On North Yorkshire – Day 3 – North York Moors

I’ve got this thing about landscape and resonance and connection, and the call of the moors is as strong as that of the sea. I want to go and walk, and listen, feel, look, be.

‘Such a bloody weirdo-‘  says Stevie. But he agrees to drive wherever I decide and to find us the barest, most forsaken bit of moor possible. ‘And then this afternoon,’ he says. ‘We do the forest mountain biking.’

I try not to think of the seat-bone agony to come, and instead whip out my map. As we drive, I try to tell the daughters about great dramas on moorland, but can only remember snippets of  Bronte and King Lear. I’m pretty sure Macbeth involved a fair bit of moorland too, but I don’t think any of them had a particularly jolly time. I don’t feel they communed (Lear may have wailed a bit).

Happily, my ideas of moorland have been shaped by Enid Blyton and Arthur Ransome – I think of it as a place to range free, without grown ups and with plenty of pemmican and chocolate.

We decide to go without the tyranny of Sat Nav and I sit very upright, my finger on the map, directing us out of Cropton. I get a little bit carried away with the sense of adventure, and we leave the sensible A169 to career off down narrow, hair-pin tracks.I mean us to go to Cockayne Ridge, but somehow, inexplicably, we end up on Danby High Moor.Danby High Moor, North Yorkshire (2)

From the bubble of our car, we admire vistas and point out glimpses of farms down in the valleys. The colour scheme is very pleasing – all duns; bark-brown heathers, ochre moss, grasses the colour of milky tea. But it’s not until we get out that we can feel the place.  The wind snatches our breath, unclips our hair, numbs our cheeks. It gets in our ears, our noses, buffetting our brains clean and leaving us with the faintest taste of the North Sea.

Stephen has parked the car just off the grey satin ribbon of road and we stand across it, our arms outspread. The moor demands that we bend to the forces at work, that we recognise its elemental power. It’s impossible to stand still, the wind won’t let us, and we run whooping from the road and down a quad track. Pants and Dora are insanely happy, intent on unknowable missions,  almost frantic in their need to discover, to know. They send up black grouse every few seconds, barking as the birds whirr low over the ground, their red heads target-like.

Dora, rabbitting
Dora, rabbitting

The Moors are covered in tracks like these, unsigned mostly, and we’re careful to remember the path we take. The ground upon which we’re walking has been compacted by sheep, skeins of their wool are caught on bushes of stunted gorse. To either side of us are shallow mossed arbours, springy and soft underfoot, as if walking on velvet eiderdown. Reed-like grass grows in thick, brazen clumps, bleach blonde with mousey roots.

After twenty minutes, our eyes are watering and the children are asking for hot chocolate from the flask. We head back to the car, looping around blackened heather.

‘A fire?’ says Ellie, doubtfully. We tell her about men burning with big gas torches, so the grouse can eat the new shoots. She wanders off, mid-sentence.

We leave the dogs out free whilst we huddle back in the car with the flask and a lump of cake each.

Dora is in  rabbiting-mode, snuffling ecstatically along tiny pathways made for a her jack-rat legs. She’s much happier than she was in the rock pools of Robin Hood Bay.Danby Low Moor, North Yorkshire (4)

Our car windows are down so we can whistle if any cars come, and we can hear the faint calls of sheep on the wind, the peculiar music of wind up our exhaust.

The landscape makes me think of all my favourite childhood textures; close crop of the old snooker table, my dad’s corduroy trousers, the tweedy roughness of hemp sacks in the derelict cowshed.

We finish our drinks, but we still don’t leave. The fells are crossed with the uneven zips of stonewalls, and we can’t see any road but the one we’re on, just occasional beads of cars running along the landscape. Down below, in the valley, we can see copses of un-tellable trees, their bare arms like upended witches’ brooms.

Eventually, the children start talking about mountain-biking, and what colour bikes they might have, and anyway, Mum, how far is it to Dalby Forest? Stephen forcibly requests the use of Sat Nav, and then we’re whistling the dogs, driving away towards the A171.

Stephen looks at me as we turn onto the main road.

‘Happy?’ he says. ‘Did you be?’

‘A little,’ I say. ‘But I’m going to have to come back to be sure.’

Pants!
The Silly Pants! Oh Dog of Little Brain

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is the fourth of a set of posts, written about our family holiday in North Yorkshire, as guests of  Forest Holidays (part of the Forestry Commission for England). All opinions and views are my own.

PS. Thank you to my American friend, and his prod of ‘Get on with it!’

On North Yorkshire – Day 2 – Whitby Abbey

We wake up and the sunlight is slanting through the blinds onto our bed. I turn my head, straight into the unnerving stare of my youngest daughter.

‘Mummy,’ she says. Her voice is an urgent whisper. ‘Can. We. Get-in-the-hot-tub-now?’

I pick up my watch, squint. 6:45. ‘No,’ I say. ‘Go away.’

