STILL Wishing You Were Here? Bruges Throwback

I was having a chat with someone at work the other day and it got me reminiscing about the first solo adventure I went on back in November 2018. Wow, three years has flown by! Since then I’ve been on three further solo trips and I can’t wait for normality to return once more so I can get back into exploring Europe without limitation.

Bruges (by boat)

I loved Bruges with all my heart, as much for what it did to me as much as its physical beauty.

One moment will forever stick in my mind. I’d taken it upon myself to visit a number of the churches in the North of the city, where very few tourists went. Alone in Sint-Walburgakerk church, an elderly volunteer, latching onto the excuse to perform, struck up the organ and began to play the most beautiful music. With every gentle note I started to reflect, thinking about all the things I’d accomplished in such a short space of time. I’d gone from being put down as the timid country mouse studying History and clearing wedding tables at 2am, to a smartly-dressed Financial Services professional, working in the City of London. And in a that I was there, in that church, travelling without anyone’s permission, approval or, indeed, moaning. I didn’t need to justify myself to anyone, not anymore. I was me.

In the same way I’d found myself silently weeping in Prague a year ago, over someone who’d rather sit in the hotel room 50 yards away than be with me, I was crying again. But this time something was different; the tears tracing down my hot flushed cheeks weren’t bitter, nor cold, they tasted sweet. In an empty church in Bruges, I was hit with a sudden burst of clarity. After all this time, I’d finally discovered what my heart had been missing all along. I was proud of myself.

Bruges was just incredible, second only to Arvon writing course (but then, to compare the two experiences would be like comparing chalk to cheese).

Most of you will have seen this already but hell, I’m sharing it again. Here is the Windows Movie Maker video I put together after I got back from my first solo city break to Bruges. Filmed on a (very) humble iPhone 5.

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A Very Happy Alice

I’ve just got back from my writing retreat and, newsflash, it was beyond amazing.

Full retreat cohort, including course tutor/professional author Caitlin Davies (in the red jumper)

I met 22 wonderful human beings (15 other participants + tutors/guest readers + Arvon staff), and there was so much to take in and reflect on, and every night I felt I like I could burst with creativity (which would have been awkward, as I don’t think anyone signed-up to being coated in chunks of Alice…at least not before dessert).

With so many thoughts, feelings and emotions running through my head, it’s hard to put into extacting words what the past week has meant to me. From 1-2-1s with critically acclaimed writers, to long walks, to sitting down at a desk (in front of a gorgeous view) and hitting word to paper, my time spent on an Arvon tutored retreat at The Hurst (deep in the Shropshire Hills) has been an incredible experience.

A group of us prepare for a mid-morning woodland hike. Photographed alongside course tutor/publishing editor Jacob Ross (second right)

I’ll get something more substanial down soon but for now know this; I’m a very, very happy Alice!

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Out of Office

Hi all,

I’m off this week on a super fancy writers’ retreat (very exciting stuff!) After what feels like a century of isolation, I’m very much looking forward to meeting and working alongside like-minded people at a blissfully rural location in the British countryside.

As per the rural comment, I’m going to mostly be off-grid during my time away but I’ll be back with a new blog post sometime next week.

Now, time to be all Natasha Bedingfield for a whole seven days.

I can see the similarities.

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Scrum Retrospective for Diwali

Seeing as most members of our Agile Scrum team are based in India, and with Diwali coming up on 4th November, I wanted to facilitate a Retrospective that incorporated this significant religious festival.

Below is a simple board I put together for our team. It got an amazing response, arguably the best since the team was formed in April this year. For anyone else currently doing similar with their teams I hope it proves to be a useful kick-start.

Diwali: A Retro for Good Over Evil

Credit to The Virtual Agile Coach, who’s Diwali board inspired me to create my own – https://www.thevirtualagilecoach.co.uk/post/7d83be43

And, for anyone wishing to brush up their knowledge on the Festival of Light, check out this short video which brings to life the story in an easy to understand way:

There are lots of fascinating elements and unique celebrations to the Festival of Diwali, so why not take up the chance to learn something new!

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Alice’s Signature “Three Ingredient” Cooking (Alias “Stodge Dinner”)

A couple of videos that showcase just the level of my culinary abilities. I’d caveat it with something like, “it had been a long day in the office and/or it was 23:00 in the evening”, but it wasn’t. It was 19:00 and it was me, being me.

Part One – Preparation and Cooking

Part Two – Finishing Touches and the Taste Test

Oh, and here is the pastry I mentioned in the video, the free one.

I think it was a citrus tart. It tasted of lemons. It was going out of date that day, so someone came up to me and asked if I wanted it. Five days after said expiry date, I ate it (because that’s the kind of classy girl I am).

