Archive for July, 2012

London, baby! Or, er, actually, maybe not…..

Sunday, July 29th, 2012

Before last Thursday, I hadn’t been on a train for  – ooh – about ten years. And I can now safely say that time, plus extra, will pass before I get on one again. Especially if it is run by First Great Western (the irony in this name is extraordinary). Let me paint for you a very full picture of what happened last Thursday.

July 26th, 7am, was the date and time picked by my brother, Charles, and his eleven teammates, to depart from the Cenotaph in central London to cycle to Istanbul. They were going to make it the 28th  but then realised that this was the day that the Olympic cycling races were taking place through London, so it could all get a bit confusing. Not to mention competitive. However, this epic bike ride will take them approximately forty days and they are doing it to raise money for Help for Heroes. This is a staggering challenge and all the more impressive because these people are not professional sports people, they are a group of students from Exeter University who all applied to join this team a year or so ago because they support the cause so wholeheartedly. They did have a fitness test, but essentially the team was created to be a cohesive group who would manage to cycle over 4,000km and not fall out with each other. For the last few months they have all trained tirelessly, cycling distances of up to 60-70km at a time to prepare themselves for the gruelling six weeks or so they have ahead of them now, where they will hopefully cover around 120km per day. They have fundraised extensively, needing money to live on as well as to donate to the charity, they have had heads shaved, legs waxed in public, organised quiz nights, events, sweepstakes – anything to raise money. And they’ve done it. Charles actually took his finals at the same time as training for this and gained a 2:1 Honours degree in History from Exeter University. The families behind these cyclists have watched them prepare for months, in awe and trepidation, and it was agreed that we would all gather at the Cenotaph at 7am on July 26th to give them the best and most supportive send-off for this momentous journey that we possibly could, we built up to that day for months. So the fact that we didn’t actually make it is more than galling.

I drove from Hampshire to Berkshire the night before, which wasn’t planned, but a phone call at 7pm from my mother deemed this to be the necessary action. And you know what it’s like when your mother tells you to do something…… So I flung the bare necessities for myself and little Alice into a bag and drove to my mother’s house where the group travelling to London the next day had gathered. There were eight of us: my mother, my step-father, my two step-brothers, my half-brother, myself and my two daughters. Our alarms were set for 5am to allow us to be at the station at 5:45am for a 6:10am train. An early start, in other words. But it was so lovely to see everyone that we all sat up drinking wine and no-one went to bed until midnight.

We actually managed to be at the station by 5:30am the following day, so well-prepared were we. Our horror was missing the train – that absolutely could not be allowed to happen. So, dressed for the heat of the day that we knew was coming, we all froze on a station platform for half an hour as we waited. One London-bound train came and went but that was a slow stopping service so too late for us which was a shame, it would have been nice to hop on board that nice, warm train. Never mind, ours was due any minute. Or so we thought. At about 6:05am there was an announcement from a pleasant-sounding woman informing us that the train was delayed. Just that, no hint or clue given as to when we might expect it. We looked at each other in horror. Quite apart from the fact that we really couldn’t afford to be late, the three children with us were by now very cold and bored. We watched that information board like Christopher Columbus scanning the horizon. But it obstinately refused to say anything other than ‘delayed’. And that a slow train to London would be arriving at 6:28am. No good to us. We hopped around to warm up, we gritted our teeth, we prayed, we made deals with God and any other deity that happened to be listening and evidently one of them was, because suddenly we were given a time – “The 6:10am service to London Paddington will be delayed by approximately 17 minutes.” So it would be arriving at 6:27am. Not brilliant but not disastrous. A phone call to Charles confirmed that the team were prepared to leave as late as 7:30am We watched the clock anxiously. And then we saw a train in the distance. This was it! Or was it? Was it ours or was it the 6:28am slow train? We didn’t know. We couldn’t know. What on earth were we going to do? But then, to our relief,  there came an announcement “The delayed 6:10am train to London Paddington will arriving on Platform 4.” That was us, perfect. With grins and sighs of relief that rivalled the gales in the Great Storm of 1987, we waited until it drew level and climbed aboard. We even managed to find seats for us all to sit together. This was it, we were on our way! About three minutes later, my 17 year old step-brother said “Er, Dad? This is the slow service.” What! In horror we looked at the information screen and sure enough, this train was scheduled to stop at about 100 stations before Paddington and take three weeks to get there, as it proved by sliding to a halt just metres from our station at its first stop. This was a disaster, if we stayed on this train we’d miss them leaving for sure. There was only one thing for it – the slow train and the express train were both due to stop at Slough. We’d have to hope and pray (and do deals with deities) that the slow train arrived first and we could swap. We glued our faces to the window of the train to see if the express train overtook us – if it did, all was lost. It was a tense ten minutes. But it didn’t! We leapt out of the train at Slough and glanced frantically around for the express train. This was where it all started getting very “National Lampoons On Their Way To The Cenotaph”. As I mentioned, 8 of us in the group, including my step-father dressed in a smart suit for work, my mother with her bad hip and ankle limping everywhere, a lethargic  12 and 10 year old who looked like they’d sleep on the tracks if we let them, and a five year old with very short legs. Oh, and I was wearing flip-flops. We weren’t going to get anywhere fast.  But fast we had to be, unfortunately.  With massive effort we raced collectively up two flights of steps, over the bridge to the correct platform and down another flight. Thank goodness, we’d made it. Then an announcement – “The express service for London Paddington will now be leaving from Platform 8.” The one we’d just come from! So our strange, raggle-taggle group, along with the other million passengers waiting for the train, flung themselves up the steps, over the bridge, the older boys running ahead, when suddenly, on the bridge itself, a commotion took place and one million and 8 passengers froze in mid-flight – the express train looked like it was not going to Platform 8! It seemed to be going to the original platform. But we couldn’ t tell yet, it wasn’t close enough. We had to wait in an horrific limbo on the bridge until it passed beneath us to see which platform it went to, because helpfully, there was no information given. But we made it, we collapsed into our seats and looked at the information screen to check we were on the right train. The information read “Train arrived late from depot.” And the information stayed the same all the way to London. Thanks, First Great Western, absolutely brilliant.

