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!

Saturday, 27 May 2017

Mother-and-daughtering on the Duoro

Quite some time ago, the Intrepid Granny suggested a river cruise. It's quite a while since we've had a holiday together and lots of stuff has happened in the meantime to the bodies of the two old girls that my mother and I have now become. Without going into dull details, we have had various bits of ourselves rebuilt courtesy of our wonderful NHS and others, and though we are older, we are still pretty spritely on our pins. She had come up with a plan to do a river cruise on the Duoro in Portugal - partly, I think, because she had never been to Portugal and partly because she knows this is one of our favourite holiday destinations.

The plan rapidly gained momentum, most particularly because I suggested my dear friend, Lady H and her mother, who will henceforth be known as the Ice Cream Queen for reasons that will become apparent in the course of this blog, should join us. We have done trips a quatre to the Lake District on a couple of occasions and this chemistry of mothers and daughters seems to work pretty well. They happily agreed to the suggestion with alacrity (also known as boundless enthusiasm!) and we were sorted.

So we were a party of 4, aged from mid-fifties to nearly ninety: two mothers and daughters on the maiden voyage on the Duoro in the brand new Emerald Radiance. But first we had to get to the boat! It did not start auspiciously at our end with some sort of muck-up by the booking office at Leamington Spa station which involved me arriving at York the day before our big trip a whole hour before the intrepid granny bowled up. Not only was I an hour early (as instructed by the email helpfully forwarded from the aforementioned booking office) but so was the assistance which had been booked at the same time to meet the granny on the platform. A search of York station by staff proved fruitless and she arrived an hour later. You can't blame me for thinking that if we can't manage a train journey without a hitch, 4 flights and a cruise might be a bit of a challenge!

Our journey proper began at a very anti-social hour the following morning as we headed from Yorkshire across the Pennines to Manchester Airport. Driven by my son-in-law JS, we were safely deposited at the airport and I think we kept him entertained on the way - he commented on the quality of the banter on the family whatsapp later in the day so we can't have been too bad. Waiting for our gate number to be posted, we spotted other folks carrying the distinctive Emerald rucksacks - useful bit of kit as it turned out.
Our first flight was to Frankfurt where we were advised to move our watches by one hour by the pilot prior to landing only to discover an hour later when we were flying on to Porto that we had to move them back to UK time! As it turned out, having two shorter flights, though more inconvenient, may have helped the two older members of the team with dodgy knees – at least they got to walk about at Frankfurt Airport!
We were met very efficiently at Porto by Marie Helene from Emerald who escorted us to a coach where we met more fellow travellers and we were taken through Porto to where our new ‘home from home’ was moored.

As soon as we arrived we were welcomed most warmly by the cruise director, Sergio, staff and crew on Radiance and escorted to our cabin. It was immaculately clean and we would be its very first occupants - hurray! There's definitely something joyful about a brand new bed (or is it me...?). The size of the vessel is very much dictated by the dimensions of the five locks on the huge dams on the river with the channel to pass through just 12 metres wide. This makes for a tight squeeze in the cabin and a certain amount of ‘musical chairs’ for mother and daughter occupants! But everything was available including a large flat screen television, shower room, wardrobe and even space to store suitcases under the beds.

Each evening, and our first was no exception, began with a ‘port talk’ – no, not a talk about Port, but an explanation by cruise director, Sergio, of the following day’s programme, combined with a brief description from the chef of the delights of dinner and the accompanying wines. Our first night also featured a safety briefing which we hoped we wouldn’t need. We tried... we really tried... to arrive on time for the port talk each night but to be honest, we were rubbish and some of us took longer to dress for dinner than others! It wasn't ubersmart but definitely shirts rather than t-shirts for the men and a dress, skirt or trousers with a pretty top for the ladies (this information put in for the Dawschos who are doing the same trip in August). Then whilst we sat down to the first delicious meal, served by the friendliest waiting staff I have every come across, we sailed for just a few miles before returning to Porto. Unlike other river cruises, the Duoro is too narrow and shallow in places for sailings by night so all our sailings were during the day. Each evening we were entertained with music by our pianist and other games and quizzes - the most enthusiastic of our party being happy to engage in all this stuff, singing, dancing, quizzing whilst I'm afraid I like my book and my bed.
Our first day began with sailing to Pinhao with a 6.30am start. If I had any minor complaint at all it was that the sound-proofing between the deck and the first level of cabins was not sufficient and we were able to hear the sailors moving on the deck. This unfortunately also meant that everyone on the first level heard me go for a run on the deck at 6.45am, making me most unpopular. Having knocked off about 3k on the running track laid out on the deck, a lady appeared in her dressing gown wanting to know what the pounding above her head was. I apologised and offered to stop but she said it was fine. However by the time it was the port talk that night, several folks had obviously complained and, as we were to discover, for some people, complaining is an integral part of their holiday. Nuff said. And yes, I did all other running either on the running machine in the gym on board or on the streets when we were in port. Shame though, because it's quite surreal running whilst the ship is moving too. 
Our first lock was the Crestuma lock and the channel through which we had to pass was just 90 metres long and 12 metres wide. The Radiance is 89 metres long and though I don’t have details of the width, I can tell you that there was less than six inches either side and as the gates closed front and rear in order to bring the water to the correct level, it made parking in a multi-storey car park look a breeze! The whole process of going through the locks brought all the passengers on to the deck, even though you could get quite a soaking as we passed under guillotine locks. But it is immensely impressive. The Intrepid Granny positively galloped up onto deck each time we approached a lock.

