Archive for the ‘Columns 2017’ Category

Far too often, eating out is a lottery. Get it right, and the occasion is a delight and something to celebrate. Get it wrong, and an attack of the glooms is eclipsed only by the uncomfortable feelings around the middle (and the purse).

Geoff and I have learnt over the years not to have very high expectations. Too many times it’s been a case of ‘Well, that was OK, but I wouldn’t rush back.’ It isn’t that we have impossible standards – frankly, the kitchens at Hill Towers don’t exactly twinkle with Michelin stars – but we do like the basics of a warm welcome, an interesting menu and attentive service when we go out.

(Note to all waiting staff the length and breadth of the land: attentive service does not mean pointlessly chanting ‘Enjoy!’ every time you plonk a plate of food down in front of a customer. It makes a lot of people shudder with supressed anger and knot their ankles for fear of springing up, grabbing your lapels and nutting you. OK, slight exaggeration, but boy it is annoying and I refuse to believe you’d lose your job if you didn’t say it. Incidentally, do we think this habit was imported from America?)

I am really happy to say that since the weekend, our expectations have been raised several notches, thanks to an experience at a pub that could not be faulted in any way.

We met up with our son and daughter-in-law and two small grand-daughters, aged five and two-and-a-half, at a midway point between our respective homes. Now I know that having little ones in tow in a restaurant doesn’t always bode well for anyone, whether it’s us, other diners or even the children themselves, for whom sitting, conversing with ancients and eating a meal probably wouldn’t be their number one choice of activity.

With this in mind, I called the pub a few days before to book a table for six, requesting a high chair for Clemmie and suggesting they might like to put us somewhere not too close to others, in case they were not amenable to ankle-biters.

I need not have worried, because in fact the girls behaved impeccably, absorbed by our company and the treasures of the moment they’d brought from home as well as by the puzzles and books provided by the pub.

What was disruptive, though, were the two dogs that barged their way past us to the next table where their owners let them toss around the soft toys that the landlord and his family had put in a box for children to play with. I shall at this point substitute all my invective about thoughtless dog owners with one word: ‘Grrr.’

The menu was terrific, interesting, inventive, focusing on local produce and everything freshly cooked. All of us, Poppy and Clemmie included, were so spoilt for choice we dithered spectacularly. In due course, our meals were all served at the same time and even though no-one exhorted us to ‘Enjoy!’ we certainly did.

To say the staff were thoughtful would be to understate the enormous trouble they took to ensure we had a relaxed and happy meal together. The service was seamless, unobtrusive, utterly professional and with a friendliness that made us feel we were valued and special to them.

As if all that were not enough, the pub has an enormous car park so there’s no anxiety about having to squash in between a pair of tractor-sized 4x4s.

In short, it’s a place that has absolutely nailed how to host its customers, turning what is rocket science for so many into a perfect art form.


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I’ve never been a particularly good present person. Happy to receive presents, of course, but a bit lacking in inspiration when it comes to thinking of things for others. As with everything, I try hard, my intentions are good, but I am liable to fall short.

It is true that I sometimes surprise myself with wonderful ideas, and make a mental note that such-and-such would be ideal for so-and-so’s birthday six months hence. Sadly, the mental note, as with 99 percent of things committed to memory, promptly flies straight back out of the tiny slot through which it entered, leaving me bereft, as ever, once that birthday comes round.

Christmas is another trauma altogether. I have found over the years that my only way to cope in respect of the ‘what to get for whom’ dilemma is to place myself in a state of suspended animation until the 24th and then panic, big-time.

This time of year is particularly difficult because there are so many birthdays of friends and family that my inspiration drains away faster than you can say gift wrap.

One of my problems is that if I hit upon a formula, I dare not let go. This means, for example, that our poor daughter-in-law is almost certain to end up with something to keep her warm. Theirs is a very cold house so my instinct is always to wrap her up. Her stocks of thick, cosy hats, socks, jumpers and scarves could probably kit out a Polar expedition team.

It’s always worse when the luckless person on the receiving end of one of my gifts is a brilliantly inspired present-giver themselves. My sister-in-law, Geoff’s sister, for instance, just has a gift for it, if you’ll forgive the wholly intended pun.

She always gets it right. What, then, to give her for her birthday this year, after so many lack-lustre efforts on our part in the past? Geoff and I pooled our thoughts for so long that despair set in.

I know, I suddenly screeched. A voucher! Do you mean a book token, asked Geoff. No! A voucher for a day out! We’ll take her for a day out and fill it with surprises.

Geoff designed the voucher and put it in with the birthday card. We got her favourite cousins on side, arranged a date and planned the outing.

It was a great success, though I can take little credit for it. We picked up the bemused birthday girl from her home and drove her through the stunning Dorset countryside to a lunch rendezvous with the cousins, who she had not seen for a few years. They were lying in wait, their presence still a secret to her.