But the children’s excitement is catching, and somehow we’re eating breakfast at half-seven, and the daughters will be hot-tubbing and I will be dog walking in the woods. Stephen’s packing the car (his best thing) then we’ll all be off on the next adventure. We’re to go to Whitby, because the sea-side’s our favourite place.

We drive through Pickering, which has a proper ironmonger’s and a Lidl, and which would please my mother. We find the A169 to Whitby, and start winding our way up onto the moors, Pants barking at anything with two wheels. Around practically every bend, a new vista unrolls; the North York Moors producing views with the aplomb of a souk-seller.  Our speed is erratic, we slow down every few minutes to point and exclaim.

In places, the landscape appears almost primeval; last year’s heather blackened, petrified by the winter winds. There are knots of sheep strung down the steep hillsides, scattering shiny poo-marbles over the thick green mosses. Glossy black grouse shoot out of blonde tussocks of spent grass.

In the boot, Pants and Dora keep sitting up to look out of the window; Stevie shouts at them to sit down as we drop down a dizzying hill. The landscape is changing – the moor slipping behind and the fields becoming green again, protected by their stone walls.

We pass a ruined pub – the Saltersgate Inn – and Stevie and I play our ‘Imagine if’ game, where I suggest up-rooting and carpe-diem and yeah-but-we-could-do-it-up and he reminds me that it has taken us ten years to build our chunk of new house. And it’s still not finished.

‘But I could keep sheep,’ I say. ‘And that barn bit could be a cottage for walkers.’

We drive on, past RAF Fringford, its enormous radar a bizarre concrete triangle on the horizon. We don’t know anything about Whitby itself, but our lovely Forest Ranger has said is worth a look and that we must eat scampi. I know rather more about the Abbey, having Googled it. It’s managed by English Heritage and helped inspire Bram Stoker to write Dracula. There has been a monastery on the site since the 7th century, and the Gothic version was attacked by King Henry VIII’s men. I’ve a thing for old monasteries, I’m fascinated by the idea of private fiefdoms and the whole Papal control thing. I like to stand in bits like the kitchens, and imagine the bone-reek of hot stock, the wielding of a ladle, a knife chopping root veg. The lives lived so basically similar to my own.

We join the A171, Whitby suddenly ahead, its sky-line dominated by the abbey.Whitby Abbey

‘Oh,’ I say. ‘Look at that.’

It’s a spectacular ruin, its empty fenestrations gazing out at a pearled sea. We wind through pretty Whitby (earmarking our chip-shop for lunch), and follow the signs up to the Abbey. There’s a Youth Hostel up here, in the absurdly grand-looking Abbey House, and a huge empty grass car park for the Abbey itself.

The wind snatches the car doors from us, and Pants leaps from the boot, barking in excitement. Dora follows more sedately. We all pull on hats, gloves and scarves, Stephen and the children chasing each other whilst I run to the entrance of the Abbey to find out ticket prices. I already know they let dogs-on-leads into most parts. But, oh. I didn’t check the opening hours. It’s shut.

The children will be pleased, as it means no trailing around learning stuff, but I’m sad. I hop up on the wall to have a good look and surprise a workman in a fluorescent jacket just below.

‘Sorry!’ I say, and wave. He hunches back over his drain, as if routinely exasperated by wall-climbing tourists.

I walk back across the car park to the others, watched by a huge seagull. They’re all ruddy cheeked and breathless.

‘Well?’ says Stevie. ‘How much?’

‘Closed,’ I say, doleful. ‘We can’t go in.’

The children cheer and leap to tig Stephen, running away screaming when they do. He kisses me.

‘Never mind. We’ll walk here instead. After coffee. I’ll just-‘ He runs off, arms outstretched to catch a daughter.

I go to the boot of the car, pull out the flasks and the tin of cake, call the dogs for their biscuits. He’s right: there’s a foot path sign, heading out along the cliff.

I gather everything up and walk to the banked edge of the car park. I perch on the top, pouring the coffee and hot chocolate. The Abbey is before me, and I can look through its windows to slivers of the sea.

 

This is the third of a set of posts, written about our family holiday in North Yorkshire, as guests of  Forest Holidays (part of the Forestry Commission for England). All opinions and views are my own.

 

 

On North Yorkshire – Day 1: Arriving In The Forest

The last town we drive through before reaching Cropton Forest is Pickering, the sign for which stirs uncomfortable memories. ‘Something odd,’ I murmur, but then I stop as the memory crystallises into shape.

Pickering. The last name of a brawny blonde labourer who always turned up at Young Farmers’. He was the one you had to snog at the end of a party if you hadn’t found anyone else.

‘What?’ says Stephen, as we drive over the crest of a hill. The North York Moors is suddenly rising before us.

‘Nothing! Golly! Look at the hill!’

Poor Master Pickering. I hope he’s happy, somewhere, not still cow-eyed and slack-jawed at the bar, hoping it’s his lucky night.