Whilst we were passing through locks, the scenery outside became increasingly stunning with terrace upon terrace of vines growing, wineries perched on hilltops and dense woodland and olive groves. This is rightly a UNESCO site of outstanding beauty. It really is a feast for the eyes with so many intense shades of green against the glistening river. 
Whilst we were sailing there were a number of classes – cork jewellery workshop, tile painting, filigree jewellery, port cocktail-making, Portuguese pastry-making – to enjoy. Lady H and the Ice Cream Queen gamely got involved in these but since I am rubbish at anything crafty, I stuck it out on desk unable to take my eyes of the beauty of the scenery and the drama of passing through locks. Importantly Lady H can now make the delicious pasteis de nata, the Portuguese custard tart of which we consumed rather a lot!
Our first port of call was the village of Pinhao where we had a gentle stroll around the cobbled streets and most particularly visited the ornate station where the traditional blue and white tile paintings line the walls and – there’s a bar where you can do a wine-tasting whilst you wait for your train!

Each evening, (apart from one night when we had a barbecue on deck) there was a five course dinner where each portion, though not large, was beautifully presented and delicious. This was served at the tables, whereas breakfast and lunch were buffet-style.
On our second full day, whilst docked in Pinhao, we had the opportunity to visit Lamego and visit the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Remedies. Like all the tours and excursions, the guides were excellent and informative and a great deal of careful counting by Sergio ensured that everyone made it back on to the vessel before we sailed! This excursion involved walking down 365 steps but the views along the way were worth the steps. The Intrepid Granny elected to give this one a miss which was wise as 365 steps down would have done her knee a power of no good and we might still be there getting down the last 100.

Day three and we had arrived in Vega Terron on the Portugal/Spain border the previous afternoon ready to go on the excursion to Salamanca in Spain. Although we were advised to take our passports, they weren’t required and the crossing of the border was a simple crossing of a bridge. Salamanca is a stunning city with a wonderful history as a centre of learning and two spectacular cathedrals. Over 30,000 students are resident in the city and it has a cosmopolitan buzz about it. Indeed after a tour of the cathedrals, we were entertained in the street with music and dancing by four medical students in traditional Portuguese dress, celebrating the end of their exams!  The Ice Cream Queen was taken to dance by a very handsome medical student whilst the rest of us could only stand and admire. By this time, we had discovered Lady H's mother's insatiable desire for ice cream on every occasion, sometimes packing in three rounds in one day. Indeed, as we walked the cobbled streets of Salamanca, she referred to it as a pub crawl - from ice cream parlour to ice cream parlour, of which there were a very goodly selection. Although it’s a longish coach trip Salamanca is certainly well worth the visit and one of the highlights of the trip. Again, our guides were knowledgable (Lady H: "I love a guide") and we had time at the end of the day to sit in the spectacular Plaza Mayor, sipping cappuccinos and licking ice cream in the sun, watching the world go by. This was the furthest point of voyage with the vessel turning back for the rest of the cruise.

The next day we sailed back towards Pocinho where some energetic guests went on a tour to the Coa Museum with many archeological paintings (not us - it looked like hard work) before setting off again through the locks and finally docking at Folgosa. Then we had the most wonderful evening, dining and tasting wine at the Quinta da Pacheca. This is a stunning winery with an extraordinary dining room set amongst the huge barrels of wine, dating back to the 18th century and still in family ownership. Beautiful food, fabulous setting and definitely another high point of our trip.