So, who wants to hire me as their private chef?

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You’re Welcome

I sent a thank you card to one of the restaurants I frequented when I made a solo staycation to Belfast, Northern Ireland.

(God knows what I wrote inside, I can barely remember what I ate for lunch five minutes ago.)

Whatever its contents were, The Northern Whig clearly enjoyed them enough to prop it up on their fancy bar and share it on their Instagram story.

Caption reads: Such a thoughtful thank-you card from @aeb.thewriter

You’re welcome guys, hope to visit again soon. x

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Geology, Politics and Guinness: My Week in Belfast

Just back, having spent a week in the lovely city of Belfast (capital of Northern Ireland, UK).

I had a wonderful time visiting The Giants Causeway, drinking Guinness, admiring political murals, drinking my weight in coffee, absorbing the industrial significance of the Titanic…getting through a lot of local gins. It was a cultural whirlwind. Best of all, it was unbelievably sunny; it didn’t rain once!*

* – apart from the ten minutes it pelted it down, but at that point had just paid my entrance ticket to spend some time inside Belfast’s notorious Crumlin prison. (I swear I’m a normal human being deep down.)

Hopefully there will be a video coming up soonish (when I get a spare day to pull everything together), but in the meantime here are a selection of choice snaps from my staycation.

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That’s When the Cleaning Fumes Got to Me

You know how it is. It’s a Friday night, you’re a single woman with the world at your fingertips and anything is possible. You could go out, let your hair down or…you could stay in and give your kitchen a deep clean.

Thing is, I’m not even embarrassed to admit this. In the same way I’m not at all ashamed to say the only bottles this girl was demolishing the other night were these:

(Obviously in non-drinking, sense. Please don’t call 111.)

With cleaning plans firmly lodged in my head, I changed out of my dress and put on a black vest, thus transforming me into a low-budget search engine result for “contemporary dancer near me”.

(No refunds for crimes against the aeroplane dance move.)

First item in my line of cleaning sight (yes, this was genuinely how I spent my Friday night), the fridge. Breaking this mighty deliverable down into smaller, manageable, chunks (who said bringing the day job into personal life isn’t exotic?), I went for the bottom drawer first.

This was followed by a healthy amount of neighbour stalking / Alice rambling (feat. actual cleaning).

Several hours later, and after inhaling quite a considerable about of cleaning fumes in a confined space, this happened.

I’m not going to explain nor apologise. I sent it to my close friends and the responses speak for themselves.

So that’s how I spent my crazy Friday night, what about you?

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It’s Official: I’m a FULLY Vaxxer!

This is my obligatory public service announcement that I’ve now had my second dose of the Covid-19 vaccination. Whoop! Go me/science/go-away pandemic.

And, because I’m also that kind of person, I used it as an excuse to post a number of letters on the way home. That’s right, I’m so productive!

I spent the vaccination part of my appointment talking to the nurse about my fabulous taste in dresses (best two minutes of any girl’s life) and the fifteen minutes wait time afterwards reading a book. I could have taken a photo of either one of these two activities but it really wasn’t that exciting. Posting letters in a pillar box, that was more exciting.

In short, the process to get both my vaccines was so laid back, it was virtually horizontal. All super friendly people, with big smiles and even bigger bottles of hand sanitiser.

I’m not going to get overly-preachy, but I’d highly encourage anyone to get jabbed (*if it’s something that’s offered to you and something you can medically take).

Still unsure? Browse information published on medically recognised websites, log onto your national health webpages (in the UK, anything endorsed by the NHS), talk to medicine women/men. Don’t listen to idiotic turnips, the ones who own little more in the technical department than a cheap keyboard and have way too much time on their hands to write whacky blogs (oh, wait…)

Anyway, this is my little bit to inform people that yes, I’ve had my second dose of the Covid vaccine and yes, that does mean 14 days from now there’s a heightened risk that I’ll start running around and hugging people for no apparent reason. Also, I may start crying. No reason, I just might.

You have been warned.

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Opinion: Don’t use Covid-19 as an Excuse for “Closure Culture” of the Arts

It’s not often I hop onto my soapbox, least of all on anything bordering on political. That’s not what 99% of you guys came here for, to be quite honest it’s not really what I came here for. However it has now reached a stage where I cannot sit here in good faith and say nothing.

Back in March 2020, at the start of the first UK wide lockdown, all museums and attractions across England were forced to close. This included Swindon Museum and Art Gallery (SMAG), a small site located in the heart of the town’s oldest district. Like all respecting patrons of art and culture institutions up and down the country, I fully supported this government-enforced directive.

