Thursday, 23 November 2017

London: Not London

I was recently trawling through the weekend broadsheets - this process usually takes till about Thursday - when I came upon a headline above a restaurant review. It read something like: "A new star - not London". The restaurant is in Leeds, so I can only assume that as far as the national press is concerned, there is now: 'London' and 'Not London' i.e. the rest of the United Kingdom. Actually there is probably also 'the Home Counties' where people who used to live in London now live but to all intents and purposes, that is also 'London'.

When I read the national press, I note that ever fewer mentions are made of anything outside London. This either has the effect of making me irritable - do they really think that London is the only place where stuff happens? Or smug - we like it here and we like that perhaps the quality of life we have is our best kept secret. Whatever, it does serve to remind me that the North/South gap is the greatest it has ever been in my lifetime and the resulting rush of our young people to experience everything London has to offer is the net result.

Which brings me neatly to my London double-header - not sure what that actually means but think it might be a sport-related expression - i.e. two trips to London in quick succession. All three of our beautiful girls live in London now and I suppose at least it means I can see multiple daughters at once, or all three in a short space of time. And indeed, all that was achieved last week in part one of the 'double-header'.

Number 1 always meets me from Kings Cross because, I think, she is convinced that I can't manage the Underground. And, it has to be said, I am more than happy for her to continue to think exactly that as she always meets me at the barrier on arrival and waves me goodbye at the barrier on my way home. Let's not tell her that senility hasn't quite crept in yet!

Last week's jaunt starts outside a very nice bar in Kings Cross. Once the haunt of prostitutes and ne'er-do-wells, Kings Cross is so smart now and a great place to meet friends when I am fresh off the train. Number 1 and I are on a mission to meet up with my fabulous godson who is very dear to me and we are hoping to meet his lovely girlfriend too as we were only briefly acquainted at a wedding a couple of years ago. And so we sit outside under the heaters (not great for global warming but the trend for hard surfaces in bars makes it virtually impossible for number 1 to hear inside) having a massive catch up with godson, girlfriend and number 1 and her husband. Happy me! In fact, very happy me after a glass or two of rioja!

It is all going so well so... it is bound to go awry. We are due to meet up - 3 daughters, one husband (not mine!) and me - at a nice Italian. We are a bit late, number 2 is on time and therefore not impressed with the rest of us and number 4 works late and therefore arrives an hour and a half after everybody else. It never works, this family getting altogether thing. And then it is off to the new home of number 2 where Mr Milton (furry friend and ex-lodger) is waiting. This new home is a work in progress so it is sort of camping out i.e. me on a blow-up bed. Absolutely fine for me but this isn't going to work for part 2 of the double-header when my beloved joins us!

Up early and it's off to meet another godchild for pre-work coffee. This is the marvellous red-headed goddaughter who insisted I speak at her wedding and, of course, redheads are not to be denied. So another fabulous catch-up before the two redheads - godchild and number 2 daughter - dash off to run the world and number 4 child pitches up so that we can make our way to the grand excuse for the whole visit - the ATP Year End Finals at the O2.

We are privileged to watch some sublime and very closely contested doubles won by the eventual winners of the whole thing - Kontinen and Peers - followed by an absolute belter of a singles with Marin Cilic and Jack Sock. I now have a tennis crush on Jack Sock who threw the absolute kitchen sink at the match and happily won.

Then it's one of my big treats to myself - the Thames Clipper. I love this way to see London from the water; to admire the sights and see the modern towers of Canary Wharf and the stunningly atmospheric Tower of London. Imagine being rowed in to the Tower and stepping off at Traitor's Gate with little hope of ever leaving alive! Number 4 thinks my enthusiasm for this rather chilly, sitting-in-the-back-of-a-boat-in-the-dark trip is a bit bonkers but she plays along. Equally, I play along when we get in the tube at London Bridge packed like sardines whilst two woman have an argument that almost comes to blows. I want to intervene and suggest they might both chill out but apparently, had I done that, I would probably still be in a high dependency ward in London - aggression or what!

My final morning is spent visiting a cemetery. Sounds weird perhaps but actually it is Highgate Cemetery and definitely worth the trip. Yes, Karl Marx is buried here and loads of others too including some of the artistic giants of the 20th century. I am intensely moved by the poignant messages on the World War 1 graves and fascinated by the extraordinary range of the great and the good, the unknown and forgotten - from the mastermind behind the Great Train Robbery (yes, really) to authors like Douglas Adams (A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) where, like Sylvia Plath's grave which I visited a few years ago, people leave pencils rather than flowers. Apparently George Michael is or yet may be buried at Highgate where his mother is already buried. A fitting resting place for a great artist.

So it's back up to God's Own Country now but only for a few days as next up is the sport and music weekend - England v Samoa at Twickenham followed by Phil Collins at the Royal Albert Hall. Well, life is for living and as the Scottish proverb says (and it's probably on a headstone somewhere at Highgate): You're a long time dead.

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Yamas Nigel and Sarah Mou!*

This year has been something of a gap year for me and my last - I promise - trip of the year has been to visit dear friends in Cyprus. Here's how it goes...

