McDonald’s, You’re Missing A Trick!

It’s my birthday and I’ll have wine with my McDonald’s if I want to! A quiet in ahead of the Christmas craziness – new blog posts coming soon!

I’ll also bake for my team if I want to, even if ‘baking’ means staying up until crazy o’clock the night before to get it made to my demanding standards.

(The team valued it, I made two batches and they devoured both on a day. I was even told it posed a risk to productivity because it was so good.)

So yeah, go me. Go me and my baking and my wine-sipping awesomeness. Whoop.

Five Years Ago Today…

11th November 2014, five years ago today…

I had been living in Swindon a couple of months, having relocated in the Summer to begin my first job after graduating from Southampton University with a BA (hons) degree in History. I was living in a HMO (House of Multiple Occupancy) with four others; a hospitality worker, an engineer who only utilised the room on occasion when work required him to be in Swindon, a journalist for the local paper and a woman who worked in security. The lady in security also had a unique hobby, in her spare time she liked to dress up as a mermaid.

 

I was shopping that one night in the local supermarket when I stopped by the toilet roll isle to buy its namesake. I was debating which type and brand to purchase when an idea came to mind. Why don’t I start writing a blog?

The moment resembled something like this:

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From that minute, through to the walk back to the house in the drizzle and dark with the heavy shopping the seed of an idea rapidly grew. By the time I’d made it to my bedroom I decided on a name. I’d title the blog after the opener I used when I wanted to make a quick impression on people.

My Housemate’s a Mermaid was set up that very night and I wrote my first ever blog post in eager haste.

On 11th November 2014 I published The Birth of the Grimgrad

11th November 2015, four years ago today…

I was still living in the same house and working the same job. Both came as a surprise, my original contract of employment had been a nine month maternity cover, so I fully expected to have been given the heave ho after that time and been working/living elsewhere. Not that I wanted to leave or that my old boss wanted me to go, I was such a hardworking and loved member of the team he’d go on to extend my contact length multiple times to keep me on, even when my colleague returned from leave.

The extensions played on my mind, it was flattering that I was wanted but not reassuring that someone along the chain wasn’t prepared to make me a permanent fixture in the team. My mind started wondering to where my future lay in this role…

Meanwhile, outside of work, desperation to meet people and loneliness in a house where people didn’t talk had forced me to try new things to get me out and about. In January I started attending evening classes in pottery at the local college. Although my skills with clay left a lot to be desired (I made more things explode than create)…

…it was a fun activity that got me out the house and chatting to people.

After discovering the society building platform ‘MeetUp’ and being frustrated at the lack of societies for young people in Swindon, in January my Dad offered me the cash to set up a MeetUp group in Swindon. The agreement was that if I made back the £30 I’d pay him back the money he’d stumped up. I accepted the offer but didn’t see how it could possibly come to much.

I founded Swindon 18-30 Professionals on 2nd February 2015, and asked new members to pay a £3 fee to cover the administration costs. Then I set up the first event and nervously waited at what was then a club called Baker Street to see who would turn up. I sat there by myself with a drink, adamant that no one was going to come, but then suddenly people started arriving and things went upwards from there.

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By the summer the monthly ‘drinks night’ had been rebranded to ‘First Wednesday Drinks’ and were now starting to draw a sizeable crowd. I’d long since paid off my Dad, the fees for the next six months of operation and was in the middle of negotiating with Baker Street a sponsorship deal that would carry into the present day. I removed the new joiner fee, taking away the last barrier and making Swindon 18-30 truly accessible to all young people in the area.

In November I was in the middle of organising the group’s first Christmas meal at Pizza Express. I was chuffed when I persuaded the venue to offer up multiple bottles wine free of charge in support of the young professional network of Swindon.

As my visiting friend from London said “you’ve really achieved something in a short space of time, don’t shrug it off!” But I still couldn’t help myself, I downplayed the whole thing.

The year wasn’t without calamity though; in the Summer I sustained face, head and leg injuries when I tripped on a paving slab outside a pub (the Gluepot) whilst walking back from a lunch break. Holding a loaf of bread and food shopping, I failed to utilise my hands to break the fall meaning that my right knee and head took the brunt on the impact. I shambled back to the office completely unaware of how bad a state I was in and, when the 111 service finally stopped asking me if the injury was a result of heavy drinking, I was told to head over accident and emergency. A work colleague sat with me for over an hour waiting and checking I didn’t drop off from concussion. She was an absolute saint.

I came away from the medical centre covered in bandage tape and pumped with drugs but luckily escaped the whole ordeal with only a slight scar to my knee which remains to this day. A reminder that while looking forward is important, you’re only as successful as the last step you take.

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Blogging kept me sane throughout the year, even if sometimes the content was anything but.

On 11th November 2015 I published Don’t Touch Me Tomatoes

11th November 2016, three years ago today…

I was still living in the same house as the mermaid, but by now the gripes of living in an increasingly shabby property were starting to grate.

The tenants had moved on and I started becoming aware of how little sway I had in who I lived with. When an older gentleman viewing the property started making me feel uncomfortable, that was when I knew how little input I had in decision-making.

The housemate in the room next to me started seeing a girl who was particularly ‘vocal’ when she stayed over, which was when I realised how fed up I was of being single. From late Spring I started narrowing down my outlook from meeting new people to meeting potential romantic matches. The results were mixed but through it I learnt a lot about myself and Swindon’s dating scene.

I met my first long term partner at a speed dating event in the October of 2016 and things went from there. Naturally I put my foot in it by texting him at the same time as he was texting my friend (who’d he’d also matched with) and then went on a date with his ‘then’ best mate the night after ours, unaware of their connection! He found my horror-stricken face incredibly funny, he laughed it off said no more of the mess-up.

At the grand age of 23 he was my first boyfriend, the first man who had ever taken an interest in me, let alone buy me flowers or take me out for meals or look after me when I was sick. I was completely smitten.

He was smart, considerate and incredibly patient. He never once made me feel the need to rush our relationship.

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Nervously waiting for our second date at the local museum (my suggestion, of course).