We’re winding through Cropton village now, dark-stoned houses with jolly orange-red roofs. The dogs are sitting up in the back, sensing the end of the long journey. The children have taken off their head-phones, bored with DVDs, and we all lean forward, peering from the car windows, searching for a signpost. The Sat Nav counts us down with smug efficiency.

I say for the hundredth time: I hope it’s going to be nice. We have bad form for British holidays, especially ones where we’ve taken the dogs. When the children were little, we never had any money, and we did everything on the cheap. We once took our German Shepherd (Archie) to Devon, and stayed in some tin-hut type chalet with the most terrible smell. It had black mould ringing the smeared windows, like eye-liner on an ageing raver, and human-hair balls beneath the children’s beds. The owner met us with the key, and to take our money (‘Cash only, dearie’). She had a blonde candy-floss beehive and insisted on telling us that the guests before us had left a giant poo in the middle of the floor. They hadn’t had a dog. As soon as she had gone, we ran to the on-site shop and bought three bottles of bleach, a mop and a scrubbing brush. Whenever we have tough times in our house, we always console ourselves that at least we’re not in the Tin Shack.

It’s starting to spit with rain with rain as we follow the signs and turn left into the woods. We drive up a rough Tarmac road, and a sign welcomes us to Forest Holidays. We pull up next to a house and courtyard area, all pointing and talking at once.

‘Go on, then,’ says Stevie, leaning back and shutting his eyes. ‘Go do your stuff.’

Our map of the North York Moors.
Our map of the North York Moors.

The children and I jump out, staggering as we shove our feet into trainers, trying not to squash the spears of new daffodils.

‘Look, Mummy! Bikes!’

The courtyard area has a bike-hire shop to the left, and those lovely chunky hard-wood tables and chairs up the centre. The weather has turned them that soft silver, and I briefly imagine sitting at one with a coffee and the paper. Reception is up a couple of steps, in the little on-site shop. We go in, and are instantly welcomed by a team of smiling out-doors types in green fleeces.

‘Hello,’ we say back. ‘Hello, hello.’

I sign us in as the children roam the shop, louder with each new discovery. ‘Pencils!’ ‘Jam!’ ‘Mummy! They Make Pizzas Actually Here!’

‘Anything you need, or want to know,’ I’m told. ‘You just need to ask.’

I can’t think of anything sensible, and we say thank you, thank you, and run back out to the car. We pile back in, waking Stephen up and sending the dogs scrabbling with excitement. Stevie starts the car and we roll slowly round the one way system, looking for our cabin. Cabin 29. We keep stealing little looks at each other. It’s so nice. All so nice. The cabins are arranged on a short of sprawling figure-of-eight, with plenty of space between each one. Smoke curling from chimneys tell of wood-burners, and quite a lot of smart cars are parked on the bends of the eight, away from the cabins themselves. A cock pheasant struts out in front of us as we climb a slight hill, and Pants erupts into a series of howls.

‘We know,’ we tell him. ‘We’re nearly there.’

Cabin 29
Cabin 29

We find Cabin 29, and race with the key. Ellie spends at least five minutes trying to open the door, sending the rest of us into orbit with frustration. Finally, she gets it open and we all crowd into the hall. It’s so warm, so clean and Scandi-style, like the very best sort of ski-chalet.

‘Dogs’ll be in here then,’ says Stevie. The children kick off their shoes (which they never do at home), and run into the living room. We hear their cries of delight and follow them in. There’s a big, curving sofa, big enough for all of us, and the whole of the back of the cabin facing the trees is glass.

‘Hot tub!’ we shriek. ‘And look at the fruit bowl, and the map, and we’ve got two loos – two loos darlings – and look at the lovely kitchen with gas, and oh my goodness, look at the picnic table and the woods and IT’S JUST ALL SO NICE.’

Stevie and I go into domestic mode, unloading the car, taking the dogs for a run (straight into the woods) un-packing everything, immediately, bustling with the kettle and making hot drinks.

A Forest Ranger with a pony tail comes to talk to us about heating and how to work the telly (which sorts out our Wifi), then gives us a whole load of brilliant places to go and visit.

‘You must go to Whitby,’ he says. ‘Best scampi in England. Seriously.’ We write a list as he talks, and he shows us where to go on our map. The children ask him about the pizza we can order.

‘We’ll go up to the shop, later,’ I say.

The ranger grins. ‘You can order it from your telly-‘ The children are in raptures.

Later that night, after we’ve stuffed ourselves silly, marked up maps, hot-tubbed and we’ve opened a bottle of wine, Stevie and I lean together on the long sofa. I tuck my feet up, away from Pants and his loving nibbling. Dora is fast asleep on the rug, exhausted by the car.

‘Oh,’ I say. ‘This is going to be a brilliant week.’ Stephen is scrolling through the lists of films for the children. I nudge him. ‘Don’t you think?’

‘What?’

