reasons too complicated to explain) and as she is the chef at the fabulous Circus restaurant in Bath we haven't seen much of each other over the last few years though it makes not a jot of difference when we get together. She is a very special lady.

Before we sit down, the incredible cake, made by Ninny,  which is set under the chandelier of 1000 origami cranes, must be cut by the bride and groom with my father's sword. My dad would have loved this. Then we're sitting down at long trestle tables decorated with flowers in jam jars and above us, hanging from branches are twinkly tea lights in glass baubles. Stunning.

In this entirely unconventional wedding, there is no top table and friends and family, old and young, folks who know each other and those who've never met before are all jumbled up, getting to know each other over James Brown's delicious antipasti sharing plates. I'm sitting between Alps (so much to catch up on and so little time...) and Guy who lives up to his billing as good looking and clever. Thanks Mr and Mrs O'Hara! Opposite is my beloved (completely giddy by this point which could be risky in a kilt) and our chums from Guernsey whose daughter (my goddaughter) will be doing all this in July.

The idea of the order of play was not to have a big wodge of speeches at the end so as soon as the antipasti had been cleared away the bekilted one took to the dance floor, microphone in hand. "It's fine," I told Guy. "I've read it - it's not too long!". And of course, we had printed the speech out for number 1 who would find it hard to hear all the flattering - and other - things her father had to say about her. But immediately he's gone off piste! Lordy, we could be here for days and there's a pig to eat!!

Well, a little off-piste but not bad and when he reads out Hugh Bonneville's glowing testimonial of her acting skills having played her father, I can see he's getting all emotional. How I love that man! He was brilliant - even in the truly 'what on earth is he going to say next?' moments and as Giles said later "Every daughter should have a dad like Robert." Oops, getting teary again.

The main course was a hog roast and jolly good it was too, with all the trimmings. Then it's time for the next speech and the groom and the bride stood up for their double act. I suspect that the groom may find it hard to make his voice heard throughout their marriage without the bride having her six penn'orth. She does after all stand up on stage for a living. They are funny and the banter between them is tender and touching. So much for just letting the groom speak!

Pudding is Ninny's fantastic cake cut up and served with summer fruits and our evening guests are suddenly starting to arrive because we're running about 30 minutes behind time - thanks in no small part to the off-pisteness of the bride's father's speech. But it doesn't matter because the best man is ace. My new son in law had wisely chosen two best men - his delightful brother for the church bit and Sean (yes, another one) for the speech. Sean is like John Bishop. His oration on the subject of Alexander the Great (you had to be there) is a belter. Surely he should be on the stand-up circuit?

Then the bride and groom take the dance floor for their first dance - Let It Be by the Beatles. Classic. And within moments the floor is packed and everyone is singing and we are so happy we could burst. Fortunately this didn't happen - would have been messy in a kilt and we would have missed the ceilidh which bore more of a likeness to full contact rugby than any dance I've done before. But how very appropriate with two rugby teams present. The following day there was time to compare bruises and scratches but for now everyone was carving out their tiny bit of space with elbows out and plenty of barging.

Whisky and cigars served, cocktails - margueritas and my new favourite, espresso martinis - served in, yes, jam jars and the bar and the disco are all in full swing. Outside the lights are twinkling in the trees, the path is lit by tea lights (in jam jars, of course) and someone has lit the fire pit where there are straw bales for seats by the fire. The fire pit is actually a washing machine drum ingeniously dreamed up (or pinched from Pinterest perhaps) by my son-in-law. If there was any other party on April 30th 2016, it couldn't have topped this.

Finally and all too soon, minibuses and taxis are arriving and folks are making their way across the garden, some more nimble on their feet than others. And by the time I had left the marquee, my beloved is in the kitchen, already cooking up a storm with the bacon and eggs. Clearly some people who were leaving were drawn back by the delicious smell of frying bacon and there are rather more folks looking for beds and sofas than anticipated. But it didn't matter one bit. The Barnsley Lodger thought she had bagged the Intrepid Granny's bed because she had decamped to the O'Ks in the village for a proper night's sleep but by the time I headed upstairs her bed was already occupied by unscheduled but nevertheless very welcome guests. Fortunately no-one was in my bed as I might have been less welcoming but number 3 gamely shared his bed with two guests and every sofa was occupied.

The next morning we served breakfast for 40+ people (I'm sure the bride and groom said that they would take ownership of this...hmmm) but the big team helped do a magnificent clearing up job in the marquee with both dogs (Milton is now back) hoovering all manner of treats which will probably be coming back up or down later. Last guests left at 6.00pm and we are exhausted but so happy.

As I write this, the marquee has finally come down today and the only tent left is the catering tent (very small party in a tent anyone?) and I miss its towering presence in the field. But some of the lights are already twinkling in the monkey puzzle and willow trees and amongst the blossom of the cherry trees in the garden. And all my memories of this wonderful weekend are stored away. But as long as the bluebells bloom...

