About GiddayfromtheUK

A 40-something Aussie sheila who packed her swag and moved to the UK in 2004, I write Gidday from the UK which provides a glimpse into the 'everyday moments' of my expat life.

The art of stopping

It’s been a while since I posted and here’s why.

I’ve been on holiday.

Again? the regular readers among you might say.

Yes I know. So far this year I’ve been to York, Edinburgh and Oxford, spending a few days in each and discovering lots of lovely things to see and do.

But this was a different sort of holiday. It was a holiday with the sole purpose of stopping.

It’s been fifteen years since I learnt how to stop. Until then, I thought holidays were for doing – visiting new places, seeing new things, eating new food and learning new stuff. They weren’t for stopping. I couldn’t understand why people didn’t fill their time off with loads of stuff to do. But in 2003, after a fraught and exhausting year – and bolstered by a redundancy payout – I fled to a resort on Koh Samui for ten days.

For the first few days, I did little more than park myself on a sun-bed and alternate between reading, dozing and gazing absent-mindedly out to sea. My mind started to empty and my body stilled. By day three, something unusual had started to emerge – boredom.

I am an inquisitive person. I love ideas and learning and I’m always off to meet new people, listen to new ideas and think about all of the ‘what-ifs’ in life. As a result I’m rarely bored. But for the first time in my life I could not summon the energy to deal with anything new. Just the thought of exploring beyond the hotel felt completely overwhelming. So I stayed where I was, wrapped in the island’s pre-monsoonal September lethargy, mentally antsy but too tired to do anything about it.

By day five, stripped of all but the most essential social contact and stimulation, I slipped quietly into this feeling of incredible peace. My mind stopped chattering quite so loudly, the tension melted from my limbs and shoulders and I started to notice things. The warm breeze brushing my skin as I lay on the lounger. The sand crunching between my toes as I walked towards the sea foam rippling along the shore. The water sluicing through my hair as I plunged under and then broke back through the surface, tasting the salt on my lips.

Everything felt still and serene. Boredom had given way. Suddenly I understood – this was stopping, this was why those people did what they did – and for the remaining five days, I slept like a child – long, deep and restorative – for the first time in my adult life.

And so this holiday – some fifteen years later and one of many since – was about stopping, finding some stillness and surrendering to my favourite things – the feeling of sun on my skin, lots and lots of reading and some epic sleeping. No going out. No ‘discovering’ the city. Actively avoiding any engagement with those people who assume that being on your own means you’re up for a chat. Nothing remotely effortful or stimulating. Just me and my trusty Kindle.

I spent eight days and eight night in Muscat, or more specifically at the Grand Millennium Hotel in Muscat.

After a seven hour flight from London, during which I managed to watch the entire season of Big Little Lies (indulgence number one – done!), I checked into the hotel, unpacked my cabin bag – after all bikinis, sarongs, a pair of flip flops and a few things to wear to breakfast and dinner do not take up much room – and headed to the rooftop pool.

Panorama from rooftop pool 1

I spent every day there…

Muscat poolside

I read. A lot. I caught up on two issues of New Scientist magazine, lingered among the pages of the latest issue of 1843 and devoured seven books.

Muscat books

Each day I snoozed, ate lunch by the pool and went for a few gentle swims with the call to prayer wailing soulfully across the city in the background at midday and then again around mid-afternoon.

Late afternoon, feeling sun-kissed and sublimely relaxed, I returned to my room to shower, check emails, post (smugly, I must admit) on social media and linger for a while over the view.

Muscat sunsets

Dinner was either at the Taybat buffet (there was lots of variety so it was easy – and effortless! – to eat six of the eight dinners here) or at its a la carte seafood restaurant.

Muscat Fish Restaurant

Essentially it was about lots of delicious food with some happy Kindle-time between courses…and no alcohol. (The hotel is ‘dry’.)

When I got back to my room, I’d jump into the big comfy bed…

King Room 1

…and watch a couple of episodes of my ‘downloaded from Netflix’ box set, Thirteen Reasons Why. (I recently read the book – both it and the TV series were great!)

When that was all over – sooner than anticipated due to some profligate binge-watching – I then moved on to discover just how addictive US series Elementary – starring Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Lui – could be.

I did this for eight days and eight nights.

And then early on Sunday morning, I headed back to the airport for my flight home.

Muscat going home

It’s taken me a few days to feel hungry and sleepy at the right times again (Muscat is three hours ahead of London so I’ve been waking up at 5am) but I can safely say that the stopping has worked. I feel super alert, completely rejuvenated and full of energy – ready to tackle whatever’s coming next.

Here’s also hoping I’ve soaked up enough vitamin D to ward off any feelings of SAD-ness over the winter months…

An hour to spare

On Friday afternoon I was in Euston with a couple of hours to spare before meeting a friend for dinner near Kings Cross. Thinking that lingering in a cafe over a single coffee for so long might be pushing my luck, I hit on a fabulous idea – popping in to the British Museum.

I first visited the British Museum in 2000 and back then, barely covered the Egyptian Galleries. Since then, I have been to see specific events or temporary exhibitions but have never taken a look at the other permanent galleries. So brimming with inspiration and purpose, I trotted down Woburn Place, through the dappled shade of Russell Square and in twenty minutes, strode through the shaded museum entrance, dropped some coins in the donation box and collected a map.

With just over an hour to spare before I needed to leave, I decided to follow the ‘if-you-only-have-an-hour’ highlights route suggested on the map. I figured this would do two things.

The first was to get me in front of famous stuff I knew about – like the Rosetta Stone and the Parthenon Sculptures (I’d only known these as the Elgin Marbles before Friday’s visit) – and some famous stuff I didn’t know about. The second bonus was that it would take me through a range of different galleries so I could take a squiz and decide whether I was inspired enough to pay another, more focused visit.