In March I had moved roles within the same company to a permanent position in a different department. For the time being I was content, moving onto an identical salary didn’t fill me with the same level of keenness compared to when I moved to Swindon originally but a permanent job meant more security.

Throughout the Spring and into the Summer I flogged myself to death organising Swindon 18-30’s first Summer ball in the grounds of Lydiard Park, the town’s fancy country house. I learnt a lot about event planning and it served as good preparation for what would come if I ever got married; organising catering, DJ, venue, photographer etc. all single handed, it pretty much felt like I was planning my own reception!

The event was a massive success and was attended by 60 individuals, a real celebration of the young professional population from around Swindon and the local area.

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It even got a feature in local press.

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In Autumn I started writing for a local publication called the Swindonian to help build my writing portfolio and in November I took part in National Blog Posting Month (NaBloPoMo), where bloggers around the world attempt to write a post a day. Writing a post a day whilst managing Swindon 18-30 and a fledgling relationship was very hard, but I was proud to say I achieved it.

On 11th November I published Nablopomo Day 11: What Happens when You Introduce Technology into the Cotswolds

11th November 2017, two years ago today…

I had not only moved out of the house with the mermaid but actually bought my own property one door down. The mermaid was no longer my housemate, she was my neighbour!

Me

I carted out as much of the stuff from my bedroom as I could, the massive items of collated furniture sitting at my parent’s home in wait for the destined day.

In March 2017 I officially moved into my house with the help of a Luton van, my parents and my boyfriend. At 6″ 8 and a hobbyist in mixed martial arts, my boyfriend came in a great deal of use when it came to lifting heavy items of furniture up staircases. It was the first time my parents had met him and they were happy enough to have him about, even if it was noticed that we barely said a word to each other.

In hindsight I should have ended my relationship with my first boyfriend six months in, but to my dying day I will not judge the person I was then for holding out hope. Because when you have nothing to compare to how can you make a balanced choice? I’d watch the TV shows, listen to the songs, hear the colleague chit-chat, the theme was all the same. “Men are all useless, men will lie and cheat on you!” Well, my guy wasn’t any of that. He was kind, he cooked food for me, he loved spending time with me. So why wasn’t I happy? Why wasn’t I grateful? Why didn’t I love him? What was wrong with me?

This spiral got worse and worse. In August we went to Prague, during which time I snapped and ended up spending a good deal of time wondering around the city by myself. I went to a classical music concert one evening and cried my eyes out. Those next to me must have thought I was crying because of the music, in fact I was crying because I knew then my relationship was dead.

 

I swore to myself then that I would leave this man before Christmas. I returned the the UK colder and more distant than I’d ever been in my entire life. Time spent with him felt like a chore, it seems laughable now that we never kissed when we returned from Prague. He was not a bad man, but I was not a good woman for bottling up my emotions, I accept that.

We would stay together for another five months. Even when he forgot my birthday and shoved the bent card and a half price necklace through the letter box (receipt left in the damaged paper bag), when I sat on the stairs with my head in my hands in hollow disbelief. Despite that I stayed; a broken woman, a woman I didn’t recognise.

In September I started a new job for a organisation I’d never dreamt I’d be working for. I couldn’t believe my luck and made damn sure my managers knew I was grateful by the time I invested into learning the role. But every day I spent in my new job only made me feel more weighed down by someone who was on a completely different wave length to me. Was this the same man I’d fallen for? Was I the same woman?

Meanwhile, I started doing a few pieces of writing for The National Student. When the editor of the Swindonian found out he blocked me from publishing my work to his website, effectively kicking me off the team. Given the Swindonian was “Swindon’s third biggest news outlet” (editor’s words) I decided to cut my loses as opposed to grovelling for forgiveness. I was done with producing popular content for their site free of charge.

My family, my friends and my writing, they were the lights that kept me going. My boyfriend never read my blog so through MHAM I had a sense of independence.

On 5th November I published What Halloween Means to Me 

On 16th November I published my first video on the blog dedicated to my sister This Could Be the Best Homemade Video Since Charlie Bit My Finger…*

11th November 2018, one year ago today…

I was living in London (Wapping, E1W), had been since May.

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I’d broken up with my boyfriend in late January. It had been as awkward as you could imagine, he went from telling me I was the best thing he’d ever had, to begging me to change my mind, to informing me he’d go home to his whiskey and start dating women again that very night. I wasn’t phased, I returned home to find my lovely housemates having bought me wine and pizza only to be more surprised by my casualness over the whole affair.

The next day I went into work and felt nothing for the night before. When I told my manager she suggested I go home if I needed time, but I declined. This was a man I hadn’t kissed in months (and he hadn’t seemingly hadn’t had issue with!!) The relationship had died long before that night. I was able to carry on my life.

I moved to London as part of an internal transfer in May to do a eight month stint working from their Threadneedle Street office in The City. Due to work and rental challenges it would end up becoming a whole year. In that time I was blessed with a Swindon house that required little attention to support itself and Swindon 18-30 having, by now, a leadership team that could organise events while I wasn’t around to be as hands on.

London was a roller coaster to say the least. I loved how all the men around The City wore suits and dressed smart, I loved how romantic dates involved going to art exhibitions and theatre performances. I loved how I my morning walking commute took me past Tower Bridge every morning…

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…or how I could hop on the tube and thirty minutes later be in a completely different part of the capital. It was a world away from the encounters I’d had in Wiltshire. Within my family (well, to my Mum), I’d created a name for myself when I made it to the dizzying heights of the BBC News at Ten.

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**

The bars of Threadneedle Street are the only place in the world where a minority controls the majority. When it came to the financial heart of London I quickly clocked on that it was the women who held the real power over men, if they knew how to use it. I took on a certain style, a certain walk, I dyed my hair a different shade, I adopted things to make people see me differently, to stand out from everyone else. It’s a bullish world where to just be feminine isn’t enough, to be treated seriously you have to think like a man, ‘group think’ if you will. So I starting convincing myself I was the best bloody thing to walk into any room, I was a peacock on show and you were going to know it, whether you liked it or not. And you know what? It worked. I started to see myself in a completely different light, just as they did too.

