Cheerful in Chester

Travel

Hello from Chester
Hello from Chester

Over the weekend, Randi and I had a really lovely time in… spins the UK minibreak wheel of fortune… Chester! This was actually our second eviivo-sponsored stay following Box Hill in August, and here we were hosted by Dave and Kirsty at the faultless Stone Villa guest house. As anyone working in software will attest – especially in the era of working from home – talking to actual customers is incredibly rewarding and I’m very grateful for all of the time they volunteered to show me how they use the product. Plus, the breakfasts were delicious!

We also really, really liked Chester itself – starting with the picturesque walk into town along the canal. (This walk was also memorable for us being stopped while crossing a bridge by an elderly driver, who wound down her window and asked plaintively if we knew of any petrol stations with fuel. But this doesn’t feel like a Chester-specific anecdote.) Once we reached the centre, we were delighted to find that Wikipedia wasn’t exaggerating when it describes Chester’s “extensive Roman walls”. You really can just go up and take a 2 mile circular self-guided tour around the whole city, which is a really awesome way to get to know somewhere and a terrific bonus from past generations attempting to keep out the Welsh / Danes / Normans (delete as applicable).

Randi's new house
Randi’s new house

In fact, we were so enthused about the walls that when Randi’s friend Becca arrived on Saturday afternoon we made her walk around too just so we could do it all over again. Becca was in town to run the Chester marathon on Sunday – sadly without Randi as originally planned due to injuries, but I have a feeling we’ll be back. In the meantime, Becca ran an amazing race and after cheering her on at the finish line we spent the rest of the day relaxing in the pub. (I am so, so glad that pubs are back – and back properly – with bar service and that laid-back, unhurried feel which can’t be matched elsewhere.)

Other highlights of Chester included fancy cocktails, Northern friendliness (I think Randi might be looking to move already) and some very tasty pierogies. Honestly, if you haven’t been yet you should consider visiting for the pierogies alone.

It wouldn't be the North without a converted mill by a canal
It wouldn’t be the North without a converted mill by a canal
It is a very lovely canal
It is a very lovely canal
Up on the wall!
Up on the wall!
The city below
The city below
After completing a circuit of the Chester Loop
After completing a circuit of the Chester Loop
Becca with her marathon medal
Becca with her marathon medal
Down by the river
Down by the river
Randi's arty river shot
Randi’s arty river shot
This is Beverley Brook, Peter Grant's girlfriend, from Capital Ring Section 6 and/or Rivers of London
This is Beverley Brook, Peter Grant’s girlfriend, from Capital Ring Section 6 and/or Rivers of London

Back in the cold, unfeeling South it’s been a busy but productive couple of weeks. I ventured back into the office for a single afternoon and confirmed to myself that I am quite astoundingly less useful to the company when the alternative to working from home is “wandering around people’s desks to catch-up and and popping out to Pret every so often for tea because there’s no milk here anymore”. (To be honest, this was mostly just a set-up to go to the pub afterwards with Steve, Lee, James and new-starter Kris.)

Randi and I also walked Capital Ring Section 6 – from Wimbledon Park to Richmond Bridge – which I’m pretty sure is universally regarded as ‘the prettiest one’. I was particularly pleased to encounter Beverley Brook at the very point explicitly referenced in the Rivers of London installment I’m currently reading. Hi, Beverley! After the walk we stumbled across German food at Stein’s by the river and celebrated the completion of the southern half of the Capital Ring with sausages and schnitzel and the first gluhwein of the season. Prost!

The telescope on King Henry's Mound in Richmond Park with the astonishing view of St Paul's through a protected line of sight
The telescope on King Henry’s Mound in Richmond Park with the astonishing view of St Paul’s through a protected line of sight

(Talking of German, a quick side-note into my current YouTube obsession: Prof. Dr. Frank Erik Pointner and his Historical Linguistics. Come for the history of how the English language became so messy and weird, stay for the calm German tones and occasional shade thrown in the direction of rival linguistic professors who don’t study enough German. I genuinely love it.)

Also in the last few weeks: we’re now less than a year away from the re-wedding (!) so naturally we celebrated our -1 year anniversary at an excellent local Italian. We’ve also made progress on planning for the wedding itself, although sadly I was forced to conclude that hiring a 90s disco tribute band would not be the correct decision to maximise the happiness of the majority. Still, please enjoy this cover of Doctor Jones and think about the alternative universe where you’d get to experience this live in 2022. Katie approved when I showed it to her, at least, before our regular Doctor Who Night session took us to 1988’s unsubtly political The Happiness Patrol. I wonder if a young Chris Chibnall was taking notes.

