“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there” – L.P. Hartley
A year ago today, I returned from a London city break and published my first post. I’d spent a year living in the UK capital, so for me it marked a refresh of the best bits of city-living, including art galleries, theatre performances and catching up with old friends.
Days after my return I was left encumbered, battling a mystery illness. Those following weeks I pressed on the best I could, putting it down as another one of those viruses which circulate in densely populated environments. A year later I’m no closer knowing what struck me down; we all have our theories.
Back then, my friends and I had whimsically noted the high-adoption of face coverings being worn by the predominantly Asian tourist base. We mused on the foreign illness that was gripping other continents, but to comprehend the possibility that our own country could already be rife with disease was a step too far. We were better than that, we were British. Instead, we continued to pack ourselves into dense sweats to watch live music, feasted in noisy restaurants and embraced fondly.
If only we’d known.
So, with perhaps a naively romanticised view of what were truly the last days of normality (late January 2020), here are all four parts of London Recalling.
Just a quick reminder that I’m still here, earning tumbleweed from my writing (well, actually, tumbleweed would at least be something…)
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Thank you in advance!
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Well things are really not going my way, are they? Just when I think I’m starting to shake this illness off, boom! Tonsillitis.
Given breathing state is a bit wheezy I’ll have to try and not get too ahead of myself when typing in hurried excitement. That’ll be the hardest part, just like when my teachers used to tell me off for smudging ink all over the page and up my hand. They never really did see the other side, that I couldn’t help it. That I was so keen to write everything down in my head, too impatient to let the ink to dry.
Bruise on the leg has near vanished too, so at least my body is still capable of some level of self healing.
It was that very same night as the Sofar Sounds gig that I experienced my minor calf injury. After the meal in Wapping I found myself casually wandering around St. Katharine Docks, a delightful patch of water and wealth next to Tower Bridge. Where rich people flaunt their yachts and people like me walk along raised walkways; enjoying the chance to look down at privilege. It’s also the location for one of my favourite views of London, where Tower Bridge appears from nowhere as a mighty giant of architecture.
At this time the light was lacking, so I decided I’d return another day to take the above photograph.
There had been a steady drizzle of rain throughout the afternoon, causing the paths and walkways to be more slippy than usual. While the Underground stations blared the same warning to passengers over and over again, on a near silent Sunday night in January the message was perhaps less ingrained in my head as I strolled around the Marina.
Eventually the expected happened, walking down a flight of concrete steps in my flat, sodden, pump shoes, my foot skidded on the slippery surface and I tumbled forward. Thankfully I was near to the bottom, my hands jutted out of my pockets just in time to break my fall down the two or three steps remaining of the flight. My calf however suffered their bite, the impact of these remaining ledges grazing their teeth along the bone, from foot to knee.
It was too dark for anyone to see, too quiet for anyone to notice, too quick for anyone to spot; within half a second of me falling flat in a heap I’d hopped back onto my feet and carried on my way. It was only later when I got back to the hotel I discovered the full impact of the fall was more substantial than I’d originally thought. Lesson learnt; I kept my hands of out my pockets and tread more carefully for the rest of the trip.
Monday morning, and now it felt like the time was all mine to play with. Done were the previously agreed engagements, the catch-ups and the pre-booked tickets, now I had the freedom to do whatever I wanted while the rest of the city got back to work.
From my bedroom window I watched the suited men and women in their designer shoes and trainers as they all scuttled in the same direction, towards the heart of the financial district. It drew me back to all those times before when I’d walked the very same path, head down, headphones plugged in.
In amongst the crowd I saw one individual less sure of themselves, less familiar with the route they were taking. They reminded me of myself all that time ago, those first few days where impatient workers would dodge and tut as I stopped frequently to check the direction of travel I was headed in.
Back in the present I knew my place, I would only head out after the walking rush-hour had ceased; after 09:00 when the world was a little calmer on foot.
I’d never been to the Museum of London which had always struck me as odd given it was one of the few tourist attractions I’d seen so frequently day-to-day working in The City. It’s imposing lettering on the side of a large brutalist wall that trailed around a roundabout and off towards the Barbican.
Deciding there is always a first time for everything, I skirted around a large school party waiting outside and dived into the building to get a head start on the exhibits.
The first thing that struck me was the music playing loudly across the speakers. The sound of punk music overflowing into exhibitions on prehistoric London seemed initially a strange pairing, until I realised that it formed part of a temporary exhibit on The Clash’s 1979 album London Calling. The album was playing on a loop to help draw people in. As I walked past staff members I wondered how many repeats of the title track would it take before they grew sick of such an iconic band.