I got around to just nine of the twelve objects on the map mainly because I kept stopping to look at other amazing things along the way. So the highlights trail* also did a third thing – it almost made me late! Here’s what happened.

As I’d entered from Montague Place, I was in position to tackle the trail backwards which meant making my way to the ground floor. My first stop was at the end of Room 24 to admire this awesome Easter Island statue, Hoa Hakananai’a* (below right). I then headed out into the Great Court and took a right turn into Room 4 for the Rosetta Stone* (below left) which proved quite difficult to a) get close to and b) take a decent photo of. Continuing on into Room 18, I found myself surrounded by the Parthenon Sculptures* (below middle) – it’s a huge room and this is definitely one worth coming back to with plenty of loitering time.

Brit.Mus. Rosetta Stone+Parthenon+EasterIs.

As I headed back out of the long, marble-lined gallery, I took another right turn to explore a whole load of these amazing carved Assyrian reliefs* in Room 10.

Brit.Mus. Assyria

With four highlights done, I was feeling pretty pleased with what I’d seen so far.

Next I headed across the Great Court and through the shop at the museum’s main entrance from Great Russell Street. My next target was Room 2a, home to the Waddeson Bequest. This collection is comprised of 300 objects donated to the museum by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild in 1898. I was here to see the medieval Holy Thorn Reliquary* but this was where I started to go a little off-piste, distracted by other treasures like the Palmer Cup (below left) from 1200-1250 BC and a gilt brass hunting calendar from the 1600s (below right). Unfortunately neither photo does justice to the wonderful detail in these two pieces.

Brit.Mus. Palmer Cup + Gold Hunting Calendar

Finally I reached the cabinet holding the Reliquary and I realised why this piece was heralded as a highlight on the map. I gazed open-mouthed for several minutes, awestruck by the extravagant jewels and pearls lavished all over this small gold piece.

Brit.Mus. Holy Thorn Reliquary

I trotted back out to the entrance vestibule and headed upstairs to Room 40. I’d never heard of the Lewis Chessmen*, despite them being billed as ‘the most famous chess set in the world’, and I have to say I was delighted to make their acquaintance upon my arrival.

Brit.Mus. The Lewis Chessmen

I passed into the next room (41) en route to my next highlights stop only to find myself surrounded by all sorts of treasures from Sutton Hoo. I couldn’t resist lingering over the re-constructed drinking horn (below left) and the slightly Muppet-like figurehead from the prow of a Viking ship (below right).

Brit.Mus. Saxon Horn + Ships Prow

I continued on, walking the length of the east wing and paused briefly at the end to admire some Iranian metalwork* before turning left to reach Room 56 and the very old Royal Game of Ur* (2600-2300 BC).

Brit.Mus. Royal Game of Ur

I was walking through the gallery on my way to the next highlight when I was struck by the Homer Simpson-esque countenance on this statue of King Idrimi of Alakah (1560-1500 BC). Then I drew closer to discover the intricate cuneiform etched all over it.

Brit.Mus. King Idrimi of Alakah

I found a lot to admire in this section of the museum and made a mental note to return for a more leisurely nose around. I definitely want to find out the stories that lie behind these glazed bricks from the Throne Room of the palace of Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar II (605 – 562 BC), this tiny gold chariot (below right) and many of the other things I spied as I whizzed past.

Brit.Mus. Lion tiles + golden chariot

Back on the highlights trail again, I headed around to Room 70 in the west wing to check out the Portland Vase* (below), the Roman inspiration for the iconic Wedgwood design.

Brit.Mus. The Portland Vase

After a short walk around the display cabinet, I about-faced and headed back towards the north stairs. I was intent on getting up to the Japanese Galleries to pick up the trail again but could not help but pause at the sight of the stairwell full of Roman mosaic floor tiles (below).

Brit.Mus. Roman mosaics

I headed up to the Mitsubishi Corporation Galleries on Level 5 to eyeball this Samurai armour* from medieval Japan (below right) but got waylaid – I know, again – by this strange-looking clock (below left). Seeing these two exhibits side-by-side in the montage below makes me think of Star Wars.

Brit.Mus. Japanese Gallery

Glancing at my watch, I realised that I needed to get going to ensure that I didn’t leave my friend waiting. So I kept my head down and my eyes averted as I walked down the stairs again – but to no avail.

Brit.Mus. Large standing buddha

This is the Amitābha Buddha and she stands almost six metres tall in the lower portions of the north stairwell. She was spectacular. I had to stop.

And then I was coming down the final flight of stairs when my gaze fell upon these glorious glazed roof tiles which would have adorned the ridges of a temple complex in northern China during the Ming dynasty period (1400-1600).

Brit.Mus. Ming Dynasty Roof Tiles

And with that, I finally made it out the door and, with a bit of legging it, got back to Kings Cross just in time. Prosecco is a fine motivator indeed.

Phew!

So that was my hour of highlights at the British Museum. It has definitely inspired me to return for a meander around Assyria, Mesopotamia, Japan and the Parthenon when next I have an hour to spare.

After all, I already have the map.

Bread and philosophy

I’ve been stretched out of shape this week.

Since June I have been immersed in an Introduction to Philosophy course. It’s a MOOC (Massive Open On-line Course), a learning format that is starting to make inroads into the way we learn, and is offered by MITx via edX, the non-profit and open-source platform founded by Harvard University and MIT in 2012. It offers a wide range of courses and programs from many of the world’s leading universities and institutions. I did a couple of shorter courses earlier in the year but the content weight and length of the Introduction to Philosophy course was a much bigger challenge for me.