‘Going to be brilliant here. At Cabin 29.’

Stevie stretches out his arms and yawns loudly. He’s grinning, his face mischievous. ‘Yeah. It is. It’s all right, suppose.’ He gives me a sly look. ‘Just about beats the Tin Shack.’

I punch him, aiming for a dead-leg, and the children tell us to shush, just shush, they’re watching their film.

 

This is the second of a set of posts, written about our family holiday in North Yorkshire, as guests of  Forest Holidays (part of the Forestry Commission for England). All opinions and views are my own.

 

On North Yorkshire – Day 1 (‘Let’s Just Get There’)

One of the loveliest things about going on an English holiday (apart from not weighing suitcases), is taking the dogs with us. We’re off to North Yorkshire to stay in a cabin in the woods, where we will play Scrabble, walk until our shins are numb, and Embrace Nature.

‘Will there be bears?’ asks Ellie. We assure her that there will not. ‘Pity,’ she says.

It’s Monday morning, and we’re doing the usual stressy nightmare we do whenever we go away. Have-you-packed-the-torches-well-why-are-they-on-the-stairs-then, and I-thought-YOU-were-putting-diesel-in-the-car. This time though, it’s worse than ever, as we were out for Sunday lunch yesterday, and I haven’t packed anything. Not one thing. Worse still: three pairs of jeans (two of mine, one of Elle’s) are still in the tumble dryer. I don’t actually remember them until we’re roaring up the M40.

‘We’re not turning round,’ says Stevie. ‘Look. Let’s just get there, shall we?’

‘Fine,’ I snap. ‘I’ll buy leggings.’ He hates leggings. I shake out Sunday’s Telegraph and retreat behind it, muttering.

I sulk until the M1, but then I glimpse the pale face of Hardwick Hall up on its hill, and put down the paper. I say for the millionth time how lovely it would be to visit. Stevie rolls his eyes, but the atmosphere in the car has lightened; the holiday-feeling  working its magic. Yorkshire Moors! Sea-side! Hot tub!

As we pass Nottingham, the sun comes out. Blue scraps of sky are visible between the sullen March clouds. The blackthorn is starting to flower along the motorway – incongruous frills of white behind grey crash-barriers and bright orange rescue-phones. Here and there are clumps of just-flowering daffodils, and Stevie and I speculate how they came to be there.

‘Wild animals, birds?’ ‘Bulb-bombing truckers?’

The miles roll on, the children entranced by a DVD, the dogs silent in the boot like stowaways.

We join the A1 and marvel at the smoking giant chimneys of Ferrybridge.

‘Look Jess,’ says Stevie. He gestures to her to remove her ear-phones. ‘Cranes!’

Jess hums politely and replaces her earphones. Stephen and I exchange glances. Too grown up now, for cranes.

We go past York Racecourse, its huge glass stands glinting in the afternoon light, then we’re in the gentle sweeps of the Howardian Hills.

A sign comes up for Castle Howard, and I look at Stevie hopefully. He steadfastly ignores me for three miles, but then he crumbles, abruptly.

‘Fine,’ he says. ‘But only for two minutes, and we’re not going in.’ I have a wild moment, imagining leaping from the car and shinning the wall with the daughters and the dogs.

We pull off the A1 and drive past a giant monument inscribed with ‘The Earl of Carlisle’, but we can’t figure out exactly what the monument is for. It heads the top of a long avenue that undulates like a very long magic carpet. It’s bisected by huge stone walls, and I crane to see the main house. ‘I bet it’s amazing,’ I say. ‘Almost a Blenheim.’

The mysterious monument
The mysterious monument

‘Nowhere’s a Blenheim,’ shout the children.

We drive past yolk-yellow gorse, puffy fluffs of pale green goat willow. Then woodland; silver birch, larch, pine, ash. We see signs for an arboretum, but then we swing into Castle Howard’s car park, come to a stop beside its cricket pitch.

‘Look, look! It’s got a pavilion and everything, and they’ve got a wicket like Horley-‘

Everyone explodes from the thick air in the car and we run about, whooping, playing tig and shouting instructions at the dogs and abuse at each other. Then we put the dogs and Stephen back and head towards the signs that say Farm Shop. We walk into what was once the courtyard for the stables, and it’s the nicest place.

We visit the bookshop, the gift shop and the loo, and we buy three Castle Howard Pencils. The lady behind the till is endlessly patient as the children and I squabble over colours.

We finally settle (one yellow, one green and Jess buys a rubber), and whiz to the farm shop. It’s groaning with delicious things, and I hugely regret my grand statement that this holiday, I shall not be shackled to a handbag.

Playing tig on Castle Howard's cricket pitch
Playing tig on Castle Howard’s cricket pitch

‘I only grabbed a couple of pounds,’ I say. The children look appalled. They’d spotted tremendous cake.

