Posts Tagged ‘Dorset’

Everyone has a hobby, whether it’s running up mountains or watching reality shows on the telly. Somewhere in between those two extremes lie the sort of pastimes that normal mortals can get passionate about, such as jogging and swimming, for the active, or crosswords and Sudoku, for the more sedentary.

Generously placing Geoff in the category of normal mortal, I have to admit it is no great surprise that a lifelong interest in things that go vroom-vroom means his hobby is cars. In particular, classic cars. Not the gleaming, superbly restored glamour vehicles of ye olden dayes, with leather-strapped bonnets and a pedigree to make grown men faint, but something a bit more vroom-vroomish and nippy yet with enough age about it to qualify for the definition of classic.

The interest, or should I say the passion, developed into a longing, and the longing turned into an urgent need the second Geoff spotted a For Sale advert for the car of his more realistic (by which I mean affordable) dreams.

The need was duly met, and he became the owner of a modest, feisty, occasionally moody drain on his finances that causes him both anguish and joy. That sounds like me, for the description certainly fits, although I’m afraid the four-wheeled object of Geoff’s affections is also racy and beautiful. But, get this, she’s inclined to be unreliable.

The vision of Basil Fawlty taking a branch to thrash the hell out of his broken-down car comes to mind every time Geoff tells me of the latest cough-and-splutter debacle that Carlotta has indulged in or the latest requirement for a this or a that to ensure she remains roadworthy.

Once, memorably, the branch-thrashing vision happened 30 miles from home. We were out together for what had started as a beautiful drive but which turned into a silent, tense hour of breath-holding as Geoff nursed Carlotta home at snail’s pace while she hiccupped and disgraced herself and I sank into the passenger footwell, willing the tarmac to open up and swallow me.

In due course, Carlotta was sent to the breakers, no, no, sorry, I mean the hospital for clapped-out classics, where something horrifyingly expensive was done to her and she returned home all smugly and going like a dream again.

Geoff still can’t talk about that day, and we certainly don’t mention the cost of the miracle, but I understand that such incidents are not uncommon in the world in which we now find ourselves.

I remain braced for more, but in the meantime I really enjoy sharing Geoff’s hobby. We tootle happily all over the place, appreciating life in the slow lane and acknowledging the waves of fellow enthusiasts.

On Sunday there were plenty of waves from onlookers, too, when we completed the Hardy Country Classic Tour, which took in 75 miles of glorious countryside. It was the greatest treat to be supporting charity while also revelling in the delight of Dorset in bloom.

Over every hill and through every gateway nature’s many shades of green provided a background for a heady palette of early summer colours.

It was a good day on all levels – even the picnic I’d made for our lunch-stop got a thumbs-up from Geoff – and Carlotta made it there and back without so much as a splutter.

As Geoff frequently reminds me, classic-car owning is a hobby with built-in excitement and surprise. There’s no saying if the car will break down, throw a fit, go like a dream – or even start. You don’t get that sort of thrill with crosswords.

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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.


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Another week, another chip in my poor car’s windscreen. This one, like the nasty one it suffered three months ago, is bad enough to require attention from someone who knows about chips, and so I shall have to muster the mental strength and the space in my diary to seek help.

It brings me, with sinking heart, back into contact with an insurance company, this time the car’s insurers. It is going to be doubly trying as it comes so soon after the grim skirmish with the home contents insurers when my mobile phone swallow-dived into water.

These experiences, now woven into the fabric of our daily lives, are defined by what I call the Equation of the Hapless Customer: small voice in wilderness + faceless company with automated phone system = frustration and loss of half a working day.

It’s what we are all up against, whether we are trying to contact insurers, as in this case, or any of the countless other businesses or public bodies that eschew customer service in favour of customer get lost. The factor they have in common is the ease with which they take our money and the poor hand they deal us in return. All we want is to speak to a person, so that when something vaguely recognisable as a human voice eventually responds, it would be swimmingly fab if they could just shut up and listen before spouting lines from a crib sheet.

OK, now that’s off my chest I’ll calm down and steer myself back to the happy memory of Sunday, when, glad to put the approaching storm of the chipped windscreen out of my mind, I accompanied petrol-head Geoff to the annual Classics at the Castle event at Sherborne Castle.