After twelve weeks, eighteen lectures and three written submissions, on Thursday I received my final mark (88%) and my certificate.

Intro to Philosophy certificate

It’s been a long time since I’ve undertaken a lengthy period of formal study. Even though I’m not working at the moment, setting aside 6-7 hours each week – sometimes more when a written assessment was due – has been challenging. Much of my impetus to keep at it was the fear of falling behind and potentially having to find double the time the following week.

It’s also been a subject that’s really tested me. Contrary to what you might think, the course was not about what I believed about God, knowledge, consciousness or identity but rather reading a range of arguments about these subjects and assessing them rigorously using a particular structure.

I’ve always loved learning and when faced with difficult concepts, I usually get through by applying myself to pulling the topic apart and putting it back together again. But there were a couple of weeks – thankfully not in a row – when I floundered. I couldn’t see the point of the arguments and engaging in the discussion forums/asking questions made me even more confused. In the end, surviving all of my harsh self-talk required an exercise in generosity. I surrendered to the feeling of ‘wandering in the wilderness’ and tried to trust that I would eventually work it out. As the weeks moved on, the fog did clear a bit and I was able to pick up the pieces and put them together again.

I am proud of receiving my certificate. However more than that, I’m proud of sticking with it, not letting the feeling of being completely clueless deter me and of finding a little generosity of spirit in myself to get me through the difficult bits. And I feel different – more open, more aware, stretched in a new direction.

Speaking of difficult bits, on Saturday I stretched myself in another direction, this time to take on my battle with bread.

About seven years ago, I started my relationship with bread by making hot cross buns. I’m allergic to oranges and all of the hot cross buns here in the UK contain mixed peel (even bakery-bought ones). So I thought it would be an excellent thing to be able to make my own. So with recipe in hand and wielding my spatula, off I went.

The first batch of buns I made were amazing – mouth-wateringly fragrant, absolutely delicious with a cross on each glossy crown.

Since then I’ve attempted several more batches as well as a variety of other loaves. I love the physicality of making bread – my fingers pulling and stretching as they knead, seeing the magical doubling of the dough as it proves and the oh-so-glorious smell as the fresh bread emerges from the oven. But none of these have reached the dizzying, delicious heights of that first batch. So I decided that I needed to go back to basics and booked myself into the Beginner’s Bread Bakery at the Waitrose Cookery School.

I loved it!

Over five wonderful hours, Laini took us through the rules according to bread: The science of the ingredients, the importance of exact measurements and temperatures and the stretchy, springy consistency of great dough. To my delight, my doughs proved and proved again and I managed to produce a range of delicious breads…

Garlic and Rosemary Focaccia

Foccacia montage

Here it is:  Proved, flavoured and about to go into the oven (left) and beautifully baked and cooling (right).

Pesto and Cheese Straws

Foccacia Straws montage

We used some of the focaccia dough after the first prove to flatten, fill and shape these deliciously salty straws to accompany the mushroom soup served for our lunch. I had two at lunch and then the other two that evening.

White Bloomer Loaf (and dinner roll)

White bloomer montage

What’s a baking course without a white loaf and here it is (left). We also learnt how to make a perfectly shaped dinner roll (right). It’s not as easy as it looks!

I also learnt where I had been going awry in my bread-making, namely the water being too warm (thereby killing the yeast before it even got going) and using flour instead of oil to knead the dough (according to Laini, adding flour during the knead makes for a very dense loaf). Needless to say I’m very keen to put these all of these new techniques into practice but I need to finish all of the bread I brought home first…

bread basket 1

I ate the two focaccia straws and the dinner roll that evening, enjoyed the crust of the white bloomer loaf with organic raspberry jam the next day and portioned three quarters of the focaccia for freezing.

So in the space of a week I feel like I’ve achieved a little mastery over two challenging subjects – bread and philosophy – and now have some sound points of reference to build on. I feel incredibly energised, eager to apply it all and excited to learn more.

Just goes to show what a little stretching can do.


For my other visit to the Waitrose Cooking School – Sliced and Diced – click here

The carnival is over

After an end to August that was bathed in glorious sunshine, Autumn has arrived under a bit of a cloud – literally. For several days now I have been pricking my ears at the sound of rain spattering on the kitchen skylight and have been caught in a few unexpected downpours (only to find myself sweating it out in my mac when the clouds lift ten minutes later). Suddenly layers – and umbrellas – are the things I need to be thinking about.

I was walking back from East Finchley on Monday afternoon – the sky drab with cloud and the air heavy with humidity – and decided to pop into Long Lane Pasture.

It’s been two months since I first discovered it during a geocaching exploit with stepmum-B. On a warm summer day back in July, we had plodded curiously along the grassy pathways, stopping to admire a bright flower, taste some small golden plums or wonder at an unusual plant. Profusions of ripening blackberries, just a few short weeks from plump purple readiness, lined the paths and we had been delighted to find a patch of cool relief under a draping willow tree by the railway fence.

LLP July montage

Since then, the blackberries have all but gone and with things having been mowed and generally tidied, it was clear that the volunteers had been hard at work.

LLP Sept (3)

LLP Sept (4)

LLP Sept (2)

This grass circle (above left) contains 17 different species of native grass which, apart from being hand-weeded, are left to grow wild.

And speaking of native, the middle picture below is a Guelder Rose (viburnum opulus), native to the British Isles and named for Gelderland, a Dutch province. It grows in hedgerows and still grows wild in the London Borough of Barnet although this particular shrub was planted in the Pasture. Birds love the berries but they are acidic and slightly poisonous for people.

LLP Sept (1)

I also got a gander at some rose hips (above left) – which I’d only ever experienced during my childhood as ‘jelly-in-a-jar’ – and all to the accompaniment of bees buzzing away industriously. On the way out I put some coins in the donation box by the gate to support the efforts of the volunteers who tend this little patch for the community.