‘We’ll just ask Daddy to get out of the car-‘ says Ellie. I shake my head, not holding out much hope. The children run ahead, and I arrive back at the car just as he says it: Where’s Your Bloody Mother? and Let’s Just Get There.

I wave my hands at the daughters’ chorus of disappointment.

‘Fine,’ I say. ‘It’s fine. Be calmed. Calm.’ I look at Stephen, who’s reversing before we’ve all got our seatbelts on. He accelerates and I look back at Castle Howard, its intricate roof-line indistinct behind the winter trees.

‘It’s a fabulous place,’ I say. ‘A day’s worth place, not a snatched half-hour. We’ll plan it properly for the summer and we’ll bring a picnic in the hamper.’

The gates of Castle Howard. The nearest I got - this time.
The gates of Castle Howard. The nearest I got – this time.

‘And a book each,’ says Jess, thoughtfully. ‘In case there’s cricket, and Daddy starts watching.’

I turn round in my seat, looking North to Cropton Forest. If this is a taste of Yorkshire, we think we’re going to like it here.

 

 

This is the first of a set of posts, written about our family holiday in North Yorkshire, as guests of  Forest Holidays (part of the Forestry Commission for England). All opinions and views are my own.

On Pub-Going – The Rose and Crown in Ratley

I push open the heavy oak door to The Rose, and I’m instantly hit with the roar of Friday-night conversation. The air rushing out to greet me smells of good wine gravy and old pub, and I pause for a moment, blinking at the crowd.

I haven’t been here for perhaps five years – the old gang have all grown-up, moved away. The last time I remember, we’d been the only ones here, our voices carelessly loud in a mid-week hush.

Now though, it’s Friday night and it’s packed – so many people that it’s hard to squeeze in the door. My black-rimmed spectacles steam up and I snatch them from my face, suddenly terribly nervous of walking into a newly-strange place.

‘Carles!’ It’s The Ferg, a local farmer I’ve not properly seen for years, and who has a terrible reputation for havoc-making. It’s The Ferg’s brother and his wife that I’m to have a quick drink with, and I barely say hello before I demand if he’s seen MinanRuss. I run the names together, as if they’re a trusted brand I can rely on.

‘No,’ he tells me. ‘Are they coming here? Do you want a drink?’

I’m flustered by the crowd and the sense of no longer being cool, and I  shake my head, start sliding away through the checked-elbows towards the bar. I forget that I prefer spirits with mixers, and I order a Pinot Grigio; tonight, Matthew, I shall be – God, I’ve no idea.

Discomforted, I take my wine glass to the last table in the tiny bar dining area. It’s a table for four, and I put down my wine, phone and car keys in a semi-circle in front of me; earthworks of technology, fending off invaders. I can’t remember the last time I drank alone in a pub (the Red Lion doesn’t count), and I feel so self-conscious on my table that my shoulders are up near my ears, my hair over my face.

I pick up my phone, pretending I’ve got a signal and have an important message I must send immediately. I want, more than anything, to ring Stevie, tell him I’m coming home. Weed, I hiss to myself. I try not to bolt my wine, and instead force myself to look around me, although I make sure I don’t catch any curious eyes. Every table is crammed with people; laughing, sharing tales of their week gone, planning the weekend ahead.

A woman behind me keeps saying ‘clearly’. Clearly the situation in Crimea is volatile. Clearly the Kremlin must not be allowed – her voice drops, confidingly – clearly the woman in the grey cashmere has been stood up by her date. I put my hand out and my wedding rings catch the light. Clearly you can get stuffed.

The bar is mostly covered in farmers, unmistakeable with their capable, red-chapped hands and sensible Country Wide shirts. They all know each other and talk in half sentences, agreeing with each other in ascending chorus. There is a woman laughing, over and over, and I resent her easy belonging. I hate not belonging – the inevitable by-product of not knowing who to be. I feel awkward.

I turn my glass, thinking how I should stand up, smile, go and hang on the bar and get chatting.

I slug at the dregs of the  Pinot for courage. I stand up just as a man behind me speaks into a microphone, and I end up jumping, clutching my heart. I laugh with him as he introduces the evening’s singer, then I catch the eye of a woman in a black cardigan watching me, speculatively. She’s wondering what I’ll do next.

Put on my coat, run away. Or fling myself at the bar, chat up farmers. The woman’s watching from her busy table, her half-eaten supper ignored.

I decide to go for the farmers.

I make my way towards The Ferg, who is rocking with laughter at a neat-looking blonde man who’s describing something with his hands.

‘Carles!’ says The Ferg again, when he spots me. ‘Drink with us! Come on! Say yes this time!’

For a moment I freeze, but then my smile unsticks itself.

‘I can’t,’ I tell him. ‘I’m too shy.’

‘Rubbish,’ says The Ferg. He comes and collects me, sweeping me up in his arm. He introduces me to the farmers he’s standing with, and I instantly forget their names, but am charmed by their smiles.

