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HOLIDAYS aren’t meant to be like this. Holidays are for relaxation and enjoyment, an escape from stress, balm for the soul. They aren’t meant to be spent huddled on the back seat of a minibus trying to get warm while rain lashes against the windows and condensation falls in icy drips from the skylight overhead.

Geoff and I are taking an outing during our break in Edinburgh. After city-based sightseeing for three days we thought we’d head further afield, see some of the countryside and let someone else do the driving.

The trip we have chosen is to Loch Lomond and Stirling Castle. We are a disparate bunch of travellers from various countries, but perhaps the most disparate of all is the one who has chosen to share our back seat. 

This is Skippy, or so I have named her. She is a pocket-sized Australian with an unfeasibly loud voice and a number of odd habits which include ceaselessly rootling in a succession of bags, taking off and putting back on almost every item of her clothing, and keeping us all waiting when it’s time to leave our various stopping points. Her day-long snacking consists of shovelfuls of hot sweetcorn and Vegemite, which she spoons straight out of the pot.

Geoff, who is sitting nearest her, is close to the top of his already not very high scale of incandescence. The noisy disruption Skippy causes is one thing, but the way she pitches up late without apology is really getting to him.

But it’s the weather that is our greatest trial. This screaming wind and sideways rain were not on our agenda and they are ruining the day.

’Loch Lomond’s over there,’ our driver points into dark grey nothingness as he pulls up for us to get out and explore. We weatherproof ourselves as best we can and step out into a kind of hell.

Geoff’s new umbrella, making its Scottish debut, instantly whips itself inside out. He spends precious minutes trying to reconstruct it, pointlessly, while being pounded and soaked by Scotland’s idea of Sunday weather.

We sprint across the ankle-depth loch that is the car park and, ignoring the real loch that may be somewhere over there but is invisible, we take refuge in a gifte shoppe, now filled with tourists dripping on to dismal displays of tartan tat. Through the damp mist emanating from all these bodies I notice one shelf stocked with cat litter, incongruous among the boxed fudge and Jimmy hats.

We need coffee. Naturally, because today is one of those days, it is quite the worst coffee either of us has ever tasted.

And so the day goes on. Our lovely outing, so attractive in prospect, becomes increasingly a feat of endurance. We stop in a village for lunch. It takes half an-hour to get served, two minutes to nibble the edges of a strange sandwich.

We wait, again, for Skippy to join the bus and set off for Stirling. The driver gives us the sort of history lesson we never had at school so that by the time we reach the castle we brim with knowledge about brave-hearted Scottish heroes with big forearms and even bigger ambitions.

Our cold, soaked invading force disgorges from the bus and makes a stab at absorbing yet more history from the walls of this important landmark that sits impregnable atop a shrouded hill.

Awful cup of tea, Geoff reports, emerging long-faced from the cafe. I can’t say anything to help him feel better as the wind snatches words away and my lips are frozen.

It could be worse, we agree, as we squelch our way back to our apartment later. We could have come in winter.

GEOFF and I had our usual twice-yearly conversation this week about the clocks being changed. They go back on Saturday night, I said – and then I doubted myself: no, I think they go forward. Well, they change, anyway, and the days will turn darker and gloomier for months and months.

Well, you’re right, it is certainly one or the other, Geoff said, and we’d better find out which it is. Hang on, I interrupted, doesn’t that saying go ‘Spring forward, fall back’, so we must put them back this weekend?

We briefly debated whether it could be the other way round, ‘Spring back, fall forward’, but dismissed that as definitely sounding wrong. Sadly, we will have the exact same conversation next March, and next October, and so on and so on.

Finally, we agreed the clocks would be going back, and that we would be getting an extra hour’s sleep on Sunday morning, which is a joy to anticipate.

As always, I shall spare several thoughts for those whose lives are complicated by the changing of the clocks. No-one tells babies and toddlers, for instance, that they should adjust their inbuilt personal alarms. Their cries for attention at an unearthly hour will go on, whatever time they choose to start their day.

When my now-giant children were still in babygros I would have given anything for that luxury of that extra hour’s sleep everyone else was having. Taking away a precious hour each spring seemed particularly cruel, too, especially when coinciding, in a masterpiece of ironic timing, with Mother’s Day.

Friends of ours were once travelling in Europe over the period of the autumn clock-change, blissfully unaware that they were 60 minutes out of synch. The pleasure of being on holiday and away from the daily grind so governed by the clock divested them of much of their usual hyper-efficiency. They had, of course, changed their watches to Central European Summer time after crossing the Channel, but had overlooked the late-October transition.

