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.
This Bank Holiday weekend Randi and I took the slow train to Dartmoor in an ongoing quest to explore the UK’s National Parks. I’ll cheerfully admit that we can’t compete against the US for sheer awe, but the British version of a National Park will still provide impressive walks through beautiful countryside and/or other people’s fields of sheep. I had actually forgotten when we planned this that I had already visited Dartmoor a decade ago, but this time we did things our style by rolling up to Exeter Central and then joining a small but merry band of travellers on the ‘Country Bus’ to the village of Moretonhampstead.
I was, in fact, that person who had phoned Country Bus (“the local bus operator with a friendly face”) in advance to check if they took contactless cards, and the guy at the other end (who was indeed very friendly) confirmed that – as of a few weeks ago – they did! “But, just to let you know, it’s not like using your card at Sainsbury’s where you can just tap and be done. You really have to hold it.” He was right, but I was still very impressed by the technological advance. And so we rattled on happily up and down narrow country roads (and past a road sign which said “CAT’S EYES REMOVED” which disturbed Randi as apparently they do not use this term in the US) until we arrived at our destination.
From here we followed a simple formula of eating large breakfasts, going on long walks and then eating large dinners. Wisely we decided to shell out for a paper map rather than relying on our phones, which was good because (a) I don’t think Google Maps is quite comfortable with hiking, and (b) on our second day we encountered a pair of proper walkers – one of whom sounded like a cousin of Gyles Brandreth – on top of Manaton Rocks. They were surprised and impressed that we had made it but also preemptively horrified that we might be using our phones to get around. Fortunately I could put their minds to rest with our laminated ‘Around & About’ (£3.99).
It was a simple but refreshing break, topped off on Tuesday night by the new season of Bake Off for which we were joined by Randi’s new friend Hala who had – surprisingly – never watched it before. Here’s to gentle vibes.
On Wednesday morning I received a 30th birthday e-mail from my 19 year-old self. It was sweetly good-natured as well as containing an alarmingly prescient warning about Boris Johnson, and it feels rude not to reply. To be fair, my 19 year-old self was just procrastinating from essay writing so it would probably be a bad idea to distract him even more. To make up for it, I will find some time to write a reply forward in time to my 40 year-old self instead, who I really hope has just enjoyed a birthday at least half as good as the one I’ve just had.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, and I don’t want to skip over the final few weeks of my twenties which – as promised last time – were all about settling down in our new flat and jobs and building the foundations of a routine. Our move to Tulse Hill was remarkably smooth (thanks partly to my mum who drove down a car loaded with suitcases and boxes!) and although we’re still waiting on some painting before we decorate properly the flat has slowly been filling up with everything it needs to feel like a home. In fact, on the very same day we moved in we also hopped down to IKEA Croydon to fill our backpacks with domestic essentials… and my very first journey on the hitherto mysterious world of London Trams.
In Chicago I really enjoyed my half-hour walk to and from work – not only as a chance to clear my head, but also as the perfect podcast listening time. So I’m really thrilled that I’ve been able to reproduce a 30-minute morning commute walk by heading to Brixton rather than just using the nearest station from our house. And as a bonus, I’ve swapped the industrial vibe of Goose Island (which, to be fair, I now have very fond memories of) for the breathtaking Brockwell Park. We are going to get an awful lot of use out of this park, especially on Sundays when there is an amazing farmers’ market just outside the park at Herne Hill station.
While Josh has the distinction of being our very first dinner guest, I was shocked to realise that the first people to stay overnight in our spare room would be Chicago’s very own Catherine and AJ! As I discovered when I walked into a pub on Wednesday evening and found them waiting at a table, our ‘surprise birthday weekend’ which Randi had organised for my 30th was actually for the four of us, which was both an incredible surprise and very touching that they would fly all the way here for only a couple of days. That night we joined up with my family for a plate-sharing extravaganza of Peruvian food (I was really hankering for some ají de gallina) before heading home together for the night.
On Friday morning we ate a variety of English breakfasts at our new (and currently favourite) local café before catching the train to the coast for a long weekend in a small village near Dover. I have taken the Eurostar along the High Speed 1 route before but this was my first time riding the domestic high-speed service and the incorporation of this particular bit of railway nerdery into the birthday plan seems to have been a happy accident. We were all suitably impressed by how fast it was and as we shared cans of M&S cider and snacked on Percy Pigs it was galling to learn that a similar high-speed rail link connecting Chicago, Madison, Milwaukee and Minneapolis very nearly went ahead in 2010 before being scuppered by the asinine Republican governor of Wisconsin.
I had never been to the White Cliffs of Dover before and we were incredibly lucky on Saturday to get a perfect sunny day for a long stroll along the clifftop. The clear view of France across the channel really does bring home how geographically close the two countries are and, as if to make a point, my phone kept latching on to a French mobile network and pretending it was an hour later than it was. I challenge anyone to stare down at the port of Dover from above and casually opine that the single market is a trivial thing to mess around with. Once we got to Dover Castle we appreciated the usual medieval castle features (such a sentence is much less common in the US) as well as the Roman lighthouse and a tour/exhibition on Dunkirk presented in the ‘secret wartime tunnels’ which are signposted all over the site.
When not walking we did a lot of eating and drinking, from tea to vegan sausage rolls to three different chocolate caterpillar cakes (Charlie, Colin and Connie) which are not a staple of American birthday parties but ought to be. We also binged on Channel 4 (The Secret Life of Kids USA is notably didactic about parenting techniques compared to the UK version) and played an extensive game of Grand Austria Hotel, my board game birthday present from Katie. Predictably I also got upset about the cost, frequency and general demeanour of the very-non-London bus from Dover back to St Margaret’s at Cliffe… but I must admit that they do (finally!) take contactless card payments now, which is a real gamechanger if you find yourself relying on an unfamiliar rural route.
My 19 year-old self couldn’t have predicted how I would be spending my 30th birthday or who I would be spending it with, but he did have a hunch that I’d be enjoying myself. I’m really grateful to everyone who proved him right and made it so wonderful, kicking off my thirties in an exceptionally happy way.