When Nigel and Sarah announced they were moving to Cyprus some eighteen months ago, there was such a mixture of emotions - I was pleased they were starting a new life together somewhere that I knew was dear to Sarah but I also knew they would leave a big hole in my life. Sarah and I have pounded round the tennis courts of Ripon together at least three times a week for a number of years. More than that, we have been through some thick and very thin times together. I know how much I valued her kindness and support when times were tough for me and I hope I did the same for her.

We had a joyful and sometimes hilarious farewell trip with them to Rome before they set off on their great life adventure, taking in ATP Tennis, sightseeing and a very significant amount of eating and drinking. Then there were various farewell events and suddenly it was time to say goodbye. Of course, they've been back to Blighty since then and we've had fun times but I always like to be able to imagine people in their actual habitat like visiting our friends in Sydney earlier in the year, so somehow a visit had to be achieved.

Now I am a great one for believing than in the general run of things, you get what you pay for. And thus it is almost always the case with low-cost airlines. So, whilst thrilled with my purchase of return flights from Stansted to Paphos for just over £100, I know there will be a catch. And then Ryanair announces they are cancelling 2,000 flights and I think... well, you can imagine what I think. But aside from pulling my flights even earlier in the morning it is all looking good. And actually, there is no catch on the way out, excepting getting up at an unearthly hour. Flight three quarters full, crew charming, departure and arrival on time. Result!

At Paphos Airport my lovely friend is waiting to drive me an hour across the island and up into stunning hills above Polis to a little village called Lysos. Their house is beautiful and it feels like a proper home and it is just so brilliant to know that we have a few days to catch up on months of gossip (how does she know stuff that's going on in Ripon that I don't know about!?) and laugh about good times and old friends shared. So aside from a serious amount of laughter and chat, we fill the four days together with running, tennis, meeting up with another old friend from Ripon Tennis Club who has lived out here for twelve years now, and enjoying some fabulous local food and wine. Nigel asks me as we drive to the airport at a truly unholy hour on Saturday morning what has been my high spots so here they are (in no particular order!):

1   Tennis at Aphrodite Hills. I am warmly greeted and hosted by the Nomads who are a delightful crowd and make me so welcome. Two tennis sessions with lots of different partners and everyone without exception makes me feel part of the gang. Thank you to Jane and all my partners and fellow players. I'll be back!

2  A superb last night of dancing to Chris King and the Firebirds with Nigel and Sarah's posse! Classic moments of tambourine-playing by Nigel and some great dancing (don't you love it when you can just go for it on the dance floor because nobody knows you and nobody cares?!).

3  Running with Nigel. So, he says: "Be careful of snakes - there are lots of poisonous ones." Me: "OK", panicking - I don't like snakes. Nigel: "So we'll start off by walking backwards up this hill because it stretches out your muscles." Me: "How can I look out for snakes if I'm walking backwards?!"

4  Fabulous food at the Old Town restaurant in Polis. Beautifully tender duck and a very nice bottle of Shiraz - happy me!

5  Meeting Athena. Athena runs a coffee shop in Lysos and we go there for a drink and to meet this delightful lady. And she tells us such a great story which will stay with me for a long time so I think I'll share. One of a large number of siblings, as a toddler she caught chicken pox and although she quickly recovered she completely stopped talking. Her parents put her in a basket and took her round the village to all the Marias (by which I think she means the roadside Madonna icons rather than ladies called Maria) and everyone threw bread into the basket and when she got home she could speak again. She says, at this point, that she hasn't stopped talking since but it is a charming tale and she is charming herself.

There are lots more of lovely times together but those moments are special and whilst we battle through the cold, dark winter here, I shall be thinking of them in their sunlit, happy home which they so generously shared with me.

And finally... Ryanair's payback! Even earlier than originally booked, Nigel gamely drives me to my flight and I find the airport quite busy at 5.00am. The only flight going out for several hours is mine so everyone is getting on my plane. We queue (Priority Q and Other Q and you can guess which one I am in) and by the time I get to the front, everyone who isn't Cypriot is being relieved of their cabin-sized suitcase as there isn't room in the overhead lockers. The flight is rammed and the cabin crew are less than charming. There's turbulence regularly so we are constantly being told that we can't use the loos - frankly, you had to be desperate as they are filthy. The cabin crew have no change and having waited over an hour for my 5 euros, I head to the back of the plane where the crew are all sitting around chatting and ask, only to be told quite brusquely that they still don't have it. It arrives about 20 minutes later (presumably when they have finished chatting) and handed to me with no apology. The poor lady next to me has a broken table so has to hold her coffee till she has finished it. And the final insult... the flight leaves and arrives late so the pilot decides to land at speed. We hit the deck hard followed by the slamming of brakes. As I say, you get what you pay for.

*Probably spelt wrong but you get my drift. Happy, happy times with dear friends.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Istanbul - Marmite?

Now we're back home and already the holiday in Turkey seems like a distant memory and the tan is fading fast but I am conscious that I left us/you on a plane to Istanbul so let me wrap up our final adventure 'Turkey 2017' like this.