That was how they found themselves stranded on a station platform with no sign of the scheduled train they were planning to take to their Sunday afternoon destination and, that evening, finding the restaurant where they were hoping to eat still firmly closed.

Being an hour adrift of the world around you can make a crucial difference – as we have never failed to remind them in a superior but wholly kind way. They tolerate our insistence on bringing up the episode every time we see them, but probably only because we have assured them that their plight could very easily have been ours.

Indeed, it might even be ours this very weekend, as we head to distant parts where the challenge of remembering to turn our watches back an hour will be compounded by everyone around us speaking incomprehensibly.

We’re heading to Scotland, the part of the UK that tried to shake us off last month. We thought we’d show the Scots what they’d have missed if they’d waved England away. They could wish for nothing more than a confused couple from Dorset, pitching up in Edinburgh, smiles fixed despite the cold and the wet and asking what time it is.

 

FOR the past week I have been racing around with a brow so impressively furrowed it would be the envy of a champion ploughman.

If I dared look in the mirror I would see something wild and woolly with staring eyes, clear signs of an urgent need for a year’s sleep and a hairbrush. Mirrors refuse to lie, I regret to say.

It’s not been an easy week – and that’s an understatement. I have been in a parallel world, existing on five hours’ sleep a night, hardly conscious of the turn from one day to another, and certainly not aware of what the day is when it dawns.

The reason? I have been carer in-chief for my poor, unwell little mother. Knocked for six by an infection, the antibiotics caused a catastrophic reaction which took her to the brink. The brink of what, I dare not think about, but she was, as the saying goes, out of it.

Different antibiotics were soon prescribed and in a few days they’d done the trick. With the infection gone, it was now necessary to get the 92-year old patient back from the terrifying land of zonked-out where she’d taken refuge.

Normal daily life was suspended while Geoff assumed the ill-fitting mantle of capable chap home alone and I ministered to Mum in her home, 25 miles away, from dawn to way beyond dusk.

Being a carer to someone who, all those years ago, used to care for me, seems odd, yet right in some ways. In a reversal of roles I supervise face-washing, tooth-cleaning and hair-brushing, prepare tasty morsels that might, somehow, create an appetite, and then cut the food into bite-sized pieces and encourage her to eat them all up if she wants to be strong and healthy. 

We’ve both acted out all those ruses before and trotted out the same platitudes of encouragement – she to the child me, and me to my children. Nothing really changes. It’s all about love and an overwhelming anxiety to do our best.

My patient, with her own instinct to please and not be a nuisance, is reluctant to eat but steels herself to dispatch small amounts of the dollies’ picnics I produce. Her first proper meal, when she actually sat at the table, featured a few tiny items on a plate that I’d decorated with a big smile made of tomato pieces. She was highly amused and downed the lot. My success could be attributed to the application of toddler psychology, but it surely applies to all of us of any age if something is presented irresistibly.

In my role of Nurse Who Knows Best I felt I should have a crisply starched uniform (huh, those were the days, when you could tell a nurse from a casually dressed visitor) and one of those upside down fob watches, invaluable when taking pulses and checking your time over 1,500 metres.

With no fob watch, I rely on my wristwatch as I tend my frail patient and encourage her to stay sitting up for just another five minutes.

We take slow walks around her flat, increasing from a wobbly shuffle over a few yards to a tour of her entire domain. Our stretching exercises include gentle knee-lifts, becoming more energetic as we trot up and down the hall like spirited hackney ponies.

Happily, Mum is coming back, leaving behind that faded impression of herself that lay motionless for so many days.

She is getting stronger by the day, aided by ham-fisted care lovingly dispensed with plenty of laughter, which, as we know, is the best medicine.

 

I TAKE it as a personal affront when the sun hides away for days at a time. How dare it when it knows how much we love it?

A Monday morning that starts with rain so heavy it looks as though it couldn’t possibly stop until at least next June is a very depressing start to the week.

A day with a few showers is one thing, but a day that from dawn is obviously Wet with a capital W is something that requires some kind of strategy.

The showers of late have been weathered (forgive the pun) with the aid of a £1 umbrella that has shown its class by collapsing on my shoulders three times and now refuses to telescope shut, so it is neither a pocket brolly nor a proper grown-up one. In other words, it’s a politician among brollies – useless and untrustworthy.

Its successor, purchased for the same princely sum, is undoubtedly planning some suicidal act while it awaits its first outing. I do have a tougher but smarter alternative that fits in my bag but it’s only for when I am not walking far. This is because it is so heavy I think it must have been designed by someone with a bad sense of humour. A folding umbrella that fits in a pocket or handbag but weighs a ton? No it just doesn’t compute with me.