 Probably the best dad in the world...

 Did anyone think he'd be allowed to make a speech on his own? 

The Intrepid Granny! 

 Just love it when number 2 gets giggly!

Sunday, 8 May 2016

The Wedding Blog - Joyful! Part 1

I've been trying to sit down all week and write about the incredible three-day (loosely!) event which made up our wonderful wedding but it seems that there is a lot of clearing up to do post-having hundreds of people here, eating, drinking, making merry and sleeping and other stuff which involved extensive cleaning. Anyway, today, after the last Acorn 100k Bike Ride which has left me too exhausted to do anything but plant out my sweet peas I thought a relaxed canter through the events of last weekend would be appropriate.

I left you at the end of the last blog having fed lasagne to rather more than previously intended on Thursday night after which a large number disappeared to quiz night at the Hare and Hounds. I reluctantly declined - need - really need! - to pace myself.

Friday went past in a blur - folks, friends and family arriving and helping with a million jobs, church flowers and pew ends to do with the Intrepid Granny and beautiful flowers arranged in dozens of jam jars by Elizabeth Jackson and Lady H. The amazing origami crane chandelier went up and lights hung from posts and trees and bushes around the garden and the marquee. Land Rovers were borrowed and taken to be valeted (Il Presidente's wife commented on the return of her's looking immaculate that she thought she ought to sell it whilst it looked so clean and beautiful!). And in the midst of it all, lovely Elaine Thomas is painting nails whilst number 4 seems to be plucking everyone's eyebrows. And suddenly it's nearly 6 o'clock and time to head off to the church for the rehearsal.

We must have arrived at church like kittens tumbling out of a box, but Jonathan Singh, our lovely vicar, created an aura of calm (and not a few giggles) whilst he took us through our paces. Would I like to read the lesson from the floor or the pulpit? No question, how many times in my life will I get to stand in a pulpit! Then we're all off to the Hare and Hounds (again!) for a big curry evening for 70-something of our guests, most of whom have travelled from London and some even as far away as New Zealand to be here. Lots of folks to meet for the first time including my opposite number, the mother of the groom and her husband and a whole posse of aunties who were very much a part of the groom's childhood. All lovely and everyone is just so happy.

There is always a tipping point at these evenings when you have to decide whether it's too much like good fun to go home and be prepared to pay the price the next day or whether you put your sensible head on and go home before it gets messy. Uncharacteristically I did the latter - on the wedding day you see, in the words of Aerosmith 'I don't want to miss a thing!'

Most massive and important things in life involve a lot of nerves and worry but on the morning of the big W I only felt a tremendous bubbling of excitement, a desire to do everything at the run so that I could pause just for a few seconds to take a mental snapshot of the joyfulness around me. David Robinson from the Story of O arrived early to do hair as well as Giles Rocholl who had also been with us the day before to capture every moment on camera so that I don't have to rely on my jumble of memories of the day. Land Rovers were pimped with white ribbon whilst James Brown and his team arrived early to lay up the tables after the leaky marquee episode of Thursday, helped most ably by the very useful groomsmen and their partners. Beautiful cheese was laid out by the lovely Gilly from The Cheese Board and then Ninny accompanied by Skip and Mrs Broccoli arrived with the cake - wow! It is truly the most stunning wedding cake I have ever seen - unconventional with not a dot of royal icing in sight and utterly magnificent.

Finally it's time to dress and I absolutely love my outfit and hat - thank you Jillian Welch and Jessica Robinson! Even though later on, after hundreds of hugs, my hat may have slipped to a jaunty angle, it didn't matter. I loved it! The bridesmaids looked beautiful and sparkly and then the bride - with barely a touch of make-up and wonderfully tumbly hair - appeared in THE dress. Totally different, utterly gorgeous.

The weather, finally, had decided to play ball and though a tiny shower threatened before retreating over Sutton Bank, we arrived in church in our cortege of immaculate, beribboned Land Rovers without getting damp. Just walking into church on number 3's arm (again) I could feel the palpable anticipation of the guests. My already-one-of-the-family son-in-law, married to number 2, sat beside me in church whilst we waited for the wedding party. Stocko - one of us already and very much loved by us all.

There are very few weddings I have ever been to where guests have remarked afterwards about the seriously top vicar but Jonathan made the service inclusive, fun, loving and tender. Sophie Reed sang 'Somewhere over the Rainbow' like an angel, I got my pulpit moment with the reading from the Book of Ruth and Annabel topped it with Pooh and Piglet. And then we're back down the aisle, me on the arm of Sean, father of the groom with my beloved sashaying back down the aisle behind us with Sean's partner, Jane in his absolutely fantastic Scottish kilt ensemble (hence so many parcels arriving from Scotland in the last couple of weeks) including the Barr tartan, dirk and sporran.

