Saturday, 29 November 2014

Great Continental Railway Journeys: La Coruna to Lisbon

Look, I know, this is getting out of hand. But he keeps going to places I have been.

I'll spare you the Portillo stuff this time. I won't even mention this week's jacket or what he did to a custard tart. Instead, I will magically remove some sickening letters from his name and end up in Porto, which was visited halfway through this programme. My cousin lives there with his lovely Polish wife and many cats, and we went to visit them for a long weekend - gosh, nearly ten years ago now. It was an easy break - still living in London then, we could make the most of direct flights with Ryanair from Stansted.

We saw the railway station and the churches with their fantastic arrays of blue and white tiles. We ambled down the steep and winding cobbled streets of red-rooved houses with sheets of washing flung over the balconies, sidestepping several consignments of dog faeces in an otherwise never ending parade of lovely views. We ended up at the Douro river with its splendid bridges (the Ponte Luis I alas covered in scaffolding at that time) and barges stacked with port barrels. We sat in the bars and restaurants on the quayside eating rustic meals of salt cod and sow ear stews. And drinking port. Oh, yes, lots of port. Port on the water, port with a view, port on a boat, port in a port lodge or five, port at home. White, ruby, tawny, vintage, ancient. You name it, we tried it. We had excellent hosts.

Parts of our visit are consequently a bit of a blur.

A few bottles for the weekend

Thursday, 27 November 2014

John Lewis Christmas Advert

"All my little plans and schemes
Lost like some forgotten dreams
Seems that all I really was doing
Was waiting for you..."
Ah, Christmas time. Band Aid, mistletoe and wine. And a new tear-jerker advert from John Lewis. This year, perhaps inspired by Oliver Jeffers' wonderful book Lost And Found, the advert shows its regular model boy child (Can such a kid exist? One who helps, sleeps and never moans?) passing on his dreams of things on a higher plane to his cute pet penguin.

For cute pet penguin is looking for love. He's not interested in snow, trampolines, footballs or fish fingers any more. He just wants to watch couples kissing - on Oxford Street, in the park, on It's A Wonderful Life. Penguins do, after all, mate for life. And unlike in this image of suburban bliss, they face impossible odds to find their mate and propagate their species. For the South Pole generally doesn't come equipped with central heating and a freezer full of Birds Eye.

The model boy child, as well as being impossibly well behaved and jolly good fun to be around, has an awful lot of nice furniture in his house. It must all come from John Lewis. Just as well the penguin turns out to be only a cuddly toy, otherwise it would shit all over the family's lovely taste in haberdashery.

Don't get me wrong, I love John Lewis. The greatest day of my life was when I was let loose with a barcode zapper in the store on Oxford Street to compile our wedding list. Theoretically, you see, I could choose anything I liked in the Kitchenware department. It didn't mean anyone would buy any of it for me, but it was still - briefly - like a dream come true. I was out of control with excitement. My fiance had to take me to the cafe for a croissant and a cup of tea to calm down.

And then we moved to York, which didn't have a John Lewis. I missed it. I wanted it. A more religious version of me would have prayed for it. Our nearest store was in Sheffield. And I have just written a blog post explaining why I couldn't go there.

The Christmas present everyone in York was dreaming of
But at last, a few months ago, York finally became middle-class enough to get a John Lewis. Several great-crested newts had to be relocated during its construction. Its out-of-town location provoked much ire amongst local traders. Nonetheless, the finished place - really just a big rectangle - is a thing of beauty. It has a curved television in the audiovisual department that my daughter will sit and stare at for hours, though I am not sure whether Mr Lewis is aware that the store offers such a convenient free baby-sitting service.

But alas now that John Lewis is here, because I haven't been in paid employment for over four years, I can't afford to buy anything. I can't stay away though. I can still dream. But I am probably only really going for my monthly free tea and cake in the cafe. Only now the bastards have stopped this offer for Christmas. Because they only want to give it to rich people who will spend thousands of pounds in their Gift Department while they are there.

Which is why I think their Christmas advert is a load of poo. Ner-ner-ner-ner-ner. Stamps foot petulently.

But we do love our penguins in this house. (We don't actually have any penguins in this house.) One year for his birthday I adopted my husband his very own penguin in the Falkland Islands. The penguin was called Sausage. Sausage was a part of our lives for quite a few years. But we let the subscription lapse when we realised that the man running the protection programme was possibly insane. Anyway, to celebrate the original adoption, we spent a day at London Zoo watching penguin feeding time, before going to see March Of The Penguins at the Screen on the Green in Islington.

Resident at Harewood House
And Yorkshire has its fair share of penguins for our daughter too - Sewerby Hall, Harewood House, Scarborough Sea Life Centre and now The Deep in Hull as well. DVDs of Pingu, Lost And Found and Happy Feet are regular fixtures on the television, although our daughter is terrified of the elephant seals and violent birds in Happy Feet and - bizarrely - the library scene in Lost And Found. Scary things, books. Pingu is at least more or less devoid of anything terrifying. Which is perhaps why the model boy child on the John Lewis advert loves him too.

John Lewis tells us to "give someone the Christmas they've been dreaming of". Easier said that done when your daughter has requested Tinkerbell shoes with pom-poms on and hand-made clothes for her toy monkey Stripey. (She must have been watching some darn advert that turns cuddly toys into pets!) And she will no doubt moan about whatever present Santa gets her as an alternative, like the ungrateful four-year-old she is. Maybe I should send her off to work in a soup kitchen for the day instead. "Please, sir, can I have some more?" Or I could make her learn to knit (she'd have to teach herself, mind) so that she can make all the lovely Christmassy things on my friend's blog. Which is what the model boy child would do.

Bah humbug. Good luck getting through December, folks. May the wine be plentiful and the television full of things I can write about.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Remember Me

Are you going to Scarborough Fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Remember me to one who lives there
She once was a true love of mine
It's hard when writing a blog about television programmes that make me reminisce about travel not to slide into an easy rut of only writing about travel shows, of which there are plenty. Usually celebrity driven. Sue Perkins sailing down the Mekong. John Bishop in Australia. Trevor McDonald on the Mississippi. Paul Merton in India. Stephen Fry in America. Michael Portillo on all those trains. Griff Rhys Jones, Dara O'Briain and Rory McGrath in a boat just about anywhere. So it's ironic that when I finally find a drama to write about, it stars the original celebrity travelogue presenter, Michael Palin, in his first acting role for 20 years.

This is a spooky ghost story, set in a northern mill town, where the mill has been turned into an old people's home and the town is full of second generation immigrants, which people thankfully try very hard not to be racist about. "I bet you've seen some changes" says a social worker to Michael Palin's curmudgeonly old gent Tom after he fakes a fall down the stairs in order to get moved out of his house. OK, so his reply doesn't even attempt not to be racist, but the conversation reminds me of an acquaintance once talking guardedly about "families from Bradford" taking over a Sunday afternoon at Bolton Abbey, anxious not to reveal their ethnic origins.