This leaves my Camilla umbrella, my proper, grown-up one that lives in the hall stand and accompanies me when I actually need to be protected from the elements and not have something pinging its prongs into my head and flapping cheap nylon in my face.

Camilla is one of those all-enveloping clear plastic jobs favoured by our Duchess of Cornwall when walking in the rain – usually somewhere in Scotland. Being see-through, it means her public can see her and she can spot when a child is approaching to hand over a posy.

My Camilla was a gift from my daughter about 10 years ago (she gave it that name, I should add) and in all that time, and through all our ghastly weather, it hasn’t once shown an inclination to blow inside-out or let me down in any way. In fact I think it is guaranteed not to do anything cartoon-like, which is quite something where umbrellas are concerned. I must find out if I can get the same sort of guarantee for myself.

I could certainly do with it after last week’s unfortunate affair with the kitchen utensils. No, I wasn’t juggling with them, merely sharpening two of my favoured kitchen knives, getting them into a more useful state for cutting as opposed to tearing.

Job done, I then took one up to use and promptly sliced into my little finger. Within an hour I had also cut my index finger and my thumb.

I was like a walking first-aid demonstration, what with the blood and the kitchen paper. Well, maybe not like a proper first-aid demo, more like a how not to do it demo, or one of those ‘beware of dangers in your home’ posters, illustrated with a daft woman with a blood-soaked hand looking sorry for herself.

I fear there is no guarantee against that ever happening again, especially as (whisper this) it has happened before, several times.

 

GEOFF and I are always reluctant to go anywhere that might get us caught up in crowds of people and queues of traffic. This means that during the high season most visitor attractions and many roads are off limits.

We choose instead to enjoy the home-made attractions of our own house and garden and our familiar local walks while we wait until the holiday madness settles and the roads become less clogged.

On Sunday, we found ourselves with a rare free afternoon. Let’s go somewhere, I said. The schools have gone back, the holiday crowds have returned home and I’m sure that by this time of day the roads won’t be busy.

So off we set, our destination Lulworth Cove, for a coastal walk in the warm sunshine and for Geoff to give his camera some exercise. Perhaps it would be the last chance of going anywhere this year without foul-weather gear over 36 layers of Arctic-proof body protection – who knows?

The last time we’d been to Lulworth we were showing it off to Italian guests. They come from an area of Italian coast that boasts mile after of mile of featureless beaches plastered with bodies spit-roasting in olive oil on hired sun loungers.

They’ll love this, we told ourselves. Lulworth is so beautiful, so English, with its perfect bay, its dramatic cliffs and its pretty cottages.

In fact, our visitors could not have been less interested. For one thing they didn’t stop talking long enough to give us a chance to explain where we were and what they should be looking at, and for another, they were about as comfortable admiring stunning English landscapes as we are when we watch their ghastly Italian television programmes.

Of course, this made us all the more possessive and proud of Lulworth and anxious to reach out and embrace it. Unfortunately, when we reached out to it on Sunday, it was apparent half the rest of the world had done the same. The car park was packed, cars were going round and round trying to find spaces (there is something so very depressing about that) and everywhere you looked there were people.

This was not what we’d come here for. Geoff extricated the car from the mayhem and we drove west to Durdle Door, where we hoped the teeming hordes were less evident.

They were. We parked and walked. It was so beautiful, so intoxicating in its extraordinariness and so unspoilt, despite its honey-pot effect.

The beaches were busy and many people were bathing, no doubt astonished, as we were, that it was even thinkable let alone enjoyable at this time of year.

Geoff and I made a pact to return in winter and see it all under the influence of different elements, without the sun and the blue sky streaked with clouds, without that amazing turquoise seawater in the bays, and without such a proliferation of shorts, sleeveless tops and sunhats.

Perhaps we would find, instead, a heavy sky, a cruel sea and a few stalwarts of the cagoule and boots brigade. What we would most hope to find, I know, is a tractor to tug us up that lung-burstingly steep, stony track to our car at the top.

 

WE headed west at the weekend to give the seal of approval to the new home of our son, daughter-in-law and toddler Poppy.

After months of being messed around by the so-called system that operates in this country for the buying and selling of houses, they finally moved in last week, along with all their belongings that had been in storage through the summer.

After giving them all of four days to settle in, we descended. We ensured we caused minimal disturbance, stopping for no more than a tour of the house, garden, village and 700-year-old church and its dreamily beautiful churchyard, plus the requisite tea and slice of cake. The cake had been to mark Poppy’s second birthday the previous day, so she understandably expected there to be candles on it again for her to blow out and a hearty singing of Happy Birthday. We did not disappoint her.

On our way to the house Geoff and I had stopped a couple of miles away in Totnes to check it out and have a bite of lunch.

