Friday, 25 August 2017

End of Summer Catch Up

The long school holidays are coming to an end now and routine will be back soon.  I'm ready for this now, a bit restless and also keen to escape the noise and disruption at home. Work has now started on our downstairs kitchen extension and this is the view outside the back window.



As I write this the builders are filling the large trench with wheelbarrows of concrete from a lorry parked on the road - tough work and it will take them a long time.  Over the past few days I have developed huge respect for the two men who are here all day.  I've watched them demolish the existing porch, fill several skips with rubble and dig the foundations.  They had a mini digger to help with the digging but otherwise it is just hard, dirty and fairly unpleasant physical work. Despite this, they are friendly and uncomplaining. Makes me feeling guilty about moaning about my own work, which is really very enjoyable most of the time, especially when viewed from the perspective of the summer holiday.

The last few weeks have been fairly quiet and uneventful.  I've been attempting to improve my fitness by going to the gym more often and after writing this I'm off to Aqua Aerobics which is a bit of variety.  I'm not that keen on treadmills and machines and prefer classes, my favourite being Zumba, where I generally make a fool of myself but don't care much as it is good fun. We had one evening out to another Storyhouse production - 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' in Chester's Grosvenor Park. I'm always wary of rain on these occasions but luckily it was a lovely clear evening if a bit chilly: we were prepared with blankets.   Another excellent production, really inventive with the fairies being represented by...... cut-off red rubber gloves waved around.  Sounds crazy, but it worked. The ending was really magical as the skies darkened and the lights came on.


Theatre in the Grosvenor Park
We also had a day trip to Anglesey mainly  to pick up Kate who had been staying with a friend on a caravan park there.  En route we called in Caernarfon where I'd never been and had a walk around the pretty town and the outskirts of the castle - couldn't go in as we had the dog with us.  Then we had a leisurely drive around the Anglesey coast, stopping for lunch by a beach in Rhosneigr.  Wales is so beautiful - we should explore it further. I've resolved to take more advantage of all the the lovely places to visit nearer home n the next few years.

Husband and half of dog at Caernarfon Castle.  


Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Summer Outings: Dunkirk and NGS visits

I'm trying to get back to my habit of weekly blogging. No excuses really as I have lots of time at the moment with three more weeks of summer holidays before we return to school.  I'm making the most of my time of this year, mixing the usual list of household tasks with more pleasant activities.

On Friday evening we went to see Dunkirk at the local Vue, paying the extra for the IMAX which promises a better experience because of the bigger screen and superior sound quality as recommended by the reviews.  It was worth it: I felt completely 'immersed' in the action as Mark Kermode described in his review, with the sound of the gunfire seeming to come from below us.  This isn't my usual kind of film - I prefer more dialogue and usually dislike nonstop action - I despise Bond films for example.   Kate had seen the with a friend just on a standard screen a couple of days before us and she said she felt she was there and didn't notice the time passing when she watched.   The big draw for the younger female audience was Harry Styles, who plays one of the young soldiers, trying desperately to escape and behaving in a fairly ruthless and unpleasant manner while doing so.   Kenneth Branagh, Mark Rylance also appeared, though there were no real star parts as there were three interlinked stories and the action shifts from one to the other.  This was sometimes confusing but I didn't get so lost that it was frustrating.  I also usually object to blood and gore and I suppose this is where the director Nolan made compromises in his attempt to capture the reality of the soldiers' experience. Although there were plenty of explosions, gunfire sinking ships and dead bodies, none of them were badly mutilated, so the film was awarded a 12A.  Go and see it if you can before it finishes on the big screen.