Anyway, unusual Yorkshire tact aside, all the paint-by-numbers spook creators are there in this supernatural thriller - creaking floorboards, crying corpses, photos coming to life, dripping taps, rocking chairs, doors slamming, lights that won't turn on but candles that do all by themselves. The social worker falls out of a window which is blasted clean out of its socket on the top floor of the mill. Not the best thing to see at the start of a week when we are having seven windows replaced in our house.

There's a body on the beach rising from the dead of the drowned. There's a connection with India that isn't to do with the other residents on Tom's street. The stone of the houses and the clouds in the sky are dark and rain-soaked. Sea shells mysteriously appear out of nowhere. There is an alarm going off by itself repeatedly in Room 027 of the old people's home in the mill. The piano stool is full of different sheet music versions of Scarborough Fair. There is a cascade of water down the stairs reminiscent of the rivers of blood crashing out of the elevators in The Shining.

Michael Palin still has too much of a kindly twinkle in his eye ("I'm 80-odd") to be believably grumpy, I would say. The other familiar faces to me are Mark Addy (clingfilm, shed, Mars Bar, Full Monty) and Julia Sawalha. It's now Julia Sawalha's turn to play a drunk and incapable mother whose goody-two-shoes daughter goes out to work and acts responsibly and takes care of her younger brother. How sometimes television can come full circle. ("My life just flashed before my eyes." "What was it like, a Bergman film without the jokes?")

The series is set in Huddersfield. My only experience close to Northern mill towns is six miserable months at Sheffield University. I know what you're thinking - Sheffield, Huddersfield, Chesterfield, Dronfield, Driffield, they're all interchangeable in my ignorant southerner's mind, and I am conveniently ignoring the differences here. Not true. There are connections to be found between Remember Me and Sheffield. One is that Michael Palin was born in Broomhill, which is the part of the city I lived in.

I apparently skipped the "love Sheffield" gene possessed by the rest of my family, since three of my cousins have gone on to do degrees there and settle permanently in the city. Sheffield is a lot nicer now than it was in 1992, but I still can't set foot in the place without feeling physically ill. It haunts me like the ghost story of Remember Me. Going there was one of the worst decisions of my life. I probably couldn't have picked a more sad time to go - the steel industry was being shut down, the city council was bankrupt after hosting the World Student Games, and several hideous 60s concrete structures were not yet knocked down (Sorby Hall) or filled in (Hole In The Road). The trams that now glide along the city streets were merely an idea. So the city felt incredibly run-down and depressed. "Ah, but it's built on seven hills like Rome," the locals sighed wistfully. To which I wanted to shout, "Have you ever been to Rome? Do you think the Park Hill flats look anything like the Piazza Navona? Is Italian catwalk chic available in Meadowhall? Does the Moor back on to the Vatican?" "Ah, but it does back on to the Peak District," others said, offering an escape. That's all well and good, but it lashed it down with rain every single weekend I was there and outdoors was the last place I wanted to be.

The main reason I felt so miserable was that I hated my degree course - it had sounded good in the prospectus, but was in reality very different. Modern Languages without many languages other than English in the lecture halls. And I just wasn't in the mood for my party-on hall of residence where drunken students set the fire alarms off every single night. Call me a bore if you will.
Party-on hall of residence, with Sorby Hall just visible back left

The Arts Tower
But what haunts me most is the paternoster lift in the Arts Tower. Paternoster lifts - open conveyor belts of cubicles that never stop moving so you have to leap on as they pass by - were big in the 1960s but are now a rarity, thanks to more stringent Health & Safety and disabled access regulations. But the one in the Arts Tower at Sheffield University is listed (it's the world's longest) so has to stay. I still to this day have nightmares about it. I don't know why, as I didn't mind it so much at the time, apart from finding the narrow cabins a bit tight to share with a stranger. I didn't suffer from vertigo then and learned to get on and off with something resembling aplomb on my way to French classes on the 9th floor. But now the very thought of riding that paternoster scares the proverbial shit out of me. I fear ending up as splatted as the social worker plastered on the ground in Remember Me, even though nothing remotely dangerous happened on the 200 or so rides I took on the paternoster during my six month stint in the Arts Tower. I never even got stuck, which is quite a miracle as the paternoster was forever breaking down. When it did, the passenger cabins would stall halfway between floors, too far for anyone to climb out or risk jumping out. The breakdowns were usually caused by people riding over the top or round the bottom, which threw the balancing mechanism out of kilter. I never had the courage to do this but there is now a video of it on You Tube (or two) so you can see this terrifying rollercoaster journey from the safety of your own armchair. The paternoster also featured on an episode of The One Show, which held a race between (1) the paternoster and (2) the conventional lifts opposite that have doors and buttons and work as you might expect. In the time the paternoster had delivered 50 students to the 18th floor (9 minutes 20 seconds), the conventional lift had only transported 10. Which is why every Arts student at Sheffield in my day had to learn to ride the paternoster.

So these days I avoid Sheffield as much as possible. Instead, I'd rather go to the mills at Saltaire. It's such a beautiful place. And I love David Hockney, whose works are on display throughout the shops and galleries. Here I have family roots too, since my grandmother's family all came from the aptly named Idle, up the hill on the outskirts of Bradford. (We were once a family from Bradford.)

Scarborough hasn't yet played too big a role in Remember Me, but the songsheets in the piano stool indicate that it will. We go to Scarborough several times a year, although never to a fair to consume culinary herbs. We used to be able to take in an Alan Ayckbourn play at the Stephen Joseph theatre, but nowadays we go and eat goo, ride the donkeys on the beach or the railway out to Scalby Mills, watch the dragon boats in Peasholm Park, make sandcastles (in all weathers) and generally return home refreshed and in love with all things Yorkshire.
Making sandcastles on Scarborough South Bay. This was January.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Walking Through History - Nazi Occupation: Channel Islands

It seems they have made Tony Robinson stop scrabbling around in trenches (by this I mean archaeological digs - come on, he hasn't been Baldrick for over 20 years!) and go on a series of solo walks along routes of historical interest. This week he was on Guernsey and Jersey, learning about the German occupation during the Second World War.

The Channel Islands were occupied between 1940-1945. The Nazis invaded the islands believing they were merely a stepping stone to London. But the Germans got no further. However, the British didn't manage to get rid of them either. Churchill sent a group of 150 elite commandos by boat on a rescue mission to Guernsey, but it was a disaster - one boat crashed, two capsized and one ended up on Sark by mistake. Only 40 men actually arrived at their destination but then couldn't find any Germans. It was apparently the sort of "cunning plan" that Baldrick might have dreamt up.

The Germans built the Atlantic Wall from Norway to the South of France to protect their occupied territory from Allied attack from the west. The Channel Islands were part of this defence scheme. A million tons of concrete were used to build bunkers and sea walls along the beaches of the islands' west coasts, which still stand today. Some have been converted into cafes, some are museums, others simply stand empty and eerie. The whole scheme was never tested (since the Allies eventually came from Normandy in the east, although they never really had any intention of taking the islands back by force) so ended up being a very expensive white elephant. The German soldiers sat around bored in the bunkers and gun emplacements, waiting for a big event that never happened. Some of the younger ones craved to be sent to Russia instead to see more of the action. The older, more experienced soldiers probably realised they were on to a cushy number and should count their blessings and patiently sit out the war instead.