Oh, and Bake Off’s back!

Richmond Park
Richmond Park
Just another cow in your average London meadow
Just another cow in your average London meadow
Mulled wine!
Mulled wine!

There was no 2020 office Christmas party, for obvious reasons, so instead my company generously paid for all of its employees to enjoy a night away at any of our customers’ hotels or B&Bs. Randi and I decided to use this opportunity to pick something a little different to where we might normally choose and enjoyed a weekend at Denbies Vineyard Hotel – a boutique hotel on the grounds of Denbies Wine Estate right next to Box Hill in Surrey.

Denbies Wine Estate & Box Hill beyond
Denbies Wine Estate & Box Hill beyond
Where Jean Luc really retired to
Where Jean Luc really retired to

There’s something charmingly British about Denbies. It might be the largest vineyard in the country but it’s still not that big, and is criss-crossed with public footpaths for local residents wanting to walk their dogs, run a ParkRun or simply get from Dorking to Westhumble. We opted for the ‘Secret Vineyard Trail’ walking tour to learn more and then had a brief moment of panic when we re-read the online description and realised it never actually mentioned any wine tasting.

Thankfully, our fears were quickly eased and plenty of wine of all varieties were provided by our friendly and super-knowledgeable tour guide, who (very 2021) recommended one bottle as the perfect pick-me-up to “a hard Zoom meeting at work”. The weather has made this a miserable year for wine production, apparently, although in the long run French winemakers continue to buy up land in England as climate change pushes optimum temperatures further north.

The view from the Box Hill viewpoint
The view from the Box Hill viewpoint
Stepping stones across the river
Stepping stones across the river

Away from all the wine, we did (of course!) also find time to walk up Box Hill, admire the views over the countryside and cross back over the River Mole via the well-advertised stepping stone crossing. (Weirdly, I don’t remember these at all from our many childhood trips to Box Hill… but perhaps we never came this way.) We also explored Dorking and its amusing over-provision of railway stations, plus potentially went accidentally trespassing through the secluded grounds of insurance company Unum and/or Hank Scorpio’s global HQ.

Back in London, we’ve also had the pleasure of hosting Sophie and Naomi for a Friday night dinner of Randi’s famous enchiladas, as well as virtual catch-ups with both Toggolyn and Catherine and AJ in the latter’s very shiny new apartment. We’ve now tried to plan a return trip to Chicago so many times that “not jinxing it” feels completely redundant, but nonetheless we are – in principle – very very excited about finally making it back there in November. Fingers crossed…!

Playing by the river
Playing by the river
The poor man's stepping stones
The poor man’s stepping stones

Hello, blog! It’s been almost a month since my last post, but I have a decent excuse as for most of that time – and after a really lovely evening at the pub with Clark in Leytonstone which just missed the last blogging window but deserves a mention – Randi’s parents have been visiting us from California.

For obvious reasons it’s been over a year and a half since we were all together in person, so Randi and I organised a trio of small trips around the UK to catch them up with our exciting plans for 2022. More on that shortly! First, though, when they arrived they had to consent to six days of quarantining in our flat – punctuated only by persistent calls from Test & Trace and bittersweet glimpses of freedom whilst shuttling to and from the PCR testing centre in glamorous West Croydon. (To be honest, I think we’re all quite fond of West Croydon now. It treated us well.)

Fortunately, some of this period coincided with the Tokyo Olympics, and despite the awkward scheduling and lack of spectators we still really enjoyed watching the huge variety of sport on show. Special shout-outs for Stu’s newfound love of Rugby Sevens and the usual awesomeness of the canoe/kayak slaloms, but I think my favourite thing to watch was the new rock climbing format with its crazy, escape-room-esque bouldering puzzles and slightly wacky scoring system. Looking forward to seeing more in 2024!

Rocking the Overground, baby
Rocking the Overground, baby
West Croydon!
West Croydon!
Working hard on our indoor project
Working hard on our indoor project
Not yet purchased: eye protection
Not yet purchased: eye protection

Not wanting to let a good quarantine go to waste, we also put Randi’s parents to work on our long list of house and garden tasks which we had neglected since moving in. So now, a drill has been purchased! A mirror has been hung! We have a coat rack! And, after an awful lot of parental hard labour in the garden, the lawn has now been reclaimed from weeds in preparation for grass yet-to-come, we’ve planted our first flowers and even managed to excavate a number of giant concrete slabs lying under the surface. (As we levered up the first one with a garden fork, it looking and sounding remarkably like the lid of a coffin, I think we had all prepared ourselves for pet graves… or worse.)