Having garnered a few opinions before we went and since our return, it would appear that Istanbul is a little like Marmite. And I'm still not sure which side of the Marmite street I stand. But first, we arrive from sunny Kalkan to a very wet Istanbul so not a good start. As we queue up for a taxi at Ataturk Airport, from the long line of available cabs we are allocated one which looked like my twins had learnt to drive in it! A dent on every panel and a fairly elderly driver who announces as we pile in that he is 'the second best taxi driver in the world'. We have to ask, obviously, who is the best... Michael Schumacher apparently! He turns out to be a very chatty chap, driving along, showing us pictures of his grandchildren on his phone and winding through the narrow cobbled streets of the old town where cars are parked on both sides and if you meet someone coming the other way, you just have to work it out between you.

We had elected to stay in the old town because this is a what-can-you-do-in-36-hours trip so we were in the heart of tourist-land but our hotel, the Four Seasons, was stunning and a calm oasis away from the bustling streets. From our balcony we have a view of the Blue Mosque (with a couple of rooftop restaurants in the way) and as soon as we dump our bags, we grab our Four Seasons umbrellas (error number 1, as it turned out) and hit the streets.

It is just a short trot to the Sultanahmet which is the focal point of the old town. But first you have to run the gauntlet of the carpet-sellers. After ten days in Kalkan, we are fully conversant with the calls from the restaurant and shop owners wanting to sell their wares. In Kalkan, they call to you and you respond with a 'no thank you' or 'we'll come another time' and they smile and wish you a good evening. In Istanbul, it is much more reminiscent of the souk in Marrakech but significantly more aggressive and persistent, as we are to discover. And it turns out that staying out of the rain with a Four Seasons umbrella (which doesn't even say Four Seasons on it) is like waving wads of notes. But we stick to our plan and head for the Blue Mosque, albeit slowly.

Our first destination dominates the skyline and we follow the groups of mainly Oriental tourists towards the entrance but just as I am getting my obligatory headscarf from the little wooden hut outside, my beloved is approached by a local who seemingly just wants to chat (error 2). He tells us where to go and asks us if we'd like to see the small bazaar when we come out. Given that there are thousands of people milling about, we don't expect he'll find us when we come out (error 3) and we head inside with a smiling 'see you later'.

Inside there's an outer courtyard full of useful information about the religion, society, history of the Quran, attitude to family and women and so on. In the few short hours we've had in Istanbul we've seen many women in the hijab and niqab. This is quite a contrast from the free-and-easy streets of Kalkan although on the beach at Patara where there were mostly locals enjoying a day out, a good proportion of women were wearing the hijab. I've read a few articles about the Muslim attitude to women and I remain confused by their position which appears to be that the choice of whether to wear these garments is in the hands of the female population who apparently find it liberating. I'm finding this one a bit hard to accept when the men all wear westernised attire right down to swimwear on the beach.

At the far end, there are double doors where people are taking off their shoes and putting them into bags before entering the Mosque proper. As with previous sightseeing experiences in Australia, the Chinese groups seem oblivious to instructions as to where they can and can't go and inside the Mosque tourists are only allowed around the edge because the carpeted centre is rightly for worshippers only. And, of course, these worshippers can only be male. Regardless, groups of Chinese of both sexes march into the middle of the Mosque to take selfies, only to be chased off by the Muslim equivalent of a verger.

So we head out and, surprise, surprise, our little chum is waiting for us, spotting us immediately in the crowd and anxious to take us off to the small bazaar... and then, oh no, not the small bazaar but actually his friend's carpet shop where we are ushered upstairs. Nooooo! Because we've been to Marrakech, we are at least able to 1) refuse to sit down and 2) refuse all offers of drinks, hospitality etc because if we do, we are not getting out of there without a carpet and we had to learn that the hard way in Morocco.

The problem with staying in the old town is that all the restaurants are tourist-fodder unless you want to eat in a hotel but we find somewhere pleasant and sit on the pavement watching the world go by. It's ok but we think if we came back we would opt for staying in the newer Taksim area where there are better places to eat.

The following morning, we set off out for an early breakfast before our first port of call, the Basilica Cistern, one of the stand-out attractions for us. However, despite researching 'best places for breakfast in Istanbul' none of the places mentioned were open at 9.00am. Eventually we found quite a groovy place where we sat on cushions on the floor and had apple tea and baklava (well, I did. My beloved had something much more substantial, of course.) Then off to the Basilica Cistern which is a stunning  enormous water cistern under the streets of the old town. The Cistern has featured in From Russia with Love and the Da Vinci Code and is well worth a visit.

Then on to the Topkapi Palace which was home to the Sultans and their many wives in the 15th century. The grounds are beautiful and you do get a sense of the enormous wealth of the sultans in the living areas and the harem. The wives were guarded by eunuchs from Ethiopia and both the wives and the eunuchs were educated and could achieve high status if favoured by the sultans. Other reading I've done since my return suggests that if you were favoured in either category then life was acceptable but the ones who didn't make the grade met with pretty horrible ends - but the audio guide definitely doesn't tell you that!

Having walked a very long way (according to my Fitbit) it was time for a break before walking up the hill to the Grand Bazaar. Now I love the souk in Marrakech where, along with all the tat - knock-off football shirts, handbags, jewellery, carpets, textiles etc - you can glimpse metalworkers, dyers and so on actually creating their wares. The Grand Bazaar is indeed huge, covering 61 streets and it's a mass of humanity with every kind of clothes, leather, jewellery, carpets and nicknacks but definitely nothing that appears to be locally made or unique. Is it worth a visit? Well honestly, probably not unless you're in the market for gifts to bring back.