Sea wall at St Ouen's Bay

The Nazis did not treat the Channel Islanders badly, in the grand scheme of things. The Germans were allegedly on a bit of a charm offensive after they invaded, so that the British wouldn't mind as much when they turned up in Southampton. Generally, the Nazis let life on the Channel Islands continue as normal (allowing locals to pray for the Royal Family in church, for example) although the clocks were moved forward to German time and the pound was linked to the mark. The native islanders agreed to help the Germans build bridges and roads, but refused to help them build the sea defences. They could do this with justification, since the Hague Convention forbids the forcing of nationals to work against their own country. Though it seems quite surprising that the Hague Convention was adhered to.

To build the bunkers, gun emplacements and military railway, the Germans imported 16,000 forced and slave labourers. Forced labourers were paid: they came from Western Europe or were Spanish Republicans. The slaves were prisoners of war from Russia and the Ukraine. The Soviets were all treated horrendously. They were starved and beaten, and kept in 12 labour camps across the island. The islanders attempted to protest at the Germans' treatment of the Russians and intervene where they could. Some went so far as to shelter escapees, at great personal risk.

There was collaboration, as citizens denounced their neighbours. Some anonymous letters to the Nazis, warning them of illegal radios or underground activity, are displayed in the War Tunnels. While Tony Robinson comments on their sickening nature, the positive side of them shows that there was at least a Resistance movement in operation on the Islands.

After the D-Day landings, rather than going on to invade the Channel Islands, the Allies decided to try and starve the Germans out. Their aim was to avoid huge loss of civilian life in a large military operation. But unfortunately this "cunning plan" meant that the islanders starved too. They were already battling hunger as a result of food rationing (which limited dietary intake to around 1000 calories a day). The islanders were heavily reliant on substitute food (Tony is made to try some parsnip coffee), but eventually all supplies from outside were cut off. They couldn't fish the seas any more as the beaches were mined. Thankfully, on New Year's Eve on 1944, the Allies allowed the Red Cross to send food aid parcels in to help the islanders survive the winter. By the end of the war, food deprivation meant that Jersey schoolchildren were on average an inch shorter than they should have been for their age.

Eventually, in May 1945, the islands were liberated. Bob Le Sueur, who assisted Russian escapees during the Occupation, remembers suddenly bursting into tears. Uncontrollable sobs, at a time when "it was highly bad form to show any form of emotion in public". But the sight of another man crying nearby made him feel better. Who wouldn't have cried at the years of fear and hunger being over, and at their beautiful island finally being returned to them?

Tony Robinson is blown away by Jersey's stunning coastal scenery on his walk. He is there in the height of summer, the heather is in full bloom, and the sunshine is a bright and cheerful background to the darker, more macabre stories he is telling. The military railway has been replaced by an arboretum of palm, sycamore and oak trees. Yet he also describes a K418F field gun as "beautiful", which struck me as an odd turn of phrase for the machinery of war. And although Tony Robinson hasn't been Baldrick for over 20 years, I couldn't help at this point but have a flashback to Baldrick's poem, The German Guns ("Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!....").

But it is undoubtedly true that the beaches on Jersey are lovely, despite all the concrete. The sand is perfect for making sandcastles, and some of the beaches are overlooked by real castles, like Mont Orgueil at Gorey. The sea surrounding the island is an azure blue, and the cliffs covered in wild flowers. I'd wanted to go to Jersey ever since I was a child, when I spent Saturday nights watching too much Bergerac. (My mother had a massive crush on John Nettles.) We finally spent a fantastic week there a couple of years ago. The style of the houses, French street names, the vineyards and the narrow country lanes framed by foliage made us feel that we had gone more abroad than we had. Until we saw the large Waitrose down the road.

La Mare wine estate

We stayed in a self-catering holiday park called Les Ormes. Accommodation is stupidly expensive on Jersey and this was all that was left that we could afford by the time we got round to booking. The holiday park was situated right beside the airport runway, but on the whole this wasn't a problem. There were no night flights, no Jumbos fly into Jersey and for a toddler “plane-in-sky”s are a novelty. The lodges all had their own hot tub, which is a massive plus when you are being regimented by a two year old's early bedtime.
Les Ormes
Tony Robinson went to the War Tunnels during this programme, a kilometre of tunnels forming an underground hospital complex designed to treat the German wounded in any Allied attack. It was built by Soviet slaves working in challenging and dangerous conditions, though it was never quite finished. It's an impressive and chilling display, brought to life by video diaries and son-et-lumiere effects. I went alone while my husband took our daughter to a nearby park, where they stumbled across Bergerac's car. I was surprisingly jealous.
War Tunnels

Entrance to the underground hospital, Hohlgangsanlage 8

I was more affected by a small military museum in one of the bunkers at St Ouen's Bay. It didn't use fancy gimmicks to tell its story and its displays were cramped and higgledy piggledy. The museum was so disturbing because it was jam-packed with Nazi memorabilia: newspapers, crockery, uniforms, guns, flags. Even an Enigma machine. I had never seen this anywhere before. For obvious reasons, Germans don’t put it on show, and in most places where the Nazis invaded, anything they left behind was destroyed after the war by those who had suffered under their rule. It is telling that all these "souvenirs" survive in Jersey: life was better for the Islanders than in other occupied territories. There were footprints in the concrete on the bunker floor made by the jackboots of German soldiers going about their daily business. They sent a shiver down my spine.

MP2 gun emplacement - now a holiday home

Friday, 14 November 2014

Holiday of a Lifetime (with Len Goodman and Ann Widdecombe)

Thou art pleased,

Pleased with thy crags and woody steeps, thy Lake,

Its one green Island and its winding shores,

The multitude of little rocky hills,
Thy Church and Cottages of mountain stone -
Clustered like stars...
(William Wordsworth, Home at Grasmere) 

Ah, daytime TV. So comforting. So made on the cheap. So irredeemably awful.

So what compelled me to write about this programme? Daytime TV? Moi? A genre I abandoned entirely after I stopped subtitling it on a daily basis? Apart from a Deal or No Deal thing when my daughter was a baby. (Things were not going well.)

Anyway, the reason is my dad. My dad travels a ridiculous amount. In the past year, he has been to Bhutan, Bulgaria and Botswana, and that's just the places beginning with B. (It's going to be a long time before he gets to "Y" and considers visiting us for a holiday.) He should be writing a blog about travelling, not me. Except he can't write anything longer than three sentences. (Readers may welcome this.) And he couldn't write this blog, because he hardly ever watches television. Certainly not daytime television.

And yet my dad was asked to appear on this programme.

