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..?