On the ending of the first lockdown in Summer 2020, Swindon Borough Council refused to reopen SMAG. While other heritage sites reopened their doors, awash with safety posters and guidance on basic handwashing, the chains around SMAG’s grand entranceway continued to rust with dejection. Now, in August 2021, dejection has slipped into acceptance, the rust into rot. It feels like culture was never here at all.

Throughout the assorted protests and disjointed cries from local residents, the council has strongly defended their decision, stating this move is only intended as a short-term measure. Other rumours speculate Covid being used as a thin veil of scapegoating the closure on underlying problems the council had been failing to redress for years, including low footfall, costly repairs and accessibility issues. This, and the proposed £33,000 per year saving it would make to the local budget, at a time when the council needs to urgently balance the books.

Apsley House, location of Swindon Museum and Art Gallery, until it’s closure in March 2020. Photo credit: https://englandrover.com/listing/swindon-museum-and-art-gallery/

For the years I have lived in Swindon, I openly admit to being less that a frequent visitor to SMAG. In fact, one of the few visitations I made was on a first date with my (now) ex boyfriend, which dates it very well. It was a long time ago.

I had thicker brows then, but (unsurprisingly) the same clothes.

But, on the few times I went, I enjoyed it. Aside from the unchanging artefact exhibits (complete with the much-loved “Apsley the Croc”), there was also an extensive art collection which went through frequent rotations. I was never a fan of the 1960s extension, bolted on in the 1960s, but as far as the contents was concerned I respected and enjoyed the contents for what they offered. Only in hindsight do I realise how little I fully appreciated what we had; now it’s gone.

In some ways the council’s decision to close SMAG is predictable. For years, concern was tempered with optimism over plans to relocate the museum to a newly constructed “Cultural Quarter”, proposed as part of a 2019 bid for Heritage Lottery Funding. Housed closer to the train station, the site would also contain a digital media centre, dance studio, and an expanded 1200-seat Wyvern Theatre. It was estimated to cost £80 million to build, create up to 1200 jobs and pump in an estimated £35 million into the local economy. Sadly, this bid proved to be unsuccessful.

Artist impression of new museum, situated in Swindon’s “Cultural Quarter”. Phot credit: Swindon Advertiser
Architectural “cut through” of the proposed museum design. Photo credit: Swindon Advertiser

At the time of writing (August 2021), all capital investment projects are on hold. Headlines will often cite the pandemic as the main reason, however the pessimist in me would also cite that by the council’s own omission, work on constructing the theatre alone wasn’t due to start until 2025. In other words, this project was always going to be a slow burner.

During the course of writing this article, I’ve discovered Swindon Borough Council are now considering different options, including having an “Art Pavilion”, and/or touring Art and collections in pop-up spaces, in a format being referred to as “Museums Without Walls”. Citing the museum elsewhere is also being considered. But these conversations are incredibly early in the process, and this response is quite possibly driven by community action by the Friends Swindon Museum and Art Gallery group (and local news coverage). Where the preservation of Arts and Culture is concerned, it shouldn’t take a group of people shouting and screaming to force the hand of local government. When the justification reads as “temporary closure, due to Covid”, was the expectation that we’d all forget? That we wouldn’t care?

Why does it matter?

I get it, not everyone is big into History; not everyone enjoys stuffy old exhibits and random bits of art. And that’s absolutely fine. But here’s the thing, when you’re sat in a boxy little room, planning ahead for the future, it becomes increasingly harder to pitch your town as being a “place to be”, “up and coming” or a “desirable” if with the other hand, you’re eroding the cultural bedrock on which it stands.

It’s why most towns in the UK will have a heritage centre of some size. It celebrates and brings communities together or, to be a bit more cold-hearted, it adds to the sales pitch. “Move to Swindon, we have…houses”, it doesn’t quite butter the parsnips.

Yes, the museum had a small footfall and yes, there were many areas in which it was crying out for improvement, but we’ve slept-walked into losing another thing that celebrated this town for what it was. With it, and an increasing trend of young professionals adopting WFB (Work From Bedroom) jobs, I fear we’ll start losing the point of why any of us are here at all.

So, where does this place the arts and culture in this sprawling town? It seems the future is set to remain uncertain indefinitely. And this post only relates to one type of cultural attraction; novels could be written of the erosion of a good deal of other services (libraries, community groups etc) in the years leading up to 2020.

In light of all this, I have only one thing to ask of the local council; don’t use Covid-19 as an excuse for a move that can only be described as closure culture. Because, at the end of the day, I think we’re all smarter than that, don’t you?

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Swindon Museum and Art Gallery website: https://www.swindonmuseumandartgallery.org.uk/

Friends of Swindon Museum and Art Gallery: https://friendsofsmag.org/

Petition to Save Swindon Museum and Art Gallery: https://www.change.org/p/swindon-borough-council-save-the-swindon-museum-and-art-gallery

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