I continued on towards home and as I passed Victoria Park, I noticed something unusual on the grass.

Victoria Park

No, the aliens have not landed. Rather over the last ten days, the park has been playing host to a kiddies’ carnival – rides, bouncy castles, you know the sort of thing I mean. I’d grown used to it on my morning walks. But on Monday it had vanished leaving nothing but the marked grass as testament to their stay. With the rain, it will no doubt green up even more quickly than usual but I was astonished at how much of an impact the ten days had made.

And speaking of astonished, the garden at Gidday HQ continues to surprise and delight, particularly given the absence of green-coloured-thumbs. Small sprays of roses keep bursting forth, the insects continue to buzz busily and a flourish of striking red poppies has cropped up along the garden fence.

ChezGiddayFlowers Sept17

I did not plant any of these but most days I wander out to visit them, enjoying their delicate freshness and vigour and wondering what other surprises might be in store. I’m also flabbergasted at their undaunted survival and the unequivocal claim they have made at the home of one so horticulturally-challenged.

Nature is a marvellous thing isn’t it?


As I type this, my feet are tucked into my cosy sheepskin slippers. The lounge room is noticeably darker without the sun streaming in and while the desk lamp illuminates the keyboard under my fingers, the floor lamp in the corner behind me casts soft light across the room. The days are already feeling shorter.

Yes peeps, the carnival is definitely over. Long summer days are already yielding to brisk autumn nights. The kids are back at school and daily commutes are crowded with the busy and the anxious again. The steady march of annual comfort telly – the flurry of The Great British Bake Off and the flounce of Strictly Come Dancing – has begun.

Nevertheless I’m hoping that it’s not quite over yet. A bit like the roses at Gidday HQ, just when I think they have finished their annual flowering, their scented petals burst forth again, enchanting me one last time.

Peach roses.JPG

So if you are looking for me, I’ll be the one still smelling the roses…and keeping my eyes peeled for a late burst of summer.

Oxford: City of discovery

I woke on the last day of my Oxford staycation with only one non-negotiable left on my list – the Ashmolean Museum. But overnight Wednesday’s rain had given way to disarmingly blue skies and I decided to spend an hour or so meandering. So I headed in a new direction, turning into the cobbled laneways and discovering some wonderful pockets of Oxford life.

Carfax Tower+

L: Carfax Tower at the bottom of High Street; R: Longwell Street

Oxford streets

L to R:  Oxford Castle; Oriel College;  the tower of Magdalen College pierces the sky.

Boats + Bikes

Ways to get about in Oxford – bikes near Merton College and punts on the River Cherwell.

I’d walked as far as the Botanic Gardens then turned around to cross back over the bridge and head down the High Street. This took me past Magdalen (pronounced Mawd-len) College – the college that most people had recommended that I should visit – and seeing that it was open, I decided to pop in. I spent a wonderful hour surrounded by the magnificence and serenity of the cloisters, the Great Hall, the chapel and the grounds.

Magdalen Courtyard panorama

Main courtyard, Magdalen College – you can see the outside of the chapel on the right.

Magdalen Coats of Arms

Coats of arms adorn the corridors and ceilings of the Magdalen College cloisters.

Magdalen Chapel+Hall

L to R: Magadalen Chapel; the Chapel’s monochrome stained glass windows; the Great Hall.

Magdalen Cloisters

The cloisters: The photo on the right was taken standing in the right hand corner of the cloister running across the left hand photo. Magdalen Tower (right) is a well-known Oxford landmark and plays an important role in the city’s May Morning celebrations each year on May 1st.

Magdalen college foilage

Left: Heading into the cloisters. Right: This plane tree was planted at Magdalen College in 1801 – its seed was from a 15th century plane tree in the nearby Botanic Gardens.

Feeling rather pleased with the success of this visit, I decided it was time to amble through the back streets in the general direction of the Ashmolean Museum…

Holywell Street

Peaceful scenes in Holywell Street

MuseumRd+LambandFlagPsg

En route to the Ashmolean via the Wardens’ House (on the corner of Parks Road and Museum Street) and Lamb and Flag Passage.

…arriving just after 11am. After fortifying myself with a much-needed coffee and a delicious slice of pecan pie in the cafe (walking makes me peckish), I finally succumbed to the charms of this amazing museum.

The Ashmolean was founded in the late 17th century by Elias Ashmole and is the University of Oxford’s museum of art and archaeology. I had an interest in archaeology in my early teens (I even considered it as a career for a short while) and it was this that inspired me to spend a heap of money travelling through Egypt for two weeks in 1997. But this interest also kindled a lifelong passion for history and I spent a very happy couple of hours wandering though the Ashmolean’s collections.

Ashmolean entrance

Left: The main entrance to the museum on Beaumont Street; Right: An unusual guard dog greets the museum’s visitors.

EliasAshmole++

L to R: Portrait of Elias Ashmole, the museum’s founder; the Sculpture gallery; Delft tiles

AM - Purse+Hoard

Left: Chancellor’s Seal Purse from 1850 – perhaps you could pop some of the Didcot Hoard (Right) – which was discovered in 1995 and included 126 gold coins from AD54-160 – into it.

AM - Skull+

Left: Cast of Homo Georgicus skull found in Dmanisi, Georgia in 1999 – the skull was from 1.8million years ago and provided early evidence of the genus homo outside of Africa. Right: Shrine of Taharqa from the temple at Kawa in Egypt – “the only complete free-standing pharaonic building in Britain”. (Source: http://www.ashmolean.org)

Buddha+

Left: Schist Relief Panel depicting Buddha’s Descent from the Heaven of the Thirty-three Gods, Gandhara AD200-300. Right: Hand-painted harpsichord (I think?) I forgot to take a photo of the description plaque next to it.

