Setting the tone

This morning I was lying in bed listening to the radio. English TV presenter Davina McCall was being interviewed and she mentioned that she ‘loves a new year’, that it was a time of ‘getting on with it’ after the world winding down over the Christmas period. I found myself nodding in agreement from beneath the duvet.

There is something insistent about a new year, isn’t there?

Wherever I am at this time of year, whether Down Under with family in Melbourne or at home here in London, I like to give a nod to the year just gone. This time around I’ve been enormously grateful for the time and space that my end-of-2016 redundancy has given me. 2017 has turned into something of a watershed year. It’s been a year during which I wondered how a life without a job – and the structure that a job brings – might look. It’s certainly been a year of reflecting and exploring what I’m passionate about.

And the first of these is reading.

Yes I’ve been indulging my passion for the written word, reading like a mad thing and finishing the year with 118 books under my belt. At the same time, I’ve tried to challenge myself by reading more widely and I’ve tackled books that have been confronting, uplifting and gripping. Some have been boring, some have been surprising. But for the most part, they took me to new places, immersed me in new stories and left me curious, inspired and hungry for more.

Then there’s learning.

I’ve introduced myself to the world of MOOCs, embarking on the first structured learning I’ve had in over 25 years. I relished the return to economics and development – a subject I loved at high school – and dived into the untested waters of democracy and development in Africa and an introduction to philosophy. It inspired me, taught me, challenged me and frustrated me. What I didn’t expect to learn is that I have a better capacity for self-discipline that I thought.

I’m also passionate about making a difference. Regular readers might remember that in June, I took on my first non-executive director role by becoming a school governor – answering a personal calling to support and guide the young people who will live in the environment/society we are leaving in our wake.

I’ve also been travelling, exploring places like York, Edinburgh and Muscat (Oman) for the first time as well as revisiting old haunts – Oxford and Canterbury in the UK and then Paris with Lil Chicky in November. And on the home-front, I’ve shone some light into a few culinary black spots and added some new made-by-me staples to the Gidday pantry.

That’s not a bad year. It has certainly been a busy and stimulating one so like everyone, I enjoyed the luscious slow-down of the pre-New Year week. But once I could see January on the horizon, just like Davina I was itching to get stuck in again.

So it’s time to tackle 2018.

I’ve already added a new batch-recipe staple to my culinary repertoire – a delicious chicken bhuna curry – courtesy of a pre-new year visit to the Waitrose Cookery School.

bhuna curry montage

Left: The version I produced under supervision (with some sticky rice and made-by-Kym chapati); Right: The batch made at home was an absolute treat. The three leftover portions froze beautifully and kept me well-fed for a week.

I’ll be continuing to expand my aesthetic horizons this year and am off to the V&A Museum next Tuesday. What’s new about that? I hear you say. Well, I’ll be off with my brand spanking new V&A Museum membership – a Christmas present from Mum – tucked safely in my pocket.

VAM membership pack

The membership pack was almost as much fun to open as the promise of free exhibitions and other membership perks!

On the reading front, I’ve signed up to read 70 books for the year on Goodreads – including something from all 50 themes on the PopSugar Reading Challenge 2018  list – and am looking forward to some unexpected gems from my V&A Book Group. And after a few years of donating, I’ve finally made the acquaintance of the bookshelf at my local charity shop.

Book stack

I loved Byatt’s The Children’s Book (a V&A Book Group read from last year) so was chuffed to find Possession on the shelf. Grenville and Amis are authors I’ve never read and let’s face it, at less than £1.50 per book, I can afford to explore some new literary horizons.

I’ve also taken my first steps towards being a property investor, attending a 3-day strategy builder course last weekend, booking in for some courses on Buy-To-Let and Multiple-Occupancy over the coming months and getting stuck in with some research.

And of course my governor activity will continue in earnest as we embed last year’s initiatives and embark on some exciting new projects in 2018.

So with all of this setting the tone for the year ahead, I’ve bought some new stationery…

Stationery

Setting the (b)right tone for the year

Isn’t it lovely?

*sigh*

It’s going to be a bright and shiny 2018 peeps – I can feel it already!

Sacred places

Christmas is done for another year and we are coming to the end of that strange hiatus before the new year begins and life gets going in earnest again.

It has been four years since I spent a Christmas at home and flying solo meant that I could plan a completely selfish day, with absolutely no-one to please but myself. The day was filled with favourites: foodie treats (croissants – check, duck-fat roasted potatoes – check, Pat’s mango fruitcake – check), chats with loved ones Down Under and some Singin’ in the Rain (so full of joy and well, Gene Kelly peeps, what’s not to like *sigh*). There was also a luscious stretch of comfy-couch reading and some seasonal happy telly in the form of the Strictly Come Dancing and Great British Bake-off Christmas specials.