Such a setting in such weather would surely guarantee success whatever the event, but the attraction of a huge gathering of ancient and modern cars proved irresistible to thousands of happy punters. The ubiquitous bouncy castle, burgers, hot dogs and ice-creams probably played a part, too.

We loved it, walking miles and missing not a single one of the thousand-plus exhibits. Beside many of them sat their owners, like proud parents overseeing their well-behaved, shiny-faced offspring.

We heard stories of how new life had been given to so many vehicles that were no more than a car-shaped pile of rusty scrap metal when discovered. Now, the reborn, pampered beauties, unrecognisable in their perfection and unblemished by 21st century life – not a chipped windscreen to be seen – provoked Geoff and me into thinking along our favourite theme of “What if?”

Obviously, a spare garage and being reborn ourselves as qualified motor mechanics (I do like a nice set of greasy overalls), were two basics taken for granted. What car would we choose upon which to lavish our every waking hour and our last pound?

It would have to be an Austin Healey 3000, we decided, or perhaps a friendly old Riley with a running board. Then we saw a Jaguar SS 100 and added that to the fantasy list. We had to rein ourselves in as our imaginations ran wild, especially when I started lusting after a combine harvester that we followed on the way home.

It just seemed so majestic, filling the road in its superior way. Also, I pointed out to Geoff as I extolled its virtues for taking over our spare, expandable, virtual garage, I bet it doesn’t get its windscreen chipped all the way up there.

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Someone, somewhere in west Dorset, has had a parcel delivered this week by a driver whose sheer brilliance deserves medals. I know this because I encountered him.

We met, head on, in what must be one of the narrowest lanes known in the modern universe, in some parallel-world rural nirvana somewhere within egg-throwing distance of Eggadon Hill.

At least, I think that’s where I was. You do tend to lose a bit of mental and geographical stability when one bicycle-width lane in fifty shades of green leads into another and then into another.

I grew up among lanes like these in Cornwall, and had no choice but to learn to drive in them since we lived four miles from what anyone would call a proper road. Reversing held no fears for me, at least not after my first encounter with a tractor and muck-spreader meant I had to zig-zig my way backwards into the nearest gateway. It was all the incentive I needed to nail that skill, fast.

But this week, with the blowsy froth of early summer flowers making the lanes appear even more narrow than the ridiculously narrow they already were, Van Man and I came to a halt, radiator to radiator. We both signalled we would retreat. Then I thought, ‘Hang on, don’t be rash. There hasn’t been a passing place for miles. Let him do it. Anyway, I can’t turn my head without everything hurting and going ping and I can’t reverse in a straight line for more than four yards.’

So I did let him do it, and I have to say he executed a quite magnificent display of reversing. Not once did his van touch the sides, at least not in a bumpy, damaging kind of way, and he only turned back to look in my direction a couple of times, presumably to see if I might have freakishly dissolved into the tarmac.

Back and back he went, and back still further. I was impressed to see that at no point did he throw up his hands in despair or slew sideways off course and embed the rear of his vehicle in a precious chunk of Jurassic-period Dorset hedgerow. He didn’t even throw on the brakes, jump out and run away weeping. I would have done all of those things, obviously. He was calmness personified.

I kept a respectful distance: getting too close might have indicated an indecent haste and stress him. The last thing I wanted was for him to gesture to me that it was no good and there wasn’t a passing place, and would I now please play my part in this pantomime and reverse until a space appeared behind me.

Van Man held his nerve. I trickled forward. He trickled back. Finally, and it must have been after a good quarter of a mile, he swung the van into a pixie-sized indentation in the hedge, leaving just enough room for me to squeeze past, wing mirrors tucked in and breath suspended.

As we clocked each other through our respective windows, I gave him a huge smile and a high-speed thank-you wave routine as inadequate expressions of my gratitude for a task so willingly undertaken and so brilliantly executed.

Van Man accelerated away to deliver his parcel and I drove on, praying no other vehicle would come bearing down in my direction. It didn’t, by some miracle, and I eventually reached the blessed haven of a main road. How huge and wide it seemed, and how novel to see cars going past each other in opposite directions.