For those of you who know my dad, you will surely agree that the thought of him being on screen with Len Goodman and Ann Widdecombe is television at its most surreal. Like Royston Vasey, Craggy Island and the USS Enterprise all rolled into one. My dad is a bit socially challenged, and when he first told me about this, I cringed at the thought of how he was going to handle himself on camera. Would he accidentally blurt out something rude about ballroom dancing, or be unintentionally sexist about women MPs? Would he finish each sentence with an awkward "I mean it's a sort of er..." or overuse the phrase "odds and ends"? It was going to be excruciating, but very funny. At least for his children.

However, because my dad never remembers to switch his phone on to receive calls from the BBC on the day of filming, it didn't actually happen. But I watched the programme anyway.

The series involves Len Goodman taking celebrities of - shall we say? - a certain age down a memory lane of holidays they enjoyed in their childhood. Ann Widdecombe spent three nights in Grasmere in the Lake District in 1963, the year of the Kennedy assassination, the Great Train Robbery and the third season of Mad Men.  My dad grew up in Grasmere and moved back there a few years ago. In the summer of 1963, he would have been about to leave the village for the first time to begin a Chemistry degree at Manchester University. He would have spent the summer working for his father, who owned the Grasmere Tea Gardens. As back then the tea gardens were pretty much the only catering establishment in the village, chances are that if the 15-year-old Ann Widdecombe had fancied an ice cream during her holiday, my dad would have served it to her. Which is quite a thought. But that wasn't really the reason Dad was asked to appear - he is just one of the few people left in the village who were around then and can remember what it was like. Plus he is mates with the guy from the Wordsworth Trust (Jeff) who did appear on the programme. Jeff was showing Ann newspaper clippings about hooligans who went on holiday to the Lake District that year. Not that he was implying anything, you understand.

Judging by one of the photographs, Ann went on holiday in her school uniform. She was at a convent school in Bath, and this trip to the Lake District was a big adventure, and her furthest trip north to date. She and her mother drove around in a Baby Austin. Len turns up to collect her in one. Ann shrieks and jumps up and down in delight, banging on the bonnet and losing all self-control. Calm down, dear.

When she has calmed down, Len asks her where they are going to go on her holiday of a lifetime. He is trying to imply that they are outside Ann's house in Devon, whereas anyone with eyes can see from the big mountain and dry-stone wall behind her that they are already in a Cumbrian cul-de-sac. Oh, the lies created by the limited budget of daytime TV!

So Len and Ann then spend a couple of days travelling around various places in the Lakes, including the Ravenglass and Eskdale railway and Waterhead in Ambleside, where they dance on the pier. They also take in the Swan Hotel, Loughrigg Terrace, St Oswald's Church and Dove Cottage in Grasmere. They lay daffodils on Dorothy Wordsworth's grave. They go on a boat trip, allegedly on Coniston (in the wake of Arthur Ransome), although they are blatantly on Windermere. They have a picnic featuring anchovy paste sandwiches and lashings of ginger beer. Len is puffed out from walking the 150 yards from the car to the picnic spot. Ann is made of sterner stuff, talking about her "ambles" (as opposed to rambles) on Dartmoor. They also talk about Rupert Bear, fighting socialism, how useful Ann found Latin, and her original career choice of astronaut.

They sample various local goodies in a bid to find something akin to Mother's Cake, which Ann Widdecombe remembers from her childhood. During this tasting session Ann is very snippy about Grasmere gingerbread. I bet my late, great baking grandmother could have whipped her up an authentic Mother's Cake in no time. But Nanna could have also baked her a batch of authentic Grasmere Gingerbread too, since she always claimed her family recipe was the original one, very different to that made by the Sarah Nelson business at the church gate. There's a proper village scandal in there somewhere.

Reminiscing some more about cake, Ann says she used to eat madeira cake with cream. Len calls her posh. He says he preferred to get a "sticky willy" from his local bakery. The mind boggles.

And the only ice cream man they visit is a man with a van, whose family business started in 1902 with a horse and cart. Oh, you missed out, Dad.

As a result of having relatives there, I have always been lucky enough to have free holidays in the Lake District whenever I like. I didn't really appreciate this until I left home. To me, going to the Lake District just meant visiting my grandparents. I paid minimal attention to the scenery outside. (Possibly because it was always chucking it down.) It was only when I lived in London that I properly began to crave that glorious, exhausting mountain air. The stars and the silence at night, bar the the baa-ing of the lambs and hooting of the owls. And the colours - the fields of golden daffodils at Easter, the rainbow azaleas in May, the glorious shades of autumn and the snowcapped fells and holly berries at Christmas. It's all just part of me, in my bones and in my blood.

Like my mother before me, I ended up marrying a Cumbrian. In a bizarre twist of fate, my husband and I got together after having lunch in a cafe on the site of the Grasmere Tea Gardens. The place is obviously jinxed. My mother went to work there one summer as a student because she fancied the owner's son, who she had met through the university hiking club. The same son, of course, who maybe served Ann Widdecombe ice cream in 1963.

According to this programme, most people thought the Lake District was horrid until William Wordsworth started writing poems about it. The Romans marched straight through. Daniel Defoe found it "frightful". Even in 1963, it had very much a summer season only trade and the majority of visitors stayed in simple bed and breakfasts or youth hostels. Wainwright was still to publish his walking guides. Now, millions of people flock there all year every year. But the youth hostels are being forced to close because visitors prefer to stay in holiday cottages that locals can no longer afford to live in, luxury hotels with spas, or boutique B&Bs with en suite bathrooms. In 1963, Ann Widdecombe took a dressing gown to protect her modesty during night time trips down the corridor to the loo.

Now, the inside of my dad's house looks like this:

But the view from the doorstep kind of makes up for it:

And we can use it as a free holiday cottage whenever my dad is away on his travels (so pretty much all the time). This is particularly helpful when he goes away in August, a month when any other holiday cottage in the world would be too expensive. We had a lovely week there this summer, with only one day of torrential rain - quite a result. Our daughter is still too young to be persuaded to do much in the way of walking, though we did drag her around Tarn Hows one afternoon, moaning every step of the way. So the rest of the time we had to engage in more child friendly activities like reading Beatrix Potter stories, feeding ducks, visiting National Trust properties (Allan Bank and Wray Castle are like giant play dens and quite brilliant), going on boat trips (we at least didn't confuse Coniston and Windermere), and doing Gruffalo trails in the woods at Whinlatter.
Moaning round Tarn Hows

Wray Castle

A boat trip on Coniston

Duck Central
Gruffalo hunt
And Charlie Cat came too

Apparently Len and Ann were in a thoroughly bad mood by the time they arrived at Dove Cottage. It seems that they weren't having quite the "jolly hockeysticks" time that the programme implied.