There was so much to admire (I read somewhere that there’s around 8,000 years of history represented) with display case after display case packed full of fossils, curios and trinkets. I was overwhelmed with insatiable curiosity, lingering in each the galleries to read all about the thing(s) I was looking at.

But this feckless information-gathering has a price.

When I spend time at museums and exhibitions, I usually spend about two hours before feeling like I’ve had enough. There’s no doubt in my mind that it is because I like to read about the things I’m seeing and put the pieces of their bigger story together. But it does mean that my brain get saturated and there comes a point when I can’t absorb any more. When this point comes – when I stop being ‘wow-ed’ quite so much – that’s the signal to stop. And after a little over two hours of educated loitering I’d had my fill – the Ashmolean had left me thoroughly and happily drenched.

With that it was almost time to go home so I grabbed a good-for-me lunch at the Organic Deli Cafe a block or so away before trundling to the station for the journey back to London.

And so this brings us to the end of my armchair tour of Oxford. It’s a city built – and rebuilt – on the dreams of great scholars and thinkers and filled with both stunning architecture and bags of history. It’s also a wonderfully walk-able city and I’d encourage anyone visiting to pause between ‘the sights’ and take some time to amble through Oxford’s cobbled streets and winding lanes.

It was one of the things I enjoyed most – crossing and recrossing this iconic university campus – so I hope that in sharing the time I spent in Oxford, I’ve inspired you to get your walking shoes on and discover it for yourself.


There are three posts in my armchair tour of Oxford – for your vicarious reading pleasure here are the other two:

Oxford: Dons and dreaming spires

Oxford: Words and music

Oxford: Words and music

Last time I posted, I wrote about my lovely afternoon ambling around the historic city of Oxford. That was just the beginning of my mini break in this delightful city and I spent a further two days indulging my passions for literature, history and beautiful architecture.

After the gentle sunshine of Tuesday afternoon, Wednesday emerged as a bit of a damp squib, the day alternating between light drizzle and heavy showers. As it turned out, it didn’t matter as it was a day of mostly indoor pursuits beginning with a tour of the Bodleian Library.

The Bodleian Library is comprised of a number of well-known buildings including the Divinity School, the Radcliffe Camera, the Clarendon Building and the new Weston Library. The library began its life in 1488 when Humfrey, 1st Duke of Gloucester (and younger brother to King Henry V) donated over 280 manuscripts to the University. The existing library in the University Church of St Mary the Virgin (in Radcliffe Square) lacked the space to accommodate Duke Humfrey’s gift so a new library was built above the Divinity School.

Divinity School + Sheldonian

The Divinity School is on the left with Duke Humfrey’s Library on the first floor. The front entrance to the Sheldonian Theatre is on the right.

The library was stripped of its contents in 1550 as England moved away from the Catholic Church under Edward VI (The Reformation) and languished for 48 years before Oxford Fellow and Elizabethan diplomat Sir Thomas Bodley (for whom the library is named) offered to fund its refurnishing. In 1602, the library was reopened and continued to prosper as Bodley persuaded wealthy benefactors and subscribers to contribute to its upkeep and extension. Bodley’s negotiation with the Stationers’ Company of London in 1610 also meant that the library was to receive – in perpetuity – one copy of every book published.

Ongoing expansion has been a theme since Bodley’s death in 1613 and the library has grown to include Nicholas Hawksmoor‘s Clarendon Building (1712-1713), the Radcliffe Camera (1860) and the new Weston Library (2014) as well as a further 153 miles of bookshelves in an off-site purpose-built warehouse facility in Swindon (2010).

Our tour guide Matthew led us through a brilliant ninety minutes of historical facts and anecdotes. Unfortunately photos were not allowed in Duke Humfrey’s Library – the oldest part of the library with books that are hundreds of years old – or in the Radcliffe Camera to respect the privacy of students who use these reading rooms (yes they are still in use). While these were two of the highlights, it was a tour of many high points so I took as many photos as I could where I was allowed. It was an absolutely amazing visit and I’d highly recommend it.

Clarendon Bldg + Radcliffe Camera

L: Bodleian Library entrance via the Clarendon Building; R: The Radcliffe Camera

Library entrance+Quadrangle

L to R: Clarendon Building from Broad Street; delicate ironwork over the entrance; one of the old doors in the Old Schools Quadrangle

Divinity School interior

L to R: Inside the Divinity School with its marvellous ceiling; this chair is made entirely from timber taken from The Golden Hind, the ship Sir Francis Drake used to circumnavigate the world from 1577-1580.; the Convocation House was the original meeting place for the University’s Supreme legislative body and also housed Charles I’s Parliament during the Civil War from 1642-1646.

CWren door

Images of the Christopher Wren door which leads from the Divinity School directly across to the Sheldonian Theatre which was his first architectural commission.

I left the library and wandered across Broad Street to Blackwell’s Bookstore. I’d never heard of Blackwell’s before coming to Oxford but I’d noticed a walking tour sign about The Inklings which took me to some parts of Oxford I was unlikely to have found myself.

Inklings WT

L to R: The Rabbit Room at The Eagle and Child was where C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien met regularly; C.S. Lewis was a rector at the University Church of St Mary the Virgin – the inspiration for his Mr Tumnus and the lamp in the woods exists in the laneway adjacent to the church (ref: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in The Chronicles of Narnia)

I’d also heard whispers about Blackwell’s Norrington Room in the basement of store. It’s billed as the largest room built for the purpose of selling books. How many books does it hold, you ask? Well apparently it’s around 250,000 give or take a few…

Norrington room

The Norrington Room: It has an official photo point…

I wandered around for twenty minutes and was so overwhelmed that I left without buying a single book.