The music stayed in my head long after I left the museum. I may have seen some wonderful artefacts and learnt a lot about London’s rich history, but it would be the feeling of seeing Paul Simonon’s broken guitar in real life that would come to brand the entire city-break. I’d never been an avid follower of the Punk movement, but the first time I understood it a little better. I was able to appreciate it for what it represented; the first act of civil disobedience, the first time youth made a strong impact. “No, we will not be silenced!”
From the Museum of London I skirted on down past St Paul’s cathedral, through the buzzing crowds of tourists and across the Millennium Footbridge to reach the banks of Southwark. In my sights I had my favourite branch of Caffe Nero; one located in Oxo Tower, but before I could reach it I caught myself on an installation placed outside the Tate Modern. A walk in cuboid-like structure, hung with column upon column of white paper cups (save a couple of black columns at the front).
‘We use 5,555 paper cups a minute in the UK,’ the sign read. ‘Oh which only 555 are recycled.’
I took a step back and, like a few of the passers by, were moved by how explicit the instillation was in showcasing the amount of waste in this country. However, what was equally striking was how the majority of people had responded to the stand-alone piece. All around people were scribbling messages onto the paper cups; some were deeply emotive on the destruction of the planet, others as two-dimensional as a statement that someone had been there, like lover’s hearts engraved on trees. Whether or not the artists has intended their work to be graffitied in this way, it seemed there was no stopping it, the piece had only been erected for a matter of days and yet was already covered in human sentiment.
A ballpoint pen burning in my handbag, I walked forwards and scouted out a suitable cup to make my mark. Not entirely sure what to write, I eventually scribbled down some words. I stepped back to admire my work, only to find myself cringing at the terrible handwriting and the surrealness of the wording. It was missing something.
I pulled out one of my business cards from my bad and, with the help of a few drawing pins and some blu tac, I attached the small square of card to the small paper cup. ‘Yes,’ I thought. ‘That looks better.’
The final inscription read:
Alice E. Bennett, 27/01/20. Mermaids do exist and they can’t survive in our polluted oceans. Instead they are forced into moving to Swindon!
(After attaching the card I also added the words, ‘get curious’.)
I took a couple of photos before moving on. As I walked away I realised a few people had been stood watching me the whole time as I awkwardly attached my card to the cup. An international tourist was quick to swoop in to give it a read, though I felt quite certain they wouldn’t have the faintest idea what I was on about, I barely knew myself.
Whether I had intended it to look that way or not, I’d effectively sold out on an environmental protest.
I strategically placed one of my ‘duff’ business cards (ones which were printed with a spelling mistake) under the empty coffee cup as I walked out of Caffe Nero, the space somewhat busier than I expected for a Monday lunchtime. I retraced my steps and entered the Tate Modern just as the heaven’s opened and it started to pour with rain.
‘Better take my time, then!’ I thought to myself, making my way into the turbine hall to admire the dramatic water fountain, Fons Americanus, created by American artist Kara Walker.
I strolled around several of the art galleries, in truth I saw this as a mere fill-in experience for old time’s sake. It’s funny how spoilt you can become when you experience something everyday, in that very moment I only sought out a quick hit whereas for many this would be the highlight of their day or even their trip, to London.
A number of the galleries hadn’t changed since the times I’d been there and for me that felt bothersome, like the Tate was being lazy and people were being cheated out of an experience. But then a quick survey of the people visiting at that moment in time reminded me that for most they knew no different, they were just like me that very first time I’d entered the old factory. Just as fascinated, just as keen to photograph. I knew the issue lay more with me than anyone else; so I put my internal-tantrum to one side and took myself to a different part of the establishment.
I will spare you the War and Peace version of how I view art, but on this visitation I seemed to feel a stronger feeling of hate, divide but also a call from artists to remember we are all human. I suppose it’s not a surprise, artists always have had a reputation for expressing more liberal sentiments than other segments of society. But watching Igor Grubic’s video East Side Story where far-right extremists attack a Pride match with bloody consequences, it felt like the message was stronger now than it ever had been before.
(Warning: video below contains strong language, violence, and homophobic language.)
And then there was hope; that if we recognised the contributions of others we could be a part of something much greater than if we work in isolation. Nowhere else did I see this more strongly than in Yinka Shonibare’s The British Library, a room installation which makes the point of showing how fundamental other cultures, notably African, have played a role in shaping English literature.