Our last night in Turkey and we find a nice-ish restaurant on the street and walking back the view of the Mosque and the Hagia Sophia (tomorrow's visit and our last) lit up at night are stunning.

On our way to the Hagia Sophia in the morning we meet our most persistent carpet seller yet who follows us to the Hagia Sophia, re-arranges the queue outside so we are at the front and generally pesters the pants off us. Finally, as we go in, he promises to meet us afterwards when we make our way back to the hotel.  Oh dear!

The Hagia Sophia is beautiful and is the biggest church constructed by the East Roman Empire. This is the third reconstruction of this stunning church and somehow its familiar style of architecture is more beautiful than anything we have seen before on this trip. Is it because we understand and accept our own religious ideals? I don't know but we may well have inadvertently saved the best till last. Then we have our best meal in Istanbul - breakfast is freshly squeezed orange juice and a toasted cheese sandwich from a vendor in the square eaten sitting on a bench admiring the view of the Blue Mosque.

Tired and anxious to get back to the Four Seasons in time for our taxi to the airport, we genuinely can't face the carpet-seller-from-hell and we stage a massive detour round the narrow streets to come out below the hotel thereby avoiding him. Drastic measures when I guess we could have just been rude to him. Would he have cared? Probably not, but there's something too polite and British about us and we'd rather walk further than deal with him.

So, would we go again? Yes, probably but not to the Sultanahmet but somewhere more buzzy and less touristy than this area. Anyway, it's ticked off the bucket list - at least for now.

One final thing... on the plane on the way back I was sitting next to a man from Oregon. He asked me about Brexit which I answered frankly and then I asked him if the events in Las Vegas would change the Americans' attitude to gun law. His answer was equally frank: "That had nothing to do with gun law." There's none so blind as those who will not see.

Friday, 6 October 2017

Tales from the Turquoise Coast

Last year, we had a new experience in the form of holiday in Turkey staying in a beautiful apartment owned by one of our four children and her husband. This sojourn in their holiday home feels like a very a good return on the investment we made over thirty years in our children! At last, the financial tide is flowing in our direction!

So this year we're back, travelling a deux rather than with the aforementioned child number 2 and her husband JS and Kalkan is once again a welcoming, relaxing and friendly experience. Has much changed since we were here last? Well, on the upside, we've discovered more lovely places to eat (very important when travelling with my beloved) with Gourmet the stand-out choice on our last night. And we've visited a few new places - Kas (pronounced Cash) which was nice to see, larger than Kalkan but probably not lovely enough for a repeat visit, and Patara where the beach is stunning and runs for miles of soft sand. But actually the star attraction at Patara is the Roman town about a quarter of a mile inland. The ruins of the amphitheatre, main street and other major buildings have been restored and maintained and unlike many other archaeological sites, they have not been plundered for their stone to build other later settlements, thanks in part to the silting up of the estuary which made this a port in Roman times. Regular readers will know I have a passion for the Colosseum in Rome where genuinely (weirdly - according to my family) I can almost feel the vibration of the gladiatorial battles through the ancient stones. Or maybe I've watched the film too many times, who knows? So this is like a mini-mini-Colosseum.

Here at Patara, the amphitheatre is much smaller but still seated 6,000 at its peak. And right in the centre of the tiered seating that surrounds three quarters of the nearly semi-circular edifice is a tall stone with a perfectly carved gladiator's breastplate and sword. It gets a big thumbs-up from me (classical pun here!) and I'd like to come back when it's not quite so hot. Also, on a different note, the beach is cleared of sunbathers at 7.00pm each evening in the summer so that the turtles can come up the beach to lay their eggs in the sand. Not that we saw any, of course.

Whilst we were alone (before being joined by number 2 and JS for the last few days of our holiday) we returned to two of our favourite places from our first venture here last year. Adam's Place is a roadside restaurant outside Kalkan on the road to Kas and boasts the most stunning views - perfect to watch the sun going down into the sea - ssssss, as we used to say to the children (sound of something very hot going into cold water, obviously). Also the food is superb: home-cooked by the family with the fruit and vegetables grown on-site in the abundant vegetable garden that you can admire from your table on the terrace. Adam is a charming host and we will continue to return here each year. The other must-visit is Villa Mahal villa mahal, a short boat ride across the bay to the stone terraces of sunbeds and the best place to swim - ever! The water truly is crystal clear and turquoise and the food at the restaurant is sublime. We managed two trips here this year and it is one of my favourite places on the planet - a description never spoken lightly! Definitely out of our price range to stay here but bliss to go for the day.

The only less attractive changes were the number of road blocks now operating though on each occasion we were swiftly waved through - whatever the Turkish Police/Army are looking for, it doesn't look like we have it. And the stray dogs in Kalkan who were in evidence last year but mostly further down into the town. Now some have migrated to the roads outside the apartment and their spasmodic barking can be irritating. But those things are merely minor irritants compared to how absolutely lovely Kalkan and Apartment Antonia are.

