Archive for July, 2011

Fawlty Towers – the Welsh way

Tuesday, July 12th, 2011

I’ve just got back from a whirlwind trip to Wales. We were accompanying my husband on one of his overnight jaunts there – the girls have finished school for the summer and we thought – well why not? Why not indeed. I wasn’t anticipating writing a blog post about it, but the trip turned out to be so much fun and so eventful that I couldn’t resist. Especially after all my tweeting, which if you read it, gave some insight into our hotel. But I am getting ahead of myself.

We went to Wales via Berkshire to collect my eldest daughter from her father (I’d messed up the plans a bit) which meant that I had done her packing for her. I looked around her room, considered what she might want to take with her – and ignored it. She got: clothes, a toothbrush, a cuddly toy, three books, a notepad and a pen. I was determined that she was not going to watch endless films in the car or play her DS or listen to music, she was going to USE her IMAGINATION. Unfortunately I forgot about her intelligence and bartering skills which, when used in conjunction, meant that she spent the entire time “…just completing a level…” for the younger daughter on her DS Lite. Big sigh.

Once we were over the Severn Bridge we headed straight for Caerphilly.

Caerphilly Castle and moat

It was my husband’s choice, and not once did he let us forget it. For those of you that have never been, Caerphilly Castle is very beautiful. It’s big, for a castle; in fact it’s the biggest castle in Wales and one of the biggest in Britain. It’s surrounded by a huge moat which had about a hundred geese swimming on it, and the grass everywhere was completely covered by daisies. In the warm sunshine of Sunday it was idyllic. It’s currently in the process of being restored however, which for me spoiled it slightly. When I drew comparisons it lacked the atmosphere and raw beauty of Corfe Castle which is one of my favourite places in the world. Caerphilly seemed a bit more gentle, somehow. It also had very little in the way of information about the various rooms. There were an awful lot to look at but they all seemed exactly the same after a while which was a shame – if you don’t know the purpose of the room you can’t create the vision of what might have happened in there, who might have walked through there and why and imagine what they would have been wearing, etc. But it was a bit more child-friendly than Corfe which was appropriate for the girls; they made daisy-chains and ransacked the shop.

And from there we went straight to our hotel. I’m never particularly bothered about where we stay, as long as there’s a decent bar for us to sit in, a nice restaurant and it’s clean then that’s fine by me. And our hotel looked very impressive when we drove up. It was a sprawling, white-painted, eighteenth century house with extensive grounds and surrounded by fields full of sheep and grazing horses somewhere just outside Abergavenny.  It was also very nice when we walked in; very clean, very fresh and very new. The floors were wooden and there was an unspoiled cream carpet stretching up the wide staircase. Some leaflets about weddings had been artfully arranged on a nearby table – and the place was silent. There was no reception desk or office or indeed any sign of life. So my husband wandered a bit further into the hotel and found someone after peering through a doorway – which turned out to be the bar. The bar that clearly doubled as reception. It seemed odd at the time – but not for very long.

We went up to our room, noticing as we did the doors to the other rooms upstairs were all propped open. Again, it seemed odd, but our room was all lovely, with bunk beds, and a double and single bed. My eldest daughter enquired whether the latter bed would stay free – we laughed at the time but by the end of our stay I was simply grateful that it had. My husband’s eyebrows shot up when he saw the price of the room service food that we would need to feed the girls with, but we had little option. By this point it was almost 6pm and they were hungry. When he ordered, my husband was told “It’ll be at least half an hour, as he’s only just got in.” We naturally assumed that the proprietor was talking about the chef, but as things turned out it could well have been the cat. Anyway, the girls ate, we put the tray outside the room for collection as is the norm in hotels, and then it was bedtime – they were sleeping in bunk beds for the first time and as I exited the room to go downstairs all I could hear was my younger daughter yelling “Stop wobbling my BED!”. It was then that the vague unease started. It was also viciously light in the room despite the curtains being drawn – I would discover the reason for this in the morning.