A room of books, each covered in bold and heavily patterned fabric, all the colours of Heaven and Earth itself. Not in such a long time had I found myself at pains to stand behind the thin bit of wire that prevented me from reaching out to touch, to feel, the books before my eyes.
The rain still coming down in medium sized droplets, I hurried across Blackfiars bridge back onto the Northern bank and then, from there, Northwards to reach Trafalgar Square. When I’m set on an idea I can become really stubborn to it, even if it makes absolutely no logical sense to anyone else. In this instance I’d got my heart set on a visit to the National Gallery before it closed at 18:00. I left the Tate Modern at 15:00 which, factoring in travel time, would give me a safe two hours in the gallery before hitting the Tube to avoid the peak rush hour at 18:00.
Maybe in a bid to avoid the rain outside, the National Gallery was considerably busier than I had expected it to be; an old building full of hot, wet bodies.
I took a quick turn through the galleries, although I found myself stopping and starting multiple times as soon as I came by a suitable seat to perch on. I hadn’t quite factored in how much walking I’d done today, and in fact every other day, until this very moment. Of all the views within and looking out of the building, the best that day came simply from that of a window seat, where I could idly watch people ascend and descend a large staircase built in a recent extension.
Because I’m me, I did find a couple of humourous bites in some of the artworks; including this piece which reminded me of all the times my friends had placed bets on the length of my hangovers:
And this piece which looked like a screen grab from some type of low-budget documentary. Something along the lines of…”don’t tell me how to raise my kids”.
However, when all was said an done I found myself surprisingly keener to leave the gallery earlier than I had originally planned in my head. After about an hour of breezing through the classics, I left the National Gallery, breaking my route back only momentarily to stop off in a nearby Waterstones. I couldn’t resist plunging myself down to the basement level to enjoy one of my favourite sensory experiences; the smell of new books.
That night I returned once more to St. Katherine Docks to enjoy a meal at the restaurant chain Zizzi. The looks people gave me when I walked in by myself! You’d have thought I had a third arm growing out of my waist! Used to these looks of surprise, curiosity and mild judgement, I pulled out a reading book as the staff placed me on the last free table in the house. I settled down for a chilled Monday night with a glass of wine and good company (i.e. food).
As I sat there later, sipping on coffee and making it clear to everyone I was in no rush to leave, I pondered on the art works I’d seen throughout the day. From The Clash, to Shonibare, right through to the classical masterpieces in the National Gallery, they had all been individuals not afraid to make their mark and show off their talent to the world. They would never have considered themselves arrogant or forcing their talent on the world. They may have had rocky patches, but they’d always had a firm belief that the route they were taking was the right one, when The Clash coated brick walls with their posters they wouldn’t have worried about what people said or thought. So why did I still on occasion find myself blushing when friends rolled their eyes at me, ‘putting up another business card Alice? You’re such a sell-out!’
Just then a waiter came by, sensing his chance. I reached into my bag and pulled out a card, tapping it swiftly on the hand-held device to make the transaction and ensure the staff hassled me no more.
I opened up my phone case and pulled out one of my business cards from the inside. As I flicked the small piece of card around my finger, reading and rereading the contact details printed on it, I mused on the idea of all artists being sell-outs. That to be and be regarded and accepted as ‘something’ you have to be prepared to stand out; you have to be a peacock in a field of pheasants.
I lifted myself from my seat, applying my coat onto my back in a sweeping movement. I cried out to the remaining staff who responded with a polite smile.
‘Thank you! Have a good evening!’
And then, just as I picked up by bag from the floor, I placed a business card brazenly on the table before walking out into the darkness with a secret smile on my face.
I’m sat up in bed, feeling incredibly rough with a head full of cold and a nose full of…stuff. Hot water bottle, chocolate bar wrappers scattered all around (not that I can taste anything) and badly wanting to curl up into a ball and sleep (prevented by a sharp pain in my throat – I might be coming down with tonsillitis again). Oh, and my left calf is covered in bruises, but at least not so swollen.
So how have I got to be in this state? And how come, in a strange turn of events, I don’t mind it quite so much as I would normally?
Part One – Straight Lesbians, Like Us
I rock up to Paddington early on Saturday morning. I am sans coffee and already reminding myself what it was like only a few months ago when dragging an over weighted cabin case was the norm.