The next day, we took the first of two optional tours – this one to Mateus Palace, where once the iconic rose wine was made. The Palace and gardens are picturesque and modelled on the gardens at the Palace of Versailles and the house is maintained as both a historic museum and as a home for the family. We took two such optional excursions at a small additional price and these two were definitely worth choosing.

Back on the ship and more locks awaited us causing the usual flurry of excitement and moving on to the deck to see the vessel squeeze through the narrow canal. This evening’s port talk by Sergio was followed by a cocktail reception and gala dinner. With canap√©s and five courses, each beautifully presented it was a lovely evening and the staff singalong was entertaining if chaotic – they’ll have that nailed in a few weeks! It’s important to mention that all the staff are Portuguese and the teamwork was excellent throughout with a smile for everyone. During the dinner, each member of staff was introduced to great applause from the guests - everyone, from chef to bottle washer, captain to crew. 
On our last full day, we arrived in Porto early in the morning. We were given a walking tour of Porto around the busy streets with our guides. Again the station was remarkable in its decoration of blue and white tile paintings. And of course, the guides were proud to show us the bookshop and cafe which inspired JK Rowling to begin her Harry Potter saga. (Seem to think there's somewhere in Edinburgh with similar claims but there's surely enough to go round!) But first we were treated to a visit to Taylors Port which was a wonderful experience and very informative though I found the tasting at 9.45am a bit too early even for me!
Then the afternoon took us on our second optional excursion to Guimares, a beautiful town of narrow cobbled streets and the restored Ducal Palace, packed with history and wonderfully restored – and full of primary school age children, singing and dancing in the central courtyard so full of joy! An absolutely memorable experience with time for ice cream - again! 
Our last night was another delicious meal and we said goodbye to new friends we had made who were setting off early the next morning – some back to the UK, the USA and Canada and others on to Lisbon for a few days more. This also happened to be Lady H's birthday and as she had made lots of friends amongst the crew and guests there was a surprise birthday cake and singing and an extra large ice cream for the Ice Cream Queen who was not defeated by the extra large portion!

After breakfast the next morning we headed into Porto to make a few final purchases (very nice hat shop so new hat for my future travels) and have tea in an extraordinary ornate tea shop that had once been a jewellers furnished in gold ormolu and ornate decoration.
Finally time to say our goodbyes to the wonderful staff who genuinely made this trip a joy from start to finish. With a coach journey to the airport, two flights and a very late night taxi back across the Pennines, it was a long day but this was a superb trip and very highly recommended.

Best bits: The amazing scenery - absolutely stunning and definitely the way to see this beautiful part of the world.

Sergio and the team from Emerald - couldn't have been kinder and friendlier and most helpful to all the guests including those who were less mobile (than the Intrepid Granny).

Top mother and daughter times for the four of us - unforgettable!

Those lovely guests with whom we made friends, especially Dudley and Anne (hope she didn't get black eyes having fallen over on the last day), the Likely Lads (two elderly gentlemen who made us laugh so much - not always intentionally!), Arnold and Rosa, Ute and Farouq and many more.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

The End of the Beginning?

Last Friday night we celebrated the twins' 21st birthdays. These, my youngest children, once tiny bundles weighing 6lbs and 4lbs respectively, have finally reached the age of maturity (actually it may be the age but I'm not sure which of my children, if any,  I would describe as 'mature' but that's another story) and we partied in grand style because, as regular readers know, we like to party.

The question of the tent came up immediately in the aftermath of number 1's wedding, exactly 51 weeks ago. And somehow, with a degree of pressure applied from all quarters, we found ourselves agreeing to a similar, if less grand, tented construction in the field with all the necessary accoutrements - dance floor, disco, hog roast, fire pit, bar, fancy dress and so on. The whole process has taken me back to the wonderful time a year ago when we buzzed with anticipation every morning to the slowly constructed and micromanaged celebrations of the wedding.

A somewhat lesser construction but nonetheless a rather marvellous tent popped up in our field which had been mown by my beloved to within an inch of its life. Meanwhile I had been treating the garden to an extensive weeding and planting process which, coming so soon after the 24 hour invasion of 60 sheep whilst we were away in Edinburgh, was surprisingly successful. In fact, on Friday night, I was feeling rather proud/smug about the garden and then in classic style (and at all three big parties we've had here over the last ten years), the minute the guests started arriving, the heavens opened and everyone ran for cover, not noticing my manicured flower beds and planting. Ho hum...