It all felt a bit like community service
It all felt a bit like community service
But our quarantine prison came with outdoor space and good reviews
But our quarantine prison came with outdoor space and good reviews

Once Beth and Stu had cleared their ‘Test to Release’ Covid test we were free to venture a little more widely, and in addition to our out-of-London trips we packed in a lot of capital adventures too. As you’d expect we took Randi’s parents to all of our favourite parks, cafés, restaurants and Waterlink Ways – other highlights included Pimms and delicious Indian food with Josh, Anna and Cora in their always-beautiful garden, a long-awaited dinner with my mum at Sanzio in Willesden Green, another trip up the Shard and an incredible meal at The Mayflower with Tash and Cormac (who I now feel empowered to start calling Tarmac).

Katie has also been visiting from Glasgow at the same time, and although sometimes it started to feel like every plan we made was doomed to be scuppered by a combination of flash flooding, Covid isolations and non-Covid medical emergencies (don’t worry, everyone’s fine) we did finally manage to all have dinner together at Cubana near Waterloo. Katie and I also managed to sneak in another Doctor Who night last night with 1971’s The Dæmons.

Together with Josh, Anna and Cora
Together with Josh, Anna and Cora
Randi and her mum/mom
Randi and her mum/mom
Finally catching Katie
Finally catching Katie
An after-dinner river stroll with Tarmac, before crossing Tower Bridge and ending up at the Cable Street Mural
An after-dinner river stroll with Tarmac, before crossing Tower Bridge and ending up at the Cable Street Mural

Trip #1: Brighton

Our first trip was a day trip to the seaside, principally to pick up Randi’s ring which we ordered after a whimsical adventure deep in The Lanes back in June.

A ring? OK, let’s back up. In 2017, wearing matching Settlers of Catan t-shirts, Randi and I got married in a Chicago courtroom and celebrated with Catherine and AJ over a lovely brunch and gorgeous gifts of giant meeple which now adorn our living room. But neither of us wanted to try and stage a wedding yet – not until we had the time, space and money for a wedding we’d both be really excited to have. Fast-forward to now, and it’s finally on the cards for (fingers crossed) September 2022 in Hereford. Many more details to come, obviously, although we’ve already started posting out some very attractive Save The Date fridge magnets emblazoned with our faces – you lucky things – to select countries.

Carefully guarding my replacement ice cream
Carefully guarding my replacement ice cream

Anyway – back to Brighton – where we collected Randi’s ring (which, very fittingly, includes all the colours of the sea) and then hung out in Brighton’s Pavilion Gardens, the beach and the pier.

The pier, incidentally, was the scene of the crime wherein a mercenary seagull swooped down behind me and stole a full two scoops of ice cream directly from the cone in its claws. Never trust a seagull.

Not usually jewellery people
Not usually jewellery people
Not the Pacific ocean...
Not the Pacific ocean…
...and not quite a Californian beach!
…and not quite a Californian beach!

Trip #2: Hereford & Church Stretton

Trip two, as should now make sense, was to Hereford to give Randi’s parents a peek at the wedding venue itself. Also notable on this trip was Beth’s enthusiastic, whole-hearted embrace of rhubarb and apple flavoured gin at an excellent tapas restaurant – I think we’re now on first-name terms with the owners – plus a day trip-within-a-trip down the Welsh Marches line to Church Stretton.

If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Church Stretton was the location of our first escape from London after Covid back in August 2020, and for that I think it will always have a special place in our hearts. It also helps that The King’s Arms has an amazing beer garden and pots of irresistible blue cheese sauce.

Where are we exactly?
Where are we exactly?
Future wedding!
Future wedding!
One of our many walks through the English countryside
One of our many walks through the English countryside
Fans of the Hereford cow
Fans of the Hereford cow
Ah, Church Stretton is still as beautiful as we left it
Ah, Church Stretton is still as beautiful as we left it
Finally got a chance for some reading this year
Finally got a chance for some reading this year

Trip #3: Cambridge

Randi was a superb punter and taught us all!
Randi was a superb punter and taught us all!

Last but definitely not least, this summer was a golden opportunity for me to correct the poor impression of Cambridge which Randi was left with back in 2015 when we shuffled about in the rain with ponchos and heavy backpacks. This time the sun shone, our backpacks were safely stowed away in a fancy hotel overlooking Parker’s Piece (very weird) and we could properly enjoy this indisputably lovely city. (I knew my work was done when Randi suggested it was prettier than Oxford.)