‘Where are you?’ I text my friend, although the delivered but not received tick says it all. Still hacking across London on the Underground. When we eventually catch up it’s as if only a week has passed since we saw each other. Two long-time friends who, as luck would have it, met in Swindon in different industries but bonded strongly in London working for rival banks. We hop on the Bakerloo line and speed away towards China Town.
‘You know what you’re having?’ Cherice asks me over the top of the menu, a quirky place tucked away behind theatres staging Thriller and Les Miserables.
‘Not sure. Maybe the eggs?’
‘Oh, okay. Because I was thinking the full English…’
‘Thank God you were thinking that as well!’ I exclaim in a garble, just as the waiter comes by.
‘Know what you’re having?’
‘You go first.’ I say to Cherice.
‘Well, one of us has to go first.’
‘Fine,’ I put the menu down. ‘The full English, please.’
‘I’ll have the same,’ Cherice adds, handing the menu over. They’ve put us in the window seat, the best seat in the West-End restaurant, the table where they put the cute couples.
I watch group of tourists in protective face masks walk by. ‘Why is it every meal with you turns into a flirtatious date?’
Cherice laughs her signature laugh, causing everyone to stop for a second to study the source. One of the things I love about her. The waiter agrees with my judgement, rushing forward with my very much needed Americano.
‘You laugh has just brightened my day!’ He chirps, leaving Cherice to squirm under the attention. I roll my eyes.
‘Every time I take you out. Just like the time in Dalston,’ I sigh. ‘When the waitress thought we were on our anniversary. Remember? When you gave me the chocolates for my birthday and she said it was cute of you to treat me to Hotel Chocolat?’
We’ve often spoken at length about how life would be so much easier if we could date. Cherice, with her 100 egg diet and cross-fit, in the old days it was enough to convince me I was the more effeminate one in our pairing. Then London happened and I decided the only thing separating us in that regard was that I was the more decisive one, the one more likely to be more assertive, less caring what others thought. Now, as Cherice literally held my hand on every Tube change my thoughts were scattered again.
‘I know how to board the Tube, Cherice!’
‘You’d have left your case in the restaurant if it wasn’t for me! Do you even know where we are?’
‘You trust me that much? I could have taken you anywhere!’
‘Cherice, a stranger in bookshop could have promised to take me to the British Museum and I would have followed. You said we were going to the Wellcome Collection and here I am.’
I was at this point I directed Cherice to our mutual favourite series, You (FYI – I still can’t bring myself to watch season two, because…well…I am far too drawn to Joe and discovered my online life is far too relatable to Beck’s. Also, I get bad bookshop envy.)
We walked around the collection, idly laughing about the medicinal equipment (knew the GCSE would eventually come in use) and watched children playing around some of the kid-friendly exhibits.
‘Kids don’t have the space to roam like they used to,’ Cherice pointed to a diagram. ‘Me and my brother were allowed to wonder around massive areas growing up.’
‘Yes,’ she says flatly. Our extremes of surroundings growing up has always been a topic of immense bewilderment to the other.
‘I guess it was similar for me,’ I say, looking again at the satellite image. ‘Not the urban environment, but the space to be able to be me. I lived in the middle of nowhere, nothing but fields as far as the eye can see.’
‘Didn’t it ever drive you mad? Having nothing to do?’
‘Not at all!’ I counter. ‘Some people create imaginary friends, I created imaginary worlds to escape into.’
‘Ah, so that’s why you’re like you are?’
‘Maybe. Depends if it’s a good thing or not!’
We pop our heads into an exhibit on the power of water, splitting up briefly before Cherice returns to find me watching a surreal video of a McDonalds slowly flooding.
‘Water is bloody scary, man.’
‘Cherice, pigeons scare you and you’ve lived in London your whole life.’
‘Yeah, but it’s the destruction water can do. Why are you still watching it? It’s depressing.’
‘It’s strangely fascinating though, don’t you think? Slow TV, but with undertones of climate awareness. Makes you wonder, where are the humans? Where is the water coming from? It’s only depressing to you because of the conclusions your own head is reaching. See, it says right here that it was all set up, it’s not even a real restaurant. Wow, the effort that people put into art, eh?’
‘Suit yourself,’ Cherice shrugs as she says this. Like anyone who has ever visited an art gallery with me, you give me an inch…
‘…Then again I used to stare at pieces in the Tate Modern for ages until I was able to force myself into finding some deeper meaning,’ I ponder aloud. ‘Anyway, shall we go somewhere else?’