This year, the big day also fell smack-bang in the middle of a marvellous six days cocooned at home. I spent many glorious hours snuggled under a cosy throw catching up on movies I’d meant to see and snacking on cheese and home-made fruitcake (not together). And there was plenty of time to indulge in my favourite thing to do – reading. As far as I am concerned, there’s nothing like losing yourself in a good book and for six days, I found myself utterly engrossed in a tale of adventure, mysticism and history – From the Holy Mountain by William Dalrymple.

From the Holy Mountain

When From the Holy Mountain was published twenty years ago in 1997, I had just started travelling. Egypt had been a passion of mine since I was 14 years old, so much so that a career as an archaeologist had held quite some allure. Unlike others I knew who’d set off post-Uni to backpack around Europe, I went to work, saved my pennies and splashed it all on an escorted group tour through Egypt.

Over two mind-blowing weeks, our tour group travelled between Luxor and Aswan listening to stories of ancient rituals and dynasties, wandering through temples and bazaars and scrutinising endless statues and heiroglyphics. We then returned to Cairo for a couple of days and early one morning four of us took a camel ride up through the dusty streets and around the great stone peaks of the world’s most famous tombs, the mighty Pyramids of Giza.

The next day our bus made a stop there on the way back from Memphis and when our guide mentioned that we’d have enough time to go inside, I jumped at the chance. To my astonishment, the rest of the group elected to stay by the bus taking photos so I joined the file of tourists entering the shaded entrance and climbed determinedly up the stone ramp to the inner chamber.

After fifteen minutes the corridor narrowed until it was only wide enough for one person to pass through. I waited patiently until it was my turn to ‘duck-walk’ under the couple of metres of low ceiling-ed passage before the chamber. I stood, stretched my legs gratefully and moved away from the entrance to let a waiting group leave. As the last person crouched into the low space behind me, their exit stemmed the incoming flow of visitors for a couple of minutes and I was left alone in the chamber. In the dim light, a broken sarcophagus hunched darkly to my right as I gazed upwards to the chamber roof soaring above me. My skin prickled and I stood awestruck by the stillness, by the silence and by the sheer moment of standing under something built 4,500 years ago.

Had I read Dalrymple’s tale back then, I would probably have wanted to spend much longer and venture much further afield than my two weeks allowed. Twenty years later, the part of the world he writes about in From the Holy Mountain fascinates me. It was home to the grand and glittering Byzantium, an empire that stretched from Greece and through Constantinople (now Istanbul), crossing the Bosphorus into the vastness of eastern Turkey, turning south through Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine and finally swinging west across the Sinai Desert into Egypt.

Following in the footsteps of two 6th century monks, Dalrymple’s memoir took me on a five month pilgrimage from Mt Athos in Greece to the Great Kharga Oasis in Upper Egypt. His historic references and stories – taken from accounts of John Mochos and Sophronius’ journey – added a fascinating richness but more than that, Dalrymple’s vivid prose brought to life the distinctive landscapes and peoples he encountered along the way. Scattering these amongst his own discussions, interviews and reflections created this wonderful sense of being alongside him as he travelled. This was his pilgrimage, a chance to slake his obsession with the monks’ journey he had read about years before – and it reminded me of mine taken in the shadow of a 13 year love affair with Egypt all those years ago (albeit mine being much shorter than his).

I stayed buried in Dalrymple’s story of civil wars, displaced peoples and sacred places for almost a week, the memories of my first adventure flooding back and the itch to travel welling inside me. I felt like I was on a wonderful journey and that my life was richer for having read this book. As I closed the final page and added this extraordinary travel memoir to my literary favourites, I made myself a couple of resolutions – to learn more about these ancient worlds and to get Dalrymple’s In Xanadu onto my to-read list.

So here’s to a 2018 full of sacred places to discover and new worlds to explore – have yourselves a happy new year peeps!

Breath taking

It’s Sunday and again, the world seems to take a breath and sleep a little later.

It was quiet just after 8am when I was roused from sleep. I lay cocooned beneath the covers for a few indulgent minutes, burrowing into the warmth while I drifted gently towards the morning. No radio alarm. No noise from the neighbours. No sporadic chatter from passers-by on the footpath outside. No rise and fall of traffic hum in the street. Time to wallow in the quiet stillness, in that sweet, sweet spot – you know the one – before nature calls, the covers are thrown back and the day begins.

I finally sat up, swinging my legs over the side of the bed and into my slippers. There was an unusual stillness in the air and my heart skipped hopefully as I padded towards the window and drew back the heavy curtain.

Before my eyes lay a world transformed: Fat white flakes swirled down from the insipid sky and settled softly over a garden already shrouded in white. It was a scene of such silent and untouched beauty that it was a few seconds before I realised that I was holding my breath.

It was snowing…

Snow on the Gidday patio

Snow on the wall

Snowy trees 1

I stayed by the window for a while, feeling the smile crinkle the corners of my eyes and child-like wonder fill my heart.