So my dad didn't get to appear on TV, which he was very relieved and I was very disappointed about. Instead, he launched his media career with an interview (in the guise of "local historian") during the breakfast slot on BBC Radio Cumbria a couple of weeks later. He was meant to be "live" from the village war memorial in the park, but was in fact standing outside the Coop. (Radio finds it so much easier to pretend it's somewhere it isn't.) My dad was trying to find out more about the people behind the names on the memorial. And, true to my expectations - boom!- he did inadvertently say something sexist when asked why one of names was female. Thankfully, the subject of ballroom dancing didn't come up.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Mumsnet Blogfest (2)

Well, it was - as I expected - a great day. The only mild pangs of panic came when I arrived and my friend hadn't, meaning I had to ride alone down the long escalator of doom into the infestation of bloggers below. So many women milling about at high volume that at first I had trouble locating the free pastries. When I did, I filled up my plate and sloped off to a quiet corner to mind my own business, which instantly made me a target for campaigning activists, networking journalists and sales pitches. Or women just being friendly, depending on which way you look at it. Oh, suspicious me.

But there was a lot of looking over shoulders going on, the same looking that you see at parties at the Edinburgh Fringe (ooh, get me!), where everyone is trying to see if there is someone else more interesting in the room to talk to than the person they are currently stood with. No one, I should point out, talks to me at Edinburgh Fringe parties. And, it turns out, no one talks to me for long at blogging conferences either. "Where do you come from?" "York." "Oh, not London?" "No. But I used to live in London." "And what's your blog?" "Telly and Travels." "Italian travels?" "No, telly. I write about television, but link it to places I've been." "Oh. So do you work in television?" "Well, not now. I used to be a subtitler." "Oh, so do you go to lots of places then?" "Erm, not really. We don't have a lot of money at the moment." "Oh. Excuse me, I think there's a great beauty blogger over there who doesn't have pain au chocolat flakes stuck to her shirt." As I watched the tumbleweed billowing across the horizon, I realised that I definitely need to work on my blog's USP. All it has at the moment is plainly a mumble of nonsense.

Thankfully, my friend then appeared and I didn't have to talk to anyone else for the rest of the day. And during the first panel discussion session about the potential harm the Internet and social networking may be causing our children, there was a moment of great joy when Sarah Vine said that perhaps worrying about this was comparable to worrying about claims that letting children watch television rots their brains. Because she had spent her childhood watching Dallas and Little House On The Prairie dubbed into Italian and had still grown up perfectly intelligent, thank you very much. "Phew!" I thought. But then it turns out that Sarah Vine is married to Michael Gove, which kind of cancelled out the argument.

By this point, I had become very scared by social media. Or Twitter, to be precise. All anyone on the stage must have been able to see was a room full of people with their heads down, scrolling screens. And all these people were doing was tweeting what was being said on stage to a big Twitter feed on a screen behind the stage, meaning it was being read by a room full of people who, if they had been listening rather than staring at their smartphones, had heard it already. It all seemed a bit, well, unnecessary. Don't get me wrong, I can totally see the point of tweets for businesses or public organisations that need to disseminate information rapidly across the globe, but if you are just a regular guy, is what you have to say really that critical? More critical than looking up occasionally to watch a pretty fine group of speakers? Can't you wait half an hour? The apostrophe errors were very distracting. (Great tip from Fleet Street Fox, btw - combat Twitter trolls by correcting their spelling and grammar.)

I know I am not going to win any arguments here, but it reminded me of when the Tour de France cycled past the end of our street this summer and I asked my husband whether I should photograph or video it. "How about you just experience it?" he replied. (Which is why I only have a photo of their bums.) So let's just enjoy being at Blogfest - we can tell everyone about it later. Like I am doing now.

To add to my anxiety, I then went to a talk on Advanced Social Media. The guy showed me a photo of a traffic jam. He was late because he had been stuck in one, but apparently that wasn't his point. He talked faster than anybody I have ever met about website and devices I had never heard of, and in the end I had to just sink back into my old-fashioned self and let it all whoosh right over the top of my head to the yummy lunch being prepared outside.

The catering lived up to expectations. After the flaky pain au chocolat came oaty biscuits served with delicious herbal teas, and then for lunch there was a choice between a vegetable and almond tagine, prawn noodles or a slightly ropey looking beef stew. The tagine was delicious. Pudding was fruit skewers, brown sugar meringues, lemon cake and chocolate brownies. (Although I expect the less greedy amongst us might have used the connector "or" in that sentence.) Following a session on food blogging (I know, I don't blog about food, but at least I know more about food than I do about social media), we were served an afternoon tea of scones, fruit tartlets and raspberry sponge. And then once Lucy Porter had related a story about penis beakers, Melvyn Bragg and why her husband thinks she doesn't like coconut, we were allowed back up the escalator of doom (now renamed the escalator of delights) to be plied with as much free champagne, gin and tonic and steak on skewers as we wished, before being sent out into the night with a very heavy bag full of Coca-Cola Life, scarves, fish stock, magazines, plates, dry skin serums, and another bag. Flipping marvellous. Apart from the fish stock. Didn't need that.

So what were the highlights of Blogfest, apart from the freebies and the food? Seeing hilarious speakers like Jon Ronson, Rebecca Front, Arabella Weir, Lynn Barber, Rachel Joyce, Lucy Porter, Francesca Martinez and Nick Hornby. Helping to bag my friend the chance of a magazine interview. Catching up with friends. A whole 24 hours - and only my third night ever - away from child care.

What did I learn? That the first steps to writing success are to be brave, have a bath, and actually write something (as opposed to just sitting around awaiting a call from a publisher). That all writers procrastinate and struggle to focus, write at least 40 drafts before they dare submit anything, and still fear that the end product might be crap. That it might help to proof-read something you intend to be funny in an American accent. That to write a good blog, you need to read lots of others. That the secrets to good food blog photography are side-lighting and a wooden board. That you may only try to prevent your kids from finding out about Facebook or online poker after they have already registered for them. That I need to spend more time in coffee shops. That funny subjects could be sensitive to others. That it's OK to let your kids get nits as long as you are pursuing your dream and writing.

But for me, reality still bites. Back at home, there are cat fleas all over our carpets again. And I have just learned that my husband let our daughter walk down to the shops in her swimming hat on Saturday morning. It may be some time before I am allowed out again for such an indulgent day of escape. A whole year perhaps. See you at Blogfest in 2015, hopefully this time armed with more of an Arabella Weir "fuck 'em" attitude and a pithy one-liner (or even a business card) about what I like to write about. Though the one-liner may be a lie.

(No telly was watched for the writing of this blog post, apart from a short video by Jimmy Doherty about the Oxfam and Unilever Project Sunlight "Clear A Plate" campaign. As for the travel - I cleared several plates during Blogfest. And I used to see the not-so-famous-then Jimmy Doherty selling sausages at the Alexandra Palace Farmers' Market when I lived in Crouch End.)

With side-lighting and a wooden board. #clearaplate

Monday, 10 November 2014


Frankenstein's Elsa
"Let it go, let it go, can't hold it back any more..."

What is it with four-year-olds and Frozen? Sod loombands (though note that Elsa has loomband lips in the photograph above), we are in the grip of a terrifying obsession. And Disney is making a lot of our money.