The highlight, of course, was hiring a punt and heading out towards Grantchester Meadows (which we very nearly made it to). As a group, I would say we had the perfect blend of hilarious ineptitude with enough determination and fast learning to actually make it somewhere.

I was also very happy, despite my last-minute organisation, to be able to grab a coffee with Peter Mandler the next morning before we headed home. As always, I learnt a lot, especially about some of the positive and long-overdue updates to the Cambridge experience which are coming out of the pandemic.

A quick scout around Caius
A quick scout around Caius
Stewart, me and Randi
Stewart, me and Randi
Concentration
Concentration
Never get tired of this river
Never get tired of this river
A very quick swim to make my mum proud
A very quick swim to make my mum proud
My new favourite photo
My new favourite photo
Me, Beth and Stewart on Parker's Piece
Me, Beth and Stewart on Parker’s Piece

We made it! After two more weeks of not getting sick – including at Katie’s wonderful birthday picnic in Victoria Park where she was (hopefully) impressed by our amateur production of The Five Doctors Acted Badly – last Saturday Randi and I both set our Out Of (Home) Offices, donned our fancy new reusable masks and began our train journey to the town of Church Stretton in the Shropshire Hills.

Back on a (proper) train!
Back on a (proper) train!

It really did take a lot of frustrated searching and many, many browser tabs to find an affordable self-catering cottage in a town which was simultaneously easy to reach, situated on a bunch of hilly walking routes and also had a bunch of pubs, takeaway options and a supermarket. Thankfully, Church Stretton ticks all of these boxes! I was also a little bit worried about rocking up somewhere too small and isolated where the residents wouldn’t be thrilled about incoming people right now, but I think Church Stretton is enough of a tourism-focused town to want visitors and we certainly never felt unwelcome anywhere.

I had my doubts, but all was well on 'Transport for Wales'
I had my doubts, but all was well on ‘Transport for Wales’
Our (cosier) home away from (smaller) home
Our (cosier) home away from (smaller) home
Walking: check
Walking: check

In general we alternated between decently long hikes (e.g. Caer Caradoc or Long Mynd, both of which sound like they come from the Narnia books) and lazier days of reading and playing Dominion. Things also took a surprising turn one evening where we consumed all of the complimentary wine and popcorn in the cottage and binged on CBBC’s entire evening schedule. But the obvious highlight was all of the food: some excellent takeaways, but also breakfasts at Berry’s and many pub meals in the inviting beer gardens of Church Stretton and nearby Little Stretton.

I know pubs have been open for a little while, but I’d been holding off until our holiday so hadn’t yet experienced that quintessentially British tradition (est. 2020) of providing your contact details at the bar before being seated. (I mention this mostly because all of our American friends seem bemused that this is socially enforceable.) I wasn’t sure what to expect, but the impression from absolutely everywhere is that people are really trying their best to comply with the rules and run their businesses at the same time, and there was always plenty of outdoor space to be able to relax. Summer is saved!

Out in the green!
Out in the green!
An orderly queue of sheep
An orderly queue of sheep
Roaming from summit to summit
Roaming from summit to summit
First pint! (First pie followed shortly.)
First pint! (First pie followed shortly.)
Randi plays all of the cards during our game with Katie and Kim
Randi plays all of the cards during our game with Katie and Kim

We hit the highest temperature on our last day, which made it the perfect moment to go swim in the Carding Mill Valley Reservoir. Well, I say ‘swim’ – while my mum would have been happily doing lengths, we were content for a very brief dip before sitting with our legs in the water as we watched kids jump off the bridge with varying degrees of athleticism.

I have to admit, watching both the children cajole each other into the water and the older teenagers chat, gossip and intone ruefully to each other that such-and-such “should have been a TikTok” did make me feel very old. As we dried off in the sun, I realised that we’re both totally invisible to them now; like the Borg, teeangers only perceive people around them if they are sufficiently interesting and don’t even see the others. Still, it was nice to see so many families enjoying themselves again.

Farewell, Church Stretton. It was exactly the break we needed!
Farewell, Church Stretton. It was exactly the break we needed!

At 20.30, two and a half hours before Brexit, I bowed to the victory of the Brexiteers by sitting alone in a Wetherspoons pub and ordering British pie and British mash through the Wetherspoons app. (Thirty minutes later I realised I had ordered it to the wrong pub, but the staff kindly saved me from my own idiocy.)

At 22.00, one hour before Brexit, I was sitting on a plane with my seatbelt fastened, waiting to take off.