Spoilt for choice, we eventually hit upon a foodie’s paradise where you help yourself to salads from a choice of about a dozen bowls. Soon after we sat down to eat, we were joined at the end of our table by a sweet-faced child of about two-and-a-half and his parents.

Now this is the sort of scenario that causes Geoff’s bile to rise and his food to curdle. If that little boy so much as banged a fork or raised his voice, Geoff would start shooting dark looks – or worse. I felt tense at the prospect.

But we judged the child wrongly. He was an absolute charmer and didn’t once let down his parents, who talked with him and kept him focused on the job in hand.

I realised he must be an enthusiastic gourmand when I heard his mummy encourage him with the immortal words: “Come on, Freddie. Eat up your tapenade. You know you love it.” How very Totnes.

The following day I took my mother out for coffee (my, what a pampered life I lead) and overheard something else that I hugged to myself. It needs sharing.

The young man at the counter was taking an order from the customer in front of me in the queue. It was quite complicated, with various breakfast things as well as three different styles of coffee to be adorned with froth and sprinkles of this and that.

Once the mortgage had been arranged for the woman to pay for this mid-morning feast, she was handed a number to display on her table so that the food could be delivered.

At this point the very charming, multi-earinged chap on the other side of the counter had one final question. “Where will you be sitting?” The woman said they’d be upstairs.

Transaction completed – or so I thought, as I prepared for my turn. But no, the young man had one more thing to say to the woman. “Amazing, yeah.” That was all. Two words that were so utterly incongruous that my mind held on to them, turned them over, teased them out and could not, in any way, fathom why he had said them.

It could not possibly be amazing that the woman and her family were going to sit upstairs, especially since the main seating areas are on the first and second floors.

I don’t think there was any reason at all. He probably just says it, in the way of a full stop. So here goes: Amazing, yeah.

 

IMAGINE having a sunny playground on your doorstep, open 24 hours a day and big enough for hundreds, sometimes thousands, to join in and play to their hearts’ content.

It is a place where you can walk, run, cycle, meet and chat with friends, sit and admire the views or weave your dreams, take a book and bury yourself in another world, and generally just feel jolly good about life. You can even have a drink, although I’m afraid the fountains only dispense water.

Sounds lovely, doesn’t it, but surely no place like this exists? Not with sunshine, certainly, and not without a park-keeper imposing limits on what you can get up to or wielding a padlock at dusk.

Let me tell you: it certainly does exist. I have seen it and I have even played upon it. Note that I say ‘on it’ and not ‘in it’, for I’m talking about a playground without compare. It sits atop the ancient walls of the Italian city of Lucca, in Tuscany, and it wraps itself like a halo around the historic centre for a very sporting 4.5 kilometres.

Round and round go the cyclists, round and round clatter the skateboarders, round and round puff the runners, round and round stomp the walkers.

Some of the recreational users are mere innocents who have consulted a guide book and declared: “Hey, Elmer, the walls are down the end of this street. Let’s go see what they look like.”

You can’t honestly look at Lucca’s beautiful walls and not succumb to the urge to climb on top and join in the action.

Once up there, you start moving, swept along by the fervour of the populace to move, move, move.

And therein lies the playground’s only problem. This is Italy, remember, and we all know how they behave on the roads. They drive with a raging desire to wipe out the human race in revenge for the lobotomy operation they’ve just undergone.

Translate these troubling traits from Italy’s roads to the thoroughfare that is Lucca’s recreational high spot, and you get the same complete and utter chaos.

Geoff and I know this because we walked the walls several times during our stay in Lucca last week. Not content with walking virtually non-stop each day as we quartered the ancient city and many of its neighbouring towns and villages, we hit the walls, too, for a 4.5km top-up in the evening.

The absolute mayhem up there! Not one user, apart from us in our anxious, order-loving, repressed Brit way, gives a fig about anyone else on the walls. They are doing their own thing, at speeds varying from dozy dawdle to 100-metre gold medal winning sprint, and nothing along their route presents any kind of obstacle. It’s a case of heads down and go for it.

Geoff and I shimmy and duck, sidestepping to avoid body contact and catastrophic crashes, but we’re quite clearly the only ones taking any avoiding measures at all.

Everyone else, especially the runners obsessively checking PBs, heart rate and run rate on watches that look as though they’d monitor a space flight, simply whooshes along in a protective bubble.

How no-one knocks into anyone, or gets crushed and flattened, I will never know. It’s hell out there and anyone’s game to win in this lunatic version of Chicken.

Happily, we’ve returned home with not a scratch between us but a burning desire for our very own playground. I’m eyeing the garden wall, but Geoff isn’t convinced it quite measures up.

 

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