Surprise, surprise! Oh, the hugs, the happiness and the huge, huge smiles. It was wonderful to behold, and to be a part of.

Lunch followed, with not a gap in the chatter, and then we migrated south to West Bay. The plan had been to take a post-prandial walk, but the weather was dire and so we did the only thing Brits can do under these circumstances: we sat on a bench and ate ice-creams.

The wind may have blasted our faces, sent our hair all over the place, whipped flecks of ice-cream on to our clothes, but it didn’t matter. It was daft and wonderful and utterly memorable.

Our photos of the day only need one caption: Five Go Mad in Dorset.

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We’ve had our mini-summer holiday in the past couple of weeks: two days out, in Dorset, in beautiful weather, with no crowds. Bliss.

Once the schools are back and holiday memories for most people are tucked away with the suncream and the flip-flops, that’s the time to reclaim our best destinations and explore again the honeypots that so recently buzzed with crowds.

We first headed out on a warm, sunny day to Moreton. We dropped everything we’d thought of doing and just went, seizing the chance that suddenly presented itself after a run of dismally damp weather.

We parked in a field (it was an official car park, sensibly keeping the village roads relatively obstacle-free) and walked about, admiring and appreciating the prettiness of everything as cottages slumbered under sun-warmed thatch and gardens billowed in a last burst of colourful enthusiasm.

At the ford, small children splashed and paddled, thrilled no doubt to have such an accessible playground where dogs could join in the fun, too. It was so Enid Blyton-esque that we half-expected to spot Timmy, tail a-wagging, leading Anne, George, Dick and Julian into some frightful scrape which would ultimately lead to the unravelling of a mystery.

St Nicholas Church was our principal destination, to see once again the 13 magnificent engraved windows by one of my all-time heroes, Laurence Whistler. For once, happily, we had the whole building to ourselves and so were able to allow the atmosphere created by the extraordinary light that filters through to infuse us and add to the whole utterly memorable experience.

Moved, as always, by the windows and all they represent, we returned to the sunny village and walked around the Walled Garden and then the churchyard – located some distance from the church itself – where T.E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia, is buried. I very much appreciated the fact the large and elegantly inscribed gravestone on his tomb is beside the modest stone that records the passing of one Ethel Shrimpton, proof were it needed that we are all equal when we’re six feet under.

Another of Dorset’s greats, OK, arguably the greatest, is Thomas Hardy, and the next warm, sunny day saw us making a beeline for his birthplace near Higher Bockhampton. Both Geoff and I were convinced we’d been before but not actually made it into the cottage. I even described the view I’d had of it from the village road.

How wrong we were! There is no road past the cottage. You walk to it either through the woods or along a lane from a car park more than half a kilometre away. To say the cottage is atmospheric hardly begins to describe it. It really is possible to imagine the child Thomas growing up into the young man Thomas, surrounded by his sisters, brother and parents in this bucolic, rural haven.

A haven to us, of course, in this brutal world, but I bet back then, in the 19th century, it was cold, damp, draughty, smelly, uncomfortable and crowded. It is not hard to see – literally, from the windows – how Hardy drew on his surroundings for inspiration, and on the lives and experiences of his family and acquaintances, too.

I wonder if, sometimes, the distraction of baking smells wafting up from the kitchen beneath his room caused him to cease the scratch of his pen and hurry down to discover what was cooking. On our visit, it was almond biscuits, fresh-baked in the brick oven by costumed Lou and Hetty, that set the seal on another lovely day out and gave us a taste for more.

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We’ve been sorting out old photographs, which is a dangerous thing. You can either hold up a shot of yourself circa 1999 and think “Hmm, not as bad as it might have been,” or “Please, no, hide it, cut it up, destroy this damning evidence of awfulness.”

You can, of course, guess which has been my reaction to every single photo of me. Perhaps the worst aspect, as I hold up a mirror to my past in this depressing portrait gallery of ‘Sally through the years’ is the hair. What was I thinking of? How did I ever dare have the courage to go out of the house with that on my head? Donald Trump, eat your heart out.

As my dear mama once said in one of her inimitable utterances that never fails to plunge my self-confidence into the deepest depths: “Did you really pay someone to make you look like that, dear?” Note the ‘dear’ as an attempt to soften the crushing blow.

Actually, truth be known, I haven’t ever paid anyone very much to ‘make me look like this’. So there’s my answer: perhaps I should. Perhaps this revelation as demonstrated by the gallery of horrors could be the start of a whole new habit. I could hook up with a creative hairdresser who would know just the cut and the style to suit my shape of face.

Nah, that’s what other people do. I’d rather stick with what I know and don’t love and be done with all that fussing and preening.