I headed off to the Turl Street Kitchen nearby and to the sounds of the rain pattering on the street outside, I tucked into a delicious lunch of home-made soup and bread. The wet weather showed no signs of letting up so I decided to return to the Bodleian’s Weston Library and thoroughly enjoyed wandering through the Jane Austen exhibition for an hour or so before heading back to the B&B.

Later I headed out for a little night music at Merton College with Richard Goode

Merton College

Waiting for the concert to begin – a recital by renowned pianist Richard Goode in the chapel at Merton College.

The program was fantastic – comprised of Mozart, Debussy, Beethoven to name a few – and I had a great view of both the pianist and the chapel. (The photo on the right above was taken while I was sitting in my seat.) After almost two hours of spectacular music, the audience finally released Goode from its applause and we filed out.

What an awesome day of words and music I had.

And there was still one more day to go. If you’re still interested, feel free to tag along next time…

Oxford: Dons and dreaming spires

I visited Oxford for the first time seventeen years ago.

In 2000, Mum and I spent a little over five weeks travelling together through Europe. We started with a week in London and, having come so far with so little time, we were eager to squeeze in as much as possible. So we decided to take a day trip that covered Oxford, Stratford-upon-Avon and the Cotswolds – I know, it’s a lot to fit into one day.

Back then, our sojourn in Oxford meant that we scurried industriously along behind an energetic lady of advancing years (who set quite a pace and put us all to shame) for an hour or so before the torrential rain set in. This time, I booked a couple of nights in a B&B and packed my hiking boots and rain jacket…

Oxford is a city of some 150,000+ people in central southern England and is the county town of Oxfordshire. It has played host to many significant events in English history and is also home to the University of Oxford which, as well as being the top-ranked university (according to the Times Higher Education rankings), is also the oldest English-speaking university in the world. It’s comprised of 38 colleges and six halls spread across Oxford which pretty much makes the city a wonderfully walkable university campus. And in my two and a half days, I crossed and recrossed that campus many times.

Oxford is also just over an hour from London by train so mid-morning on a sunny Tuesday, I departed from Marylebone Station to arrive just in time for lunch. After something to eat and a little aimless meandering, it was time to get stuck in so I made my way to Broad Street to join a free walking tour*.

Our guide Tom brought many charming and entertaining stories along on our two hour trot-and-stop through the city’s historic streets and colleges. From the cobbled cross that marks the site of the Oxford Martyrs‘ burning during The Reformation…

Oxford WT Mtg Point

L: The site in Broad Street where the Oxford Martyrs were burned at the stake for heresy in 1555. R: The green bicycle marked the meeting point for our tour.

…we set off to ‘attend’ Trinity College, ‘sat our exams’ at the Divinity School (part of the Bodleian library complex)…

TrinityDivinityBodleian

From L to R: Entrance to Trinity College; Divinity School (scenes from the Harry Potter movies were filmed inside); Entrance to the Bodleian Library on Broad Street.

…and finally ‘received our degrees’ at Christopher Wren‘s first ever commission, the Sheldonian Theatre.

SheldonianClarendoncourtyard

The Sheldonian Theatre is on the left of this courtyard which is accessed by walking through the Bodleian Library entrance in the previous photo.

It was then onto Radcliffe Square and some stories about the Radcliffe Camera, All Souls College and the University Church of St Mary the Virgin

Radcliffe Camera + All Souls College

All Souls College – a prestigious research-only college (no under-graduates here!) – and the Radcliffe Camera (another part of the Bodleian Library complex).

UnChurchofStMarytheVirgin

Interior views of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, the original site of all of the university’s teaching and administration.

…before entering the grounds of Christ Church College for a few final stories.

Christ Church entry garden

The War Memorial gardens

Christ Church building

The Meadow Building

I parted with Tom and the group on the banks of the River Cherwell delighted with my re-introduction to Oxford. And inspired by the mild weather, I decided to take a solitary walk around Christ Church Meadow. It was gloriously peaceful and exactly the tonic I needed.

Cherwell River

The River Cherwell where Charles Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll first regaled the Liddell sisters with tales of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Merton College

View of Merton College from the River Cherwell

CC Meadow 1

River walk + me

CC Meadow college view

View of Christ Church from across the meadow.

CC Meadow 2

‘Tis the season…for harvesting the hay.

It’s just as well because over the next two days, I packed a lot in.

I spent time at three different colleges during my stay – Christ Church (well, in the meadow anyway), Merton and Magdalen.

I indulged my lust for literature with a tour through the Bodleian Library, a visit to Blackwells’ Bookstore and its Norrington Room and a delicious meal at the Old Bookbinder’s Alehouse tucked away in Canal Street, Jericho.

I satisfied my urge to rummage around in history with a couple of hours at the Ashmolean Museum.

And, as I am wont to do, I did a whole lot of wandering about.

It was marvellous!

So if my first afternoon in the City of Dreaming Spires has whet your appetite, stay tuned. There’ll be more about what else I did in Oxford next time…


* A note on free walking tours: When I arrive somewhere that I am unfamiliar with, I find one of the best ways to get my bearings is to join a walking tour. A lot of cities offer free walking tours – you just turn up at an advertised time and place to meet your guide. The guide usually asks for a contribution at the end of the tour – the amount is your choice and you are free to pay something or not. It’s up to you. I’ve done these free walks in several cities and having found them really excellent, always find something to give…Tom got a fiver.

Inspired by: Women of the future

Back in 1986, when Whitney Houston sang about children being our future, I paid little attention. It was the year I turned 17 and I was busy casting off the shackles of childhood. As far as I was concerned, the future was all about me and what I was going to be in it.