We had spent the week dealing with the minutiae of a big bash, under the stern leadership of number 1 child who had agreed to stay for the week as long as we had Spanky Tequilla, her cat, over Easter whilst she swanned about in Costa Filey. Spanky, and number 2 daughter's dog Milton (soon to be renamed Hilton because he spends so much time in our 'hotel'), were in residence over Easter which made for an interesting to response to "Did you have the whole family home for Easter?" "No, but I had their pets whilst they gallivanted elsewhere". Anyway number 1 set up her 'Chart of Accountability' on the fridge door on Monday and with initials on everything from buying balloons to paying the hog roast people (The Striped Pig Company - very highly recommended) nothing got missed and we were all set to go on Friday night. Even the marquee had been decorated with a bunting of pictures of the twins throughout the last 21 years - great fun for us to choose and a source of entertainment for all.

How to sum up the best bits in just a few sentences? Aside from the heavy shower whilst our guests arrived, the evening was dry and warm enough to open the side of the tent so folks could walk out to sit on the bales (provided most generously by Ian Taylor) around the fire pit as dusk fell.

I learnt that I am rubbish at Beer Pong and on the basis on Friday's performance, I won't be called up by the UK team (if there is such a thing) any time soon. I also learnt at the same time that Pimms, beer, red wine and fruit in the same glass is not a pleasant taste sensation.

The two older siblings made a most magnificent speech about their younger brother and sister, having been supplied with plenty of ammunition by their so-called friends. This included a rendition of Obviously by McFly sung by a youthful number 3, his favourite song when he was eight. Then surprisingly, number 3 made an off-the-cuff speech in response - confident and funny, we think he might have a career in stand-up comedy if all the other stuff fails.

The fancy dress costumes got plenty of use and somehow we discovered that you can take the man out of Ireland but you can't take Ireland out of the man with a stunning performance of River Dance from Mr O'Barr - surely going viral across social media even as we speak and he was gamely accompanied by the singing, dancing doctor. Despite gout (him) and age (me) we gave it hell on the dance floor until well after 2.00am when we made a tactical retreat to the kitchen to make bacon and sausage sandwiches for those guests remaining, nearly all of whom crashed in beds and on settees and floors around the place.

So the next morning, we cleared the marquee and did the mammoth wash-up, ably assisted by the folks who stayed the night and now we're busy washing sheets, as every bed was occupied, and cleaning.

For me the best bit will always be having all the people I love most at home - our whole family extended by our two sons in law. And this night marked the end of the beginning. Not the end of being parents to our fabulous brood because the bottom line is that they will always be our children and we will always be mum and dad but the end of the hands-on hothousing and nurturing part of our lives for our offspring - until or unless they present us with grandchildren, in which case we will be starting all over again. So just the end of the beginning.

And, as my number 2 pointed out, our home will always be their home and our fridge their fridge. She had her head in the aforementioned fridge at the time, shortly before she checked out the biscuits and chocolate shelf. Definitely not the end then!

Saturday, 8 April 2017

Bucket-Listing in Search of the Northern Lights

Hunting the Northern Lights has been on my bucket list for some time and when the opportunity arose to make this a reality, it was too good a chance to miss. Then we let our friends Ebabe and Wheezy into our plans, and suddenly and brilliantly our weekend for two became a weekend for four! We could only allocate two days (and more importantly, two nights!) to our Icelandic adventure due to my beloved's work commitments (ho...hum...) so it was a very early start to get the easyJet flight from Manchester to Keflavik on Saturday morning. Tourism in Iceland is massive now and although it seems an unusual holiday choice, it is now a very popular destination. After a slight delay we took off taking the most spectacular route up the west coast of Scotland on a beautiful clear day, only hitting cloud cover when we were well north of the Scottish coast. But there was plenty of cloud cover from then on and when you're in search of the Northern Lights, cloud cover becomes very significant as we were to discover! 
Keflavik airport is very clean and efficient and we had been advised to buy wine and spirits there because once you are in Reykjavik, alcohol is very expensive. Once our 'essential shopping' (wine, more wine and snacks) was done we were bussed into Reykjavik to our hotel, the Alda, which is on the main shopping street in the centre. Stylish and chic with very helpful staff. Curiously, the hotel foyer contained an independent restaurant and a barbershop!