So we've had a week of spending time together, me and my beloved, catching up on all the stuff that can't be packed into the weekends which now make up our only time together because he works away from home and now we're ready and excited to be joined by our generous hosts.

Number 2 and husband JS are collected by us from the airport for the last few days of our holiday and the first few days of their's. Both exhausted from their hectic lives, they are more than ready for a long break. It's lovely to spend time with them when it's more than just a Sunday breakfast or the collection or delivery of their dog Milton aka Hilton as he spends more time staying at his second home with us than at his own pad. But all that will be changing soon...

One of their regular treats is a visit from Dimitri, the masseur, who gives three of us a proper pummelling! He also gives me a big telling off about not warming up properly before sport and - this is not good news - what running is doing to my knees. I have been running 5.5k every morning here before breakfast and absolutely loving it - despite the odd Cosmopolitan in a rooftop bar the night before. I may have another thirty years in me but my left knee probably doesn't. Need to think about this...

So today we said a sad farewell to number 2, JS and Apartment Antonia and now we are flying north to Istanbul for two days - our first visit and a new adventure. Just a brief detour before we face what promises to be a difficult few months in Blighty. But first, the mysterious and exotic city of Istanbul beckons.

Sunday, 27 August 2017

Have Spaniel - Will Travel!

Sometimes it feels like this house, once home to our four children, is now more like a staging post. They come, those children, bearing washing, clobber for storage, pets to be minded and we have a few wonderful hours or days, and then they go again. Now let me make it clear, I wouldn't have it any other way. They fill the house with laughter and fun, ask for help and advice - yes apparently we still know 'stuff', bring their husbands and friends - and they empty the fridge. And after years of quipping that my tombstone will bear the mantra "Laundry is My Life" I now know that happiness is an overflowing laundry bin! Really! Because it means they're home.

Add to this, my beloved's absentee worklife, skitting from Stamford to Dublin via Finland and it means there's a lot of rattling about this house on my own with only two dogs to keep me company. So I am turning into a bit of a globe-trotter now myself. Usually if it's a quiet week I can find a home-from-home somewhere with children or friends - Stamford, London, Edinburgh, Guernsey and so on. But this week the available options were a bit limited - my beloved was in Finland, number 1 in Florence, number 2 working in London (no time for playing with me), number 3 in Aberdeen and number 4 in Bangkok. What to do? Not fancying a whole week of my own company - I need no encouragement to talk to myself as it is - I decided that the dog (the actual resident dog rather than dog of daughter) and I would go on an adventure.

Initially my idea was to indulge my Potter-mania with a trip to Alnwick Castle which is Hogwarts as any Potter fan knows, but, as it turns out, this is not a dog-friendly zone and Alnwick itself is a busy place in August. But Northumberland has so much to offer those on either end of the leash that I booked anyway and, despite the worst possible weather forecasts, headed North on Tuesday morning with Bobbie, the spaniel.

Our first stop was Craster where I had planned a spectacular walk past Dunstanburgh Castle along the cliffs. Despite the promise of two days of rain, there was actually no rain at all and the views were simply stunning. I was conscious that the small dog had never been to the seaside and although she is massively water-averse ("don't make me go out there - it's raining!") I thought she might like to dip her paws in the sea. Wrong! She staged a one-dog, stand-up (because the sand was wet so she wouldn't sit down) strike.  But the beach was glorious and the walk gave me a massive appetite for Craster's famous crab sandwiches.

Then on to Alnwick where I was told very firmly that there was not a square inch of Castle or Garden where Bobbie the dog would be welcome. But at Barter Books she most definitely was! This place is an absolute gem! I love browsing a bookshop at the best of times but this magnificent emporium of second hand books encased in an old train station is just the best! From the model train that chugs its way round the store above our heads to the quotes and poems written on the walls and shelve-ends, the store is full of surprises and treats and, as it turned out, very dog-friendly folk. And I had to buy something in appreciation of the lovely time I was having so I picked up an anthology of Robert Frost's poems to remind me of a dear friend who introduced me to The Road Not Taken

Our-home-from-home was the dog-friendly Eshott Hall which was very nice indeed and whereas I had thought of booking a rather basic room above a pub, my beloved had treated me to a four poster bed, roll top bath and view of the tennis court. Yes, it was lovely and I would have had a most excellent night's sleep were it not for the snoring spaniel. I've never slept with her before and the snoring combined with a small-hours perambulation round the bedroom in the dark crashing into unfamiliar furniture made for a rather disturbed night. However this was redeemed by a top notch breakfast and then we were on our way again.

I had originally planned a big walk from Alnwick but given that the town was awash with would-be broomstick-bearing Gryffindors, Slytherins, Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs and their parents and I had already queued once to get into the town the previous afternoon, we headed instead to Warkworth Castle which proved a great choice. I love a bit of castling having been brought up within a few miles of both Warwick and Kenilworth Castles and there was lots going on there for children - and me, as it turned out! The barber surgeon was very entertaining and probably could have done stand-up at the Edinburgh Fringe and the swordsmen turned out to come from Warwick Castle and let me wave a sword or two about and try some chainmail. Dog definitely not impressed at this point!

Then off to Cragside, billed the home of hydro-electricity. Clearly the house was out of bounds to paws but there are 42 miles of beautiful woodland and lakeside paths and we made the most of it. Around every corner were stunning views and yes, we will definitely be returning.