‘Fox’ I branded myself, because that’s how I felt and that’s what I wanted others to feel too. I was young, single and could charm just about anyone into my line of thinking. Sometimes it was an act, but acting got you free drinks, acting got you connections, acting got you a name in writing circles.

A year in London and I learnt that where my power lay was in not being them. Bankers and investors do the same job, day in, day out. Highly paid but highly stressed roles with a high inflation of their self importance. Me on the other hand, I was just a woman with a blog. A comedy blog that was as far removed from their lives as could be imagined and yet somehow touching on relatable. They came to me like moths to a light, the draw of escapism too much to resist.

I was in a cafe in Wapping when I first heard Billy Preston’s song Nothing from Nothing. From that point on it became my anthem of London. You coming along with big ideas? Sure, but you gotta have a spring in your step and something to back it up. Ain’t nothing free in this town and ain’t no one gonna be taken for a ride.

It was also in London that I discovered one of my main weaknesses stemmed from coming across those rare individuals that took a disliking to me. The flatmate who engaged in incredibly noisy ‘activities’ multiple times a night and turned aggressive when I delicately brought it up in conversation. The same flatmate who consumed a lot of alcohol one night which was then projected all over the one toilet five of us shared. This person refused to clean it up, leaving the job for two of us to handle at 3am. She never apologised or showed remorse for her actions, that was the worst bit of all.

When my flatmates ignored the aggressive letters demanding unpaid council tax (a detail which was meant to be paid by the landlord), it was left to me to handle the bailiffs. Bailiffs are scary, especially when you’re silently hiding upstairs while they bang on the door. But the attitude of my flatmates that problems would be fixed by someone else or simply go away by themselves, it screamed a lack of maturity. I ended up sitting for hours in Citizen’s Advice and, when the letting agents ignored my calls, emailing the council myself with countless documents to prove we weren’t liable. The mould in my room, the frequent migraines that suddenly vanished when I wasn’t breathing in air pollution, I could list for hours the issues I merrily overlooked.

These were the unpleasant experiences of London that stick out in my mind, what you have to deal with living at the bottom end of the professional ladder. I got on (and still get on) well with most of my former flatmates on a personable level, but I wouldn’t rush back to a HMO any time soon as a result of my experiences.

London is a city of extremes, whether I spent the evening in a Leicester Square casino or writing in a pub where mice ran across the floor was complete chance. But it was an incredible experience all the same. Waking up to this view every morning reminded me how lucky I was to have such an opportunity, to sleep in the shadow of the Shard.

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Ultimately I think this hijacked road works sign in West London sums up my time in the capital perfectly:

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I was in Cambridge on my birthday when I heard The Trials of Cato, a three-piece folk group, busking in the city centre. These Are the Things is an anti-Brexit song although you wouldn’t necessarily think it on first listen. In contrast to the big smoke of central London I enjoyed spending time in the quainter spots of the South East I’d never before visited.

In November there was my first solo holiday. Bruges was an incredible city break for so many reasons and I fully intend to visit there again at least once, if not multiple times in my life. Aside from being a beautiful city, it made me realise how strong I was and how I didn’t need to force myself into a relationship to have amazing experiences.

One day during that holiday I was in a large church. I was about to leave when a local man came in and started playing the organ. I was completely stunned. I sat in the empty pews for at least 45 minutes just listening to the beautiful music being played for an audience of one. And then I started to cry, and when I realised I was crying I cried some more. Because in that moment I was so overcome with emotion, reflecting how far I’d come since the little girl who’d sobbed in Prague. I was in a new job, I was living in London, I was on holiday by myself. Above all else, I was happy.

Having donated a sizeable amount into the empty box, I left the church with a different pledge compared to that which I’d set myself a year before. I will never let anyone stop me being me.

By late October I was writing freelance pieces for the Swindon Advertiser and other places here and there, picking up fans from the most unlikely of articles. To name drop a few – the CEO of Royal Society of Arts, Matthew Taylor, Deputy Governor for the Bank of England, Nemat Shafik, and artist and TV personality Grayson Perry. While I was incredibly flattered by their letters and emails, I didn’t let it impact on my writing.

On 22nd November I published  Solo Adventures

(YouTube search “Bruges Wish You Were Here?” To watch the video)

11th November 2019, where I am today…

The London grind carried as per 2018, I had my second wisdom tooth removed in January and in March I took again to travel, this time to Amsterdam. ‘Why?’ My friend asked. ‘Because I can.’ I replied.

I moved back to Swindon fully in May, full of the cultural confusion one would expect having undergone a year living in the capital. I felt more connected with the work I was paid to do, but it took me longer to reconnect with the local area. Gone were the fancy bars and influential people, nowhere to be seen were the towering buildings and the bold cultural mix that came with the crowds.

In central London being single was completely normal, but returning to Swindon I felt like an outsider in my own town. While I’d been experimenting with vegan cookery classes near King’s Cross and tackling marshmallow challenges in Waterloo pubs, many of my Swindon friends had shackled up or even got engaged. It felt weird, almost as weird as going back on the dating apps to find that I’d cleared through the search parameters in minutes. In London I never touched the sides! When I tried reaching out to guys a little bit further out, cities such as Bath and Bristol, I never got a response. When I told my friend that in London people would travel 45 minutes to for a date she said ‘but Alice, that was London,’ as if it were a valid excuse.

I needed the distraction from reality. In May that I had the best time when a friend invited me to spend a week in her villa in Granada. I’d never met the others she’d invited to join the party, but knowing her personality I put my faith in her judgement. It was trust well placed; I had an amazing time in Spain and made four great new friends out of the process, including photographer Tom who made me see that perhaps one of my biggest assets had been behind me all along.

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Writing

I started a writing course in June to work on a novel and so far my tutor is loving it. While I started the course fully expecting to get critical feedback, I’m chuffed that the first draft is getting praise from well-established authors. Because of the nature of the course there’s a lot of two steps forward in draft, one step back to amend based on feedback but I’m working at great pace all the same.

26th June – enrolled on novel writing course (0 words)

1st October – 13,500 words

20th October – 28,000 words

11th November – 41,090 words

While there’s no hard and fast rule, general publishing consensus is that anything over 40,000 words could be published as an adult novel. While there’s still a long way to go, this isn’t the last you’ve heard of my novel. Keep watching this space!