‘Sure,’ Cherice says gladly as we walk away together.
‘There is one thing though that bothers me about that video…’
‘Well, the description says the only audio is the sound of water. When did water sound like that?’
We next went to a couple of Riverside bars near King’s Cross.
‘There’s more to King’s Cross than the station?’ I exclaim.
‘How the hell did you survive here for a year?’
‘I live off £7.50 a week, maybe £9 at a push.’
‘How are you still alive?’
I ignored the question. ‘This mocktail is almost double my weekly food budget when I was living here full time. You really think I was hanging out at places like this? You think I ever travelled as far out as this for what is effectively a lemon juice?’
‘Besides, I always got the guys to take me to Shoreditch.’
‘Alice Elizabeth Bennett!’
‘What? One of them was a Programme Manager on Crossrail! Not like those guys ever seemed short of money…’
Cherice paid for our drinks, including the service charge, before we both scampered out.
‘Jesus, how much did you just pay on service charge?’ I scoffed. ‘You didn’t even like that drink! The waitress gave us evils the whole time!’
Cherice laughed. ‘I know, what am I like?’
‘No wonder you London lot are all skint, you keep paying for crappy service because you’re too embarrassed to say no.’
‘Remember the time in the Korean chicken place where I told the waitress I wasn’t paying the 12.5%?’
‘Yeah, I admired you so much.’
‘But I also couldn’t go back there again for a few months.’
I sighed. ‘Oh, look, book barge!’
Cherice could see me jumping from foot to foot, like a child desperate for the toilet. ‘Go on…’
‘I know you, you want to photo it for your blog.’
‘No I don’t…I just want it for…personal reasons. It’s a pretty boat.’
I was lying, but we both knew this.
‘Just take the photo and we can move on.’
We ambled over to another cocktail bar, one with an amazing 70s theme and a DJ playing retro tracks to match.
‘I want to be this bar when I grow up,’ I thought, looking around at the interior decorations.
Cherice meanwhile was having a moment with her Old Fashioned.
‘You okay, there?’ I smirked.
‘Question,’ I start. ‘Would you take a date here?’
‘Of course! The drinks are so good!’
‘Agreed, but doesn’t that make it a negative?’ I take a sip on my gin cocktail, the taste swarms around my mouth. I blow out a short stream of air. ‘Like that, right there. I’m having a better time with my drink right now then anything else.’
‘Yeah, but don’t you think it’s a bit of a distraction? Aren’t you meant to talk to people on dates?’
Cherice shrugged. ‘You tell me.’
‘I haven’t dated anyone since I left London in May, youtell me.’
‘The men haven’t changed, Alice! There’s still none!’ She thumped her glass on the table.
‘Woah! That alcohol is really going to your head, huh?’
‘…It is. I think I’m going to go freshen up.’
‘Okay b…’ I stop myself mid-word.
‘You can call me bae if you want.’
‘Really? We’ve reached that level of our relationship?’ I shout across the room in joy. Seeing the general reaction from other consumers I quickly turn around. Maybe I was a little tipsy too.
‘You okay there?’
‘Jesus Christ!’ I shout in surprise at the most retro looking server to have ever existed.
‘Sorry!’ I quickly add. ‘Didn’t see you.’
Ironic, given his orange floral top and beautifully styled beard, he was the most obvious man in the whole bar. He smiled, clearly finding the comment amusing as well.
‘Did you and your friend want anything else?’
‘I think we’re good, thanks.’
I quickly followed suit after Cherice returned, admiring the record covered walls in awe when the retro waiter appeared out of a cubicle.
‘Here,’ he held the door open for me. ‘This one is free.’
‘Oh, thanks,’ I duck under his arm and close the door. I stared at the back of the door and pondered some of the big questions for any woman to consider in her life.
‘Do I like beards now? I wonder what they feel like? Come to think about it, does this count as flirting in the modern age? Did 70s Henry Cavill just flirt with me? And why am I standing here when I need to pee?’
‘Sorry, there was good music playing in the toilet. Was too busy Shazaming the hell out of the space,’ I say as I grab my coat from the back of the seat.
‘Wow,’ my friend replies as she lifts herself from the padded seat.
I do a half-second rain check. ‘I’m both sorry to myself and our entire generation that my statement isn’t nearly what it would have meant ten years ago.’
After that we agreed that there was still time for another coffee, but Cherice couldn’t decide whether to take me to Paddington in West London or Angel in Islington.