Huh, I thought, those drivers don’t know what they’re missing.

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The first two days of my grandsons’ stay in Dorset saw us explore the county museum in Dorchester (the dinosaurs were a particular triumph), our own local museum, and a favourite bookshop.

How worthy it sounds, but in reality we had a wonderful time because museums nowadays are accessible places of discovery for small hands and lively minds. For a four-year-old and a two-year-old the very feel of an elephant’s tooth, its sheer weight and ridiculous size, must surely be unforgettable.

When I was a child (grandmas are allowed to say that at least six times a day) I spent hours in museums waiting for my father while he was in meetings or researching something arcane, and I’d stare but never touch, defeated by Latin names, appalled by displays of moths and spiders, tormented by stuffed birds, lost in awe in the picture galleries, forever conscious of being just a small person adrift in a strange adult world of musty fustiness.

One of the boys’ favourite places in London is their local museum, the Horniman, where the natural history displays offer endless opportunity for discovery and interest. It was not surprising, then, that they took such pleasure in the two they visited in Dorset, although each time they talked about dinosaurs and fossils I had the feeling they were referring to me.

With the sun out and the countryside glowing, our activities moved outdoors. Various playgrounds were tried, tested and declared “brilliant”, and a walk, lunch and some terrific chatter was enjoyed with their great-grandma, whose cup overflowed with joy at being with them.

We found bridges on which to play Pooh sticks and hunted in vain for otters. Kingfishers stayed disappointingly out of sight, too, although rabbit droppings were a pretty compelling distraction on some of our walks. So numerous, so small, so uniform in size – so fascinating. Funny, I’d never have imagined it possible to have such long conversations about rabbit poo, but then I’d never have thought I’d be making up stories about Dorothy the dodo and Bob the lighthouse keeper to help the boys settle in the evenings.

They both adored the model town in Wimborne and my daughter and I were charmed by it, too. In fact, Joe, aged four, was eager to go back for a second visit but I suggested we tried Farmer Palmer’s farm park where we would see animals and, pause for tumultuous cheering, tractors.

Aren’t tractors just the thing for whipping up a frenzy of excitement? Tractors and dinosaurs and rabbit poo. Dorset really has it all.

We spent several happy hours at Farmer Palmer’s and we were terrifically impressed. It has a lovely atmosphere, with everything aimed at under-8s and an absolute minimum of those spoilsport strictures about behaviour and ’elf n safety so we could all just get on with the fun.

There were tractors – small ones for pedalling and big ones pulling trailers for bumpy, giggly rides along muddy tracks. There were animals galore, some for stroking, some for just staring at in awe, and there were two adorable ponies, Charlie and Dinky, perfect for two small boys to have their first ride, huge smiles just visible under their hats.

It was a roaring success of a day, the whole experience rounded off for the boys with an ice-cream cone with a chocolate flake. Such is the stuff of holidays.

The spell broke on Saturday when Daddy came to take Mummy and the boys home, three hours away in another world. We’re left feeling sad, but on the bright side Geoff and I will soon be out of therapy.

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I wonder if we dare hope that spring has sprung. All the signs have been evident this week: sunshine, blue skies, birds signing their little tonsils out, swathes of pallid human flesh, pub beer gardens overflowing with good cheer and gardens bursting with all the full-of-promise growth and colours that must surely mean we’ve left winter behind us.

I even had the aircon on in my car at the weekend, which seems ridiculous, especially as I’d taken a scarf and gloves with me on my journey – just in case.

It would be an acceptable sort of compensation to be treated to some of the warming yellow stuff after the hellish rain of the past three months. Not compensation in full, of course, because nothing could properly make up for what so many have suffered and lost in the floods, but a start, at least.

Judging by the breadth of the smiles and the cheerfulness that are provoked by the sun’s appearance, I fear it is only a matter of time before one of the political parties adds a promise to their election manifesto. It could do them the power of good.

I can see it now, being announced by some heavily pan-sticked chap casually dressed down in a shirt and no tie, melting fast under stage lights and the heat of the moment, flanked by two potted plastic palms and a ‘Vote For Us or You’ll Regret It’ banner behind him.

