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.
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.
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…!
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!
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Trip #3: Cambridge
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve wanted to visit Amsterdam for a very, very long time and yet the city still exceeded my expectations, even on a grey and somewhat-rainy long weekend in October. So, this is my inevitable fawning blog post about Amsterdam.
We left London on an early Friday-morning Eurostar train from St Pancras with Simon and Fleur, with Steve following a few hours later. I have gushed about the joy of direct trains from London to Paris before, but direct trains from London to Amsterdam are even more wonderful and engender a feeling of European interconnectedness in a way that flying never can and never will. After a pancake and hot chocolate-based lunch we hopped on a bus to a farm just outside of the city and the one-of-a-kind waggon we had chosen to stay in. Sure, we could have gone for a hostel or something, but that wouldn’t have been half as much fun as our beloved waggon.
On Saturday we started with art at the Rijksmuseum and in particular its special exhibition Rembrandt-Velázquez – Dutch & Spanish Masters. As a piece of curation this was easily one of the best exhibitions I’ve ever seen. Rather than my usual feeling of ‘wandering through many paintings and feel like I’m not really appreciating it properly’, whoever curated this has systematically selected one Spanish and one Dutch painting on a similar theme (headined, as the title suggests, by Velázquez and Rembrandt) and then invited the visitor to compare the works side-by-side. Combined with excellent historical background text, the whole experience of walking through an art gallery suddenly felt meaningful for someone who loves history but doesn’t really know much about art. And, if you are childish like me, you can also keep a running score of Catholic vs. Protestant? by picking your favoured painting each time. (I think the Protestants won out in the end, but it was a close-run thing!)
After lunch we headed to our timed tour of the Anne Frank House. (Tip: you have to book this online in advance, so check before you visit.) Having finally read her famous diary last year I was really glad that we got a chance to visit the annexe behind a bookcase where she and her family, along with several others, hid from occupying Nazi forces for two years before being discovered and killed. There is not much I can meaningfully add here, other than that the museum is very well designed and it is both strange and haunting to walk through the rooms which Anne wrote so much about in her diary.
Much of discovering Amsterdam felt like proving that the clichés were true, and not in a bad way. Yes, the homes lining the sides of the canals are incredibly pretty and charming. Yes, there is cannabis everywhere. And yes, cycling has a dominance and a naturalness (no helmets to be seen) which I’ve not seen in any other city in the world. What was especially exciting was finding this was still true even when we ventured outside of the most touristy areas, or late at night. With many cyclists, and few cars, it’s actually possible to have streets which feel calm and quiet without being empty.
Because all other transport modes can flourish together when cars are restricted, all of the other ways to get around Amsterdam were unsurprisingly but uniformly excellent too. The buses to and from our middle-of-nowhere stop by the motorway were astonishingly frequent. The trams across the city were great and – much to our amusement – sometimes contained an entire counter in the middle of the vehicle behind which a member of staff sat and (presumably) dispensed travel advice where needed.
And let’s not forget the Amsterdam Metro with its huge, beautiful stations filled with interesting art to admire in the couple of minutes before the next train would arrive. (To be fair, the line we used was only opened last year, so maybe it’s only fair that the stations look good.) On two occasions, by the way, random members of the great Dutch public stopped and explained the background to a piece of metro art that we were looking at.
We used one other mode of transport: a train to The Hague and back on Sunday, on which we had a bit of a surreal moment when a member of staff walked down the aisle and stopped to check “if everything was OK”. We had assumed she was a ticket inspector and had taken out our tickets to show her… but no, she was just checking if things were good. (On the same train, a young girl was practicing her English by having her mother call out English words and providing the Dutch translation. So we enjoyed a constant and quite adorable stream of pretty advanced vocabulary – “prison!” “pollution!” “pitchfork!”)
Anyway. Why did we go to The Hague in the first place? Why, to visit Madurodam of course! This ‘war memorial’ to a Dutch resistance fighter, George Maduro, is in fact a huge and utterly brilliant miniature park showcasing the best of The Netherlands at 1:25 scale. Although I could easily include hundreds of photos I will try and restrain myself a little, although if you check back in the post so far you may spot several model replicas already. Suffice to say: I loved it, from the intricate historical buildings and streetscapes to the big model industrial areas like Schiphol Airport.
There are so many wonderful little touches here, like the miniature Mars trucks which pick up real mini Mars bars from their mini warehouses, or the stricken cyclist lying by the stopped car. We also had a lot of fun at the immersive ‘New Amsterdam’ experience, which pits the plucky Dutch colonists against the nasty English pirates and – outnumbered – has them totally surrender as New Amsterdam becomes New York. I don’t know how anyone could fail to love Madurodam, and it is definitely worth the extra trip out of Amsterdam to see it.
I haven’t even mentioned the food yet, but this was yet another highlight of our short trip. From pancakes to poffertjes, stroopwaffles to Surinamese food, we all ate pretty tremendously. My only regret was failing to realise that the Van Gogh Museum also runs exclusively on timed tickets and thus failing to get in before our train back home on Monday afternoon. Still, if there’s anywhere I now ‘have’ to go back to, I’m delighted that it’s Amsterdam.
Sadly the train home is not as magical as the way there since there are no passport control facilities (yet) at Amsterdam, meaning that everyone gets chucked off at Brussels, goes through the customary (but absurd) double British/Schengen passport control a few metres from each other and then waits in a too-small waiting area to get on a new train. Not to be outdone, the Home Office then insisted on a third passport check when we came off at St. Pancras. I asked the border agent what on earth this was for, and he responded that it was “only for certain trains”. “But… why?” “Because… well, why not?” On this stellar logic I am expecting passport checks at Brixton tube station in the morning. (Not that I want to give them any ideas.) Can’t we spend the money on someone to check if people on trains are OK instead?
But enough of the Home Office. I hope I have done enough to prove my newfound love for Amsterdam and the dry-humoured Dutch in general. Send me back any day!