Thursday, 22 September 2016

Cold Feet

Cold Feet is back! Many, many years on, with the kids more or less grown up and flown the nest (or safely ensconced in boarding school) leaving the grown-ups time to reflect and play. And have issues. And crises. Of the midlife variety, obviously.

To be honest, it's been so long that I can't remember much about the original series. I always get it muddled up with This Life. The cast all went on to great things, from Downton Abbey to The Hobbit. Apart from Helen Baxendale's terrible performance in Friends, which was a bit like the Cold Feet car crash that killed her

Fay Ripley has spent the past few years writing family cookery books. (Though her claim to be lactose intolerant on An Extra Slice made me wonder, does she really? Most of the recipes contain dairy.) Whatever their origin though, they are firm favourites in our house.

"I don't want any yucky carrot! Where are the chips?"

Anyway, yes, the crises. Speeding tickets. Dodgy deals. Depression. Stalkers. Young brides. Ageing. The fear of having wasted one's life. The need to be slimmer, fitter, happier, richer. All fairly textbook stuff.

Apart from the euthanasia. They just slid that one in there next week. Pete can't decide whether or not he wants a coffee after dinner at home, but had no bother picking up a pillow and smothering his mate. Thankfully, he arsed it up.

The car crash of life - Henry the Mini at Manchester's Museum of Science and Industry
So their Manchester is one of concerts and bars and canalside smooches. We may still be stuck in the messy kids bit that has happened since we last saw them and which has been conveniently left out (messy teenagers are way cooler), but it's still somehow cosy and familiar to be back in their midst.

The nearest we have got to mentioning distance of this new middle-aged Cold Feet world is a trip to Dunham Massey a few years ago. No cycling (and no cheating) for us though. It was the first day of summer, and we were en route to North Wales. It was a National Trust pitstop of a hot lunch and clean toilets and somewhere for a toddler to burn off enough energy for a nap. The rhododendrons were in bloom, and deer roamed the parkland.

There is still rain and traffic jams in Cold Feet land, which is what we were party to on a recent visit. I wrote about Manchester before, but it was from a near 25-year absence, which we rectified this summer with two trips across the Pennines. Admittedly, one was to catch a plane. But the second was to explore the region more thoroughly, staying with family in Wilmslow.

The mill maid fantasy?

There were great, vast places ending in Bank (Jodrell, Quarry). And then the centre of Manchester itself, where we went to the Museum of Science and Industry. Which is quite brilliant. And what's more, free. There are fantastically enthusiastic explainers who taught us how to make a mini microscope and did a show about famous Manchester inventions, you know, insignificant little things like the aeroplane and the Spinning Jenny. There is a whole floor of kid-friendly experiments - magnetism, mirrors, friction, levers, optical illusions. There are steam engines, jet engines, railway engines, and flight simulators. And a Sinclair C5. The cafe makes fresh pizzas and even has a healthy salad bar. It's a top day out, which left us on such a high that we didn't mind the deluge that soaked us as we made our way back to the car to head to Salford Quays.

And Salford Quays, where there are the Lowry paintings of my parents' youth (Level Crossing hung above our gas fire), and the CBeebies of my daughter's. A friendly lady behind a desk in the BBC part of Media City gave our girl a CBeebies sticker, which just about made her LIFE.

Media City, Salford Quays

I tend to see the world through Dangermouse and Old Jack's eyes.
Not Topsy and Tim's mother's.

And then we went outside and found the Blue Peter garden, which just about made mine.

Monday, 19 September 2016

Free English Heritage August Membership with British Gas

Everybody loves a freebie, and so it was like a shot that I signed up for an e-mail offer from British Gas giving away several thousand English Heritage memberships for August. The membership covered two adults and up to six children, who seemingly didn't even need to be related to you.

We are National Trust, Historic Houses and Royal Horticultural Society members, which always seemed like more than enough to keep us going. To join English Heritage as well felt excessive. Plus we've been a bit snippy about English Heritage properties in the Yorkshire region since most of them are, not to put too fine a point on it, ruins. It didn't seem worth paying to go in them since you think you've kind of seen enough just walking or driving past them. They haven't got a roof, furniture, wallpaper or windows so what could they possibly have inside?

Well, here was our chance to find out what they were hiding. Quite a lot more than we thought, to be honest. The chance to step back and enjoy a beautiful setting, for one thing. A little museum or two of salvaged artefacts. The eerie atmosphere of abandonment. The consequences of wanton destruction by Henry VIII's army. A batty sheepdog. The chance to brush up on some important history and imagine a bygone age.

We made it to:

1) Clifford's Tower.

I'd been before as one of my 40 challenges for turning 40, but given that it is down the road and it was going to be free, it would have been crazy not to go again, this time with daughter in tow. She loved climbing up the spiral staircase to the ramparts and trying to spot our house from the top. You can't actually see our house from the top, but you can see the Terry's chocolate factory tower, which was good enough for her.

2) Kirkham Priory.

This has a peaceful setting beside the River Derwent, and the slightly less peaceful York to Scarborough railway line. There were cows. Our daughter assigned us each a house amongst what was left of the buildings so that we could all play happy families. Sigh. Mummy and Daddy aren't very good at these sorts of games.