‘I think I once got stood up by a guy who lived in Angel…’
‘Angel it is!’
We searched around for a coffee shop, most filling up quickly down the expensive boutique shop-lined streets. I paused outside a wedding dress shop.
‘What are you looking at?’ Cherice asked.
‘That’s an ugly dress,’ I observed. ‘It’s see-through all the way to her crotch! And the bit in the middle, see through again!’
‘Someone will buy it,’ Cherice commented. ‘Take it that’s not you?’
‘Jesus no! Weddings are so expensive. Why not use the money on something like a holiday or a house?’
‘…You already own a house.’
‘You know what I mean. It’s just like Valentine’s day with the overpriced roses that wilt. What’s wrong with other flowers anyway? Or just going out another night? Or even better, nothing at all. I’d rather have a toasted sandwich.’
‘Has anyone ever told you you’d be the perfect girlfriend?’
‘Hah! Bless you. No, I’m not perfect, I’m like bloody Sea Monkeys.’
‘Yeah, you have to keep feeding me or else I will float around. That or literally start burning rice and then end up contracting rickets. It’s not a great look.’
‘Wait, how do you even burn…’
‘I’d really rather not relive the trauma, Cherice. Now bear with me, I need to stick one of my business cards on this noticeboard.’
We eventually found somewhere with enough space to fit us in. Cherice had a tea, I was on yet more coffee. We hung out there for a bit longer, and chatted through my friend’s plans to move to Canada. I suppose for her, having grown up and worked in London nearly her entire life, moving to another continent is just a big a step as it was for me choosing to move to London all that time ago. Still didn’t make it any easier to accept though.
‘How long are you staying in Swindon?’ She asked, putting the focus of conversation once again back on me. I’d rather she didn’t, I much preferred her telling me all the amazing reasons why I should move to Canada myself.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean, really, what’s keeping you there, in Swindon?’
‘There are no men, your family aren’t there, your friends…’
‘My friends are all over the world! Some can’t seem to keep still…’
Cherice chuckles. ‘My bad. But really, would you consider moving elsewhere?’
‘I do miss London…’
‘No!’ Cherice cries suddenly, almost knocking her soy milk over. ‘You romanticised this place, that’s your problem! Thinking London is just one big culture trip with nice dresses and fancy men in bars.’
‘Remember how miserable that flat made you? With the black mould? Do I need to make the same sounds as your flatmate?’
‘Please, God, no!’ I jump in, almost grabbing her arm. ‘The only way to make her and her boyfriend stop was to play Baby Shark against the wall on full blast FIVE…TIMES..A…NIGHT. Do you have any idea how much that screws a woman up?’
‘Exactly! No, you don’t want to come here. You’d be better off in Bristol.’
‘Didn’t expect you to say that.’
‘Well, aside from the lack of jobs, everyone is really snooty. I was on a night out there once when, outside a kebab shop, this guy started slating off Swindon. Not a gentle poking fun, but on his high horse level. Asking me why I hadn’t married my brother already or whether I could count to ten.’
‘Anyway, so you know me, when I’ve had a bit to drink I get super friendly or super verbal-sarcastic-aggressive. There was only so much I could take.’
‘Where is this going?’
‘Well, eventually I snapped and said “fine, you tell me all about your three-bed townhouse in the centre of Bath then!”‘
‘My friend had a mouthful of food and from the surprise at my sudden bluntness she covered this smartly dressed toff in half-chewed wrap, complete with halloumi and lettuce. It was beautiful.’
‘We then made a quick getaway. I got to the rank, hailed a taxi and yelled at my friend to get in the car. She followed me in, not realising that it was me until the last second. My own friend swooned with my dominance.’
I raised a hand in mock charm, although Cherice by this stage had become less engaged in the story, trying to pour out the last dregs of loose leaf tea into her cup.
‘…Sorry, what were we talking about?’ She asks.
‘You know what, I can’t remember.’ I paused for a second while my friend kindly paid for yet another round of drinks.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Blogging kept me sane throughout the year, even if sometimes the content was anything but.
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.
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.
It even got a feature in local press.
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.
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!
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.
I was living in London (Wapping, E1W), had been since May.
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…
…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.
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.
Ultimately I think this hijacked road works sign in West London sums up my time in the capital perfectly:
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.
(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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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…
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“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.
“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.
he Repair Shop is on, but we can’t watch that because of your father.’
‘Is that because the clock repair guy?’