So we're back home now and so glad that we took ourselves off to explore on our own mini adventure. How easy is it to do this with a dog? Well, apart from Alnwick Castle where we were spoken to rather brusquely by a staff member when I asked about the dog, everyone was charming. We had a slight hiatus when we woke up on Wednesday morning and both of us needed the loo and whereas my problem was easily sorted, the front door was locked and we had to find a fire door to get into the garden...hmmm. And Eshott Hall was lovely but I hadn't expected to be surcharged for the dog - I didn't complain because some hairy hounds (unlike mine) must make for extra cleaning but there was no reference to it when we booked and I can't find anything on the website. But everyone does talk to you when you're accompanied by a very attractive spaniel and we will definitely be doing it again. I have a plan...

Postscript: Low Graythwaite Hall, finest b&b in the Lake District and home to our friends Basil (Four Candles) and Sybil (Boadicea) will no longer be on our list of great places to visit as Basil and Sybil are moving on. We have had some absolutely top times there, eating amazing food, playing ridiculous games at the kitchen table, drinking too much and walking off the effects in the stunning scenery all around. It's been a joy - thank you!

Friday, 11 August 2017

Farewell to Auld Reekie - Going out in Style!

I love Edinburgh! I have a huge affection for the city for all sorts of reasons but not least because two of my children have attended university there.

Our fond association, however, goes back far beyond the university years to school lacrosse tours with children numbers 1 and 2 and a gang of like-minded parents who enjoyed watching their children play sport and then partied the night away in restaurants, bars and clubs - heady times!

Then number 1 spent four happy and party-fuelled years at Edinburgh University and we enjoyed visiting her and spending time in more bars, restaurants and clubs, going to Murrayfield to watch England and Scotland play the Calcutta Cup and introducing her small siblings to the sights and history of this mighty city. "Is that the blood stain from where Rizzio was stabbed 56 times in 1566 because Mary Queen of Scots' husband Lord Darnley was jealous?" - Definitely one of my favourite bits - even if the stain on the floor of Holyrood House is probably red ink.

When the second (number 4 child) chose Edinburgh as her destination university it was another special moment. Mother and daughter had travelled to the city and on the morning of her interview, we both hopped on a bus out to the ring road where Edinburgh Napier is situated. Having delivered her nervously to the door - both her and me - I crossed the road and headed back into the city on the same bus to while away the hours in the shops and galleries of Princes Street, Rose Street and George Street - all too familiar from previous trips. When eventually the grilling was over, number 4 arrived back on the bus where I met her on the pavement of Princes Street. "Don't talk to me about it!" she declared. "I just don't want to go anywhere else!" That day in March was warm and sunny with folks sitting in Princes Street Gardens, the city putting on a spring show for us. She, as we had before, was beguiled. The offer arrived, the grades were achieved and three more years have now passed and it's finally time to say goodbye.

There is, of course, no better time to see Edinburgh - and say goodbye - than at Festival time. And the Festival is very special to us too. We had taken the children there to see street theatre, enjoy the atmosphere and see the children's entertainment as youngsters. We'd enjoyed some wild and whacky plays and comedy and then, two years ago, the Fringe was the perfect springboard for a young actress in an original play by Jack Thorne - yes, he of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Number 1's lead role in The Solid Life of Sugar Water no easy watch and about as emotionally exhausting as it comes - was one of the big hits of the Fringe 2015 and led to a UK tour with the play and ultimately a run at the National Theatre in London.

This year we chose the Fringe as our last hurrah in Edinburgh. Three shows (and an extra one squeezed in between the cracks) in one day. Drama: Eleanor's Story: An American Girl in Hitler's Germany gritty, a brilliant monologue; musical: Thrones: an hour and a quarter of the entire plot of six series of Game of Thrones set to music in the most unlikely fashion - hilarious; Sarah Bennetto: Australian stand-up comedy in a scruffy basement which turned out to be interesting though not terribly funny; and finally, Andrew Maxwell, an Irish stand-up who made us laugh so much we wept. He was utterly brilliant - without reservation.

So that's it. There are no more children to visit as an excuse (though the rugby  is always a very excellent reason for a visit) and I left the city with a very heavy heart - I think more than the child who actually lived there. But it will always be a special place to us. And as Arnie says, "I'll be back."

Monday, 10 July 2017

The Sense of Waaa!

This is a cancer-related post so if you don't want to read this, feel free to leave here. I promise not to be offended. I don't think I write too often about cancer, preferring, when I can, not to be the 'cancer person', the woman defined by cancer. But sometimes, or more accurately, twice a year, the nightmares start again and however serene I may appear - ha ha! - underneath my mind is somewhere else, revving way above what is a normal level.

Twice a year, I have to head to York District Hospital for my check-up. The early summer one comes in the form of a mammogram and the autumn one is an appointment with the surgeon for a hands-on examination. It would be wonderful to say that I don't think about these appointments till the day they occur but the reality is that I start worrying about four weeks prior to the event and every little niggle becomes a symptom of the return of the disease. I thought, wrongly as it turns out, that as the years of being cancer-free started to mount up, it would become less of a trauma, that I would treat it like a routine event, not a disaster about to happen. Cancer does that to you. It messes with your head.

