{16/05/2012}   The countryside

Last Thursday night I stayed with friends who live very much in the middle of nowhere in the Northumbrian countryside.  I have very mixed feelings about the countryside and, sitting on the train on the way back from Berwick-upon-Tweed station, I contemplated my thoughts on the countryside.

Where my friends live, there are acres and acres of countryside, predominantly farmland.  I sat in my lovely bedroom and looked out the open window at a field of cows and calves, bright yellow rape seed fields, hills and greenery.  There were birds singing, chickens and a partridge wandering around and lambs across the fields.  It was idyllic.  As I looked out the window of the train, not far south of Durham, there were fields of cattle, trees, greenery, lambs and sheep … you get the picture, all things country.  I love it, I find it peaceful and beautiful.  But I don’t think I want to live in the midst of it.  This kind of bugs me because why would you not want to live surrounded by an environment that makes you feel relaxed and lamb-loving-smiley?

I am aware that I am a complete coward when it comes to nature noises; you know, rustles and creaks and possible monsters outside your house.  This is just a night time and foul weather fear.  I feel unsettled and far more scared than I can rationalise.  During the day, especially when it’s sunny, I love it.  So where does this slight fear come from?  Maybe I’ve lived in cities or towns too long and I find human noise oddly comforting.  Maybe I just don’t understand the countryside, having never lived in it.

Leaving my friends’ lovely house and environs I felt a bit sad, I had thoroughly enjoyed staring at the animals, birds and greenery and listening to the birds and cow-munching sounds.  It was also lovely in the evening all sitting round the big kitchen table, three dogs included, then sitting in the log-fired warmth of their living room.  I just don’t think I’d find it easy to live there all the time (and, really, it couldn’t have been any more lovely).  However, put me in their house right by the sea with no neighbours for miles and I could live there, no problem – well, occasionally an almighty storm would unsettle me somewhat.

All this kind of surprises me, but given the choice of countryside, sea (or a large river) or buildings, it is the sea that I draw comfort and grounding from, despite finding cities exciting, fascinating and energetic and the countryside idyllic, peaceful and relaxing.  I do think that everyone has a preference between the three and I’m sure if I thought about it I could draw a vague stereotype based on which of the three you feel most comfortable surrounded by, but I won’t as I’m sure it’d be too favourable to the sea lovers!


{12/05/2012}   Train journeys in the UK

Yesterday, I caught a train from Edinburgh to London, pretty much five hours down the UK.  There is something quite exciting about long train journeys, and, yes, I do want to go on the Trans Siberian.  I always take a selection of activities for train journeys, but usually end up looking out the window, particularly in the less familiar, ergo more interesting, north.

Travelling through the UK, I always get an overwhelming feeling of appreciation for our verdant land and windswept beaches (admittedly only seen for bits of the northerly parts of the journey).  I also got a better understanding of flood issues of late and even saw changes in the weather, from mottled cloudy blue skies to heavy rain clouds and rain.

Admittedly, I did get the usual waves of boredom and, “oh, surely not another two and half hours left” type internalised whines.  But I got a letter written, wrote my blog, did some work (though that resulted in issues as the wifi was down), read a magazine and a bit of a book, looked out the window and started planning another UK road trip.  Useful; doing things I always complain I don’t have time to do.  Actually, I am rose tinting it a little bit because I did have a major boredom spell of about an hour.  Plus I had a headache and felt I’d travelled across seven time zones by the time I got to King’s Cross.  But it was still a good experience, especially as I had a friend to meet at King’s Cross and we went to the St Pancras Grand for dinner and had champagne before the final hour of my journey back to Folkestone!  Very civilised.

On a sort of down side to train travel, I get ludicrously hungry.  I stopped at a supermarket before I set off and filled a bag with food supplies.  And ate them all.  I could have eaten more.  My train cup of tea with a bakery sausage roll were the highlight of that journey (a good sausage roll is a treat indeed).  Maybe it’s a psychological thing, feeling you’re doing something tiring, travelling, thus needing sustenance to keep you going.  Maybe it’s just that I love food and see it as a means of filling time, an excuse to eat!

In terms of the landscape, I love the variety, seeing changes all the way along the journey, then seeing landmarks you recognise, stations where you get off to visit certain friends and a feeling that all that is part of your homeland.  I’m not a particularly patriotic person, I moan about loads of things about the UK, but despite the abundance of hideously ugly modern housing estates, etc, I love opportunities to travel across (or above, when there are no clouds below!) the UK for it is a beautiful island and it seems like most of us only really explore the vicinity of our homes.  So friends around the UK, brace yourselves, I feel another UK friends-stay tour coming up soon!  Though, sadly, it’s more likely I’ll do that by car as it’s far too expensive to travel by train, especially if there’s a champagne bar at one end of the journey!