I don't even know why the four year olds like it. Is it the big eyes? The ice skating? The human need to throw off your chains? The Broadway belter songs? The 8,000 salad plates? The cute snowman?

The film is actually rather frightening in parts, and contains concepts which our daughter has never had to grasp, like romance, death and why princes feel the need to arm themselves with crossbows. Bad, bad Mummy for letting her child see such things (especially the romance!).

To be honest, it never occurred to me when ordering Frozen from our DVD rental service that a film with a reputation for being adored by toddlers would contain anything other than fluffiness. Oh, the trust I have gained from too much CBeebies. (There is fluffiness too of course. Fluffy trolls that aren't on Twitter.) And, looking back, I suppose Disney films have always been a bit scary.

We were late on the Frozen bandwagon, but now our house has become a Frozen shrine. The CD is on a continuous karaoke loop in our car. The film is not allowed outside of the DVD player (we had to buy it from the rental people). Our daughter knows all the words. She pronounces "Ah-na" like the true Scandinavian she isn't, but insists the snowman is called Olive. She is picking up an American accent when wanting to build a snowman. She claims (slightly incongruously) that she is going to "say goodbye to the pain of the past" when the only pain she has known is when she falls off her scooter or I try and get a brush through her hair. We have an Elsa dress (the cheapskate Matalan version). We have an Elsa plait. We have an Elsa and Anna handbag. My daughter is also allowed to wear my wedding tiara with the Elsa dress, on strict instructions that SHE DOESN'T BREAK IT. I don't know quite why I am so possessive about it, since it cost less than the official Elsa one does in the Disney store and I am unlikely to wear it again.

But the Frozen takeover will only get worse. Because, like everyone else, apparently we can't stop selling out and ruining our children. At Christmas there will be jigsaws, sticker books, cups and dolls. We are shameful Disney whores. At least for her next birthday, everything I need to know about hosting a Frozen-themed party can be found here.

What our daughter mustn't ever find out about is the "Frozen on Ice" show at Leeds Arena next May, which is around £45 a ticket for a seat she would be able to see something from. Surely she will have grown out of her obsession by then? Right? And Thomas the Tank Engine will come back to his rightful place instead.
The world she was born into

"The cold never bothered me anyway" holds true for our daughter. When she was still in a pushchair, the pavements were littered with her discarded hats and gloves. She insists she is always warm enough, and never needs that extra cardigan in my hands. She won't let me dry the cold water off her in the swimming pool changing rooms. Maybe it's because her parents met in Newcastle, where the locals never wear coats. Or maybe it's because York had the biggest snowfall in recent history when she was just a few weeks old, and the river was iced over for weeks. Our house is always cold. Even my dad feels cold in it, and he lives in the middle of the Lake District in a house where I used to scrape ice off the inside of the windows as a child. But our daughter never complains about it.

But we have never really tested her. Last year, it didn't snow once, although an Arctic winter is forecast for 2014 which will no doubt make up for that. Our daughter may be indulged by the cheaper end of Disney, but owing to our decimated finances there will be no family skiing holidays or stays in the Ice Hotel in Sweden or trips to Lapland to see Santa. Our daughter hates Santa anyway. Well, she very much likes the concept of him coming into our house to leave presents, as long as he stops short of her bedroom door. She flatly refuses to sit on the knee of a complete stranger wearing an itchy false beard and a silly red suit. And when you put it like that, you can't help but think she is a sensible child. With bad taste in films.

Friday, 7 November 2014

Mumsnet Blogfest

Tomorrow I'm off to Mumsnet Blogfest at Kings Place in London. I am going at the behest of a friend who is going along too and who it'll be great to see, especially without our various children distracting us from our catch-up gossip.

My friend writes the world's best knitting blog. (Admittedly, it may be the only knitting blog I read.) She has over a thousand followers, wins awards, and writes not only brilliantly and colourfully, but continuously. In other words, she does it properly. As she went to Blogfest last year and shortly thereafter went pretty viral, I am hoping I this will be the start of an improvement in my own online fate too. Though I am slightly concerned that I am so behind the times that everything people are talking about will go flying over my head. I have probably missed the blogging boat by so far that it has long since sailed over the horizon and accidentally discovered the West Indies.

A lot of the Blogfest break-out sessions contain the word "advanced" in their title, when I very much consider myself in the camp "naive novice". I am unlikely to be able to contribute much to any round-table discussions  other than the line "I am here to learn". I have only about 20 readers, who are all my friends on Facebook. I use only a standard template, have no followers, no idea what a gadget is, no Twitter or Google + account, have never made a penny from my writing, and haven't yet switched to Wordpress. I also bet I am the only one at Blogfest who won't be making use of the free wifi throughout the building, and who will take notes using a pen and paper. I am also slightly concerned, with Mumsnet's ferocious reputation, that if I tell people what I write about, I might get lynched for having dared to use the words "children" and "television" in the same sentence in a not necessarily negative connotation. Be gentle with me, guys, please. Please. Come on. I love your cookbook! (Top Bananas. It is.)

I have little time for parenting blogs that like to tell the world how well they are doing. These aren't specific quotes, but you get the drift: "Look at all these amazing craft activities my little genius has been up to today!" "Here is an account of our family trip to Cambodia and Laos, with four children under the age of three but a lot of money from my husband's banking salary to spend!" "Here is why my child eats/sleeps/behaves like an angel and yours doesn't!". These just serve to make me feel, well, shit. Because I do my best. But unfortunately, my daughter's idea of a craft activity is to smear paint all over her hands, wipe them on the nearest surface, then spend an hour sitting in a big bowl of bubbles. And she's four. She loves baking, but prefers to limit her participation to stirring with enough centrifugal force to catapult the ingredients all over the kitchen and then licking out what is left from the bowl. We have little money, and take foreign holidays in caravans that cost less than 500 pounds for the whole week, including all travel. (Yet I write a travel blog! Care for an advertising slot, Eurocamp?) My daughter only eats food that you find on restaurant children's menus (pasta, sausages, fish fingers, baked beans). She doesn't do "bits", like seeds in bread. She laughs in the face of carrots and lentils, unless I have pureed them up into soup. (But that's because she will only eat soups that are orange.) I want to read blogs by mothers whose experience is similar to mine and who keep it real. And who don't tell me how to live my life. Because truth be told, as long as our children are fed, clothed and loved we are well on the way to doing just fine, and don't want to be made to think otherwise. I see blogging as a means of recounting stories or sharing ideas rather than dictating advice or showing off.

Anyway, I think it's almost impossible to write a parenting blog every day and still find time to be a parent. I only write while my daughter is at pre-school, and occasionally in the evenings after she has gone to bed, but usually by then I am too tired to think straight. Generally, if the four-year-old is awake and in the house she believes my existence to be purely here to serve.  I get bossed around from dawn to dust, as if she is the Disney princess she loves to dress as, and I am her minion. I barely have time to compose a "please buy some milk on the way home" text to my husband, let alone write anything worth reading for the world at large. Hats off to anyone who can achieve more without a nanny, full-time nursery or school place or willing grandparents nearby to take the kids away. I would love to have more time to write - it's currently my only creative output, apart from cleaning up those smears of paint if paper didn't happen to be the nearest surface that day.