And by 23.00 I was safely in the air, somewhere over France…

Nothing but blue skies and single markets in Barcelona
Nothing but blue skies and single markets in Barcelona

I’d love to pretend that this was all carefully planned, but it was just a happy coincidence that Randi was working in Barcelona last week and suggested I joined for the weekend. Obviously I was happy to do so, because (a) it’s Barcelona, but also (b) the city has always gotten a raw deal on this blog. I visited twice in 2003 – once on a school trip and then later with my family – but alas this was a year before I started blogging so it left an annoying hole on my virtual scratch map. Until now.

The last time I was here...
The last time I was here…
...finally blog-official, 17 years later.
…finally blog-official, 17 years later.

Since we had both been here before – albeit a while ago – we didn’t feel any pressure to rush around ticking off all the tourist sights. Instead we did a healthy amount of walking and wandering: eating tapas, marvelling at how different big cities can feel from each other (there are no houses!) and saying silly things to each other like “this reminds me of Buenos Aires”. I was also pleased to confirm that, after over a year of Duolingo, my Spanish is definitely in a better state than it was in 2003. And sure, nowadays I’m even more aware that you’d be wiser to speak Catalan here than Spanish, but I hope that the bar for British tourists is sufficiently low that I passed.

Inside the Gaudi-designed section of Park Güell
Inside the Gaudi-designed section of Park Güell
Feels like some knock-off signage design right here
Feels like some knock-off signage design right here

The one attraction we did pay for was the famous Park Güell which consists of a small ‘Monumental Zone’ of Gaudi sculptures and a much larger free area with rewarding views of the city, the sea and the mountains if you climb to the top. We sat up here for a while in the sun, basking in the warm glow of an unhurried weekend trip and the knowledge that Europe is still right here, just over the water, and it isn’t going anywhere.

Glorious
Glorious

Last week, Katie and I supplemented our regular Doctor Who outing with the first episode of the new Picard series. It seems strange now but I didn’t discover Doctor Who properly until I was a teenager, while Star Trek was deeply woven into my childhood: my mum (the only one who knew how to program the VCR) would always make sure it was set to record if my dad and I weren’t going to be home to watch it live. It should be noted that my dad loved both The Next Generation and Deep Space Nine the best, but for almost opposite reasons. The former is a utopian fantasy of peace and flourishing, the latter exposes the darker underbelly at the fringe. One is a manifesto, the other is a reality check. Both series need each other, and play off against each other.

From a dramatic perspective, however, you can’t tell any interesting stories if all you have is peace and flourishing. That wasn’t a problem for The Next Generation because it was set on a spaceship exploring new life and new civilisations. As long as those civilisations were violent and warlike then you had yourself a plot. But Picard is set on Earth, so it can’t play the same cards. Instead, the first episode features the perils of celebrity, xenophobia and a manipulative media… all good elements for a high-budget science-fiction show, but they also makes it feel like a show set in a higher-tech vision of Future America rather than a genuinely bold and radical imagining of a different social order.

This isn’t a complaint – I enjoyed the first episode and I’ll try to watch more – and even if it wanted to, the makers of Picard couldn’t recreate the The Next Generation anymore than my mum could still program a VCR. It was just a strange feeling, that’s all, that the vision of the future from the past now feels so much further away than our newer imagined future.

As for visions which look backwards: last Thursday I saw Tom Stoppard’s new play Leopoldstadt with my mum and cousin Alix. I had never seen a Tom Stoppard play before but apparently he has a reputation and the official reason for inviting me to tag along was that I might be able to “help explain what I thought it meant” at the end.

Leopoldstadt tells the story of a wealthy Jewish family starting in early twentieth century Vienna. Some of the family members have converted to Christianity for social reasons although everybody is still very much culturally Jewish, and together they debate questions of assimilation vs. identity etc. One member of the family acknowledges that anti-semitism is still present but optimistically argues that “pogroms are a thing of the past” and things will only get better. The audience is supposed to feel haunted by the dramatic irony, I suppose. As staged, it just felt like a cheap trick.

I have a big mostly-Jewish family on one side, studied mostly-modern history at university and have seen an above-average number of plays. So maybe I’m not the target audience here. But I’m going to trust my instincts and just assert that this isn’t a very good play. The characters are given a huge amount of clunking historical exposition (the British Mandate in Palestine one moment, Bolshevik revolution the next) for no good reason, the plot is full of clichés and the script abounds with arched contemporary references to make the audience feel worthy and knowing. There are so many powerful and moving works about this topic, but this isn’t one of them.