 

Volunteering

In July I started volunteering with the local Samaritans branch and through it learning a deeper understanding around the challenges of mental health, as well as practical skills such as line management (being accountable for retail operations which provides 50% of the centre’s income). The leadership team have welcomed me with open arms and, in the case of the Pride match, with a lot of branded material and face paint!

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Swindon 18-30 Professionals

At the time of writing Swindon 18-30 is 912 members strong, a number that would have made a younger version of myself well-up in pride and disbelief.

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First Wednesday Drinks moved to a different venue, the Royal Oak Gin Bar, in 2017 yet its popularity has continued to grow. Royal Oak are now Swindon 18-30’s main sponsor.

The hard work goes on, and I’d have struggled if it not for those who have championed the group through sponsorship, organising events, telling their friends or letting me put up posters in their offices/community spaces.

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**

Looking forward toward the rest of this year (and the next five after that) I’d love to see myself doing something which allows me to keep being who I am whilst continuing to add value to the everyday. I want to make sure that no one ever feels that they can’t be awesome or that they have to stay in a box because someone says so.

On 31st October I sat on a Brexit panel for local radio, I came away from the experience proud that I’d been able to voice my views in a balanced way and give a fresh perspective to ongoing debates. In the words of my Mum, “you never would have spoken like that two years ago. You should be proud of yourself.” She was right, I wouldn’t have dared put myself forward for anything so exposing a few years ago.

I want to make money from what I love doing most, writing, even if it’s just enough to cover the cost of some of the many coffees I consume whilst I type or scribble away. The feedback I get each and every day from people gives me the strength to keep working towards that goal. I want to get my first book published and then write some more, and more. My old Secondary School English teacher used to call me her ‘little-novelist’, I want to do my nick-namesake proud.

I’d like to find a partner, but I don’t want to settle and I don’t want to seek it out of desperation. I’m surrounded by friends and family who provide the love to survive, at my fingertips an internet bursting with information on which to thrive. I want a partner, but I need to know if it’s right for me.

**

Two snapshots, July 2014 and September 2019.

Maybe in another five years I’ll take a completely different opinion on how things have panned out. But honestly? In the past half decade I’ve learnt the most about myself and others through the leaps of faith and the knock backs, more than through the smooth rides. My life has changed so much since I moved to Swindon in 2014, the path to get me where I am today has been twisted and anything but conventional. No doubt it’ll shift about some more in the years and decades to come but I’m more than ready for it. Bring it on!

Below is one of my favourite songs which I discovered just before I went to Bruges. It sums up how I’d want people to embrace me; it’s fun, upbeat and a bit different from the usual (in content and language – it’s sung by French artist Zaz). In essence it’s about the singer asking a prospective partner to embrace who she is above all else.

“Je Veux d’l’amour, d’la joie, de la bonne humeur,
Ce n’est pas votre argent qui f’ra mon bonheur,
Moi j’veux crever la main sur le cœur papalapapapala,                                                     Allons ensemble découvrir ma liberté, oubliez donc tous vos clichés,
Bienvenue dans ma réalité!”

I want love, joy and cheerfulness,
Your money won’t buy me happiness,
I just want to die with a hand on my chest,
Let’s go together discover my freedom, let you forget all your stereotypes,
Welcome into my reality!

 

**

Here’s to the wonderful unpredictability of the events that we call life.

On 11th November I published this post, Five Years Ago Today…

 

Did you enjoy this content? Please buy me a coffee to say thanks by clicking here: Buy Me A Coffee

 

Seven Little Books

“29/04/18. My arms are aching, my legs are covered in bruises and I’m completely shattered. I must be in London.”

It has been a week since I vacated my flat in central London and returned once more to Swindon. It almost feels like the past year has all been but a dream, vape steam in the breeze. Invisible, abstract and only memorable by the faint smell it leaves behind.

On 2nd May I left London Paddington station for the last time packed like a loaded Buckaroo: an overfilled holdall case, a heavy rucksack, an additional handbag, a canvas tote filled with redundant bedlinen and a heavy laptop across the body for good measure. I learnt from my mistakes moving out and managed the travel back relatively bruise free, however my body has ached for days from strain. The day before I fully moved I’d completed a separate trip to Swindon with a similar amount of goods and wondered why I couldn’t stop violently shaking. I spilt coffee everywhere at the formal work function, of course. At the time I put it down to the amount of rushing around but now I see it as the culmination of mental and muscular stress.

Other than the short term pains it would be easy to pass off what I’d been through and achieved in just over twelve months living and working in the English capital as nothing more than normal. ‘Business as usual’ as my colleagues would say. But it isn’t. And it’s not just the big things that make me say that, like moving into the flat and travelling solo in Europe for the first time, but it is the little things as well. The events I put myself out of my comfort zone to attend, the weird obsession with finding the cheapest eggs, the men (goodness the men). And as I stood in Brompton cemetery one Sunday afternoon while a random man called Nicolas tried to chat me up I thought only one thing.

Thank God I’m writing this all down.

Seven separate notebooks, all documenting the experience of spending a year in London. Seven books with unique but different personalities as I went through a deeply personal and professional journey. Just glancing over extracts from book one and comparing it to book seven the transformation is really quite something (excluding coffee spilling and egg hunting, those two are deeply trademarked parts of me). Admittedly I haven’t read any of the books in depth since writing, I want to let some water trickle under bridges first. But I remember so clearly picking the first notebook off a shelf in a stationery store and telling myself I would make every effort to record the upcoming eight months in London (as it was then supposed to be) so that I should not forget the experience when I returned once more to Wiltshire. To ensure that I never let this fantastic opportunity turn into little more than a faded dream. And maybe, just maybe, one day I will do something more with my scribbles, that people will know about the time I ended up at a celebrity wedding, when the artist Grayson Perry became a fan of my writing, the time I got screen tested for a dating show. And again, the men.

If two things show how much I’ve changed over the past year then look no further than these separate quotes.

“11/05/18…Let’s make this work.”