I am really looking forward to Blogfest. Although I think I am most excited about the catering. As the event is being run by mums, and mums who know what a top day out involves, delegates are being offered pastries on arrival, a hot buffet lunch with a canalside view in the middle of the day, afternoon tea later on, and finally a gin cocktail or two, and a bag full of goodies involving chocolate and Boden. Because what does any mum crave other than cake and booze and clothes without stains? Maybe five minutes to herself on the toilet. But I bet I'll get that too. Hooray!

And if I learn a thing or two about blogging as well, so much the better.

Great Continental Railway Journeys: Tula to St Petersburg

I shouldn't really be giving Michael Portillo any more wordspace. I've written about this programme before. But he has a new series. New routes, same idea. Same old battered copy of Bradshaw's. Same terrible jackets. In fact they've got worse. I can't actually think of a word for the shade of yellow Portillo was sporting last night. I have to come up with several. Creamy fluorescent not-quite-ripe lemon with a hint of Easter chick? He still likes to play the buffoon, though not necessarily intentionally. And he still likes to take his clothes off, this time behind a strategically placed pillar, ready to be scrubbed violently by men in funny hats.
Last night he was travelling in Russia. How changed it was from the country I visited on a school trip aged 15. Last night's Russia was colourful and gilded and vibrant, hi-tech and high-speed. Whereas when I went, in 1989, with glasnost and perestroika still new to the dictionary, Leningrad still called Leningrad, and the iron curtain still to fall, everything seemed brown and bare (although Leningrad did have a lot of yellow buildings with white pillars). Portillo was there in the long warm evenings of summer (he could thankfully even take those jackets off at times) and we were there in March with snow still on the ground, but regardless of the weather, it's a very different world there today.

A yellow building with white pillars
St Isaac's Cathedral

Moscow University
But some things would never have been the same, whatever the era, since we were there on an educational visit that was very much on the cheap. Portillo stayed in what were always luxurious hotels with famous historical guest lists, whereas we were forced out to the suburbs, into high-rises with broken lifts, 1970s decor, frightening electrical wiring, orange frosted glass, cleaners stealing our tights and KGB officers sitting in the corridor outside. The food was terrible, and we sat and watched the hotel cooks recycling our leftovers onto someone else's plates, and tipping ash from their cigarettes into our ice cream. Whereas even on a train, Portillo experiences fine dining. "Ochin harasho", he comments at every mouthful, with his supercilious grin. Portillo gets to down vodka; we were offered turquoise blue lemonade which may or may not have done irreparable damage to my nervous system. The lemonade was all we could drink - we were banned from touching the water in Leningrad. We weren't even allowed to brush our teeth in it. (The same water notoriously killed Tchaikovsky, after all.) And the mineral water we were offered came from the local marshes, with a lot of the marsh bottled with it.

Our hotel in Moscow, and how far we had travelled from it
before our bus broke down
Portillo's train from Moscow to St Petersburg took him only four hours, looked like a sleek and streamlined TGV or German ICE, and had reclining seats. We had to go overnight from Leningrad to Moscow in a metal prison on wheels, four to a cabin, with a drunk man outside trying to break into our berths (or "berthas" as our guide called them). Forty hysterical 15-year-old girls. You can imagine the squealing. We didn't see Portillo's railway Portaloo, but our toilet looked like this:

But anyway, we got what we deserved. The good things were all wasted on us. We ignored our teachers' instructions and disrespected authority. One of our group got arrested for taking a camera into Lenin's mausoleum even though we had been given strict instructions to leave all photographic equipment on the bus. We got sent to bed early for singing Bros songs on the way back from a beautiful choral concert in a cathedral. We only really enjoyed posing in our trilby hats on Red Square, telling everyone how evil Margaret Thatcher was, and buying Communist posters in the bookshop on Nevsky Prospect to pin on the walls of our classroom at school. I shall never forgive myself for being in the Hermitage (probably the greatest art gallery in the world) and feeling bored in the Impressionists room, just wanting to escape outside to hang out with my friends and go leer at sailors. And I brought home a tin of caviar, but fed it to my cat.

But even though we were so obnoxious, the Russians were not keen to let us leave, keeping us on our last day at Sheremetyevo Airport for hours and hours after our scheduled departure time, telling us that our plane hadn't turned up and our plane that we hadn't turned up. There being no seats, we had to sit on the terminal floor. Eventually, we were allowed to board, the air stewards just seconds away from their maximum permitted shift length, and the chicken Kiev they grumpily threw at us once airborne was the most welcome meal of my life.
Posing with a trilby in Red Square

The Hermitage, scene of the Russian Revolution and one of my greater moments of ignorance

Nevsky Prospect, Leningrad

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Sacred Rivers With Simon Reeve

The first episode of this series was a beautiful and thought-provoking documentary about the River Nile. Starting at the source of the Blue Nile, Simon Reeve worked his way through Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt, exploring modern and ancient civilisations, their beliefs, religious and agricultural practices, seeing how technology is changing everything, and trying to solve the eternal battle "who owns the River Nile"?

Everyone outside of Africa tends to think it's an Egyptian river, as do the Egyptians, yet the Blue Nile's source is below a tin shed in a surprisingly lush and verdant Ethiopia, a country which contributes 80% of its water. Then the river flows on through Sudan, which houses the confluence of the Blue and White Nile (neither of which are particularly blue or white, but rather greeny brown). The confluence, near Khartoum, is described as "the longest kiss in history".

The source is sacred, and people make pilgrimages to benefit from its healing properties. But thereafter, the river has more practical uses. Egyptians have long made use of its waters to irrigate crops and provide power. But Ethiopia and Sudan have previously underused this resource, and now they want more of the action. Simon Reeve visits a vast dam-building project in Ethiopia. The Grand Renaissance dam will triple Ethiopia's electrical output, making them Africa's biggest supplier. And in Sudan, Reeve sees an irrigation project the size of 10,000 football pitches which grows alfafa to export to the Gulf. He also sees 2,500 Friesian cows kept in giant corrugated iron barns, which require cooling fans and mist sprays to reduce the ambient temperature by 20 degrees to a still whopping 30 degrees Celsius. The amount of water this requires is ridiculous. And if a thousand other farmers in Sudan decide to do the same - well, you get the picture.

These aren't the only animals he visits in strange circumstances. In a Nubian village, he sees a crocodile living in a cramped pit in a house. It was meant to be a tourist attraction, but now, thanks to political unrest in the region, the tourists are no longer coming. But the crocodile will stay trapped in its hole until it gets big enough for the family to kill it, stuff it and hang it on the wall. "It doesn't have a great future," remarks a visibly disturbed Reeve.