It took thirty years and the words of another powerhouse woman, Miriam González Durántez, before I got the point: I may be the ‘now’ but the future is in the hands of those much younger and specifically those who inhabit our education system. Whilst I’m not interested in being a school teacher, Miriam’s words made me see that there was another way to contribute.

In the weeks that followed, I signed up for Inspiring the Future, an initiative connecting schools with the world of work and before long I was involved as a business volunteer with the Barnet Business and Education Partnership. For the last year, I’ve been in secondary schools supporting programs like presentation skills, interview skills and how to make the most of work experience that help students prepare for life ‘beyond school’. Participating in this way has been really motivating. It’s also got me thinking about how we prepare young adults to tackle life’s challenges outside their academic curriculum.

What other things can we do to help them to be resilient, resourceful and responsible in their adult life?

Earlier this year, I returned to the Inspiring the Future website to tick an additional box flagging my interest in being a school governor. I didn’t know that this would be the right thing for me but I knew I felt passionately about the contribution to be made and wanted to explore this further. In the words of change leadership guru Deborah Rowland (who I met in March)…

” …having set up these initial conditions for emergence, you have to let the change come towards you, not go chasing it.”

Still Moving: How to Lead Mindful Change by Deborah Rowland

…so I ticked the box and went on with life, continuing to explore a range of other interesting opportunities that had been emerging.

On June 4th, I attended the TEDx London conference and among the lineup of inspiring speakers was Teach First’s Executive Director of Delivery Ndidi Okezie who spoke about ending educational inequality and creating a world where all children have an “equalising educational experience”. Okezie spoke of feeling overwhelmed by the scale of change required but insisted that “a change must come”. Did you know that the proportion of UK children who go on to attend Oxbridge is roughly 1:20 but in poorer schools that this opportunity falls to 1:1,500? Teach First has over 10,000 ambassadors in schools creating equal educational experiences for all children, regardless of their socioeconomic circumstances.

As I listened to Okezie speak, I was taken back to my school years where a couple of teachers were particularly instrumental in helping me navigate the path to adulthood. Back then I was preparing to take flight into a world that, despite my insistence to the contrary, I didn’t really know much about. I was embarking on a new phase – just as I am now. I jotted a few notes down as the talk came to a close, thinking that they might come in useful at some point. One of the things life has taught me is that you never know which pieces of the puzzle might eventually come together.

And how timely this was. Less than a month later, I joined the Board of Governors for a local secondary school, becoming part of their Educational Standards Committee and also the link-governor for the school’s performing arts curriculum.

Needless to say there’s a lot to learn and a lot of work to be done. But I’m really looking forward to working with this team of passionate and committed governors and teachers. I’m also excited about ensuring that the student community – these women of the future – are equipped and empowered for the adventure ahead.

I’m stunned by how quickly these pieces fell into place.

I once heard it said that when you take responsibility for your own happiness, life shows up as a gift. I drew deeply on my reserves of resilience and resourcefulness as I struggled to build a new life in London over 13 years ago. And after last year’s work changes, I decided to take some time to explore how I wanted the next stage of my life to look. Whilst the full picture is still emerging, I’m feeling happy, fulfilled and excited to be on the brink of new possibilities.

So I feel passionately about encouraging the development of these qualities through my role as a Governor:

  • Resilience – in the face of life’s challenges;
  • Resourcefulness – in spite of what might stand in the way;
  • Responsibility – for stewarding themselves and the world through tumultuous times and inspiring the generations to follow to be the authors of their own success, whatever that may be.

Three more R’s to supplement the three – reading, [w]riting, and [a]rithmetic – that began their education over a dozen years ago.

My life is undeniably the sum of all of the people and experiences that have left their mark on me and it was another speaker from the TEDx London conference in June – a bloke from the world of policing and forensics no less – that captured this perfectly:

“Every contact leaves a trace.” John Sutherland

Here’s to leaving a positive and worthwhile mark on the generations to follow.

Think Fantastic Try Hope

Inspiration forms part of the window display of the Fendi store in New Bond Street, London (June 2017)

2017: My mid-year book report

We are now in the last week of July and life has become unbelievably full with the relaxed, undulating pace from earlier in the year all but gone. The great news is that I’m still squeezing reading into every nook and cranny that I can, so much so that I am already on the cusp of hitting my book target for the year…in July.  So I figured now was a good time for a mid-year review of this year’s literary adventures.

In January I set myself the target of reading sixty books in 2017…well by the end of June I had read fifty. I’m pleased to report that I have finished everything I’ve read, so there hasn’t yet been a book tainted with the ignominy of a Gidday 1-star rating. And I’ve only had three 2-star ratings (this is essentially a nod to finishing something that I’ve dragged myself through so slightly better than a 1-star). If you are any good at maths, you’ll have worked out by now that I have read 47 enjoyable-or-better books this year – that’s 94% and a cracking strike rate!

At the literary-love end of the scale, I have awarded Gidday 5-star ratings to eleven books so far.

2017 HY 5-star montage

These have been across a mix of genres and include returns to some of my favourite writers. Australia is represented twice in this list with Liane Moriarty’s un-put-down-able Big Little Lies (now a HBO series) and Matthew Reilly’s addictive thriller, The Great Zoo of China. I’ve embarked on #2’s in two trilogies with the gripping dystopian tale Insurgent from Veronica Roth’s Divergent series and the poignant split-time novel, Sepulchre, in Kate Mosse’s Languedoc trilogy. And while I enjoyed Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard when it was released a few years back, Black Water, set in the hills of Bali, absolutely blew me away.

