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).
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.
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!
(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!
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.