At which point Mumma Bennett quickly switched channel to the more favourable Homes Under the Hammer in case the family member suddenly made an appearance. (Although usually that occurrence is preceded with the sound of creaking floorboards and my sister calling out ‘the kraken has awoken!’ from her lady cave upstairs.)
To my dad, a clock maker, the clock repair fella on the aforementioned television program represents a sour relationship from a time now since passed. Their falling out was probably the only time I had to give counselling to my old man.
‘Perhaps I should call him again.’
‘Dad he’s not interested, if he was he’d have contacted you last week when you emailed him.’
‘But maybe he didn’t see it.’
‘Dad…I know it is hard to accept but perhaps it’s time to let go. Here, let me get you an ice cream.’
‘I’ve texted him.’
And that’s the thing, to my dad the feeling of ES_c0af6c02-0371-4c24-9c11-3e51d230b6cdSELRES_bc66a467-30bb-4348-8029-e005ac1betrayal SELRES_bc66a467-30bb-4348-8029-e005ac142724SELRES_c0af6c02-0371-4c24-9c11-3e51d230wasn’t marked by a singular event but more ongoing jabs. How the other party continues to ghost my pa but happy to lap up minor celeb status as an apparent expert on horological affairs.
In a very different example people tend to interpret the Biblical Judas as a man who betrayed Jesus (I know, what a novel concept). In Christian theology Judas is seen as not a nice guy but then his actions in turning against Jesus led to the salvation of humanity. If he hadn’t turned Jesus in for 30 silver coins would we be in a better place than we are now? Would it be worse? Would Toblerones still be the same size? I guess there’s some things we’ll never know.
For me when it comes to defining a back-stabber I think of it as more someone that damages the reputation of oneself or one’s trade. Don’t get me wrong, when BankUK stuffed up my mortgage application I was pretty miffed about my treatment but on reflection (and having conducted a number of Financial e-learning courses) I see that what they did was incredibly immoral to the institution as a whole, as well as myself as a customer. It undermined the wider financial industry and the rules that govern lending.
I also see the creative efforts of certain authors, artists, directors etc. as a criminal act. I’m sure you can think of a multitude so I won’t name any in particular *cough* Twilight Saga *cough, cough* Burn After Reading. Such tragedies are anything but Shakespearian.
Also, why is it called “Good Friday” when something bad happened on it? I mean you don’t go ‘I’m sorry to hear of your loss Sally. Was it a “good” Monday?’ In terms of emotion I feel rather ‘meh’ today on Good Friday. More meh than good, which makes me question everything about my almost non-existent Christian card I use.
“Are you working tomorrow?”
“On Good Friday? JESUS DIED INDIA!”
The concept of betrayal is more complex than we give it credit for. Does the pain of betrayal make us intelligent beings or are we human because we’ll use that intelligence to better ourselves no matter the cost? Are we no more than immature children (after all, wars have been started for little more than a perceived betrayal of treaties). I suppose it’s something scholars have discussed and argued over for many centuries and a topic that will be debated over for years to come.
Today’s WordPress prompt was Betrayed and given today is Good Friday I wonder over the choice of daily prompt (WordPress being, after all, a forum of all creeds and faiths). This post is admittedly rather forced and not my best (starting with such a fun topic to write about is like trying to make a puppy cute when its head is already half hanging off). It’s a hard task is all I’m saying.
On a lighter note, here’s a pop video about Moscow:
If you were unfulfilled before I hope you are now satisfied, if you held my work in high regard before I expect your expectations have been suitably lowered. I will not pass judgement on either.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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).
Hidcote Manor Gardens
Kiftsgate Court Gardens
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.
Bourton on the Water
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.
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.
(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.
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)
…You wouldn’t think the Holburne Museum and Art Gallery was located just off the centre of Bath Spa (Somerset, England). And yet, quite a literal stone’s throw from the beating heart of the city is this little gem of a place. All you need to do is cross the river and follow the dead straight road and you’ll reach this at the end (gotta love a Georgian straight road, it’s as if they predicted the advent of Sat Navs and thought ‘nah, why bother. Just make all the roads straight instead.’)
Originally a grand Georgian hotel, the building now houses the personal collection of Sir Thomas William Holburne and a great number of 17th and 18th Century artworks. Now, even though I studied History for three years, the only things it got me were £30,000 worth of debt and a couple of fun facts about executions, Victorian death rituals and lynch mobs. In short, I’m probably the last person on Earth to be providing a potted history for this place. For a timeline click here.