I’ve also loved discovering new authors. The exploration of friendship in Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life and Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay left me feeling incredibly moved while Robin Sloan had me turning pages voraciously to unravel the mysteries of Mr Penumbra and his 24-hour bookstore.

Non-fiction made its debut amongst the 5-star reads this year. I attended the launch of Deborah Rowland’s Still Moving [free book disclaimer here] and really enjoyed exploring her insights into leadership and change. Mark Stevenson’s talk at the howto: academy about people doing things differently was fascinating and prompted me to buy the book. And I loved Peter Frankopan’s new history of the silk roads – it even yielded a family connection.

So the first half of the year has been fabulously bookish, my attendance at the V&A Museum‘s bi-monthly book group continues and June’s Emerald Street Literary Festival was again a highlight of the year so far. In fact, July has yielded two more 5-star reads neither of which I would have chosen had it not been for these events. I got a free copy of Morgan McCarthy’s The House of Birds at the Emerald Street Literary Festival and Maria Duenas’ The Seamstress is our next V&A Book Group read.

july17 5star montage

With the back half of the year off to an impressive start, I’m hoping the months ahead yield lots of lush literary adventures. In the meantime, that brings me to the end of my first half-year highlights so I hope that you’ve found something that inspires you to bury your nose in a book. If not, there are another twenty-two 4-star and fourteen 3-star reviews available on Goodreads or Amazon if you want to fossick about further for something I’ve read/reviewed that might take your fancy.

Remember, in the words of Lemony Snicket “Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them.” (Horseradish).

As far as I’m concerned that’s an excellent mantra to live by.

Happy reading!

ps…and don’t forget there are only six sleeps to go peeps – I wonder what amazing books I will discover once I’m 48?

 

Pastures new: Blackberries and plums

Here we are in July. That means we are into the second half of the year. Can you believe it? Time is just flying by.

This month began in earnest with visit from Down Under in the form of my stepmum, B. Originally from Kent, B emigrated as a young adult and built a life in Australia before meeting and marrying Dad over thirty years ago. So at far-too-early o’clock on July 3rd, I collected her at Heathrow Arrivals and brought her back to Gidday HQ for a few days of rest and recuperation.

To pass the time we spent a few hours at the Museum of London and a day playing tourist on one of London’s Hop-On-Hop-Off buses – as well as eating some delicious ice-cream in Green Park – before deciding to do some exploring closer to home. Dad and B are committed geocachers and B was keen to add a London badge to their treasure-hunting travails. The geocaching app told us there were two caches near Gidday HQ so with the sun shining hotly overhead, we set off.

The first was a relatively easy find in Victoria Park just a five minute walk away. The GPS on B’s phone pinpointed the approximate location and the clues led us straight to the cache itself. Bingo!

Bev - Victoria Park Jul17

All smiles after finding B’s first London geocache nearby

Inspired by our success, we decided to head to another cache a little further away. We made our way down Long Lane to where the North Circular passed overhead and followed an unassuming footpath up to the right behind the row of houses.

This is how I found out about Long Lane Pasture.

Long Lane Pasture is a meadow in the middle of North London suburbia that is chock full of local flora and fauna. It covers 2.6 hectares running parallel to the busy North Circular on one side, the Underground’s Northern Line along its south-westerly border and a host of allotments to the north-west.

LLP Map

We entered via the gate located at the south-east corner and wandered along the grassy paths. We passed blackberry bushes and plum trees swathed heavily in almost-ripe fruit, trees cast their intermittent shade on our shoulders and butterflies flitted busily between the wildflowers ignoring, or simply oblivious to, our passage. The busy North Circular Road faded from our minds as we immersed ourselves in this wonderful patch of nature busily getting on with ‘its business’.

Long Lane Pasture

LLP Redcurrants and plums

With exception of a short period during World War II, Long Lane Pasture has remained uncultivated since 1912 when the Mayor of Barnet planted an oak tree here to commemorate it as a recreational community space. In the early 1980’s it was closed to the public because of proposed roadworks and the meadow lay unattended until 1999 when the Council decided to sell the land for housing development. This prompted a public campaign to keep the pasture as a green space and the Council’s decision was finally overturned in 2006.

The Long Lane Pasture Trust was formed to replace the pressure group originally set up to prevent houses being built on the land. The Trust was first granted a licence to access the land in 2005 and then in the following year, was granted a 25-year lease to protect, restore and manage the Pasture, safeguarding the land for the benefit of the community. In 2012/2013, Long Lane Pasture was awarded a Community Green Flag for high quality management of public green spaces, one of only 43 awarded across London at the time.

For two hours each Saturday morning volunteers gather at the pasture to help maintain the meadow – weeding, trimming, mowing and clearing rubbish (shame on those who leave it!) – and also support school visits and special event days.

We grew more and more delighted by the minute as we wandered around with one eye on the GPS (after all we had a geocache to find) whilst drinking in everything around us. We found some shade beneath the leafy drapery of a gorgeous willow tree at the far end of the Pasture and spent ten minutes or so wallowing in this welcome respite from the heat. Then it was on with finding the geocache before heading back out into the sun.

Under the willow tree (LLP)

Feeling absolutely thrilled to have discovered the Pasture, that evening I jumped on-line and registered as a supporter. I’ve also put the annual blackberry picking event – just three weeks away – in my calendar. Mmmmmm I do love blackberries.

So this unexpected adventure has reminded me that delightful things happen when you venture off your regularly beaten path – and it doesn’t need to be very far off either. It has me wondering what other delightful surprises are just waiting to be discovered…

ps…speaking of delightful surprises, the birthday countdown continues in earnest with just 17 sleeps to go. This in itself is not surprising if you know me at all but it would be uncharitable of me not to remind you of how much I love to be surprised and delighted – *hint* *nudge* *wink* and all that…