“06/04/19…Because I can.”

 

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A Pint of Blood Sir if you may: The Cloak and Dagger Tour of Southwark, London (Review)

 “Have fun on your date.”

“It’s not a date Mum. I’m going on a London ghost walk by myself, it’s a last-minute thing.”

When technology wormed its way into the English countryside I thought it would be a good thing. Get people more connected, better informed and stop my Mum asking me every five minutes if I’m going on a date. Well I was right, instead of asking me over the phone, she now texts me.

“Anyway, I’ve got to go now, it’s about to start.”

“Enjoy your tourist date.”

I sighed, dropping the phone into my shoulder bag.

Looking around at my fellow evening companions maybe having a plus one would have helped me blend in. Couple, Couple, tourists, female friends, couple. It was going to be that kind of a tour which is weird because everyone knows all men are attracted ladies with a fascination for historic execution, sewage and hanky panky. Obviously.

Our guide for the evening would be the creator of The Cloak and Dagger Tour, a man who goes by the name of Cary Galia. In the face of a number of competitors this guy decided to create his own tour of Southwark which, when you think about it, is pretty bolshy stuff. Dressed in 18th Century style attire he started the evenings activities at the historic George Inn pub, just up the road from London Bridge station. After formalities Cary lead the group into the heart of Southwark, notably Borough Market. I won’t give away all the gory facts and details for you (Cary would legitimately hunt me down if I did) but turns out I was more than a little misguided when I told my sister that the oldest part of the former pig market was “just added on as an overspill area for street food vendors”. Before this tour I clearly had rose tinted glasses on to think the block paving was only there to make the floor look pretty.

Still, time pressed on and there was a hefty round of drinks awaiting our cash in the warmth of The George Inn so we continued our tour. More gore, more History, more than some people could handle. I briefly got chatting to the only other single traveller on the trip, a middle aged lady who seemed shocked by the bloodied past of the South Bank.

“It doesn’t bother me, I used to study historic cases of infanticide. This is pretty tame in comparison.” I cheerfully replied, after which the lady didn’t approach me again. No idea why.

The walking tour was peppered with questions and mini re-enactments but the real spectacle came at the end of the tour when the group were safe back inside the historic interior of a function room. You’ve got to hand it to The National Trust, they know how to run a pub. Anyway, out of the blue another actor bursts in through the door and all hell breaks loose. Cary goes from jokey guide to full on performer, there are Northern accents flying about and to be quite honest I don’t know what is normal anymore. Where the hell am I? And where’s my pint gone? (Oh wait, I drunk it.) A dramatic fight scene, impressive monologue and the whole spectacle ends with the audience stunned in silence.

Suddenly Cary is all Southern again and returns to a normal person. But I can’t trust this man, the man of many voices and a coat I wish I owned. I eye him and the other actor suspiciously as he asks us whether we think his character was being honest or not. Silence.

“No thoughts?” He challenges again, “you’re that stunned?”

“It’s because we were so mesmerised by your performance!” One of the female friends quips with a giggle.

“Pass me the flipping bucket” I think, rolling my eyes.

We ended up coming to the same conclusion all British people have when faced with a debate; none. But that said it was a great end to the walking tour I’d had the pleasure in partaking in. I moved to London in May 2018 and have since spent a great deal of time frequenting the South Bank with, it transpires, a poor understanding of the blood and guts that used to flow down its streets.  Truth is, if you’re looking for a polished, clean take on history you’re better off spending the day in the British History Museum. But if you want to know the real, day-to-day existence for people living on the South Bank, before the coffee vendors, the refrigerated meat sellers and the hipster fruit smoothies then really this is your best bet at getting that. If you want to latter go to Cloak and Dagger Tours. But as I type this from a Wapping-side pub, glancing down at my phone, I request only one thing. Please don’t ask fellow participants if they’re on a date.

 

More information on The Cloak and Dagger Tour of Southwark, including how to book, can her found here.

 

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We Are Strange: Corporate Innovation in Action

Been curious as to my whereabouts these past few weeks? Sat at home wondering what coffee shop I’m loitering in or whether, quite possibly, I’ve melted into a sticky puddle on the Tube? Well now I’ve come out the other side I can fill you in on exactly what I’ve been doing.

Snapshot summary: shut up in freezing cold rooms with the same people, ferried about the country in bright t shirts to separate ‘us’ from ‘them’. After 15 days pushed onto a large stage in front of important people to perform a corporate dance. For the winners, glory, for the losers, vending machine coffee. Scaring hashtag memories and bursting inboxes for all.

Make sense? Lets take it back a step or two.

In the beginning…

Cast your mind back to mid June. That crazy time when the temperatures were seasonally normal and people scoffed at England’s chances in the World Cup. Myself, alongside all those on two of my organisation’s career development streams were called into a room and informed that for the first three weeks of July we were to come off our day jobs and work on another sub-project titled “Innovation”. In true project style, the title Innovation remained as clear at ditch water to all but the organisers so what followed was a more detailed brief. Simply put, in teams we had between then and the 26h July to produce a new, innovative, solution to a problem being experienced currently by our organisation.

While we understood the aims and objectives of the Innovation Project as a whole, what we struggled with more was the idea of being removed from the business for three whole weeks. As you can imagine our day managers were less than thrilled but conveniently had been briefed in a separate meeting in a different building. Their ‘feedback’ pinged into inboxes just as we were being put into teams.

After brief conversations within our separate units, team names and compulsory hashtags were provided to those in charge. Given at the time none of us expected these to go any further than a internal communication or the organisation’s corporate social page, my group went for team “All Change” alongside #WeAreStrange. The hashtag in particular was done in good humour at the organisation of the Innovation Project. A week or so after that we were assigned a topic to base our separate projects around. For my team it was “how might we better identify member* needs of the future?” (*member being another way of saying our financial customers’) And with that we were all set off into the big world. It was now mid-late June and we knew that in a few weeks we’d be presenting an idea, a solution, a product to senior executives.