On our first afternoon we headed out to eat and see the sights of Reykjavik. There are plenty of things to see but we only managed Hallgr√≠mskirkja, the uber-modern Lutheran church and the Sun Voyager sculpture. The narrow streets are charming and although there are signs of the boom times before the Icelandic banking crisis in 2008 with some stunning new buildings, much of the city is reminiscent of a seaside town, but with the amazing backdrop of the snow-capped mountains on the horizon. Of course, we learnt only too late that there was a penis museum which we could have visited so we had to leave the joy of that experience to Ebabe and Wheezy to enjoy (or not) after we had left as they managed an extra two nights after we had headed back to Blighty. 
Our first crack at the Northern Lights was that night. Although it had been sunny in the afternoon, by early evening there was heavy cloud and seemingly our chances were very slim indeed. However, our driver from East West Tours, Carrack (I've got no idea how to spell or pronounce any person or any place's name in Icelandic so you'll have to bear with) turned up at the hotel regardless (and nearly an hour late) to collect us. He then took us round a number of hotels in Reykjavik to pick up other tourists taking another hour and a half. As we discovered, the tour companies think nothing of leaving you waiting in the minibus for an hour or more whilst they track down stragglers. Considering the cost of these tours (over £100 each) this seems greedy but this happened on all three tours we took and on one occasion, we were half an hour out of the city on our way and had to turn back to collect more guests.
All the tours head out to areas with little or no light pollution, but with heavy cloud cover, despite driving around until 1.00am, the Northern Lights refused to be seen. Our driver, however, threw himself into the task and his driving style proved much like a bull in a rodeo trying to dislodge his passengers. Added to this, he would often turn off his headlights whist travelling at 50 mph in case there was a break in the cloud! One good thing was that if you don't see the Lights on your first attempt, you can go out again the following night at no charge. I spent much of the following day saying heartfelt prayers that they might send another driver!). 
Very little sleep before getting up early on Sunday morning with a pick-up at 8.30 from Christian Inky (renamed Tinky Winky for the rest of the day - Teletubbies is very big in Iceland apparently) for our Superjeep tour which proved to be a fabulous day of unforgettable sights. We were six in the jeep (all coincidentally from Yorkshire which made for some fine Northern banter!) and we set off first for Faxi which is a small but beautiful waterfall and on the way to the much larger and absolutely breathtaking waterfall at Gullfoss. This latter is regarded as the queen of Icelandic waterfalls and as well as the heavy rain which was now falling, the spray from the waterfall meant that we arrived in the cafe above the waterfall absolutely soaked through and ready for our Icelandic lamb soup which is a speciality here and delicious - especially warming when your jeans are wet through! Adventures with Ebabe and Wheezy always seem to include getting absolutely soaked - on a previous occasion, we went out in a speedboat in Portugal to look for invisible dolphins and I finished up crouching on the vanity surface on a public lavatory in Lagos drying my jeans whilst still in them! 
Then it was off to the glacier Langjokull which took us over some very rough terrain and by now, there was an effective white-out so quite difficult to see anything but snow - but the ride was tremendous fun and Tinky Winky was very entertaining. After lots of chats over the radio with fellow drivers, Tinky Winky decided we should head back rather than risk getting stuck in the snow in the middle of nowhere. Our next stop was at Haukadalur for the geysers which shoot boiling water 100 feet into the air at intervals. The air smelt of sulphur and when the geysers blow, it is a truly spectacular sight.
Our final port of call was Thingvellir National Park where the Icelandic Parliament was founded over 1000 years ago. Here we saw how the earth is ever so, ever so slowly pulling apart along the North-America and Eurasian tectonic plates and stood where the Viking settlers stood centuries ago to edict national laws. And where they film great chunks of Game of Thrones, of course! The scenery all day was incredible and totally unlike anything I had ever seen before (although apparently reminiscent of New Zealand - still on the bucket list!). As we made our way back to Reykjavik, watching the Iceland ponies graze on the side of the road, you can only marvel at Nature and how extraordinarily different it is less than three hours from the UK.
Back at 6.00pm and out again at 9.00pm to have another crack at the Northern Lights and I'm still thinking 'I hope we don't get the same driver!' but, of course we did but he was marginally less erratic on the roads and took us off into the hills where he confidently said we would see the Lights. We waited outside on the road, drinking hot chocolate and trying to stay warm whilst he assured us that they were coming and, yes, eventually, what initially looked like a dark bank of clouds yet was completely clear, moved across the starry sky before lights shone out above it as if like spotlights behind a theatre curtain. Not green but definitely light enough to put the birds into dawn chorus mode. We would have loved to see the amazing colours but that was not to be but at least we saw them and an extraordinary and alien sight it was too (humming to myself the theme to Close Encounters of the Third Kind!)
Back at 2.00am and up again at 4.00am to pick up the bus to Keflavik airport where everything is amazingly efficient and clean (UK airports please note!) and then on to our easyJet airbus back to the UK. We arrived at Manchester early which clearly threw the ground staff into a frenzy because they couldn't find a set of stairs to disembark from the front so everyone had to get off at the back at which point the pilot asked us not to rush to the back in case the plane fell over! I'm still not clear whether this was an attempt at humour because we had been on the ground for twenty minutes by then with no sign of going anywhere but we were being very British about it and no-one was complaining.
Worth the trip? Definitely! Expensive when you get there? Yes. But this is an extraordinarily beautiful place and another twenty four hours to go the Blue Lagoon and maybe have another crack at the Lights would have been good. And apart from our Northern Lights driver, everyone we met was helpful and courteous and made our visit an absolute pleasure.

