Shropshire Hills

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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!
Very happy to finally see these guys again!
Very happy to finally see these guys again!

A quick mini-post tonight, since I don’t want to fall behind on blogging even though things are still rather quiet. (It’s funny – it had started to feel that pre-lockdown life was a distant memory from many years ago, but now even things which have happened since the pandemic feel like an age away.) The most exciting development was that today we ventured the furthest away from home we’ve been since the pandemic began, catching a quiet weekend Thameslink train all the way up to Hendon and then walking to Kingsbury for a wonderful afternoon in Josh and Anna’s garden.

We’ve been dipping our toes into other little pools of normality too. I was one of those clichéd people who were desperate for a haircut last weekend when barbers reopened, and I promise this was less about looks and more about the annoyance of brushing it away all the time. But in the before-times I would never have believed that I could ever have found a haircut so… exhilarating. Even more excitingly, Randi and I finally found the perfect place for a holiday at the end of this month after many desperate days of trying to fulfil a long list of criteria. So now we are both extremely keen to stay healthy, because we could both do with a break.

Many congratulations to Katie and Kim for completing their epic 17-week run of weekly Thursday-night quizzes! On the final installment, our team bagged a podium finish which we’re very proud of. Off the back of one of Katie and Kim’s ‘Film Plots Acted Badly’ segments I was also introduced to The Devil Wears Prada last weekend, which was very enjoyable but has slightly deterred me from pursuing my dream career in the fashion industry.

The only time I can claim my public transport use is essential
The only time I can claim my public transport use is essential

I know we’re all struggling with dates and times right now, so let me try a new one out on you: we’ve now been in lockdown long enough for me to go through a whole cycle of blood donation. This means that today I enjoyed another brief foray onto the Victoria line and reassured myself that it’s still there and Tube trains are still running. Hurray!

In truth, it’s been a little easier to remember where we are on the calendar this weekend because it was my birthday on Friday so I’ve been enjoying a three-day weekend of many amazing birthday surprises and activities which Randi put together. Honestly, it feels like I’ve had several birthdays in one so I might have reached my mid-thirties by now.

As you can see, we kicked off with a very disco-inspired redecoration of the living room…

New balloons! Although I'm pretty proud that many of the balloons from Randi's birthday are still alive too.
New balloons! Although I’m pretty proud that many of the balloons from Randi’s birthday are still alive too.
My defence for the pig's intactness is that I didn't want to smash up their shed
My defence for the pig’s intactness is that I didn’t want to smash up their shed

After opening presents – and sampling Randi’s incredible homemade lemon drizzle cake – we walked to Crystal Palace Park for a delicious lunch from the café and shared outdoor beers with Randi’s colleague Sam. After a quick pit stop we then took a much shorter mystery surprise walk halfway up the road to Amy and Adam for another wonderful evening around their firepit, complete with gin, party poppers and – naturally – a pigata filled with chocolate.

For dinner we ordered from Amy’s childhood Indian takeaway with whom she has obtained a special exemption for a slightly expanded delivery zone which is exactly the kind of dedication I most admire. I’m very grateful to both Sam and Amy and Adam for adopting my birthday into their plans!

The biggest surprise came the next day, when our picnic with Katie & Kim in equidistant Burgess Park turned into a giant spread of food with mum, Tash and Cormac driving over to join. This is the first time the family has been all together since lockdown started and it was just really lovely to see each other again, especially while playing Throw Throw Burrito (board game present courtesy of Tash) which – as the name suggests – involves throwing, dodging and catching two very cute burritos.

Birthday picnic!
Birthday picnic!
Randi looking pleased that all of her masterminding paid off
Randi looking pleased that all of her masterminding paid off
The anxious build-up to a burrito duel
The anxious build-up to a burrito duel
Pursued by Tash
Pursued by Tash
Later we settled into a gentler game
Later we settled into a gentler game
Enough food for three different picnics
Enough food for three different picnics
Birthday Zoom
Birthday Zoom

For a final surprise, that evening we chatted with the dream team of Dietzs, Toggolyn & Nolan (who inhabited the most comfortable and relaxed lockdown video conference chair I have seen yet). It was very special to catch up together and makes up a little for the disappointment of not getting to Chicago in April.

A quick non-birthday lockdown update:

Playing: Dominion! We played a virtual game with Katie and Kim last weekend using physical cards and it worked surprisingly well. Since then, Randi’s birthday gift of an engraved Mark II of my giant, adored wooden Dominion box (the original now having found new adoptive parents in Chicago) has rekindled my desire to keep playing again.

Snacking: Cheezels! Our top snack discovery from travelling, now available in our cupboard thanks to specialist importers and a very exciting delivery:

Cheezels: like circular Wotsits, but better
Cheezels: like circular Wotsits, but better

Listening: Katie has opened my eyes to the incredible underground world of YouTube 80s remixes, complete with garish colours, terrible fonts and tracking control problems. The best is Dua Lipa’s New Rules. In the 2020s it’s a passable, immediately forgettable pop song. In the 1980s it’s incredible.

Watching: Pixar’s Onward, which achieved the very rare feat of being an animated film which Randi was actively excited to watch. Not a classic but decently tear-jerking nonetheless.

Time Travelling: I distinctly remember exactly the same concept as Back In Time For the Weekend airing on BBC Four a few years ago, but the conceit bears repeating: stick a family in the 1950s and advance them to the 21st century one year each day. Along the way you’ll laugh (why did wallpaper get so ugly?), you’ll cry (why have today’s teenagers no respect for the dial-up internet tone?) and you’ll want your own Sinclair C5. Technically aired in 2016, but as discussed all time is meaningless now.