I launch into a dreadful have-you-come-far conversation with the blonde. He has naughty twinkling eyes and his girlfriend is the one in the red skirt over by the piano. We stutter through another few stock-phrases (he farms at Avon Dassett. A few sheep, but mostly arable. No, no, he’s not been pleased with the weather either). But then he mentions returning from skiing, and we’re off – ‘It’s my most favourite thing in the world to do,’ I tell him. ‘I just never really have anyone to do it with.’

He tells me all about a deliciously scandalous holiday a few years ago, and we compare resorts.

We’re deep in the merits of Austria versus France when the pub door opens, and two familiar heads appear, pushing through the crowd.

‘Minanruss!’ I cry, waving. ‘That’s who I’m meeting-‘ But suddenly I’m torn. I want to stay with this nice man, and talk about snow, and really, we should wear helmets, but we don’t.

‘Go,’ he says. ‘Go say hello-‘

‘Thank you for chatting to me,’ I say. ‘And being so nice.’

Min is trying to take off her gilet, creating space by wagging her elbows.

‘Good God,’ she bellows. ‘It’s like a Range Rover convention out there! Who the bloody hell is it? Where’ve they come from?’

There’s a cheer from beside the piano.

‘Drink?’ I say, squeezing through, kissing them both hello. ‘So brilliant to see you! Let me get you a drink-‘

It’s past ten when Min and I manage to snaffle a table, and the singer has got into his stride. We’re chattering non-stop, catching up on gossip, who’s doing who, and oh-my-life, I can’t believe that. Are you sure? Outrageous.

I don’t tell Min how nervous I was before, how I nearly went home.

A tall, dark vaguely-familiar brunette comes to say hello. ‘You have such a lovely voice,’ I shout against the music. ‘All deep and raspy.’

‘Oh no,’ she says. ‘I’ve had this ever since that night.’ She and Min exchange significant looks. ‘Let me buy you a drink,’ she says. ‘And I’ll come and join you.’

‘She’s with The Ferg,’ says Min, in my ear. I look at The Ferg with new respect. He really does pull some crackers.

Min introduces us, and I tell Max we might have met before, at the Red Lion. ‘Probably my sister,’ says Max. ‘She’s way more beautiful than me.’ She says the words flatly, with no intention of prompting denials and fluttery compliments.

Min and I raise an eyebrow each. ‘You’re hardly fugly,’ we tell her. I like this girl. We then indulge in premium-rate gossip, the sort of stories friends always start with ‘Carles, don’t blog this, but-‘. God it was exciting.

The singer was really belting out his tunes now, the bar staff were still smiling and smiling.

Something rockabilly-like came on and Min was whooping, shouting I should dance with The Ferg, who once literally swept me off my feet for several minutes years ago, for which the old gang used to tease me mercilessly.

‘I’ve not had enough wine,’ I say, shaking my head, protesting. But then I’m up anyway, being towed down the bar towards the singer; there’s cheering and applause. No one else is dancing, but that doesn’t deter The Ferg. He flings me into a spin, narrowly missing a table of eight. Then he scoops me up, rocking out, and I’m laughing so hard I’ve got a searing stitch, and my hair’s come loose, and I’m not wearing my glasses, so everything’s a warm blur full of music and noise and steps that were out-of-time but exhuberant. The Ferg whizzes me around, still astonishingly strong.

As a finale, he bends me backwards, so I can see the room upside down. I feel like all of the glittery-glee has gone to the top of my head, shaken free from the boring grey silt of the every-day. I’m grinning as we take a bow to the applause, and I catch the eye of the woman in the black cardi.

She’s clapping, smiling, nodding at me as if she knows me. As if I belong.

RoseandCrowninRatley

 

On Food: The Secret Pudding Club

It’s a quarter past seven on a Thursday evening, and I’m driving down dark country lanes towards Edge Hill, in the very north of Oxfordshire. I’m jittery with excitement and nerves – I’m to meet my friend Shiny Gems, and to join the Secret Pudding Club at the Castle Inn.

All day long, I’ve been bumping into people who tell me how fortunate I am to have a ticket, ‘they go in five seconds flat, darling’. Waiting for the school bus, the Mistress of The Horse roars up in her jeep.

‘Pudding club tonight, Carles? You lucky, lucky thing. Hope you’ve skipped lunch.’

Yep. And now, walking down the steps to the Castle’s bar, the tower soaring above me, I’m ravenously hungry. I walk through a low door and see a reserved sign, with ‘Pudding Club’ scrawled beneath. I feel a visceral squeeze of anticipation.Photo

I’m early, so I slide through to the door to the bar, thinking I’d have a lemonade and a chatter with whoever I find. The bar is octagonal, with a huge log fire and bits of battle regalia on the walls – a breast plate here, a pike there. Not a pub to come with warring couples. I accidentally order a gin and tonic, and sit down with my notepad, unashamedly eavesdropping on the conversations around me. There are three men at the bar, all mud-encrusted and horny-handed – a million miles away from the Barbour Brigade. I try to understand their conversation, but it mostly seems made of odd hand gestures and low grumbling ‘aah’s, like rams exchanging tupping notes.