Kayaking is fun, tiring and my new hobby! Outfit-wise, by the time I was encased in a life vest and spray deck (skirt thing!) it wouldn’t have mattered how stylish (or otherwise in my case) I was. Exercise-wise, previously unknown muscles are making their presence felt.

As the sea was choppy, my first kayaking experience was on a canal, which was perfect. It didn’t rain for the c1.5 hours we were out, it was just my friend and I with two instructors and for that we paid £20 each. Our kayaks were heavy duty plastic, each one weighing 27kg. We shared carrying both at the same time, which was the most strength-demanding thing we did. In total we probably carried them 150-200m, so a fair way. I didn’t disgrace getting into the kayak, to my immense surprise, in fact by my standards my transition from land to water was quite smooth!

Then the four of us paddled, not in the desired straight line, along the beautiful Napoleonic canal. It was delightfully idyllic and I felt a bit Jerome K Jerome, though “One woman in a kayak” rather than the three men in a boat!

My waterproof trousers saved me a lot of leg splash and, unusually, minus the hoodie, I had on the right clothes for warmth levels.

The kayaking itself was both relaxing yet satisfyingly challenging. I am definitely more weedy with my left arm and I didn’t paddle with the smooth left-right action of the instructors. I was more left-right-left-left-left-right-paddle in water to brake and start from straight. Though I did have a very satisfying few burst of straight line speeding along.

As for the 360 degree turns, it took me an absurdly long time to grasp which direction to lean and when to paddle which way. But on finding myself at the end of a complete circle without having encountered canal bank or rushes was quite an achievement.

There is more to be aware of and moves to learn than I probably expected. I like the idea of getting to grips with them and I would very much like to be a proficient kayaker, and in particular to go on kayaking holidays. However, I have yet to capsize and this worries me slightly. Hopefully, that will first occur in a nice warm, clean swimming pool!

As a form of exercise, my arms and inner thighs are feeling it most today. My thumb/forefinger area, ie where the paddle pressure is exerted, is a little tender and my waist and shoulders have a mild exercised feeling. My legs were all aquiver when I got out of the kayak, but that soon abated!

All in all, it was fantastic to be outdoors, exercising, admiring the scenery, being on water and not being aware of time or usual stresses. I really, really enjoyed it and I feel very smug and satisfied by the kind of aches I have this morning. I had expected to write today about incidents and capsizing, but no. Maybe they will come! Having a flask of tea and some caramel waffles on the beach afterwards was a genius reward, despite the fact we were both cold by then! I wonder if we’ll be on the sea next week, surely it won’t be possible to be incident free again?!

Later this morning I am going sea kayaking for the first time. It is raining and windy and, I strongly suspect, quite cold. I have a list of clothing to wear in lieu of a wetsuit. I realise I don’t really know what to expect so thought I would write today about what it might be like and tomorrow about what it was like.

For my bottom half, I have very thin silk long johns, nylony tracksuit bottoms (I am not expecting or even hoping to look good!) and waterproof trousers with a pair of sort of trainers without laces. On top I have a thermal top, maybe a t-shirt over it, a hoodie and a waterproof jacket. There is a slim chance I could actually look better in a wetsuit and that really is saying something!

Progressing from fashions, I am prepared for incidents getting into the kayak. I feel that clawing back dignity after everyone has seen my outfit will be well and truly scuppered during this process. I have some uncomfortable flashbacks to a teenage day or two canoeing where similar problems surfaced!

I think we will be on or by the water for two hours. If the sea is choppy, which I think is likely, we will be on the Royal Military Canal (onto which more members of public can view our escapades!). This may be a good thing for a complete novice. We are told to bring a change of clothes as we might get wet. I am actually envisaging full immersion and being cold and wet, albeit in an adventurous, heroic kind of way! I also assume we will have to be able to exit the kayak in the event of overturning. Believe me, I will take every measure to not get wet/overturn. Again, there was an eskimo roll series of incidents in my canoeing experience. Writing this is making me wonder if kayaking really is for me!