A totally different outing this weekend was a trip to another garden.  I've got the little yellow booklet provided by the NGS, the National Garden Scheme, which arranges for people to open their gardens to visitors for charity.  Every Sunday this summer I have tried to visit one of these and this week it was Abbeywood, not a private garden this time but somewhere which is a wedding venue.  But one of the best gardens I visited was actually walking distance from home, a small suburban gardens which backs onto the railway and was absolutely packed with plants.  Abbeywood was full of dahlias which used to be popular when I was a child in NI, but fell out of fashion for a while.  Now they are everywhere - B&Q had rows of colourful pots when I went there the other day.  We also went to Eaton Hall, home of the new Duke of Westminster, who is 26 and apparently the 9th richest man in England. The garden is open for charity four times a year and is very impressive.   I loved the rose gardens - there are four with different colour themes and the kitchen garden.  I'd dragged Kate along that day, promising cake and she was less impressed, thinking it disgraceful that one family has so much wealth. Here are some not terribly good phone photos which will give you an impression of the gardens I have visited.  The first four are from Abbeywood, the others Eaton Hall.














Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Summer Outings: Julius Caesar at Storyhouse



It’s been a year since we moved into our new house close to Chester town centre.  I do miss being close to the countryside and my more peaceful garden but this is outweighed by the fact that we can now walk most places we want to go.  This summer holiday I have been taking advantage of this more, going to all sorts of events in Chester, which I may not have bothered with if I had to find a parking space first.
So in the last couple of weeks I have visited our new library/theatre/cinema Storyhouse on numerous occasions. I dragged slightly reluctant Kate to see a performance of Julius Caesar (Guardian review here - Chester doesn't often get a mention so I feel quite proud.) Kate enjoyed it in the end and so did I.  I sometimes feel a little ashamed to admit that I don’t tend to enjoy performances of Shakespeare’s plays much, but this was an exception, probably because I have never taught it. It began in the auditorium outside the theatre where the audience formed part of the crowd greeting Caesar as if he were a victorious politician.  Echoes of Donald Trump. Then we all took our seats in the theatre and watched him address the crowds.  I also liked the scene where Caesar does his morning yoga routine while his wife tries to persuade him not to go to the senate on the Ides of March. .  It was all modern dress and Mark Antony was played by a woman which some people in the audience didn’t like.  I thought she was very good, and especially convincing in the scene when she changes the crowd’s response to Caesar’s death through her powerful speech. The performance has now transferred to the open air theatre in Grosvenor Park.  I’m not sure how they will recreate it there without lighting and the clever device which provided blood for the murder scene by dropping it from above.

I've also been to a poetry workshop at Storyhouse and an exhibition of modern art in the cathedral. But I'll keep these to another post.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Family Holiday in Barcelona

Last week my daughter Kate and I were in holiday in Barcelona, or to be specific, Cabrils which is 30 minutes away from Barcelona.  We spent the week in a lovely villa in a quiet (or at least until we arrived) residential area with my sisters and their families.  For a few days the whole family, including all of Kate's 10 cousins, were there, with the exception of my Paul who couldn't be persuaded to join us: he doesn't like flying, the heat or, to be honest, large family gatherings which last more than an evening. 

We had a brilliant time. The villa was a perfect location for a family gathering - it took some time to find a place that would accommodate all of us.  It was very impressive with chandeliers and a grand piano as you can see from the pictures below, but affordable since the cost was split between five families. There were eight bedrooms and three bathrooms and plenty of space including a shady balcony where I spent quite a lot of time reading and catching up with sisters including NZ sister who we haven't seen since our last reunion. I'm not keen on lying in the sun. In fact, to venture out at all in Spain I have to cover myself in a layer of factor 50, as I burn so easily, and then top than with a layer of Jungle Formula insect repellent. And I still got bitten - we all did. I had the best bedroom with a balcony and a huge painting covering one wall, not because of my status as the eldest sister, but because I wasn't bothered about air-conditioning and this room had a fan instead.

The view from my bedroom window
The painting covering one wall of my bedroom


Meanwhile the kids, big and little, spent most of the week in the pool.   The small boys enjoyed using the woggles as weapons on their 22 year old cousin. The older ones played games involving pushing each other off the lilo and an inflatable crocodile until the early hours of the morning, making so much noise one evening that the neighbours complained. There was also a table tennis table and cousin Callum organised a family table tennis tournament.  I went out in the first round, losing by one point to sister Sylvia, a good job  too as she is very competitive would not have been pleased. The tournament was won Dean, one of the older nephews, in a tense and closely matched 5 set final against his brother Callum, which we all watched one evening after dinner.