I’m just zoning in to the conversation on my left, when I hear loud laughter from the other side of the bar. It’s Shiny Gems, with lots of other tall girls, all knocking back pink bubbles and waving at new arrivals. I pick up my gin and go through.

‘Carles!’ cries Gems, and introduces me to everyone. ‘And you remember Sue-‘ I nod and grin, and stand very slightly on my tiptoes. The gin has flushed my cheeks and seen off my nerves.

‘Lovely puds tonight,’ someone says, rubbing her hands. ‘Where do we sit?’Photo

We end up on a very long table with boxed starched-linen tablecloths that are impossible to force your knees beneath. I perch sideways, trying to remember everyone’s names, and not knock all of my cutlery flying. Blimey. There’s a lot of cutlery. The tables are pristine, and on each place is a bag of petite-fours, tied with a navy grosgrain ribbon. I slide mine into my sac magique, to take home to the children.

The room is filling up now, with perhaps thirty women – ten of which belong to Gems.

‘Sorry,’ says Gems in my ear. ‘Everyone’s very horsey.’

‘Not all-‘ I begin to say, but then a pretty brunette opposite launches into a story about a horse with a broken jaw. ‘Just snapped it off!’ she bellows, to a woman up to my left. ‘It was just dangling off-‘

I feel myself blanche.

Fortunately, a man rings a tinkling bell, cutting the story short. ‘I’d like to introduce you to your chef,’ he says. ‘Scotty-‘

And we all clap for a merry-eyed bearded man in chef’s whites. He welcomes us and tells us about his menu, and his puddings. We all ooh and aah, and then Jo, directly opposite me, calls for Prosecco. It arrives to much applause in two huge silver ice buckets.

We dispatch the savoury first course, and launch into the first of the puddings, which is flavoured with lavender.

‘Um,’ says Kerry, thoughtfully licking her spoon. ‘Tastes like my grandmother’s drawers.’ We all collapse with laughter.

‘Yum,’ though, says my neighbour.

The wine’s kicking in now, and the volume is climbing. Conversation moves onto War Horse, and how much better the theatre production was than the film. ‘I mean,’ snorts Jo in disgust. ‘They used over ten different horses for Joey alone. And the barbed wire wounds were in no way realistic.’

Anxious in case of more horsey blood-and-guts stories, I ask her opinion on the dessert wine. ‘Very good,’ she replies, and we both drain our glasses.

My immediate neighbour disappears for a cigarette break, and I scooch along to chat to the other end of the table. I meet Jo’s daughter, Holly, who has a waterfall of pale blonde hair and a beaming white smile. Her mum keeps pinching her phone to read her text messages, and making her blush.

I tell her I embarrass my daughters just as much, and that it’s our job as mothers. She starts telling me all about her new job, promoting a top-end car.

‘Ooh,’ I say. ‘What?’

She shows us all her phone, with an impossibly shiny Nissan GT3 on it.

‘It’s a Nismo GTR,’ she tells us. ‘And is a 3.8 Litre V6.’

‘Golly,’ I say, thinking my husband would adore her. She mentions how she makes Bannoffee Pie for her office mates, and conversation moves onto baking.

The other end of the table is in uproar. Gems and Sue are playing an Elf animation on Sue’s i-Pad. The last dessert arrives, and I’m feeling very stuffed. Scotty promises one lucky lady will find a strawberry in her pud, to win a meal for two. We pick up our final spoons in readiness.

‘I never win,’ says the lady next to Jo. Her spoon hits the strawberry and she whoops in excitement. More drinks and drunk, and the music from the Elf Ainmation plays again and again.

‘I really must go,’ I say, staggering to my feet. I’ve had just one gin and a tiny sip of dessert wine; sober me doesn’t last long on nights out. ‘So sorry to be the first to bail-‘ I start inching out, waving, crying nice-to-meet-you’s, take-care, take-care.

Outside, the air is sharply cold, and wakes me from my sugar fug.   I stretch and shake my hair from my face, looking at the star spangles, feeling my waist band bite my stomach. Oh, but it was good. I had fun and ate and ate and ate.

I walk up to the road, cross to the car park. I know tomorrow at the school bus, the others’ll say, ‘Well? How was it? Was it good? What did you have?’

And I’ll grin, give a little shrug. ‘It’s a secret,’ I’ll say. ‘What goes on in the Pudding Club, stays in the Pudding Club. You’ll have to join to find out.’

On The Leaning Tower of Pisa – 14th June 2013

All of my life I’ve wanted to see the Leaning Tower of Pisa, and now I shall.

We’re in Italy, in June, all four of us, and we’ve found our funny flea-pit of a hotel. The first thing we did this morning, when we landed, was to pile in the hire car (the Mighty Bling), and head to the beach between Pisa and Livorno.