When I lived next to someone with a selection of sea kayaks in Seasalter, I decided then that I liked the idea, just never did anything about it. In October, swimming in the sea at Folkestone, hot though that weekend was, the water was still icy cold and I looked on in envy (the kind which makes you contemplate how you can have what they have in a theft kind of way!) as a few people got into their kayaks and floated on the beautiful calm sea. They didn’t get wet and, to my mind, had a better deal than me as I never warmed up while swimming in the sea (but I did enjoy it in the sense that it woke me up and there is always something exciting about being in/on the sea). But it’s thanks to a friend who did all the research and organising that I am going, so I might not be the only one to disgrace myself in some novice way!

I figure if I enjoy it today, in the rain on a canal with possibly inappropriate clothing (might be too hot, too cold, too wet, too restricted), this could be a great new activity for me. Physically, I am expecting a lot of sitting in a kayak for this first lesson and I predict the most cardiovascular exercise I will get will be from getting in and out of the kayak. If I do get to paddle any great distance, I suspect it will shock me how difficult it will be to paddle smoothly without dousing myself and anyone near me in water. All this said, I am very much looking forward to it!

What an enjoyable sunny Sunday afternoon! My friend and I wanted to see a few things: Lympne Castle, Aldington village (mainly to see Noel Coward’s former residence, which is now home to Julian Clarey), St Mary in the Marsh church (E. Nesbit’s grave), Saltwood Castle, Grigg’s beach side fishmonger (for opening times) and the hilly parts of Sandgate/Folkestone. A pub lunch was also on the agenda.

I was giddy with the amount of lambs we saw, the sunshine made the spring greens even more lovely and it all seemed so delightfully Darling Buds of May. It’s been years since I’ve spent an afternoon going for a sightseeing drive. It did make me feel quite elderly as we didn’t really stop and walk much (but I have earmarked places I want to return to), but on seeing a genuinely elderly couple sitting in a car with a flask of coffee steaming up the window, I felt positively youthful and realised I was a good few years off resorting to flask-coffee-scenery-viewing!

Lympne is a very pretty village, though there is very little to see really in terms of villagey things. The castle is privately owned so you can’t look around (I was a guest at a wedding there, it is lovely). However, the church and graveyard are extremely happily situated and from the far end of the graveyard, there are spectacular views across the Romney Marshes and out to sea. There are also lots of footpaths, ruins, sheep; great places for a sunny picnic with a fantastic view.

Walking up the road out of the village, we spotted a fairly high security fence … protecting the local residents from a field of bison! Ah, yes, Port Lympne Animal Park.

Noel Coward’s former farmhouse, Goldenhurst, (now occupied by Julian Clarey) looks lovely but we couldn’t really see it from the road and I didn’t want to try to snoop around someone’s home. But it’s a pretty area. The farm opposite was even nicer as it was higher up, a real sun trap. Noel Coward bought the property in 1927, making him a nearby neighbour to Joseph Conrad. I would loved to have lived around there then for, as he was a sociable person, his guests allegedly included Marlene Dietrich, Somerset Maugham, Evelyn Waugh and Cecil Beaton. If you have the interest, here is a link to an interesting article about him and this house.

I was underwhelmed by Aldington village but there are lots of interesting stories (smugglers) legends (the entrance to fairyland being there) and lists of famous residents (from those listed above to Vic Reeves and Paul O’Grady). The countryside below the village, ie toward the marshes and sea, is really lovely.

At St Mary in the Marsh, we easily found E. Nesbit’s grave. I now want to read The Railway Children as an adult. We went into the pub there, The Star Inn, built in 1476. Noel Coward wrote his first successful play while living in the adjacent cottage! Historically it’s interesting but they weren’t serving food at 2.30 and I wasn’t that keen on it. But there is a large grassy beer garden, which on a warmer day may have made it more tempting.

By this time we were hungry. We agreed to eat in Hythe, but just outside Dymchurch we spotted The Ship Inn so stopped there (food until 5 on a Sunday). It’s nearly 600 years old and has all manner of hidden passageways, which I would absolutely love to visit. We had an ok meal, but not destination pub food. This pub was once Russell Thorndike’s local and it features in his Dr Syn stories.

Next stop, Saltwood Castle. It’s privately owned by Jane Clark, the late Alan Clark MP’s wife. You can’t see much of it but it looks amazing. Saltwood is an interesting village and I want to explore there soon.

Grigg’s should get a mention as it is a fishmonger serving the beach fleet (assuming “fleet” is at least two boats!) of Hythe. The fish is always fresh and well presented. It’s open 7am-1.30pm during the week.

As for the hilly parts of Folkestone, lots of surprises: houses hidden in little cliff cut outs, a massive area of MOD land and barracks, far bigger than I had noticed before, some beautiful, large houses and a lot of unspoilt areas of trees and greenery.