The view of the pool from the shady balcony.

Kate, warming up for her match against NZ cousin Will.


We were also fascinated by the family of baby falcons at the villa.  It seems they had fallen from the nest but the mother was still feeding them and we were advised to leave them alone as interfering or feeding them would cause the mother to abandon them. They were huddled together and looked rather forlorn when we first arrived, especially the one with a damaged leg.  But they gained strength and by the time we left some were able to fly up to higher walls.  The injured one, who eleven year old Hannah named Stevie, seemed to get stronger too though still wasn't flying.  Hannah checked on him every day.  I think this is Stevie in the picture below.



Shopping and cooking for up to 20 was a bit of a challenge but luckily we had champion BBQ expert, Simon with us, occasionally assisted by the other brothers-in-law. Living in NZ where I suppose imported food is pricey, Simon actually enjoyed going to the supermarket and was amazed by the range of food and drink available and how cheap it was. Thanks to him and sister Diane, who at one in her life was a restaurant manager, huge quantities of lovely food appeared every evening with very little effort from the rest of us beyond a bit of table laying and washing up.  One evening we had this spectacular paella which tasted as good as it looks.


We spent most days at the villa but did go into Barcelona one day.  It was too hot to walk around much so after a fairly unpleasant visit to a very busy McDonald's in Place Catalonia to get lunch for the children, we took a bus tour round the city.  Here's my one wonky phone photo of the Sagrada Familia which is like no other church I have ever seen.  We also drove past Nou Camp, Barcelona's football ground.  The younger nephews went back there the next day for a longer visit and a tour of the dressing rooms etc. We also had a day at the beach in Vilassar de Mar, with the kids enjoying the huge waves as it was quite breezy and a bit overcast that day.  I was pleased as it meant I didn't frazzle.


Both Sylvia and I celebrated our birthdays during the week and so, on the day of my birthday, us five sisters and Kate went for a meal in a shady restaurant in Cabrils, the nearest village to the villa.  The meal was nothing special but we did have very good strawberry mojitos to start and enjoyed our more peaceful afternoon out.  Here I am with my mojito wearing the necklace Kate bought me for my birthday.


So certainly a different kind of reunion than the last one I wrote about two years where we were on the beach in Portrush.  I was a bit sad we weren't in Northern Ireland and so were some of my sisters but the NZ cousins were keen to see a bit more of Europe and have a holiday where it didn't rain quite so much.  And everyone certainly enjoyed themselves. 





Monday, 5 June 2017

Catching up

...with myself and the blog after a very busy half-term. I've been off work for the last week for the half term holiday and it's been good to get on top of things in the house and garden as well as just relax and forget about work for a while. The period running up to exams is always a bit frantic,  I can't escape it totally though as I have teenager revising for AS exams at home, bombarding me with facts about Henry VIII or teaching the dog about the parliamentary system. She finds it useful to say things aloud and the dog seems happy to sit on a chair beside her so she can improve his political knowledge. Wonder how he would vote?




While she has been busy revising, I've been doing the garden; in particular planting up my raised bed.  It's a bit late - took a while to get round to buying the topsoil and filling it.  Feeling a bit responsible for husband's bad back which flared up after this.  And this weekend he did the Norwich 100 ride, managing to finish despite sore back .

Another exciting diversion in a rather dull work-filled  month is the opening of Storyhouse, Chester's new theatre.  We've been waiting for this: it's disgraceful that a city the size of Chester with a large number of tourists has been without a proper theatre for over 10 years.  But eventually a plan was agreed to transform the former Odeon cinema into this new space which would house not just a theatre, but also a cinema and the town centre library. 

It was worth waiting for because it is an absolutely fabulous place,  The building has been restored and extended with a central area, the Kitchen, a welcoming book-lined café, which doubles as a performing space.  The library is over three floors and is not locked away in a separate section but in the shared space.  This means it is much more accessible as you can borrow and return books on Sundays or in the evenings. It's already improved library usage - apparently hundreds of new library cards were issued in the first week it opened.  There are private spaces in the library too - reading rooms with lovely old armchairs. I'm impressed with the décor - the furniture has been chosen to reflect the Art Deco style of the building so instead of standard dull municipal library furniture there are lots of old unmatched chairs and quirky touches like a bowler-hat lamp and this peacock statue. It has proved very popular with kids from school to revise in and I don't think many of them ever visited the old library.