Downstairs, the bar was full. Of one family as far as I could make out. They had pulled all the available chairs into a circle in the middle of the room which left us with nowhere to sit. It didn’t really matter because we had requested to move our restaurant booking back by half an hour as we were running late but we were told that we couldn’t because “He only works two hours on a Sunday.” Fair enough. I was quite pleased to see other people as up until this point I hadn’t seen another guest. So we went straight through to the restaurant and it was then that the proprietress appeared for the first time. I was pleased about that too, it all had a League of Gentlemen feel to it up till then. We ordered a bottle of Sauvignon from the wine list – and were met with a perplexed gaze – “Oh right then. Oh, OK.” She chewed her thumbnail for a bit. “Right you are.” And she scurried off – outside. Very far away from the bar. But wherever it came from, the wine appeared so that was all right. Then the menus arrived. At first glance they were very good – there was a very extensive range of meals. But as my husband pointed out afterwards – it was a little too extensive. We should have known. But we didn’t. We also thought nothing of the fact that the restaurant was deserted but for us. I ordered smoked haddock, though I was a little confused by the description, which was “a pot of smoked haddock on a bed of spinach”. A pot? A pot of fish? This didn’t sound quite right. So I asked the proprietress what a ‘pot’ of fish was and she answered “Well – it’s just the haddock on the spinach.” I said that I understood that but why was it called a pot? She repeated again that it was haddock on spinach. I tried a third time with no luck and then gave up, I’d have to take my chance.

In under seven minutes our meals were on the table, which rang immediate alarm bells – and probably meant a more literal bell had rung – that of the microwave. And seven seconds later my fears were confirmed, the food was ghastly. Inedible. From this point onwards the whole thing was a rather funny disaster. I had managed to overlook the fact that the restaurant was empty but for us, the fact that no other rooms seemed to be occupied upstairs and that the owners were a bit vague. But I could not overlook the fact that the haddock tasted exactly like boil-in-the-bag fish, it was so tough it was like chewing rubber, and the spinach (if indeed it was spinach) looked like it had been put through a garlic crusher. I’ve never seen spinach in such tiny pieces in my life. You could have got a good five or six on the head of a pin. After eating half I gave up, it was just too awful. When the proprietress arrived to collect the plates she looked rather doubtfully at mine and said “Was it all right?” in tones that implied she knew it was not, but I lied of course, like a good, polite, British girl, and said yes, it was lovely. And with the food gone, there was nothing else to do but drink the wine. Which was unfortunate for my husband because no-one had furnished him with a wine glass. We sat there and waited…..and waited….and waited. There were no staff anywhere in the building at all, it appeared. Meanwhile all sorts of raucous noises were coming from the family next door in the bar, over the top of which we could distinctly hear some bleating. Some sheep-like bleating. It was so loud it surely had to be in the room. I looked at my husband aghast. Are sheep allowed in hotels? I doubted it, but then this was Wales. Perhaps there are different rules about sheep? There was obviously something odd going on, the bleating continued for ages. My husband then went to check on the girls and while he was gone the proprietress appeared again, did we want desserts? I said yes, I thought we might and mentioned that I didn’t usually eat dessert (missing out that the reason I might tonight was because the main course had been so awful.) And that set her off:

“Oh no, me neither. I did at lunchtime today and now I just feel so fat” – puffs out cheeks and stomach and pats with her hands – “and it was lovely but I am starting to get a bit heavy and I don’t like it, not at all.” I muttered something about life being short. “Well yes, it is but when my belly starts hanging over my trousers I really don’t like it, and I look at people like Judith” – who is Judith?? – “and she’s so reckless about her weight, she’s getting ever so big but she doesn’t care and I just don’t want to be like that. They say you shouldn’t eat potatoes and things don’t they? I wouldn’t mind that, but I can’t give up wine. I drink ever such a lot of wine, I do. I love it. And salad. And rice. Do they count as carbohydrates?” I said yes, rice does. “Oh I can’t give up rice. I got two dishes back there I’m going to eat in a minute. Anyway, what can I get you?” It was after this little speech that things started to slot into place for me, the small oddities I’d noticed suddenly seemed totally in character with the people that ran the hotel. My husband came back, we ordered dessert and after she had disappeared he told me that they were all in the bar watching a programme about sheep-shearing, in favour of actually looking after us. Can you get any more Welsh, I wondered?