I am enjoying discovering the area around where I live and finding out bits of history. Next time, big walk and big picnic …and maybe a flask of coffee drunk outdoors!

{26/03/2012}   Hay fever

Something seemed unusual as I walked through a garden of blossoms and spring shoots. I was sniffing the air and it felt like a novelty. Aha, yes, the weather is warm, flowers and polleny things are coming out, yet it’s not quite hay fever season. I realise that usually when it’s this warm and sunny it would be foolish to sniff in the fresh air because that one sniff would lead to nasal misery. For the next few days, weeks if I’m lucky, I am going to inhale the warm air with joy.

I know there are people who get hay fever worse than me but it still makes every day for a good few months a little more challenging than I’d like. Fortunately, antihistamines work enough to alleviate the worst of my symptoms but they do not enable me to, say, walk around a flower show without itchy eyes, a sniffle, the odd sneeze and a sore throat niggle.

Like most hay fever sufferers I have tried most things, from chewing licorice root to natural remedy pills. The only thing that helps is that Haymax cream. You rub it around your nostrils and it smells nice. I believe the idea is that it makes a film around your nostril so when pollens fly noseward they never make it past the filmy block around your nostrils. However, it only really works if you regularly apply it, so to that end it would be great if you wanted to not make a fuss while sitting next to your gran’s pride and joy lily display.

As for itchy, teary red eyes, wearing gas permeable contact lenses has always helped, probably in part because wearing them stops me rubbing furiously at my eyes.

I took up someone’s advice last year and bought an air purifier. They take up a fair bit of room but if you use it overnight (doors and windows closed) most mornings I felt pretty much hay fever free. I think a decent one is a good investment.

For me though, it is the almost constant sore throat that annoys me most. I hate sore throats at the best of times but I can never get rid of allergy sore throats and I do that hideous inner throat gulpy itch thing that makes my neck look like a snake swallowing a whole frog. Not pretty.

This year, having had a few days of non hay fever warm weather loving, I am going to try as many supposed remedies as I can. The thing I am most optimistic about is NeilMed SinuRinse. A pharmacist recommended it to me for a particularly heavy cold and sinus pain. It made a huge difference and I now always use it successfully for heavy colds. However, it claims to be effective for hay fever symptoms. But if you see it, don’t be put off that you basically squirt saline up your nostril and it comes out your mouth or nose! Honestly, it feels merely weird rather than remotely painful. It makes your head feel bizarrely flushed! Fingers crossed it will work on hay fever!

{19/03/2012}   Picnics

     Yesterday, five of us had a picnic and BBQ on the beach.  Food rarely tastes better (or so I perceive) than when it’s eaten outdoors, and especially when it’s also been cooked outdoors.  I love picnics and I love sitting outside on days when you probably wouldn’t otherwise, ie yesterday was warm at times but ominous clouds were overhead, and it is only March.  We had a feast of salady things I’d made the day before and BBQed the halloumi (how good is slightly charred halloumi?!).  We were supposed to have beef kebabs but we had a few teething problems with the old disposable BBQ and by the time we’d got enough heat from it, the carnivores were no longer hungry enough to eat them (sorted dinner though!).

It is a bit time-consuming preparing food, packing it, remembering matches, etc, and there is quite a lot to carry.  But we sat outside for maybe an hour and a half, eating, chatting, laughing, trying to get the BBQ going, drinking prosecco … a memorable lunch.  If not a picnic, we’d have sat inside somewhere and even the same food wouldn’t have tasted as good.  It was even ok that the plastic plates had the odd bit of grass on them from picnics past!

I have discovered over years of picnics that having “the right stuff” adds to my overall picnic enjoyment.  There is satisfaction to be had from finding a tupperware tub the right size, having a sharp knife with its own cover, plastic wine glasses (though I could only find one.  The joy then was finding another four cups: a metal measuring cup, metal cup, plastic mug, tin mug), a picnic blanket and even a table-cloth (maybe a step too far but it’s a chequered picnic cloth and it looks fantastic!).  One fellow picnicker has a 1940s travel gramophone.  I haven’t ruled out convincing him to let us use that one day, though it’s alarming how loud it is!

Maybe part of the reason I enjoy a picnic so much is because the best ones are like mini buffets, it’s all about tucking in and helping yourself and not waiting politely to be asked if you want seconds or thirds.  The informality and help-yourself nature of a picnic makes it more sociable; it’s what makes eating fun.  I’ve been on great picnics where we’ve each brought food (though a little coordination is needed as I remember one where there was an abundance of Pringles); that’s always interesting because you normally pick things you really like so the odds are good for it being an interesting and varied lunch.