The theatre itself has been designed so that it can be transformed from an 800 seat proscenium (the Touring Stage) to a 500 seat thrust (the Storyhouse stage). The opening season features the local company whose artistic director is Alex Clifton. They have been successfully staging open air productions in the park for years now.  We went to see the first production 'The Beggar's Opera' on the 13th May, a couple of days after the opened, and enjoyed it very much. Inventive, cleverly written with lots of local references, and full of music and entertaining performances. I also went along to some the events at the Women of the World festival which was held there a few weekends ago.. And later in the year we can book to see shows like 'Footloose' and 'Blood Brothers' at a much more reasonable price than in Liverpool or Manchester.  I've already visited many times and this week I'm planning to see 'The Secret Scripture' in the cinema.  And all of this is just a 10 minute walk from our front door.  I am very happy about this.

This morning as I write this the news again is grim, just weeks after the horror of Manchester at the MEN.  Having been at concerts there myself with Kate when she was 10 or 11, it seemed very close to home.  Living in the UK now, I feel a bit like we did in Northern when I was growing up in the 1970s and car bombs and shootings were a regular occurrence.  We got on with things but were on edge as every week or so there was news of more devastation and death. Just horrible - I was shocked to see armed police on the streets in Chester on the Races weekend after the Manchester attack.  I've never seen that before.

So on we go, getting out and making the most of the life we have and not thinking too much about what might happen next.


Saturday, 6 May 2017

Kiltumper Writing Weekend


Two weekends ago I travelled to Co. Clare in Ireland to participate in a creative writing workshop run by Booker nominated writer, Niall Williams. It was a wonderful weekend in so many ways. The sun shone, a rare occurrence in this part of Ireland, as you will know if you read his book 'History of the Rain'; the company was good; my B&B was excellent and Niall was an inspirational teacher.

I've been looking at writing courses like this for years and have always been too busy, too reluctant to spend money on a holiday just for me or too scared to actually go ahead, thinking everyone would be much cleverer, better read and confident than I am.  There were 13 of us, 12 women of varying ages and backgrounds and one youngish Australian man.  The group worked well together even though no one knew each other beforehand. I'd resolved in advance not to read out anything I'd written in front of the group but in fact it was fine and I did share my work because Niall treated everyone the same and the focus was always on the writing itself not on the writer. In creative writing classes I've attended before there has always been a competitive feel to the proceedings. Here it was collaborative. We completed an exercise: some of us read our work while the rest of the group and Niall listened attentively. Then he asked questions. For example could we see the character introduced in the writing? He doesn't go in for vague faint praise but specific advice - 'That works'; 'Take that sentence out - it isn't needed'; 'Use that piece of dialogue later in the piece'.

The course was held in the primary school near the village of Kilmihil in Co Clare. Niall Williams lives near here in the townland of Kiltumper with his American wife Christine in a lovely house and garden. We returned there each day for lunch: delicious soup, homemade bread and salads and she provided us with cakes - brownies and lemon drizzle for afternoon tea break.



I stayed in B&B, the Blue Ivy, Spanish Point (named after the ships of the Spanish Armada which were wrecked here) on the coast 20 minutes or so from Kilmihil with a friendly family in a house with amazing sea views and fantastic breakfasts. On the Saturday evening I went for a walk on the beach with some of the other women on the course.  I've never visited this part of Ireland before so that was also part of the pleasure of the weekend, though I never did get to the Cliffs of Moher, the main tourist attraction in the area.  It was a fine evening; the tide was out and the beach was quiet and beautiful, framed by cliff tops dotted with primroses,  a clean wide damp stretch of sand with an occasional stream running through it. One deep one blocked our path but we crossed it precariously on wobbly stepping stones worn smooth by the sea which comes right up to the cliffs when the tide is in.  I enjoyed  finding out about my companions on the walk and why they'd chosen to do the course. Two were like me, mothers of teenagers, interested in writing but also making time for themselves for a change. Others were more serious about writing and had had work published.  I got to know one of them a bit better as I'd given her a lift to Kilmihil each day in my hire car; she is a really talented writer and has given me lots of advice. We've exchanged email addresses and hope to keep in touch. 