By this point it was long after eight thirty and I assumed the mysterious chef had gone home. It appeared not when she came back ten minutes later with the cheese board my husband had ordered and said apologetically: “That’s all he’s got, I’m afraid. He’s run a bit low.” ‘All’ was a huge chunk of cheddar and two tiny, oozing, possibly decades-old, pieces of Brie.

“Is that all right?” I whispered to  my husband, who was looking a bit shell-shocked.

“Er – well – it’s a bit over-ripe,” he said, tactfully.

“Do you mean it’s off?”

“Yes. I think I do.”


He ate some of it manfully, nonetheless, but gave up in the end and went to the bar to get a wineglass and another bottle of wine. However it turned out that the hotel only had that one bottle of Sauvignon. It was literally unbelievable. After some discussion we deduced that the place wasn’t really set up for guests like ourselves, they were interested solely in making money from weddings – the clues were everywhere. Like the fact that we were the only guests. And to be fair, it was a beautiful place to hold a wedding reception. But can you make enough money from that to sustain the entire hotel? Well – with a few weddings per year, economising on cheese and the price of room service food, I suspect that the answer is yes.

Our suspicions were further confirmed in the morning when we opened our bedroom door to find last night’s food tray still sitting outside, congealed remains of lasagne untouched. It showed that there were no rats around, I suppose. No rats – and no staff. When the proprietress came to serve us breakfast in her pyjamas, there could be no doubt about it. There was clearly no-one else around but the lady and her husband – and a few sheep – to run the hotel. All these references to the mysterious ‘he’ were nothing more than a feeble façade; there had never been anyone else around. It was just too Fawlty Towers-esque for words. They were genuinely very lovely people and I would have hated to offend them by complaining, but I certainly wouldn’t go back to the hotel. It was all very amateur, I suspect this may be their first season there; they have a LOT to learn. As do I where windows are concerned – in the morning I discovered the window shutters that I should have used the previous night to block out the light so that my children could actually sleep. I thought the curtains were a bit flimsy. In a different hotel you wonder whether they might have mentioned it, but there wasn’t a hope of that in this one.

We did go on to have a lovely day in Hay-on-Wye (oh the books!) and Brecon, but that is a whole other blog post…..

room service - the morning after

Finishing The Manuscript.

Wednesday, July 6th, 2011

Yet again I must open this blog post with apologies – it has been an absurdly long time since I wrote anything here. However in my defence this was because I was extremely busy first of all writing thousands of words elsewhere and then extremely busy deleting them again. Read on to find out why…….

I’ve been busy in an unprecedented way finishing my second manuscript. This was actually a manuscript that I had part-written about three years ago and abandoned because I just couldn’t seem to get it to go anywhere. A muddled plot, too many characters and not enough substance didn’t help matters. So I closed the file one day and left it, choosing instead to write something else which became Things He Never Knew.  Then an agent whom I vaguely knew and liked described what sort of work she was looking for and I suddenly realised that my muddled bundle of words might just be that thing. So with that in mind I went back to my poor abandoned manuscript (think in terms of rusting car with no wheels) just before Christmas and upon re-reading it was staggeringly obvious where I’d been going wrong. Seriously obvious. Embarrassingly obvious. It had potential – but cunningly disguised. So I ruthlessly cut huge swathes of text, updated, re-wrote and re-focussed on where I was going. The ease with which I was able to do this showed me just how wrong I’d been going. The only odd moment came when the writing changed from re-hashing what I already had to continuing the story without being led; not unlike jumping off that infamous precipice. But once I’d got over my traumas about whether what I would write from scratch would match up with what I had already written, it was fine.