So I've had to divide this blog in half because it's going to be a long one (sorry!) and I haven't yet had time to sort through the thousands of photographs from the day so here's a taster and you can listen to Aerosmith in the meantime.  More to come ...
A beautiful bride and her gorgeous Dad. 

Monday, 2 May 2016

The Wedding Blog - 1 week to go and what can you do with 437 jam jars?

So we're now down to just a few days before the big W and in the last week I've been late for most stuff and, actually arrived a whole week early for something else work-related. To say I have lost clarity of thought would be an understatement. 

As I write I am sitting in the hairdressers about to start the mother/daughter hair marathon with the lovely David at the Story of O. He has already calmed us down - we arrived late, obviously - and sent us out for food to the world of different take-away joints in Leeds student-land. Number 1 returned with the biggest bacon and brie ciabatta for me, which is absolutely perfect for the pre-wedding, no carbs, no dairy routine I am currently on. Also it is the size of a house brick. But a girl's got to eat... Anyway two hair do's later and a trip for me round an unfamiliar Sainsburys whilst number 1 had her colour done to get 60 baps and 60 sausages for Sunday breakfast, amongst other less unlikely stuff, and we are on our way back home. Re the sausages and baps for Sunday - "You and Dad won't have to do anything on Sunday. We'll do it all." We might pick up on that in the final wedding blog!!!

Number 1 and my favourite son-in-law-to-be have come to us for the last two weeks before the wedding to do the enormous amount of things which are going to make this wedding a complete one-off. I know all weddings are complete one-offs and absolutely they should be, but it is the tiny, sometimes quirky bits and pieces which lend so much character to the day. For example, I may have mentioned that we have been accumulating jam jars since Christmas. Because we live in such a lovely friendly village, the vast majority have been left in the village shop courtesy of Dave and Amanda and I have brought home almost daily carrier bags full of the things. My tennis buddies have been equally supportive and even the Intrepid Granny's golf club girls have produced a seriously impressive number of 'Jean's Jars' as they have been named in the Ladies Changing Rooms at the golf club. It took the bride and groom two and a half days to de-label them and they will be used for a myriad of purposes, from flower receptacles to candle holders to cocktail glasses. This proves conclusively that you can never have too many jam jars!

Likewise they set themselves the task of creating 1000 origami cranes made from sheet music which they turned into the most amazing chandelier. An ancient Japanese legend promises that anyone who folds a thousand origami cranes will be granted a wish by the gods. So they did just that and then the chandelier was constructed as the centrepiece for the marquee. And of course, every place setting had another crane too. It is fair to say however that the son-in-law-to-be (SILTB) is far more manually dextrous than number 1 and the ratio of production was about 9:1! 

We also had to pack in the dog's haircut - well, everyone else had had one, painting numerous wooden signs pointing everywhere from the car park to Phuket, Liverpool and Hackney, and getting the boiler repaired. The boiler had, with classic timing, started to make the sort of noise that would make you pull off the motorway if driving. I rang the people who regularly service the boiler to discover that it actually hadn't been serviced for six years which explains a lot. Seemingly, the householder (not me) had decided that boiler service was a needless expense and even when quizzed about this, he replied that we had saved at least a thousand pounds by not having it regularly serviced. This did little for my sense of humour when I paid the ENORMOUS bill to the boiler man after three hours of tinkering. Anyway, much of the boiler is now brand new which is surprising because apparently the man hadn't seen a boiler like ours for five years because they are practically obsolete. Ho hum...

Now in the midst of all the frenetic activity (frantic gardening, arrival of marquee and various beers, daily deliveries of stuff in boxes, much from various Scottish locations of which more in the next blog) two things occurred. The first was that Mother Nature decided that a week of warm sunshine (tulips definitely over and largely hoiked out and replaced with other stuff) should be followed by hail, snow, rain, sleet and strong winds. Which made the marquee leak. Stress. And, my beloved who had promised a week on-site rather than down in Stamford where he works, announced he was going to Stamford for one day ... ok with me. Sounds reasonable. And Dublin for two - Wednesday and Thursday. Hmmmm... slightly less reasonable in my book. And Milton, number 2's dog, who has the hardest, waggiest and therefore potentially damaging tail on any dog the world over, had been banned for the week and suddenly he's in residence too! But we love a bit of drama here as you know, so we negotiated our way through all of this with no tears shed and only the smallest amount of standard family shouting. All of which brings us to the Thursday before the Saturday when along with everything else that needed doing and stuff that couldn't be done in the marquee because it's STILL leaking, three separate visits to three railway stations to collect family members had to be squeezed in. Also we now have the first lovely friends of the bride and groom on-site, helping with a million jobs and I am now cooking for 11 with 7 in residence. 

Is it brilliant? Yes! I am loving every minute of it! 

Mother Nature's little jest! Perfect weather for marquee construction and then a week that's so cold even the birds are freezing!