Late June – Another presentation on presentations…

Enter Capgemini, one of our organisation’s third party suppliers and soft skills trainers for the duration of the Innovation Project and organisers of several weeks of WebEx talks and dynamic team building sessions. On the whole these were good, it only took an hour a week to listen to the online video conferences and they required zero preparation (unless you had a question). Unsure of who did or did not know me, my signature intro ended up being “hi this is Alice, Alice Bennett here” but otherwise I held up my strong cool-kid reputation. Admittedly given my London location I often couldn’t attend meetings in person, but instead dialled in to noisy boardrooms only to question the benefit of me hearing fragments of ten different people instead of my team mates.

Other than these sessions our day jobs carried on as normal. All of us manically working away in the background to get what we could completed, tidied up or handed over for someone else to cover whilst we were away. It really did feel as if we were leaving our current teams for some shiny prospect that none of us could quite explain without making it look like we were going to be paid to do nothing for three weeks. Like parrots our default justification was “it’s development”.

July – week 1

Admittedly I was off in Majorca for the first formal week of tech training, led by second supplier IBM. Although I was off enjoying the sun I felt a bit sorry for the two remaining team mates who had to go through a tough five day boot camp into all things tech related from coding to the Cloud. As the heatwave blistered on outside, within the walls of the hotel the teams were shut away in ice cold rooms, spaces that were so chilly I later heard tales of people bringing cardigans and jumpers to keep warm.

Week 2

Getting over holiday blues and how Britain could possibly be so hot still, the day after I landed back in Birmingham I was off again up north to Manchester. Here all the teams spent three days with, you guessed it, another third party supplier. Cisco is very proud of its innovation labs up in the northern powerhouse city, so was keen to show us what a dedicated innovation space looked like. But before that we had to settle into our hotel accommodation and be presented with our team t shirts. Remember what I said before about assuming the team name would go no further than that? Well I learnt a very painful lesson that evening about making assumptions…don’t. So now everyone had brightly coloured t shirts with a team name and hashtag printed boldly across the front and back. And we had to wear them the next day. And we had to walk halfway across Manchester to get to Cisco’s offices. Coincidentally management had long gone to bed by the time we realised all of this.

Day one in Manchester and we spent most of the day sitting on bean bags, because the stereotypes of creative spaces aren’t reinforced enough nowadays.

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Comfy at first but try sitting on them for three hours…

On this day we learnt more about what Cisco were doing at the MI-Idea labs and we met with start-ups to understand the personalities, mentalities and ideas that fall under the umbrella term.

On days two and three in Manchester IBM were back again to teach us how to unpick and create our own chatbots and visual recognition (VR). We found these sessions to be a lot quicker and easier to pick up and in no time at all Mike in my team was formulating his own Gareth Southgate chat bot and I looking into the boundaries of VR. I also posted several witty social media posts such as…

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“Now, while VR can tell you there are coffee cups in this image, what it can’t recognise is that you have a problem.”

We started Wednesday’s session earlier than planned so we could rush back to Swindon in time for the England vs Croatia match. That evening both our bodies and souls were crushed. It would take several days for us to regain ourselves.

On Thursday all of us reunited in the conference suite, alongside the corporate graduates, to be briefed on another project we were to start working on. So now we had both an Innovation and Charity project to work on. As you can imagine we were so very, very, happy that day. So happy.

Friday was the first day were our teams all got together in separate rooms and started thrashing out ideas to tackle our theme. After so much time travelling or being lectured or learning or fighting off angry day job managers, the strain showed on everyone. We were all ready for the weekend.

Week 3

In the final week of formally being off project team All Change started to do that, change. We had a concept but how that would look on paper and how we could make it work for our organisation was a tougher challenge. It’s one thing to say your idea is innovative, but if that idea is a dancing unicorn handing out red velvet cake to customers then it’s not likely to be as well received compared to something that is crazy but works.

For our team this final week featured a lot of competitor research (which isn’t easy – turns out corporations don’t like to make their finances public) and trying to pin people down for answers. In any other situation you wouldn’t expect a specialist to have a free enough diary to meet, say, the next day however in our bubble project time wasn’t a luxury. We quickly learnt that saying “we have to meet tomorrow because we’re presenting next week” made no difference at best and at worst got them asking us questions instead of our team asking them. Quick emails from their side did the job just as well. Alex pulled together a great presentation and our mentor Steve was a star in helping and showing us how to build a mobile app prototype, an essential part of making our idea tangible to the panel and creating a stand out presentation.

Throughout this week there were touch points with our project sponsors, the wider project leads and general chit chat with the third party suppliers who operated in a facilitate, support and provide external perspectives on our idea. On the Friday we delivered a dry run through of the presentation to a dummy panel of persons whose role was to provide initial feedback. As a team we were quite happy with the response and readily took on board the tweaks and minor adjustments which the presentation needed.

Despite all the craziness we made time for this ‘official’ team photo:

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On the board: HOW TO LOOK BUSY – Dynamic team photos, post it notes, Latin team name (a jab at teams Acta Non Verba and Sempre Progrediendi), bean bags

Week 4

Back in day jobs = craziness = do not disturb = reminding team members we’re alive

Adjusting Innovation presentations = making time for research = making time for team rehearsals = trying to find rooms with phones (so I can dial in) = travelling back and forth from London to Swindon = shattered but ready

Thursday 26th July

Team All Change were fourth on the agenda after introductions and then the first presentation by Acta non Verba.

As we went up onto the main stage with all the big wigs, managers and colleagues of our organisation in front of us, we felt a little nervous. I’d never seen Claudia look so uncomfortable, bouncing on one foot to another as Alex set up his laptop with the presentation. “You’ve got this” I reassured her as we walked to the other side of the stage.

We not only smashed that presentation but completely owned it. All that was missing was internal fireworks or fire itself (the budget was there for health and safety checks).

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We did good for a team which had #WeAreStrange printed across our backs (or yeah, the t shirts just had to be compulsory attire on the day of the final presentation, didn’t they? Cool-kid cred reduced to minus figures in seconds.)