That’s the hair, then. A lost cause. Also evident in the photo gallery is the range of clothing I have favoured over the past 20 years. Worryingly, much of it is familiar because I am still wearing it on a daily basis. Geoff too, recognises old shirts, jumpers and jackets that make regular appearances in places as far-flung as Prague and Palermo, Berlin and Dorset. Absolute slaves to fashion, both of us.

I see that I’ve said ‘We’ve been sorting out old photographs’, when in fact it’s Geoff who’s been doing the sorting. He is the one with a sense of order, who likes things rationalised, documented, filed, tidied away. That’s why he’s had the drawerful of photos in his sights this past fortnight, and he’s making a wonderful job of creating proper albums documenting our and our family’s lives over the past 20 or so years.

Fortunately, we haven’t yet ventured into the really embarrassing years, when floral shirts and flares rendered him unrecognisable (fortunately) and me just plain ludicrous (predictably). Even so, the effect has been pretty unnerving. For me, not for him – obviously.

Geoff has maintained his youthful good looks (I tell him that as it makes for a much quieter life) while others around him show signs of decline with the passing years. For instance, there’s Mike, at a party in the garden in 2002, looking all fit and handsome. Nowadays, he’s stooped, struggling with a new hip and on a horribly restricted diet.

Time can be unkind, scouring us with wrinkles and veins and rendering us strangers to our former selves. It can also be exhilarating when we see how far we’ve come, how we’ve evolved and become who we are today.

Never mind the peachy bloom on a younger face in 1997; let’s hear it for the lives well lived and the fun we’ve had getting to where we are now.

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It is just before three o’clock in the morning and Geoff and I are in the kitchen, staring at a small plastic box on the wall. We are being assailed by a noise like a thousand screaming banshees which bursts through our eardrums and shudders through our bodies.

A red light is flashing on the box. This is an alarm – an alarm on maximum strength and volume. “I think it’s the monosodium glutamate alarm,” I’d shouted to Geoff as we hurried downstairs, still half-asleep until opening the kitchen door and being blasted to our core.

“I think you mean carbon monoxide,” he replied, his words wasted as we struggled to stay upright under the onslaught. This was a decibel level to awaken the dead.

Geoff stands on a chair to reach the pulsating box. It is necessary to silence it before we can gather our thoughts, so recently suspended in sleep, now incapable of any coherence.

There is no ‘Off’ button. The very walls seem to be jumping now. After much jabbing and prodding, Geoff manages to rip the box off the wall. Even that doesn’t stop it. I think about plunging it into water, anything to drown that appalling din.

Geoff carries the box into the next room. The noise stops. My instinct is to weep with relief. Geoff’s instinct is rather more practical. “You haven’t left anything alight on the hob, have you?”

I look across at the gas hob, confident that my careful habits won’t have allowed anything as silly and irresponsible as that to happen. I can just make out a tiny blue flame. It is barely alight: I’d cooked rice all of eight hours earlier for supper and had obviously failed to notice I had left the burner slightly on. Even a pre-bed check, which we always do, had not revealed my carelessness.

I turn off the offending burner and admit my guilt to Geoff. In a way, it’s a relief that it is something as obvious as that and not some mysterious gas leak that will require the foundations of the house to be excavated.

Not unreasonably, Geoff says he hopes I will have learnt from this to be even more careful in future. Of course I have, I assure him, and pledge to myself to treble-check the hob every night.

I feel as appalled by my fall from grace as when I was 11 and Miss Parker censured me for running in the school corridor. Once  a sinner always a sinner, obviously.

The carbon monoxide detector, which we’d had fitted only a couple of years ago on the recommendation of our boiler service man, is back in its place on the wall. I’m going to evangelise about these detectors to anyone I know who doesn’t already have one, especially if they have an appliance that burns fossil fuels.

I shall tell them our dramatic tale and, each time, will probably elaborate the truth a little more. I’m sure that before long I shall be adding the detail of how I knotted together a few bedsheets and abseiled to safety with Geoff slung around my shoulders.

Perhaps it would be more likely the other way round, with me slung around his shoulders. I’ll settle on the more credible version once I’ve thought up some more entertaining elements to add to the story.

But that will all have to wait. First, I need to go and check that the gas is off.

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When Geoff and I were in Falmouth in the spring I had an overwhelming desire to go on the water – not in the sense of walking on it (it doesn’t work, believe me), but in a boat, preferably under sail.

I kept this little dream to myself all through the summer, imagining the joy of being afloat on a sunny day, a gentle breeze filling the sails. I’d be sitting in the cockpit, grinning beatifically and a refrain of ‘This is the life’ running on a loop through my thoughts.