Part of the problem of not being able to put it behind you lies in the need to continue with the medication which is not without its side effects. And the need to check every day that one of those pesky little lumps hasn't popped up. Really, it messes with your head.

So a couple of weeks back I had gone through the anxiety of knowing that a mammogram was on the cards and surely no one who has ever had cancer is going to miss an appointment on the grounds of fear? It's not a great thing to go alone but I already established that all family members were otherwise engaged that day... nursing, acting, coaching tennis, buying power stations ... so I was to fly solo. The day before the appointment, I had the most lovely day at the Aegon Ilkley Tennis watching some very nearly top class play with my chum Mrs Broccoli and number 3 child who was working at the tournament coaching youngsters from all over the North.

As we made our way back to the car park, I mentioned that the day had been a great distraction and had taken my mind off the anxiety of what lay ahead. Mrs Broccoli asked what the next day held and then very kindly offered to be my wingman. Kindness itself.

So off we went to York, had the mammogram lickety split and the only moment of angst was walking past the waiting room where family members and I would sit, pretending to read magazines waiting for chemo - desperate to have the treatment that would make me feel so ill for two weeks that I would scarcely be able to function. Desperate not to discover my blood cells had not recovered from the battering they had received three weeks previously. Walking past the entrance just takes you back to that time unbidden.

So mammogram done, there is then the wait for the results. Up to four weeks which is a long old time when you think (because you're paranoid) that it's back. Actually it was a two week wait before the letter came and YES!, I am clear and all that bad stuff that had populated my mind for the last six weeks is consigned to the back of my brain until at least the beginning of October when it all starts again.

One final note before I end this cathartic process. At the weekend, it was Feast - the biggest most exciting thing that happens in our village all year. As a consequence, our local was packed early evening on Saturday when we trundled down to have an 'early doors' with friends. Il Presidente of the Cricket Club had noticed that a smallish group were occupying two rather than one table in front of the pub where we wanted to sit and told me that I should go and grab one as I am, according to him, much more scary post-illness. I found this surprising because I think I am more circumspect and generally quieter than my pre-illness gung-ho self. Apparently I am kidding myself. But I'm still working on it.

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

On the Trail of Phil and Elt

Sometimes you put something in the diary so far ahead that when it finally comes to the time that The Thing is happening it feels like it's sneaked up on you unawares. And sometimes two of those Things come in very close proximity making you wonder why you agreed to do both of The Things in the first place. And so it was with Phil and Elt last week.

So, to be clear here, the aforementioned are Phil Collins and Elton John (Sir Elton John to give him his proper title, I guess). And you could have been forgiven for thinking that both these legends were septuagenarians at least but actually Phil is only 66 and I hope I'm a bit more mobile at that age than he is (the Intrepid Granny would beat him in a sprint any day of the week).

Months and months and months ago, my beloved discovered that Phil, who is his absolute favourite, was going to play the Royal Albert Hall. Demonstrating no restraint whatsoever (and no prior discussion with moi) he paid an exorbitant amount for two tickets - the sort of money that I usually say would involve the sale of one of our offspring. Meanwhile, number 2 had more sensibly got in the virtual queue online, as had I, though in my case without success, and purchased more tickets. So we finished up, many months ago with more tickets than we could possibly use to a gig where we would all be a year older.

Pause here for minor rant...we love going to live gigs but why do the ticket agencies feel entitled to our money for well over six months before we actually get to go? You wouldn't buy a pair of shoes and put them away for a year before you got to wear them or pay for a meal in a fab restaurant with no chance of eating it for months on end.

Anyway, the surplus tickets were disposed of in a not unadvantageous manner and the date for seeing Phil finally arrived last Thursday. My beloved was already down South working as usual so it remained for me to get the train down to London after being delivered to the station by number 3. Five minutes before the time to leave, the phone rang - and simultaneously received two texts - to say that Phil had fallen on his way to the loo the night before and banged and cut his head and the gig was cancelled. Whilst I have a certain sympathy for a man who doesn't try to dress the disaster as anything but "I had to go to the loo in the night and I fell over" - because who hasn't done or nearly done that? But with five minutes to departure and two train journeys and a hotel in London booked and paid for, it was just too irksome to cancel the lot and take the hit. (I used to feel like this about Wimbledon - if it rains, they refund your tickets but not the train, meals, hotel and other stuff which has cost three times as much as the tickets in the first place.)

So I went anyway. And I met my beloved and numbers 1 and 2 and their spouses and had a jolly nice time regardless. London was strangely quiet the day after the election, almost as if the very architecture of the city was holding its breath, waiting for the shake-down of deciding who, if anyone, was actually in charge. I spend so much time writing about travel as part of my job that I am often guilty of forgetting how beautiful our own capital is and my early morning walk reminded me of just that.

I arrived back on Friday afternoon with yes, 36 hours to restock the fridge (after all, number 3 "There's never anything to eat!" is currently in residence) and attend a jolly nice engagement party for Thomas and Julia who are getting married in New Zealand next year. A lovely afternoon party with perhaps (since I needed a sleep when I got home) one glass of wine too many.