After post presentation questioning and celebratory complimentary coffee we returned to our table in the conference suite and listened to the other three groups deliver their problem statement solutions. As each group watched the other in turn we were all amazed by both the quality and complexity of what had been designed and tested in such a short space of time. These weren’t “have you considered setting up a Google docs account?” or “have you thought about getting Amazon in to fix this?” It goes to show that if you give people resource and a free space then the ideas that can formulate are without limit. What is that saying about a man and a fish pole?

During the panel’s deliberation time I sipped on my coffee and wondered how anyone could pick out winners when all the presentations and contents were so good but so different. To me it felt a little bit like comparing chalk and cheese.

After a lot of heated discussions, the three winning teams were as follows:

Most viable (i.e. something the business could start doing straight away) – The Dream Team

People’s Choice (voted for by the audience) – Semper Progrediendi

Most Innovative  – ALL CHANGE!! Yeeesss!

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All the teams in our assorted bright t shirts

I wish I could say we won a pile of cash or a mini break to Paris, but instead we were happy to accept a framed certificate and team photo where we all looked good.

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Team All Change (I’d say the dream team but the yellows were called that). Left to right: Me (Alice Bennett), Claudia Pellegrino, Mike O’Keefe, Alex Wheeler

After all the excitement and the close of the main event at 1pm there was only a little time to take lunch and crash. After that for most it was a case of taking off t shirts and getting back into the day job. I personally kept my t shirt on, firstly because I missed the memo about everyone bringing a change of top (and I don’t think my company is about to relax its uniform policies that much) but also because by that point I was beyond embarrassment. Enough people had seen me strutting about the office in heels, pencil skirt and black jacket like some product rep for a new health drink. I didn’t care anymore. Like the presentation I’d been part of several hours beforehand I was happy, if not a little proud to own the look on that day. And when friends outside of the challenge pointed to my top with a smile and a laugh all I had to do was turn on my heel and lower my jacket.

“Well, we are strange”

“Aren’t you hot in that black jacket?”

“You cannot begin to imagine.”

After all that you are probably wondering what All Change’s big, award-winning innovation idea was or indeed the ideas of the four other teams. Well, I guess you’ll just have to watch this space to find out… #WeAreStrange #SimplyInnovating

(A big thank you to everyone involved in the Innovation Project, including organisers, facilitators, educators and panellists. Of the third party providers there are far too many of you to name individually so I hope that in thanking Capgemini, IBM and Cisco will suffice. You guys know who you are, especially the person who thought bright t shirts were a good idea…)

How to be More Like Alice

Have you ever woken up and thought ‘damn, yet another morning and I’m still not Alice E. Bennett? Heck I’m not even Alice Bennett and there are thousands of those, including this deceased bae…’

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Well fear not because below are a few simple things you can adopt in your life to be less like you and more like me. And a world with more Alice would be a fudging sweet one.

  • Make this your new backing track:
  • Or this:
  • Listen to Classic FM on lunch breaks whilst reading solid literature. Bonus points for adding an amused/coy smile when you have no idea what you’re reading about.
  • Make the same sad cheese sandwich for lunch everyday. Own the saved pennies, disown the taste!
  • Play the game ‘new mole or just melted chocolate?’
  • Walk so fast you forget to look where you’re going, trip and smash your head into the pavement. Is that concussion or are you feeling sassier already?WP_20160218_18_08_05_Pro.jpg
  • Spill tea or coffee. Just because.
  • Dresses need to become a thing in your life.
  • Either look adorable…

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  • …Or honest.

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  • Drink wine knowing almost certainly what it will bring.
  • Read books in coffee shops – initially with the pretence of looking sophisticated but then because you enjoy the experience.
  • Explore/visit things by yourself and be perfectly happy in doing so.
  • Work hard, write harder.
  • Love your family.

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  • Mock your family.
  • But most of all, never forget your humble beginnings as a pair of 90s curtains.

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  • …Or a bin bag.securedownload (3)

 

Do that and you’ll be right on track to being more like Alice E. Bennett. Just don’t come knocking round my door asking for tea bags, you can spill your own tea.

10 Things you Simply must do in the North Cotswolds

The Cotswolds are a beautiful part of the world. Rolling green hills, golden stone brickwork and chocolate box villages make it one of the most desirable tourist destinations within the UK. It’s also a large region notoriously hard to pin point.

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According to this map Swindon and Evesham are in the Cotswolds which frankly is the funniest thing I’ve seen all day.

Who better placed to review North Cotswold attractions than someone raised in a border village? After all, no one goes on holiday to spend hours in tourist information centres.

asf.jpg‘North Cotswold Triangle’ shown on map above.

10 Things you Simply must do in the North Cotswolds

1. Chipping Campden

This little market town marks the most northern point of the region and typifies a lot of the features you’d expect to find in a place that made its wealth in the wool industry.

Chipping Campden has been able to retain vibrancy in its little independent shops, pubs and coffee houses spread along the main high street and having attended secondary school in this sleepy town I can certainly vouch that it’s worth a couple of hours of anyone’s time. During school holidays you can park in the school’s car park or, if you can’t park along the street, there’s a small pay and display car park in the centre.

Fun fact: Chipping Campden is home to the design studio of popular silverware brand Robert Welch.

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2. Walk the Cotswold Way

Linked to the above, Chipping Campden is one town that sits on this popular walking path. On this one I won’t compete with the multitude of books and websites (there’s plenty of information out there) but I would encourage anyone visiting the area to tackle a shortened route or section.

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3. Broadway Tower

Representing the highest point and one of the most iconic Cotswold symbols, Broadway Tower gives the best views for miles around. Don’t be fooled by the title though, this charming folly is located a short drive away from the market village of the same name, that said the hillside has considerably developed in recent years enabling visitors to linger a little longer and treat themselves to stylish interior buys and coffee in the converted barn.

If views aren’t your thing there’s also an underground nuclear bunker on site which is open to the public on weekends during the summer period (April – September). Closed in 1991 but restored to its 1980 appearance, it’s one for Cold War era fans.

Worth noting that this site gets busier during peak times (e.g. summer and weekends) and while fairly substantial the car park does fill up. Given the hillside bumps that sit alongside the tower, sheep are sometimes let lose to keen the grass trim resulting in lots of ‘little presents’. For both reasons sensible footwear is recommended.