The MET office has been forecasting snow in the UK for a few weeks but a fall and subsequent settling like this in London is unusual. Just last week, a flurry of snowflakes wafted around me as I walked to a meeting and I thought that might be as much as we were likely to get until the New Year. But this is proper snow (for London anyway), one that took a deep breath in the dark hours of last night and then covered my Sunday in a blanket of white.

Snowy trees 2

Snowy rooftops

Even the neighbour’s cat has been over to explore…

I know I won’t be alone in my snow-posting today (and not everybody will have such romantic notions as I do) but I can’t help myself. There’s something magical about it, the way it quietly transforms the world. I can see the snow still falling from my spot here on the comfy couch and I keep interrupting my tapping to wander over and gaze out the window again.

Days like these fill me with a quiet, simple joy and there’s always room for a bit more joy in the world.

So stay warm peeps and have a breathtaking Sunday.

The busy-ness of life

Gidday peeps!

Sorry I’ve been lax on the posting front of late. It’s been a bit busy since I got back from stopping in Muscat seven weeks ago and while I managed to have a little rant about burgers in my last post, finding the time and head space to craft something more has proved a challenge. But I wanted to let you what’s been happening here at Chez Gidday.

First things first – I finished my fourth MOOC, this time on Democracy and Development in Africa, on 14th November and achieved 94%.

Hurrah!

This was quite a hard going course in terms of workload. In each of the seven weeks we were asked to complete several pieces of work – a mix of video lectures and interviews, reading, questions, discussions and essays – which was then capped off by a 3-part exam in the last week. Let me tell you there were many times when I cursed myself for signing up in the first place and then for not being able to walk away and let it go.

But in catching up with a close friend a couple of weeks ago, he complimented me on my commitment and acknowledged my self-discipline as a real strength. Interestingly, one of my reasons for doing these MOOCs was to ensure that my self-discipline ‘muscles’ stayed active. So I’m glad I stuck with it and am proud to say I have the certificate of achievement – as well as a whole lot of new ideas and opinions – to show for it.

My school governor role has really taken off as well. I’ve been attending the monthly marketing meetings as well as making my first visits with each of the dance and the drama curriculum leads at the school. I’ve also spent a day and evening completing my new governor induction training as well as the mandatory safeguarding training. So I’m now in the thick of it and really enjoying it.

Speaking of getting into the thick of it, I took part in an intensive 3-day Property Investment seminar at the beginning of November and also attended the Rethink Mental Illness Members Day the following weekend. Both are areas I’m very interested in exploring over the coming months. Needless to say I don’t think there’ll be any more MOOCs for a while.

Then amongst all of this was my usual smattering of out-and-about-ness.

On the culture front, I had my first ever visit to the Affordable Art Fair

…and spent another afternoon at the V&A immersed in their latest exhibition Opera: Power, Passion & Politics.

Both are areas I know little about so I really enjoyed having my eyes and my ears opened and my cultural horizons challenged.

The last seven weeks has also produced a couple of excellent theatrical highlights with the Donmar Warehouse’s production of The Lady from the Sea (by one of my favourite playwrights Henrik Ibsen) and INK (the story of Rupert Murdoch’s purchase and transformation of The Sun newspaper in the UK). And as regular Giddayers know, I love dance so it was with great delight that I went to see BalletBoyz’s Fourteen Days (and was especially moved by the intimacy of Christopher Wheeldon’s piece, Us). Then last weekend I was completely mesmerised by the provocative musical Cabaret that is touring regional theatres in the UK at the moment (and stars singer Will Young as the irrepressible emcee).

Literary-themed events got a look-in too with a walking tour of Fleet Street – called Publish and Be Damned! – on a rather chilly Saturday.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

There was also the chance to listen to readings from the Man Booker Shortlist authors the evening prior to the announcement of the prize winner, the British Library’s annual Equality Lecture by Professor Mary Evans and Gresham College’s free lecture on the wonderful Jane Austen, the last a welcome follow up to the Jane Austen exhibition I visited in Oxford earlier this year. I also went to some fascinating talks about The Future of Work, Artificial Intelligence, The Fight Against Alzheimers and The Future of our Digital Selves.

But amongst all of this, there was one lowlight.

As a long-time Agatha Christie fan, I had been looking forward to seeing Kenneth Branagh‘s remake of Murder on the Orient Express. But it had a different storyline and while the cinematography was gorgeous, the whole film was a bit ponderous and suffered from style-over-substance syndrome. As far as I am concerned, no-one writes Christie better than Christie so in tinkering with her work, Branagh’s effort left me feeling a bit flat.

And then last week I squeezed a 5-day rendezvous in Paris into proceedings (more on that later)…

…so maybe the word smattering was a bit of an understatement.

Not to mentioned that December 1st is only two sleeps away – when I get to open the first window of Mum’s annual advent calendar and put up the Chez Gidday Christmas tree…

*excited squealing*

So stay tuned. There’ll be more Gidday adventures coming to the blogosphere soon!

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.