Then having been briefed on the important cat-sitting job I have this week for Skip and Mrs Broccoli, it was off down the A1 to Peterborough to our evening with Sir Elt. I have to confess here that Sir Elt and I have spent time together on two earlier occasions, at both of which I can confidently say Sir Elt will have no memory of me (of course) but I do of him.

In June 1975 I went to the Wembley Pop Concert. It was epic. The line-up included Chaka Khan, Joe Walsh, the Eagles and the Beach Boys with the big headline act being Sir (then Mr) Elt. It was one of those balmy hot summer days of my teens, in London with my friends and no parental control whatsoever (and that's enough information!) when we packed into the old Wembley Stadium and listened to great band after great band. The Eagles who were my go-to choice of American Rock at the time - and now - played hit after hit, the soundtrack of the teenage me. Then the Beach Boys - an absolutely legend even then - rolled through their years of hits with everyone on their feet singing every word. Standing ovation, and then we waited for the headline act, Elt.

He could have sung anything from any of his albums to date. If he'd sung Yellow Brick Road from cover to cover or his early hits - anything, really anything that we'd heard before - we would have loved him. But with the supreme arrogance of youthful success, he elected to sing songs from his brand new and only just released Captain Fantastic album. If there were a handful of folks in the stadium who knew the words, they were keeping very quiet and the stadium emptied at speed. I don't know how many were left by the time he finished but he's probably on first name terms with all of them. He just plain got it wrong.

In 1999, we gave Elt another shot. Outside at Harewood House in torrential rain and he had just had a pacemaker fitted, we later discovered. He was under cover, we were under a tree. We waited in vain for him to play all the hits (I may be oversimplifying here but I think if you see a legend the hits are actually what you want to hear and don't even get me started on the Sting experience). He was late, short - not just in stature - and  although, yes, he played most of the hits towards the end, by that time we were soaked and fed up and we didn't make it to the end - again.

So when we set off to Peterborough FC on Sunday, I was not optimistic. Surrounded by folks telling me he was an absolute legend, I smiled optimistically and crossed my fingers behind my back. But to quote Dirty Dancing as we often do in this house: "When I'm wrong, I say I'm wrong!" Elt knocked it out the park! Unsurprisingly having hardly listened to an Elt track since the second Elt incident, I nevertheless knew the words to nearly every song, stood up on my plimsols and danced, clapped and whooped and when he sang his tribute to George Michael he nearly reduced me to tears.

So third time lucky, we finally see Sir Elt at his very best, voice every bit as good as in 1975 and his song choice way better. And now we need Phil to drink a bit less before bedtime and make it through the night without incident before we see him in November. Fingers crossed.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

My friends' children's weddings or my children's friends' weddings

Yes, we have reached that stage in our lives. The stage when not only are your own children getting married but their friends are too, and your friends' children, and you go from being - even if only in your own head - young and hip on the dance floor, to being the older folk who take up too much room, get in the way of the jumping, sky-pointing circle for The Killers' Mr Brightside, and who occasionally demonstrate that they can jive. This last is something I definitely enjoy, especially when I see a sideways glance which says, all in an instant, "this can't be cool because they're old people... but it looks clever, I wonder if I can...?"

I used to think that those old people at weddings (not the really old people - grandparents, aged aunts etc) couldn't possibly be having as good a time as we were. Surely their limbs ache if they venture on to the dance floor, surely they don't get the "Never have I ever..." questions and the jokes involving university pranks and lads' holidays to Ibiza during the best men's speech? Well, I have news for you - we old folks most definitely do! I'm now wondering whether our parents' generation - henceforth to be known as the really old people! - did at the same stage or even do now.

I think it's arrogant to assume we are all one generation, united by one culture propagated by signing into the same media. After all, I am well and truly guilty of asking my children who are the so-called celebrities who populate the reality television shows. In fact, I have realised that any programme which has the word "celebrity" in the title is almost certainly not for me. Too much time is spent either asking my children who folks are or googling them only to discover they are a jenny-come-lately ingenue in a soap of indiscriminate worth that I won't have watched anyway.

So back to the wedding and the answer to the question posed - do we enjoy these as much as we did when we were in our twenties and thirties? And it's a definite yes! And as a bonus, our enjoyment is less stressful (frankly, as long as we turn up looking smart, nobody is really looking at us because they're looking at the gorgeous girls with legs a mile long on stilettos that I couldn't walk to the car in, let alone wear for the necessary twelve hours that the average wedding lasts). Actually the most stressful moments of the day were spent wondering whether the blue loo stuff would explode over my dress when I flushed!

Apart from the joyous gathering of the clans, friends we love and don't see often enough, lovely folks we've met a few times over the years that might fortuitously be on our table, there's always those great moments when you look at children whom you remember dressed as Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles, having dimply knees (you know who you are), sharing a paddling pool or a bath with your own children, playing at your house and realise what great adults they've become. And the ones who take the time to chat to you, yes, those are definitely special moments.

So congratulations to William and Erin (who looked so beautiful), and thank you to both sets of parents for letting us come and play and enjoy every second of their special day, to the gorgeous bridesmaids and the groomsmen and the two best men who absolutely knocked it out of the park in their speech.

So do we still love weddings? Oh yeah!