All of this came within my grasp last week when friends asked if I’d like to join them for a sail in the Solent. Of course I would, I replied with indecent haste, but I declined on behalf of Geoff. He and water don’t mix. It’s a step or six too far outside his comfort zone: like camping, picnics, outdoor entertainment of any sort, and anything more effortful than a gentle walk on the flat. Funny how we get on so well, considering I’m like a tethered terrier if I’m not going at something full tilt.

On the day of my treat I set off early for our rendezvous east of the Hamble. I was ridiculously excited, a fact which restricted my breathing almost as much as the 14 layers of ‘just in case’ clothing I’d chosen to wear after a dress rehearsal that had started at dawn.

The wind was so light we had to rely on the motor to get us across to the Isle of Wight and past all the 20 million other boats and the zig-zag shipping lanes with their vast container ships and busy tugs. Restful it was not, but there was always the return trip to look forward to.

We had lunch and a walk in Cowes and then boarded the boat to head home, hoping that the light breeze and the tide would enable us to sail and cut the motor.

I had taken the precaution over lunch of mentioning to skipper Ed that I would be extremely grateful if he wouldn’t allow the boat to do what I called ‘tipping’, but what I believe is officially termed ‘listing’.

Ed gave me a bit of a look followed by a brief lesson in physics and aerodynamics with a bonus chapter on how a sailing boat is constructed, and this helped me relax. A little.

That was until we actually set the jib and sailed. Within no more than a minute, a sudden squall got up, whipping the waves into frenzied white horses and sending us scudding at the most acute angle back the way we’d come so serenely hours earlier.

My back was almost touching the water. Every muscle in my body was strained and locked into a position that held me fast in my cockpit seat. I don’t think I breathed for a full 20 minutes and my eyes were stuck fast to the insides of my brain.

Estimates of that squall varied between Force 6 and Force 8, but it was the combination of wind and tide that made it so devastating. One yacht lost its mast and rigging. The crackling radio gave the co-ordinates of the flotsam as a warning to shipping. This was gritty, grim and terribly serious.

Us next, I suppose, and I began to regret the layers of clothing, which would without doubt drag me underwater in spite of the life vest.

And then suddenly it was over. Land ahoy! We were back, safe and sound and feeling as though we’d conquered the Atlantic – at a hell of an angle.

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I am an enthusiastic watcher of ‘24 Hours in A&E’ on the telly, even if I do have to blot out some of the more troubling, gory bits with a judiciously placed hand over my eyes.

My interest is partly because as reality programmes go this is genuinely real, not manufactured pap masquerading as real. It’s gritty and down-to earth and you get to meet heroes. But mainly I like to watch it because my son the doctor works in an A&E department and it’s good for me to see the sort of things he has to face in his 24 hours.

He was a whisker away from actually appearing on the programme once, but the family of the patient involved withdrew their consent for filming at the last minute. I don’t blame them at all.

I’d like it placed on record that under no circumstances would I ever agree to have a camera anywhere near me when the only things protecting my modesty might be a corner of a flimsy hospital blanket and a pool of blood.

Other people’s problems, though, make for compelling viewing and the best bit comes at the end when the viewers are shown the various denouements. Only very occasionally are they sad. More usually we are treated to visions of remarkable recovery, such as a jolly roofer shinning up a ladder when just before the ad break he was lying in pieces, a right old muddle of tubes, tears and bleeps.

I like a happy ending. There was one close to home this past boiling hot Bank Holiday when I suddenly found myself involved in a small drama. It was the sort you see illustrated in the media – an elderly woman collapsed on the ground with a large caption over the picture asking ‘Would you know what to do?’

I sort of knew what to do, but didn’t really trust myself to do the full sleeves-rolled-up leave-it-to-me thing. Instead, I contributed pointless mumblings in support of a young woman who’d also been passing by and whose excellent, intuitive response made me think she must be either a doctor or a nurse.

Whoever she was, I concluded she must have acquired her Girl Guide first aid badge a lot more recently than I had, because my mind was blank as I feverishly searched its decaying files for the full routine on what to do for someone who has overheated, dehydrated and passed out.

All was satisfactorily resolved, largely without my input, for which I suspect the victim will be eternally grateful. She was last seen enjoying a restorative cup of tea, a post-recovery strategy that hadn’t even occurred to me. I’ve tucked that away for future reference. Rocket science, eh?

Much later, when recapping on the day and rueing my missed chance to be a quiet, unsung hero, I recalled I’d been on a day-long first aid course about six years ago. I’d found it all really interesting and joined in the practical elements with enthusiasm, even doing rhythmic chest-compression on a forever lifeless model. It looks so easy but isn’t, as I discovered.

Getting into my car afterwards to drive home, certificate proudly stowed in my bag, I realised with an awful clunk that I felt no better able to administer first aid now than I had been when I arrived that morning.

I think it’s a matter of confidence. And confidence comes with practice, which, hopefully for all involved, will remain off my agenda.

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