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!
After moving house, I felt some pressure to pick a ‘favourite local pub’ despite lockdown making it difficult to compare them in the traditional way. I ended up nominating The Honor Oak based mostly on the nice wall of plants which Randi and I saw through the window when walking past. But now, with everything open again and a brief spate of sunny late-summer evenings to enjoy, I can confirm that I do really like this pub. It’s even introduced Randi to the delights of mango-flavoured beer, which really takes me back. But, to share the pub-love around, we’ve also enjoyed after-work drinks on the terrace of The Chandos too. Come visit us – we have real favourites now!
Actually, we have been relatively successful at luring people to come see us recently. Two weekends ago we spent a wonderful afternoon with Laura, Matt and Cré at ours during which we got to witness Cré’s first successful crawl up some stairs in the middle of our hallway. Apologies if this unlocks a terrifying new vertical world for all concerned. That evening we hot-footed it over to my mum’s for dinner with Tash and Cormac, but didn’t drink so much wine to deter us from walking Capital Ring section 5 the next morning from Streatham Common to Wimbledon Park. It’s been a little while since we last walked the Capital Ring and I think we’ve both concluded that it lacks some of the far-flung adventurism of the London Loop. But it’s still very cool to see how different parts of the capital fit together as we slowly make our way around the rough border of Inner Loncon.
On the way home, we took advantage of 2021’s Open House Festival to drop in on two houses on nearby Walter’s Way. The street is named after the the architect Walter Segal, who in the late 1970s persuaded Lewisham council to run an experiment in self-built, timber-framed houses which were constructed entirely by the residents themselves. This was only possible because the council had slightly run away with itself in its enthusiasm to buy up land for housing, and ended up with a few parcels of very hilly land which weren’t suitable for traditional council flats. The result is a charming, self-contained rural village of a street with wooden houses jutting out at peculiar angles. Is this ‘anarchist architecture’ the solution to a housing crisis? No. Is it annoying when journalists headline their stories with the line “this isn’t at all like London” as a badge of pride? Yes. But the street is beautiful and it’s a cool experiment to have on our doorstep.
Another twentieth century housing experiment – Thamesmead – has a more chequered reputation and was famously used as the filming location for A Clockwork Orange, but it makes a much more loving backdrop in the 1996 film Beautiful Thing which Randi and I saw as part of an outdoor film festival in Beckenham Place Park. It’s a coming-of-age love story between two gay teenagers with an outrageously good soundtrack of Cass Elliot songs, and I really loved watching a film on a big screen again!
In the past few weeks we’ve also brunched with Erin, got angry at the Bush administration all over again after watching a 9/11 anniversary documentary, done some proper adulting by inviting our wonderful downstairs neighbour Angela over for dinner and celebrated after watching Emma Raducanu’s sensational victory in the US Open. (I was also impressed at myself for remembering how tennis scoring worked!) We also had a fancy dinner with Oliver and Abi at Mildred’s in Camden – a different vibe to the mango beer days, but still a weird thrill to walk around Camden on a Saturday night. And – as you might have guessed from the photo – we also redeemed my mum’s birthday present and visited the Olympic Park to ride the slide down the Orbit.
I have a sense that the Orbit has never been particularly successful as a tourist attraction, and I had completely forgotten that the slide was only added in 2016 in an attempt to boost visitor numbers. The original architect was not pleased, wanting to be “more highbrow” than “a fairground ride”. (Turns out there’s a lot of architecture in this post, which wasn’t intentional.) He is, obviously, quite wrong. Very few buildings in the world would not be improved by the addition of a giant curvy slide and the Orbit is no exception. Plus the views from the top while you wait are excellent. I would recommend it, if you’re not offended by slides, and while the lack of giant crowds might be bad news for the owners it also makes the queuing experience at the top much more relaxed than most London tourist attractions.
Finally – and I promise I didn’t plan this – I already had a random day scheduled off-work when I learned that today was also the first day of the new Northern line extension to Battersea. So it would have been rude not to go and see it, right? I wasn’t one of the cool kids on the inaugural 5.30am train, and I did contrive to have lunch with Leonard while I was in the area, but I can’t hide the fact that I was one of the 99% of people visiting in the morning as enthusiasts and/or TfL employees.