Friday, 31 March 2017

The Grand Slam Plan : To Upside the Down

Because we're on the other side of the world and eleven hours ahead of Blighty, my birthday starts earlier than usual. I've been longing to run for the last few days (I'm getting weirder by the minute, obviously) but the gigantic mozzie bites on my feet swell up if I even show them my trainers. But today they are better and whilst Big Foot lies in bed, I am off pounding my way (well, jogging and gasping for breath in the heat) round the road that circles the golf links and runs between the hackers and whackers and the sea with spectacular views.

Then breakfast and card opening (thank you, children with forethought who hid cards in our luggage) and then we head to Red Hill Market which is a huge charity market over about 15 acres, full of crafts and foodie stuff. The perfect place to buy today's gourmet picnic. Then off to Shoreham beach which we had scoped out a couple of days ago. Definitely our best beach yet and although it is a sunny Saturday there's plenty of room for everyone. Swimming and walking along the beach looking for shells and watching for dolphins - not making an appearance again! The absolute perfect way to spend my midwinter birthday.

By the time we get back and are changed ready for dinner, Yorkshire is waking up and lots of nice messages are winging my way - thank you! And a phone call from our North Rigton chums who are still on their way to Perth in their camper van. Brave folks, I'm too much of a comfort-lover to be up for that. Dinner was at Cook and Norman again and it was delicious and for once we are not holding back and have all three courses. Back to the Flinders Hotel for our last night. Flying home tomorrow.

This should really be called The Last Post because that's what it is but on our travels we met Michel and Narija and she came up with the expression "To Upside the Down" to describe their odyssey Down Under and I couldn't leave my blog of this wonderful trip without including it somewhere.

Our last morning in Flinders starts with a run along the beach and breakfast. Then, because the weather forecast is not great for today, we pack our bags and hit the road. Melbourne takes about an hour and a quarter and once we're in the city, the difficulty of finding a parking space - even on a Sunday - is all too apparent. For starters, it's Chinese New Year and the streets are thronging. Anyway our plan is to go to the Immigration Museum which is a real eye-opener in terms of the huge numbers of people and races absorbed into the Australian nation over just a few generations. No wonder everyone we meet here wants to tell us where they originated from.

Melbourne is hot and sticky with the promise of rain in the air and after lunch we decide that the air-conditioned airport is a better option than walking the humid streets being jostled by the crowds. So as I write we are sitting in the airport lounge with an hour or so to wait for our flight to Doha. 

This has been an extraordinary trip. Truly a holiday of a lifetime, brilliantly planned by my very special better half. We have visited friends in Sydney, tasted amazing food and wine in Adelaide and the Barossa Valley, watched superlative tennis at the best tennis venue in the world in Melbourne, run with kangaroos in the Grampian Highlands, driven the Great Ocean Road, done a treetop walk in the Otway National Park, watched the Parade of the Little Penguins on Phillip Island and relaxed on the beach in Flinders. We've flown thousands of miles, driven hundreds and even done a few by boat. We've seen kangaroos, koalas, bandicoots, wombats, wallabies, seals, kookaburras, cockatoos, parakeets, penguins and had the car well and truly poo-ed on by a pelican. We've tasted at some wonderful wineries and, in my case, a little knowledge may well turn out to be a dangerous thing! I'm sniffing and tasting like Jilly Goolden! We've eaten superb food and discovered that in Australia the quality of fresh ingredients is exceptional. We've stayed in the best hotel in Melbourne (the Langham is absolutely top) and in b&bs without television, let alone wifi. And every day has been an adventure. One day we'll be back!