If you think it’s hard to keep writing blogs on the theme of “still at home” then spare a thought for the traditional Annual Review at the end of this year: 2020 is going to be a washout. I don’t think I’ve mentioned the phenomenon of compulsive lockdown purchases yet, but while I have been feverishly trying to finish off my collection of classic Doctor Who DVDs (in my defence, this has been going on for two decades now and I need to complete it before DVDs become so obsolete that nobody will stock them anymore) Randi has been stocking the kitchen with ever more specialist pieces of baking equipment. I do pretty well out of this arrangement when it means waking up to the smell of fresh bread 🙂

Look! A traveller from the North!
Look! A traveller from the North!

Still, little green shoots of normal life are returning, which finally means I have small pieces of government-approved outdoor socialising to blog about. Our first picnic was in Hyde Park with quizmate Erin – a trip which took a little under 2 hours each way to walk, but did start to make ‘London’ feel like a real cohesive place again.

Since then we’ve also met up outdoors with Katie and Kim*, Matt and Laura and – most recently – Randi’s colleague Amy, her partner Adam and sister Zoe in their back garden on Wednesday evening. At work I’ve started a new (and busy!) role so I was very grateful to be able to leave the flat at the end of the day and be handed several delicious cocktails. The novelty of going round to someone else’s house was intoxicating, and we had such a lovely evening by their fire chatting and eating fish and chips until it was dark and late and we could walk the 60 second journey back home and go to bed. (The best part was that Amy grew up near here, so I discovered a whole equal-but-opposite parallel universe to my own upbringing where South Londoners talk about North London with a vague and confused sense of where things are.)

We were proud of this
We were proud of this

May is still the birthday blitz season and for Tash’s 28th Cormac organised a virtual pub crawl with a series of themed Zooms. Randi and I were delighted with being assigned to the Jurassic Park room as it gave us a chance to break out our backpacks which have been lying sadly unused of late. (Fun fact: Randi ordered the butterfly net a few weeks back in her fight against wasps flying through the window and was a little disappointed to realise that it was sized for a young child.) Earlier this week a mass Glamily gathering was assembled across many timezones to wish Lori a happy 101st. Happy birthday Lori! I’m not sure you were able to hear very much; on a 40+ person Zoom you really need a young child to have any chance of being heard.

The timing of Tash’s birthday pub segued perfectly into a live feed of the SpaceX rocket taking its crew to the International Space Station. This was obviously a rare bright spot in a week of horrific police brutality, political meltdown and – obviously – Covid-19, but it’s still captivating to watch human beings physically escape from the planet we were all born on. On a less grand scale, we’ve also been enjoying Charlie Brooker’s one-off Antiviral Wipe (more please!) plus two programmes which cater to our shared love of documentaries about supply chains: Three Years in Wuhan and Inside the Factory. It’s so obvious to us that the story of toilet roll or baked bean production is inherently fascinating (did you know that baked beans are cooked with steam after being sealed in their tins?) that it’s always a little surprising when other people laugh awkwardly at our viewing suggestions like this. But we love it.

Finally: we finally won the quiz! Sure, we have to share this honour as joint-winners with another team, but Mairi and Sami’s guest hosting (and particularly Mairi’s decision to include a lot of questions based on Jay Foreman YouTube videos) was enough to propel our team to the top of the league this week. I am not in a rush for this to end.

*I say ‘we’: technically, the truth is that I met up with Katie and Kim while Randi made a dramatic appearance at the urgent care department of King’s College Hospital. But don’t worry, she’s fine!

It was Randi’s birthday yesterday, so to add a special celebratory feel to our living room I spent the night before blowing up (and struggling to tie) 50 balloons while it slowly dawned on me that if I was currently infected with coronavirus then I was essentially just creating 50 mini biological weapons. But, fingers crossed, happy birthday! Randi gained an exemption to open her DIY poké bowl present from Tash a few days early in the interests of freshness, so we’d already been feasting on that throughout the weekend, and yesterday evening we celebrated with our first Honest Burgers delivery. Still great! We also had a very special socially-distanced doorstep visit from some of Randi’s colleagues. You heard it here first: in-person socialising is so refreshing, I fully predict this is going to be a hot new trend of 2021.

After around 30 balloons I temporarily ran out of lung capacity
After around 30 balloons I temporarily ran out of lung capacity

Of course, old-fashioned Zoom socialising isn’t going away overnight, and for Katie & Kim’s Thursday-night quiz Randi and I have recently hit upon the strategy of inviting people to join our team who are actually good at quizzes. This started a while ago when my colleague Erin joined the team, but we have now also absorbed Erin’s sister Kellianne, their LOTR-expert father and – our newest recruit – quizmaster extraordinaire Todd. In honour of our soaring performance due to the King family, and the fact that our new centre of gravity is firmly in Massachusetts, we’ve also rebranded as the New Kinglanders. Suffolkators: we have our eyes on you!

Crystal Palace from Dulwich Upper Wood on one of our 'unlimited exercise' walks
Crystal Palace from Dulwich Upper Wood on one of our ‘unlimited exercise’ walks
This is where my hair has got to
This is where my hair has got to

When not quizzing, we’ve also fallen into a black hole of documentaries about mountain climbing. First came The Dawn Wall, then the more political Sherpa, then A Line Across The Sky and now every other suggestion from the Amazon Video app involves climbing something. I also rewatched Argo so that Randi could experience the incredible tension of that final airport escape scene. (Somewhere in the back of my head I think there’s a bit of Argo playing every time I ever go through an airport.)

And, of course, we enjoyed Saturday night’s special Eurovision programmes to fill the Song Contest-shaped hole in our lives this May, but I’m genuinely excited about celebrating twice as hard next year. Balloons on me!