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.
Let’s start with the thing I have a lot of photos for: on Friday night, we excitedly joined Tash and Cormac for an evening kayak down the Thames! Technically this was a joint birthday gift to the two of them, but it was also the type of gift where you can’t resist inviting yourself along too. So, all together on the ‘Night Bus’ we paddled our way along as the sun went down, starting at Battersea – then past Westminster, the City of London and Canary Wharf – before rocking up at a Greenwich beach by the Cutty Sark.
We loved it, although the experience felt strikingly different to our kayaking adventures in Chicago. Over there, being on the river really feels like being in the very heart of the city, and you’re often surrounded by people and skyscrapers on either side. In London, the Thames may be the spiritual heart of the city but the city does not really ‘live on’ the river in the same way (to steal my mum’s language). The river is wider, the banks are higher and for most of the time the journey felt surprisingly quiet and peaceful. Highly recommended, unless you’re not happy with the sight of the odd dead rat, washed in by flooding and now bobbing along with impressive buoyancy. (No pictures of the rats follow.)
The Euros now feel like an age ago, but two weeks ago England were only at the quarter final stage when Randi and I travelled up to my mum’s to watch the team’s triumph over Ukraine. (It is always lovely when my mum cooks dinner for us, but sitting outside in the garden with smoked haddock crepes was especially lovely, and this is before she had a chance to demonstrate the full force of technological achievement which fancy ice cream scoops have now achieved.) The next morning, suitably refreshed, we walked over to Alix and Adam’s ‘new’ house – not really new, but this was our first chance to admire it! – and spend more time with my smiley baby cousin Austin.
Then, after I managed to fall out of a bathroom with the slapstick setting turned on, we moved on to Bob’s Cafe in Queen’s Park for a long-overdue catch-up / setting-the-world-to-rights lunch with Promise. Despite going to both QPCS and Cambridge together, I had no idea – until now – that Promise is a seasoned regular of the Minnesota State Fair, and shares exactly the same overseas longing for Sweet Martha’s cookies which assails Randi. It’s a small world, and to be honest a lot of it seems to converge on that fair.
In the last few weeks we’ve also been out drinking in Streatham with Reema and John, taken Carolyn and Maria on a dinosaur-packed tour of Crystal Palace Park and taken part in the innovative online Jury Duty game which was my birthday present from Katie (thank you!). Obviously I don’t want to give away any of the plot, but the format is that a group of strangers form a jury over Zoom to investigate a case and decide a verdict. This was a lot of fun, and we felt very lucky to find ourselves in a group which gelled together, collaborated and seemed to do pretty well at the game!
Also, whether for the benefit of the actors or participants, they very sweetly contacted everyone beforehand to reschedule to a time which wouldn’t clash with England’s semi-final kickoff. And – speaking of the Euros again – while the final on Sunday may not have ended happily for England fans, I did enjoy the ups and downs of having another temporary, big-tournament-induced interest in football. (Obviously I apologise to Josh for texting him questions throughout the matches like “what prevents a goalkeeper from just holding the ball and walking down to the other goal to score?”)
This weekend, as the sun finally started to provide some real summer weather again, Randi and I joined Catherine and Hitesh at the aching cool Limin’ Beach Club on the south bank. It genuinely felt like being on holiday. This Catherine, incidentally, is someone I haven’t seen in a decade but the bonds of the 2005 Brent-Eton summer school go deep (along with the kayaking training, come to think of it) and we had a great time together. Afterwards, I made an emergency parasol purchase, accidentally took a train to Croydon and back after becoming too engrossed in emergency parasol research to get off at the right stop, and finally had everything assembled in time for us to host Caroline and Josh in our garden the next day with some much-needed shade along with a ridiculously good Randi brunch special and plenty of Pimm’s.
Finally, and apropos nothing at all, I’ve had “Put Pret Orders on a Graph” on my to-do list for so long that I’ve lost all context for how/why I ever thought this might be a necessary thing to do. But I was having a productive weekend, so I trusted my past self and did it, and having done so it would be a shame not to share…