The Nubians have it tough. When the Egyptians wanted to dam the Nile at Aswan to create Lake Nasser in the 1960s, they not only relocated two colossal temples (Abu Simbel and Philae) by chopping them up into 40,000 pieces and then sticking them back together again - an extraordinary feat - but also forced a whole society to move. And unlike the temples, which were effectively just raised to a safe height above the water, the 100,000 Nubians had to travel miles away from the fertile shores of the river into the desert. The Nubians have a culture just as advanced and historic as the Egyptians - they worshipped the same gods, and built pyramids for their pharoahs. But in a hideous bout of racism, the Egyptians refused to believe that this black African society could be as advanced as their own.

Reeve experiences a diversity of religion along the river. He rows a papyrus raft across Lake Tana in Ethiopia to see the island monasteries. Christianity was imposed by missionaries here before the founding of the Holy Roman Empire. And Judaism was here before this. The ark of the covenant was believed to be here. Sudan marks the division between Muslim and Christian Africa, and here Simon Reeve sees an Islamic sunset ritual which he finds unexpectedly welcoming and inclusive after so many years of Sudanese news stories of civil war, human rights violations and genocide.

And then there are the Egyptian temples, carved with extraordinary images of deities and hieroglyphs thousands of years ago, while the rest of the world was seemingly in "intellectual darkness". The one at Philae is dedicated to the god of Isis. Now the fundamentalists of the misnamed modern-day Isis would tear down these idolatrous buildings. Which is partly why tourists are being scared off from visiting them. Egyptians today depend on the temples for a different reason - they need the income they generate. There is a huge security presence at the historical sites Reeve visits. He has armed bodyguards, demonstrating that the military is still very much in control, despite the recent revolution. The armed guards accompany him on his overnight train journey from Aswan to Cairo. Although he gets his own cabin and we had to make do with rickety reclining seats when we made the same journey in safer times (see below), the most annoying thing we had to contend with was a party of Australians wanting to, er, party. No one was pointing guns at us.

In Cairo, Reeve visits the original Nilometer, which was used to measure the height of the water to calculate how much farmers could be taxed for their crops. North of Cairo, the Nile splits into the tributaries of its Delta. Here the cotton we in the West like to put on our beds is grown, creating back-breaking work for the women. (Simon Reeve gives up his attempt to help them in seconds.) 2,500 litres of the Nile are required to grow enough cotton to make just one T-shirt. So what will happen to these people's livelihoods if the river waters are all used up in Ethiopia and Sudan? Who has more right to the sacred H2O? All these farmers are poor and deserving of a better life.

40% of the population of Egypt is illiterate. Whereas in the course of my privileged education, Egypt was the only word I learned to write at school that didn't contain any joined-up letters. Aged nine, my class at junior school did a project on Egypt, learning about pyramids, hieroglyphs, pharoahs and sphinxes, and I've held a fascination for the country ever since. I only got to go for real, however, about twenty-five years later. Even this trip was somewhat of an accident of fate. We were supposed to go on a belated honeymoon to Sri Lanka, but the Boxing Day tsunami happened the day before we were due to leave, so a cruise along the River Nile is where we ended up instead. Back at home, my mother was dying, and I spent most of the week with flu, coughing like a character out of Louisa May Alcott. But our first glimpse of the pyramids, shimmering on the distant horizon while we were hurtled from the airport to our hotel through Cairo's crazy traffic in the back of a black and white Yugo taxi that only had one door, was like a beacon of radiant light that offered a strange hope of survival against all the odds. The modern, choking city of Cairo has been built right up to the very edge of these ancient tetrahedra. They have stood for thousands of years, whereas the modern day high rises, seldom finished on the top storeys as a tax avoidance strategy, look like they will barely last a decade.

The age of everything ancient in Egypt is simply astonishing. It may sound incredibly naive to write this, but Simon Reeve made exactly the same comment. It's astonishing because everything is still in flawless condition, having been preserved by the desert sands for centuries. I stood inside a claustrophobic pyramid at Dahshur, where the air is stale, rank and oppressive, but it's humbling to think that that air was enclosed at least 4,000 years ago. It's astonishing too because of the technology involved in the building, and hauling of the granite stone up the River Nile from Aswan. Much of the treasure from the tombs in the Valley of the Kings had been looted long before they were rediscovered, but a tenacious and determined Howard Carter eventually stumbled across Tutankhamun's burial gifts, and the haul is now on display in the museum in Cairo. It is is indescribably beautiful. The museum generally looks like a fusty jumbled storeroom, but the bright gold and jewels of King Tut don't need any further artistry. Further round the museum, we came face to face with the mummified corpse of Ramses II, whose statue sat on a throne at the entrance to Abu Simbel. What the carved stonework didn't reveal was that he had ginger hair.

Our lucky tour group had an incredible guide who just knew everything there was to know about anything. He could read and translate hieroglyphs quicker than I could read a newspaper. The head of antiquities from the Boston MFA was leading a tour round Medinet Habu while we were there, and as soon as she saw our guide she raced over to him to introduce him to her group as "the greatest Egyptologist" she had ever met. So I am not kidding you. Shame I was coughing too much and too knackered from several 4am starts (these were the days long before children) to take it all in.

Cruising down the Nile was wonderful, and felt totally luxurious in comparison to the overnight train journeys to and from Cairo. Our boat was full of Italians, so pasta was continually on the menu, but as our guide book pointed out, "There are many reasons to visit Egypt. The food isn't one of them." Some people claimed they got a bit "templed out", but I loved them all, and it was fascinating to observe glimpses of traditional Egyptian life along the riverbanks as we floated past. The oxon pulling carts, the fisherman on their feluccas, the dusty stalls selling oranges and bananas, the washing of clothes, the call to prayer echoing across the Nile at sunset.

But it wasn't all easy. All first world problems, of course. There were those grotty train journeys. There was the constant pestering by people trying to sell you things. Simon Reeve can only say "As-salamu alaykum" in Arabic, but I found I needed to say "La shukran" (no thank you) a lot more than hello. "I've bought a pyramid", one of our group joked as he boarded our minibus at Giza. There were the stinking toilets, which we used to award marks out of ten. The worst were at the pyramids (negative numbers). The best were the ones at Abu Simbel (a good eight), which had plastic flowers and allowed you more than one piece of toilet paper for your baksheesh. After a dodgy buffet on our last evening in Aswan, my husband had to locate a toilet at very short notice in the Cairo Bazaar. (Coffee shop hole in the ground - a rough two.) The Egyptian pounds we were using were disintegrating and grubby, but there was no doubt the locals desperately needed us to spend them.

Pyramids looking towards downtown Cairo
Medinet Habu

Looking towards the Valley of the Kings near Luxor

View while waiting for our boat's slot to pass through the locks at Esna

Traditional fishing

Sunset at Kom Ombo

Kom Ombo temple

Nubian village, Aswan

Lake Nasser at Abu Simbel

So who out of Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia has the greater right to the waters of the Nile? Simon Reeves' conclusion was that the nations involved need to be better at sharing, which just tells me that he has never tried to have that same conversation with a two year old child.