Now, two weeks later, I'm immersed in coursework marking and exam preparation as usual. But it was a great weekend which I enjoyed very much.  And I may even put some of Niall's good advice into practice over the summer holidays this year.


Thursday, 20 April 2017

In Bruges


We've just returned from a trip to Belgium and the Netherlands, repeating the route we took two years ago when husband first did the Amstel Gold cycle challenge. Last time the weather was glorious; unfortunately this time it was cool most cloudy and he cycled his 125km in the rain on Saturday morning. This time we didn't stay in the luxury apartment we booked last time but all three of us squeezed into a rather grotty and overpriced hotel room where Kate and I spent the damp Saturday morning, her revising for AS exams and me marking mock papers.

But, despite the weather, it was a good trip.  En route we caught up with relations, calling with youngest sister and catching up with my aunt and uncle who now, by chance, live in the same area.  We also had Easter Sunday lunch with my cousin and her family who live outside Brussels in a beautiful spot with a fabulous garden, conveniently situated just off the motorway.

On the way to Valkenburg, where the cycle event took place, we had a day in Bruges.  Or Brugge its official name, as the town, in the Flemish part of Belgium, now seems to have left its French identity behind and all signs are in Dutch. I've been here five times in total and love this city - the Venice of the North they call it - with all the canals and beautiful buildings.  It's nearly as busy as Venice now too. This time there were many parties of Japanese tourists.

We visited Bruges 13 years ago and at the time I had joined a creative writing group.  For the class I wrote a description of Burg Square in Bruges.  I'm trying again with creative writing: next weekend I'm going to Co. Clare in Ireland for a weekend writing course with Niall Williams who wrote 'History of the Rain'.  I'm excited and terrified in equal measure.

This time we eat in the same café on Burg Square, admiring the building which looks like Sleeping Beauty's castle, which is apparently the Old Town Hall, while sitting on the enclosed heated terrace to avoid the cold wind.  Kate was 4 when we sat here last; she's now 17, dressed in denim and Converse, black eyeliner flicks like quotation marks at the corner of each eye and a square paper bag from Mango at her feet containing her latest purchase. In our family of three, alliances often shift.  Her father dares to ask what she has bought - we'd left him behind to visit the shops. She cuts him dead; I answer for her, 'A black cold-shoulder top'.  The irony only strikes me later. Then outside a dog they admire walks past and allegiances shift again. We revisit the new puppy conversation.  It had been selected in secret one day when I was at work.  A female German Shepherd. She's even given it a name: Luna.  They are trying to wear down my objections.  I stand firm, turn my back and return to watching the people in the square.

Blinkered Black Beauties trot across the cobbles, their drivers carrying knotted whips we hope they won't use. Cyclists weave around the tourists on foot who glance briefly at the buildings and then turn their back to take selfies. Some carry their phones on sticks like weapons. The sun is shining and the shadow which divided the square into equal rectangles when we arrived is advancing towards the other side as evening approaches.  A family group of orthodox Jews in traditional dress, black and white with hats adorned with fur cross the square.  They look striking among the other tourists in their dull uniform of brown and black quilted jackets.  Back inside Kate is checking her phone to see how many likes she has on Instagram for her picture of the Sleeping Beauty building.  She eats goats' cheese salad and drinks iced tea, her tastes now more sophisticated than the four year old we brought here in 2004 who just wanted chips.

I'm reminded of a poem by W. B. Yeats 'The Wild Swans at Coole'. He revisited the swans nineteen years after the first time and reflects on how his life has changed.  'All's changed' for us too since we first sat in Burg Square 13 years ago. Though I'm not quite so gloomy about change as Yeats is...