He treats us to a leery half-smile, half-smirk as he proclaims (not easy when you’re reading a script you’ve not seen until this very second): “Daily sunshine will be provided for all for a guaranteed minimum of five hours. It doesn’t matter if you are a hard-working family, if you’re  in receipt of any of the 452 state benefits or happen to have your own solarium at home in Oligarch Mansions, Kensington. We’ll bring it to you all, no matter who or where you are.

“Special daily top-ups of sun, between the hours of 6pm and 7pm, will be available to any taxpayer who sends me a personalised cup cake and a signed photograph of themselves, preferably sunbathing.

“The cost of this exciting new measure, which I have no doubt will be welcomed by one and all, will be borne by a tax on bankers’ bonuses. As will all the rest of our manifesto, but please don’t ask me about it because I didn’t write this speech and anyway it’s time I went home. To my second home, that is. Thank you and goodnight – and don’t forget to vote for ME and my party! We put the sunshine into your lives!”

Or something like that. I think we can trust our politicians to squeeze whatever capital they can out of the feel-good Sunshine Effect. Cynical, moi?

In the meantime, as and when the sun shines, let’s all enjoy it, free of charge and political encumbrance, and never forget those for whom, just a short while ago, it must have seemed that it would never shine again on their miserable, waterlogged world.

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HERE in the full glare of Italy’s summer, holiday time means only one thing to the Italians – bronzy bronzy on the beachy beachy. From morning until early evening they lie out on their colour-coded sunbeds like so many identical offcuts of gleaming mahogany, occasionally reaching out for a drink that’s been delivered to their personal side-table.

For them, the sea has two functions: for reflecting the sun’s glare on to them, and, when life on the rotisserie has become just too tedious, for mincing along its edge where the water is just deep enough to make beautiful iridescent patterns around their dainty ankles. This being Italy, that activity applies to the men as well as to the women.

Beach life here is Very Important. Being seen on the right beach in the right get-up counts for a lot. There are Them and Us areas, with public and private sections strictly marked out and six-pack sentries on duty to eject riff-raff who dare set foot on the wrong side.

Naturally, for a pair of Dorset ragamuffins like me and Geoff, it all seems a very long way from the full-on rigours of Kimmeridge. However, we’re keen to take some exercise, if only to prove to ourselves that day after day of eating, drinking, sleeping and reading (and habitually falling asleep while so doing) has not depleted our muscle tone to danger levels. Personally, I’m concerned that just moving out of a chair will propel my heart rate into the upper hundreds.

So we head to the beach with the idea of taking a swim. Obviously, knowing what we know, we time our arrival for after everyone has gone home, lest the lily-white hue of our skin should dazzle and shock. It does seem silly that even though we don’t know anyone here, I still wouldn’t want to be ‘seen’. There’s always the concern that one day, minding my own business around the cereals aisle of a drab supermarket back home, some exotic Italian might exclaim: “Hey, Mario, ees ze donna bianca! Zee marble-white lady we laughed at on the beach, you remember?”

Only a few slabs of mahogany remain on our chosen (public, free) beach, drawing the last of the sun’s rays as the tide ebbs.

Geoff and I set up our camp – folding chairs, a couple of towels, a bottle of water, and then we change and tiptoe and wince our way across the pebbles and over the sand into the turquoise water. It’s so warm it is almost more of a shock to the system than if it were ice-cold, which is what we’re used to.

I bounce about from foot to foot, convincing myself that this isn’t typical territory for sharks, and wondering what to do next. When you’re used to thrashing up and down the lane of an indoor pool it isn’t easy knowing how to recreate that same feeling of superwoman achievement in the unconfined expanse of the Adriatic Sea.

Squinting into the setting sun, I swim as fast as I can towards a promontory. After several minutes I stop to assess my progress. I seem to have moved about a yard closer to the landmark and about four-and-a-half inches away from Geoff. What’s happening? I panic that I have slipped into a terrifying dimension in which things are not what they seem.

Then I remember I’m in Italy, where nothing is ever as you expect it to be. I relax, splash about a bit, and later on I have some more wine. It is, I feel, necessary to celebrate our initiation into Italian beach life, albeit in unique Dorset style.

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