Top tip: You can pay to go into the tower itself where a brief history of the area and exhibitions are presented. At time of writing tickets for adults are £5. My advice? Save the money and invest in coffee and cake at the tea shop.

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4. Cotswold Lavender

In many of the fields near Broadway Tower you’ll find the purple shrub growing in large quantities, spoils of which go into making the popular scented products sold by the Cotswold Lavender company. When the lavender is in season a visit to the farm is an experience for all the senses.

In a rush? If the lavender is in full bloom make the effort to drive down the country lanes that cut through the crops. The intensity of fresh flowers combined with a gentle breeze is something you won’t forget in a hurry.

5. Go for a drive (and give the sat nav a rest)

Take a map and a basic idea of where you want to go and just drive. There are some beautiful Cotswold lanes and undiscovered hamlets to be found across the North Cotswolds and, better still, the roads are all of solid quality and easy enough to spot (even if they’re not always signposted well).

If you want to really experience the Cotswolds you have to avoid the well trodden path. Everyday large numbers of coaches take visitors (from the UK and overseas) on day visits to the main destination towns. Popular towns are popular for a reason and in peak season it’s not uncommon for individuals to come away feeling disappointed with the experience they get at such places. My advice? Ditch the crowds and gain a unique experience by going for a scenic drive. Who knows, you may even discover a location or pub you go back to later on.

Word of Warning: the unique experience will also mean a lack of mobile phone reception and make sure the tank is full of fuel before setting off (petrol stations are not a common sight in the rural Cotswolds).

6. Hidcote Manor Gardens (The National Trust) and/or Kiftsgate Court Gardens (Privately Owned)

My family home is quite literally at the bottom of the hill so I’d be foolish to not give a mention to these world famous gardens, both of which are neighbours. That said, having spent my entire life living in the shadow of Hidcote my opinion on the gardens themselves are a bit mixed (personally I think there’s a touch of Emperor’s New Clothes about them). I do however respect their popularity and historic value and would always encourage people in the area to visit either Hidcote or Kiftsgate (or both) because they are a big deal and a ‘must do’ if holidaying. 

Hidcote is free to National Trust members, Kiftsgate has an admission fee. As per a lot of attractions these gardens get busy so my advice would be to go early and on a nice day (if it rains there is little to no shelter).

thLU4BKI90.jpgHidcote Manor Gardens

thCZ6VZGYU.jpgKiftsgate Court Gardens

7. Stratford-Upon-Avon

Whilst not located within the parameters of The Cotswolds, Stratford brings with it a different vibe compared to that of its rural neighbours. As well as being home to Shakespeare Stratford also has a rich history dating back hundreds of years. A quick google search will provide you with several days worth of activities.

Depending on where you’re holidaying in the region Stratford is only a short drive away and worth exploring to get a comparison. It’s also home to a number of high street shops and well known eateries during the day and stylish wine bars and dining at night.

Top Tip: Don’t kid yourself into thinking the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) will have a multitude of same day performance tickets available. The majority of tickets sell out months in advance so book them at the same time you book your accommodation. Also check out ‘Stratford ArtsHouse’ – a venue that has come leaps and bounds in recent years. This small theatre pulls in a number of touring comedians and plays.

8. Bourton on the Water/Broadway/Stow on the Wold etc.

Granted these places do get busy but there’s a reason for that. Heavily photographed and easily accessible, any of the above towns will be found on number of visitor check lists. Each town has their own history and charm, for example Bourton is frequently referred to as ‘the Venice of the Cotswolds’. Avoid these places like the plague on August weekends/bank holidays, but otherwise they’re worth a visit if you’re seeking souvenirs and wanting to experience the pure essence of what the Cotswolds are all about.

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9. Batsford Arboretum (near Moreton in the Marsh)

If you’re visiting the North Cotswolds in Autumn and not considering this as a destination then think again. Batsford is home to a large number of tree species and is coincidentally the country’s largest private collection of trees and shrubs. That aside, it’s also a great place for photography, wandering and (if kids or big kids are present) running around and letting off steam.

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10. Snowshill Manor (The National Trust)

Located near Broadway, this National Trust property houses the collections of Charles Wade who bought the property in 1919.

The random but fascinating treasures held in this house define both the owner and period and show an early 20th Century interpretation of what the modern day rich do when money is no object. If you don’t dwell too heavily on the wealth being sourced from slave plantations in the West Indies then you’re in for an insightful experience. Each room provides a different exhibition of artefacts, it’s history within history.

Top Tip: during peak periods entry to the house is administered on timed tickets. Visit the property first before lingering in the gardens. The property itself is also a short walk away from the coffee shop/entrance which is worth noting before you set off.

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(11. Stanway House and Gardens)

Stanway is probably the best kept secret of the North Cotswolds, if not the entire Cotswolds. Only open two afternoons a week in the Summer (Tuesday and Thursday), this fully functioning family home will provide a truly different experience to anything you’ll see at a National Trust property.

Volunteers run every element of public-facing operations, from collecting tickets and acting as room guides, to running the tea shop in the converted stables. Inside is an explosion of old vs new, antique tables and tapestries coupled with modern day invoices and weekly food shops. The garden outside displays a dramatic jet fountain which rises to 300 feet (making it the highest jet in England).

Wonderfully eccentric and undiscovered to the majority of tourists (but well known by locals), this is the attraction that none of your friends or family will have visited.

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And there you have it…

…some starting points for things to do in this Cotswold pocket. Of course there are a many number of other places to visit in the region (for example Bourton has a record-breaking model village and Chipping Norton is also a popular go-to destination). However I hope this list gives you a feel for the range of attractions and culture us Cotswoldians are proud to have as our own. If you want a taste of the Cotswolds (and beyond) then the North is certainly your best bet to get all you need from a relaxing mini break.

Think I’ve missed off a notable attraction? Add your comments below!

Useful Links (please note that all direct to external websites)

Broadway Tower

Cotswold Lavender

Kiftsgate Court Gardens

Hidcote (The National Trust)

The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC)

Stratford ArtsHouse

Batsford Arboretum

Snowshill Manor and Garden (The National Trust)

Stanway House and Fountain