History aside, lets get onto the bit which 95% of my readership care about; how Alice’s brain has interpreted the contents of this museum (the other 5% Google searched ‘mermaids’ and are now bitterly disappointed by the contents of this site).
On the first floor is a room (and mezzanine above) which showcases the artefacts collected by Sir Thomas Holburne as well as family treasures.
Whenever I see a good deal of random antiquities in a room, all laid out and nicely presented I think about the condition such priceless items would have been kept in before the advent of museums. I mean, when you watch documentaries of hoarders in Cheshire you don’t think ‘oh, I wonder if there’s a cheeky Faberge Egg under that newspaper pile?’
See if I had a time machine that’s probably where I’d go, to the hoarding museums of the future. (I know right, why is this girl single?)
Funnily, when I went to the Holburne on a half day off I never expected to get home interior inspiration.
I mean a quick reckie around Swindon’s charity shops and some suspension cable and you’re away. In my house it would be life affirming – if you manage a flight of stairs without a vase landing on your head then you know you’re going to have a good day. If not…well you’re probably getting a day or two off work (=good day!)
Moving onto the art exhibitions in the other rooms, on the same level I was reminded that throughout history the same statement rings true; if it’s done in the name of ‘art’ then anything goes. For example, do you know that feeling when you get turned into a stag by the Goddess of animals and then killed by your own hounds whilst meanwhile everyone is too wrapped up in the Lapith/Centaur battle to care?
In that sense you can’t really be too heavily critical about art because if you look at things through a sceptical eye it seems that everyone was/is on some form of hallucinogenic.
In the same room I felt equally reassured that I’m not the only one to have struggled with the perils of a dignified wet wipe wash.
There were also a number of nice portraits in the room which didn’t inspire any wit from me at the time so didn’t get photographed. In my defence I was too busy chuckling at people reacting to the massive piece of contemporary art in the room. Needless to say most people weren’t getting it.
Upstairs then and on the second level was, you’ve guessed it, more pieces of priceless art. In a side room at the top of the stairs was a temporary exhibition on art of stage actors which gave me many a chuckle. This guy for instance could be relatable to any workplace environment…
And I doubt anyone has spotted it but me, but there was a weird love triangle taking place on the wall opposite.
Unfortunately one of the galleries was temporarily closed whilst a new exhibition was being fitted, which took me therefore into the last available gallery on my visit. It was an exhibit of stuffed exotic birds, hah, just kidding, it was another art gallery.
Now it could be just me, but do you ever find it trippy when there’s a painting in a painting? And you’re being invited to look at that said painting in a painting by the painted figures as if there’s deeper meaning in the painting’s painting? That if you stare at it long enough you’re expected to understand? And then you don’t get it so you read the description by the side of the painting and think ‘ah, ok’ then look back at the painting and still don’t get it? And then you question your intelligence, take a moment to remind yourself you have a degree in the Arts, before looking back at the painting and wondering why you wasted your time trying to understand something which, at best, is a fairly average painting and doesn’t make that much sense?
It’s historic inception if you ask me.
In this gallery there were a number of very nice pieces of art work. The room steward and I had a lovely conversation about over a particular portrait. ‘He was well known for his ability to paint women. They used to say he was good with the wives of gentry.’ (The thirteen year old in me was making so many smirky comments it’s a wonder none of them got blurted out .)
Also, the lady in that particular exhibition dashed out after me and complimented me on the way I viewed the collection. Middle class win. Set me up right rosy for the afternoon that did.
After I viewed all the art I could handle, I stopped off in the café on the ground floor which for the record was really pleasurable. Art and coffee are the perfect mix anyway, but the coffee shop has been very stylishly done, with a glass backed wall facing the parks located at the back of the museum.
Also, nice toilets.
After I’d completed my wander round the Holburne I strolled the grounds to the back of the old grand hotel. This area had originally been billed as the luxury pleasure gardens for the hotel’s guests and as I walked over regal bridges that crossed the railway line and ambled up to various pieces of Georgian architecture, I could see why. It was the perfect way to finish my visit.
I came away from the Holburne thinking myself as a sophisticated individual (I didn’t spill any coffee on me that day = proof) and given the Holburne is a free to enter, privately run, establishment I’d certainly say it was worth an hour of anyone’s time, even if it’s just for the cake and 18th Century banter.
More information on the Holburne Museum and Art Gallery can be found here (external website).