Now I’ve never been the most disciplined of writers. I would love to be like dear old Enid Blyton with her 6,000 words a day or whatever it was, but if I did that my fingernails would be ruined, my eyes would fall out and my family would leave home, (those are ranked in order of priority). I can produce 40,000 words in a week but then I won’t touch the manuscript for a month. It’s in line with my all-or-nothing personality. But it isn’t conducive to steady progress. And when you add into this my two daughters and their complicated school timetables (during this term alone I was required to be at their school on twenty-six separate occasions; EXCLUDING drop-off and pick-up) I found it hard (all right, impossible) to have a regular working pattern. Plus I am very much one of those writers who rely to an extent on being in the right mood, which is an indulgence I know, and actually I think I may have trained myself out of it, but I hadn’t when I was writing manuscript number two. It does have a title by the way but I’m not sure I like it. Anyway, so I made progress over the spring, never quite meeting the deadlines that I was setting for myself, and all of a sudden I found myself in the last half of the summer term and I knew I had to get it finished. With the best will in the world I would have achieved very little over the eight week summer holiday that the girls have from school. And this is when I seriously focussed, reduced the frantic socialising that I am fond of and made Finishing The Manuscript my sole priority. Unfortunately this coincided directly with a severe crisis of confidence. I was very pleased with what I had produced so far, it was exactly what I had wanted and the manuscript was coming together very nicely. But instead of appreciating all this, my brain just said “Well what if what you need to write now isn’t as good as what you’ve written already? The whole book will be ruined. Months of effort and thousands upon thousands of words wasted.” And this insidious message was ever-present in my mind; it was something I had to get through to be able to carry on writing. The irony of course was that when I did get through it and produce another few hundred words they were always up to standard. The lesson therefore being that I need to trust in myself more, and if anyone wants to know how you get through that feeling the answer is that you start writing and you just don’t stop and it might take one hundred words or it might take five hundred but in my experience if you just keep going you do eventually become attuned to the story once again. Anyway, that’s not the important bit. The important bit was that through blood, sweat and tears I did eventually Finish The Manuscript. I did this under the encouragement of a very nice agent (different agent) with whom I had been communicating on and off for about three years. When I was very close to the end I sent her some chapters which she read and liked and that in turn gave me some of the impetus I needed to write the final words. It’s a real boon to know that someone is actually going to read it.

I did find it difficult to finish the manuscript, I really did. It was a combination of wanting to, needing to and not being certain that I could make it all the same standard as previous chapters. Oh insecurity thy name is Sarah. But over the course of a week or so I seriously applied myself and watched my word count climb and climb until I reached 142,000 words, including the best two: ‘The End’. I printed it and sent it straight to the agent. To discover that she was out of the office for a week; which was both nice and awful. It meant that I didn’t have to be on tenterhooks immediately and I had a lovely few days shopping and drinking wine, thoroughly enjoying the feeling of having actually Finished The Manuscript.  But it also meant I had a longer wait to see what she thought. I also knew that good news would be via a phone call and bad news via an email. Of course I was also wracked with self-doubt over that week and experienced the strange juxtaposition of knowing that I couldn’t have made the manuscript any better – but what if my best wasn’t good enough? But there wasn’t anything I could do about it, and as my great-grandmother used to say: “Do your best and the rest don’t worry about”. Sterling advice. The following week however I literally jumped every time an email popped up on my (pink) BlackBerry and my heart would race as I looked it, praying that I would not see that name. I really, really wanted her to like the manuscript; she’s someone whose opinion I value very highly indeed.  And eventually, in the middle of one afternoon, my phone rang. She liked the manuscript. But I had no time to absorb this rather incredible news before she was also telling me that it was too long. 42,000 words too long to be precise. I needed to cut it down. However she also said I didn’t need to rush, it was holiday season. Well sod that. All-or-nothing. The phone call was Thursday afternoon and despite a heavy weekend’s entertaining to do, I metaphorically rolled up my sleeves and got working again. By Monday morning the revised manuscript was in her email inbox; I’d reduced it by over 20,000 words. Once I looked at it, it was glaringly obvious what I needed to do. I hoped and prayed that it would be acceptable. It obviously was because by 12 midday I’d been told that it had gone to various publishers and that now we had to wait. Wait! I hate waiting. I’m not good at it. But I suspected in this case I would have to. And actually, against all the odds, it’s not that bad. We’re three days away from the end of term and not having to worry about the manuscript means that I get to relax and enjoy the summer (summer? Ha!) with the girls. And I still have four of those twenty-six occasions to attend. And Saturday is Sports Day which means I need a dress and it has to be red because that is my eldest daughter’s House colour; I don’t own anything red, I need to go shopping. And I have to organise end of term gifts for the teachers, and cards. And I have to make sure that I have all the uniform they need for September, and I need to confirm playdates and I need to see if we can squeeze in a holiday among the already-packed summer schedule….and….and….and… no, I don’t think waiting will be that bad.