3) Rievaulx Abbey.

We have often looked down on the abbey from the National Trust owned Terrace above, but never ventured down into the valley. More fool us. The abbey is absolutely stunning, with a delightful, well presented museum. A children's trail helps you locate the monks' toilets.

4) Helmsley Castle.

Similarly, we have often looked up at Helmsley Castle from the Walled Garden, but had never been inside. It is much more substantial than the severed keep you see from the market square. It being a castle rather than a former monastic establishment, this is one of the few local ruins not destroyed by Henry VIII, but rather by the Civil War, and a bit of neglect. Walking around the mound above the moat ditch was a particular highlight. Our daughter spotted her beloved chickens in the walled garden below.

Helmsley Walled Garden

Above the moat

5) Byland Abbey.

Home of the aforementioned batty dog, who actually lives on a neighbouring farm, but spends his day hanging out at the abbey seeking out unsuspecting visitors to throw him sticks. Our daughter is terrified of dogs, so ran off screaming as soon as she saw him, but eventually came around to his persistent pestering. Good dog.

Batty sheepdog

6) Brodsworth Hall.

Not a ruin! A beautiful house and garden just outside of Doncaster that we'd always wanted to visit. Loads of activities for kids - a mini beast hunt in the garden, and a trail of giant knitted insects around the house that were to be identified as friends or foes, depending on how much damage they tend to do to building fabric. The house was kept in the same family for years and years, and they continually patched it up or just let it evolve, so it's an odd mismatch of period and repair. A beautiful wooden Victorian kitchen table with a Formica top, for example. A lift that was forever breaking down. A lot of it is currently undergoing more significant structural restoration - mainly the window shutters, and the billiard room, which had everything in tea crates. But the garden is just stunning - a fern grotto, sun room and croquet lawn amidst a formal parterre, rose dell and arboretum. And statues of whippets. The usual play area and tea room you would expect in such establishments.

As it was school holidays, and there are 31 days in August, really we could have got a lot more mileage out of this freebie. But despite best intentions, owing to various prior commitments and visitors, days and weekends ran away with us, so we didn't quite manage to get to as many places as we hoped. Notable local places we missed out on included Richmond Castle, Whitby Abbey, Scarborough Castle, Middleham Castle and the York Cold War Bunker. Further afield, I would have been tempted to revisit places like Eltham Palace and Audley End (which definitely aren't ruins), and Stonehenge. Maybe next year, we will add English Heritage membership to our list so that we can see the rest.

Richmond Castle (taken June 2016)

Eltham Palace (taken July 2015)

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

The Last Leg

Not quite up to Hannah Cockroft's speed

The summer holidays are over. I feel like I am on my last legs, but more on the past few weeks another time. This post is of course a reference to Channel 4's quite brilliant paralympics coverage. This time from Rio it's less about the ad breaks and more about the achievements of Team GB as they bask in much deserved glory. It's about learning people's amazing stories. And about what we Brits do best - irreverence. The Last Leg's now well-established team of Adam Hills, Josh Widdicombe and Alex Brooker have cheered up my evenings for the past week, and made the world seem a better place. Their unparalleled enthusiasm and passion for the event is infectious, and their ability to turn zany into cult status is sheer genius. The Brookworm dance. Jonnie Peacock in a tutu. Jody Cundy finding his inner Zen against all provocation. Shower caps for the Zimbabwean rowing team. Swimming coats. Johnny Vegas powerlifting. Johnny Vegas just about everywhere. Never has sport been so funny, so powerful, or so inspiring. I'm also very grateful for the nightly round-ups as so much of the "action", to use Clare Balding's favourite word, happens overnight. During the Rio 2016 Olympics I missed all the swimming and athletics as most races were on around one in the morning and the BBC completely lacked an evening highlights programme so I could catch up the next day. Yes, I know that technically it was all out there online, but sometimes I just need someone to do things for me. Here, I get the more earnest view with Clare for half an hour, then The Last Leg take the piss for an hour, and then a bit of live stuff happens before I crash out in bed. I feel informed, involved and enthused. What's more, I feel proud.

Compare this to the Last Night of the Proms, which this year I had to turn off in disgust. (Or rather turn back to the Paralympics.) I am so not in the mood for jingoistic nonsense and flag waving when it's about Rule Britannia and Land Of Hope And Glory. (And as Alex Brooker pointed out, these things have no place in the Paralympics either - why sing a national anthem about God saving a multi-millionaire when there are all those disabled people out there?) To me, all that smacks of UKIP and the Tories trying to turn our country back to the days of Empire, when we had no National Health Service, purely elitist education, sickly air in our cities, no European Union to listen to, and hanging and smacking were allowed (although not necessarily in that order). Frankly, they have almost succeeded.

I don't often prefer sport over music, but this year, we are living in very different times. Thank you, The Last Leg, for reminding me that there is something to love about being British after all. And it seems it took an Australian to do it.

Our family's medal haul for the summer. My daughter got one for reading.
My husband got one for running. I got one for a bike ride I didn't do.