Consequently, we’re now all covered in sand and shards of that translucent spreckly-brown seaweed. Stevie keeps pulling flakes from his pocket, and the children and I have it tangled in our hair.

We’re here in Pisa’s Old Quarter for just one night, and the four of us are sharing a room with an en-suite loo, shower and bidet. The bidet enthrals the children, and they desperately want to try it out. Our room is

Piazza Del Duomo Pisatiny,and the children can jump from bed-to-bed, yodelling and scattering contents of bags. Briefly, Stevie and I join in, but then one of us squashes the television controls, and the set blinks to life, throwing forth bursts of frenetic Italian and shots of some sort of gameshow.

The children are entranced, and Stevie and I keel over on the lumpy double bed to sleep.

We wake just before five, and the sun has slid a slanting finger through the gap between the shutters. I can feel it hitting my bare hip, pressing like the flat of a warm blade, and I’m smiling even before I’ve opened my eyes.

We’re in Italy. In Pisa. And we’re going to see The Tower. I think about being sixteen, and learning about the Piazza del Duomo in History of Art lessons from a fat, glossy grey textbook. I remember staring from the window in the stuffy classroom, out over the Warwickshire fields, and promising myself that one day I’d go to Pisa. I’d sit in a bar, smoking Camels and wearing sunglasses and a silk scarf in my hair. I would observe the campanile through half-closed eyes, and I would laugh at the tourists with their silly photo-poses. I wouldn’t be seen dead being so uncool.

The children don’t wake easily, a night of travelling and a day of beach and sea has exhausted them. We kiss their shoulders and blow raspberries on their necks, and when tenderness doesn’t work, we propel them into the shower.

‘Why do we have to have a shower,’ they say. ‘Why can’t we have a bidet?’

We leave at six, armed with a map of Pisa’s old quarter, and directions from the handsome but sad-faced concierge.

‘Ees two-minute walk,’ he tells us. ‘No more.’

We thank him, and cautiously mention the lack of bed, and the mouldy sandwich in our fridge, and the absence of drinking water.

‘I feex,’ he says, mournfully.

The hotel is on an ancient narrow road, paved with stone and with room for just one car to pass. The pavements are barely a foot across, and we ignore them, meandering up the road instead. People keep floating by on bicycles, their bells tring-tring around every corner. The city smells exactly how I imagined it might – sun-warmed oregano and thyme; jasmine and honeysuckle and the base city-notes of drains and exhaust and cigarette smoke.

We catch glimpses of deeply lush gardens through tall, wrought-iron gates – rhododendrons and clematis beneath orange and lemon trees in vast stone planters. The old city wall slips in and out of view, and the despite the cars, the city feels timeless.

We’re ravenously hungry, and keep spotting lovely-looking ristorantes and trattorias, but it’s too early to eat. We follow our instructions, and round a corner into a beautiful square. Two white-clad nuns carrying armfuls of dark-green fabric scuttle by, nodding at our smiles, and winking at the children.

‘Were they real nuns,’ asks Ellie, staring after them.

‘Yes,’ I say, but break off and stop, staring.

Jess tries to pull me onwards, but I point. ‘Look,’ I say. ‘There it is.’

We can see the top two tiers of The Tower, like an improbable cake above the houses of the square, and we all start hurrying, as if it might disappear.

‘Quick,’ says Stevie. ‘This way.’

We burst onto the Piazza del Duomo, our sandals slapping, and we slither to a stop at the sudden sense of space. The Tower – Torre di Pisa – is in front of us, its stacked marble loggias gleaming white-gold in the evening sun.

‘Wow,’ we say. ‘Wow. It’s beautiful.’

To our left are rows of tourist-tat shops, and they are shutting up now, testament to the departure of day-trippers. African street-sellers eyed us, but don’t approach – probably exhausted by a day of hustling. We stand and stare, and stare. I never expected the acres of green grass, nor the might of the Duomo and Baptistry and Tower together, each fiercely separate on a page in a text-book, here so vitally and powerfully linked.

I want to tell the children how the square was known as Piazza dei Miracoli, and that Galileo came here to do some thinking, and that it’s all been here for nearly a thousand years and is very important. But I can’t, because the children and Stevie have legged it, and are trying out camera poses against the Tower.

I watch them for a moment, the way they balance on the shiny black-painted railings, freeze-framing improbable poses and laughing, shouting instructions at each other.

‘Move! No! Not that way!’

My stomach gives an enormous hungry gurgle, and a couple next to me look over in surprise. I shrug.

Fame,’ I say.

Si,’ they reply, uncertainly.

Then one of the children call.

‘Mum! Mumm-eeee. Come on, come here. You need to do the thing. The photo thing. Come and do the thing, with all of us.’

‘Wife,’ says Stevie. ‘Hurry up. I look a prat. Come and look a prat with me.’