I think this summer – in fact any nice days – is going to be full of picnics.  I have a 1960s orange and white striped picnic stack that I am desperate to use.  There are four segments.  Each segment is a tray, of the old-fashioned compartmentalised airline food kind, with lids to seal each section.  The next time I have three friends round and it’s halfway decent weather, it’s going to be used.  That could be the ultimate in perfect picnic paraphernalia!  I’m off out to the beach now with yesterday’s leftovers, a picnic blanket, a letter to write and a good book.  Ahhh, the joy of picnics!

{12/02/2012}   Cold weather picnics

     Cheese, baguette, peanut crisps then pfeffernusse and coffee.  In sub-zero temperature with snow still on the beach at Dungeness.  Fantastic picnic!  My hands were so cold I could barely move, Becky’s nose was so red it matched her gloves and my lips and cheeks were so cold I could hardly talk or eat.  But it was wonderful!

This is not my first winter picnic and it most certainly won’t be my last.  About two years ago, Fiona and I also had a picnic on Dungeness beach, in fact it was 2nd January, the day before the snow came!  I also spent a week in Finnish Lapland where we ate most of our lunches outdoors, around about -10 to -15 degrees.  When living in Clapham, I also had a few Clapham Common winter picnics.

I used to hate packed lunches and picnics because I always had them as a child and I wanted to eat out as soon as I could.  Now, I love picnics, especially winter ones.  I have memories of sitting in my parents’ car, opening up a tatty box and clipping a tray/shelf in the door-window area.  A flask would be produced, the steaming contents of which, once in the orange plastic mugs, would completely fog up the windows.  Why didn’t we just brave the cold and eat outside?  Ah, rain!  We would munch away on our lunch, usually a wealth of food, on orange plastic plates.  I probably moaned about them at the time, but now they are memories I love.

One February or March in Seasalter, four of us sat on a picnic table outside my house on the beach and had a fry up.  Admittedly it was a warm day for the time of year, but it was still a wintery meal outdoors.  On another cold day, living in Clapham at that time, I baked jacket potatoes and cooked baked beans.  The latter were kept in a food flask and the potatoes in foil.  We sat on Clapham Common and ate them.  So good!  I once had my friend Paula visiting from the US and Julie from South Korea/Australia.  We went to France for a daytrip in early January, did the obligatory pain et fromage shop and had a bitterly cold standing-up (seriously so cold we couldn’t sit down on cold sand or rocks!) picnic on the beach.  I have a chimenea of the kind that can (and has up to now successfully been) be used in winter.  Friends with a dog came round (I have a cat) so the six of us cooked a hot lunch and hot drinks over quite some hours one extremely cold winter’s afternoon.  Fortunately we had the heat from the chimenea but it was good to eat warm food when it finally got cooked!

When I was 18 a friend and I were Interrailing.  We ate pretty much all our meals on a Trangia stove outside.  Not even at a campsite because we slept on overnight trains.  We once had – and I might need to be corrected – a “pasta ‘n’ sauce” cooked on the Trangia in torrential rain sitting under a fairly dense area of trees in a park.  Memorable.  Ruth, help me: where were we?

In Finnish Lapland, we had a few lunches cooked over a fire in a designated hut.  But a few we had over an open fire outside, surrounded by snow.  A bowl of warm food (usually reindeer stew) would then be handed out, along with a hot berry “juice”.  I loved it.  There is something so comforting about hugging your food bowl or mug and eating or drinking something warm enough to make you feel all “aahhhh, that’s good”.

My friend Fiona and I once met in Leigh-on-Sea for the most windswept picnic imaginable.  The drink we poured didn’t all go into the mugs, crisps went flying and we had to hold our food down on the plate to stop it blowing away.  While eating, sitting on a raised concrete area above the sea, also very cold, we realised – I am not kidding – a bride and groom had appeared and were having their photos taken with the sea (and, cringe, possibly us) behind them.

I don’t know exactly what it is that made yesterday’s picnic or the whole idea of winter picnics so memorable, but no matter how cold I get, it’s fun.  It’s doing something out of the ordinary, it’s being a bit cave girl, it’s laughing hysterically about pretty much falling off that bit of wood we found to sit on, it’s about hardly being able to eat or talk because it’s so cold, it’s about trying to do things with gloves or mittens when only hands can do the job; it’s about sharing a lot of laughs with a really good friend.  Go on, make my day, I hope at least one person reads this and soon after goes out and has a wintery picnic!

et cetera