Meanwhile frantic phone calls were taking place with Charles. The team had gathered at the Cenotaph at 6:30am and were preparing to depart. Where were we, he wanted to know. About to get into London, he was told. Right, well, they’d wait as long as they could but no promises, we were told. And then the reception cut out. There followed an agonising, breath-holding, wait as the train crawled into the station and then we all leapt out and ran for our lives through the ticket barriers, down the concourse to the Underground. And down yet more steps, we ran headlong towards the platform for the tube; the sprinting businessman, the disabled lady, the tiny child and me doing that toes-curled-over run people do when trying to keep flip-flops on their feet.

From this point onwards all went smoothly with our journey, the tube service was fantastic (of course it was, London has a most fabulous Mayor at the moment to keep everything in shape) but we just weren’t quick enough. The delayed First Great Western train and misinformation had seen to it that we missed the departure of the cycle team. We ran through Westminster station, got outside, underneath Big Ben, at which point we realised that not one of us actually knew which direction the Cenotaph was in. So we spent a few seconds yelling at each other about why hadn’t someone looked at a bloody map, but it didn’t matter. By the time we found it a minute or so later, we learned that the team had left five minutes before.  Disappointed doesn’t even cover it. We’d been up since 5am, endured a horrible journey to London, little Alice was nearly collapsed with all the running she’d had to do, and my mother was wondering aloud whether she needed an ambulance for her hip. And we hadn’t even got to say goodbye to Charles. The group that trailed back to Paddington was a sombre (and injured) one. Some of us cried, it was just too awful. And then as we sat in miserable silence on the train, something occurred to me. They may have left London, but where were they heading? Dover. We could drive to Dover!

“We’re going to Dover,” I announced and the mood suddenly lifted. We couldn’t not say goodbye to Charles, we couldn’t not see the team, not after the months and months of anticipation. We had to make the effort. How far was Dover? I had no idea. But no matter.  Myself, my mother and the three smallest children climbed into the car an hour later. It occurred to me that after my late night, early start and frantic journey to London that I’d probably fall asleep mid-drive, but I couldn’t let a triviality like that stop me.

The only thing was navigation. We were taking my mother’s car, which has a sophisticated on-board sat nav – but neither of us could work it. Not a problem, we got my 17 year old brother to programme it before we left and I watched him like a hawk to ensure it was correct, I’d had enough of haring around pointlessly. And then we set off! The children were so tired they fell asleep instantly and an unexpected calm descended. Dover wasn’t that far (we hadn’t checked, we didn’t quite know how far) and the cycle team weren’t due to get there until 4pm. We had hours, I thought happily as we sailed towards the M4 on the first stage of our journey. And then the sat-nav instructed me to turn right, away from the motorway. Couldn’t be right, surely? But “It’s OK, it’s taking us directly to the M25,” my mother said confidently, so I turned. And drove underneath the motorway we needed towards Windsor. I was directed through Eton, around Eton and then through Eton again in the opposite direction. “It’s all right,” my mother was saying, “it knows where it’s going.” We drove across the motorway a further three times without actually joining it as my unease grew ever greater, it was now almost an hour since we’d left home. Then we arrived at Heathrow. As in, jets were landing by the side of us and I couldn’t be certain that we hadn’t been directed onto a runway. Something was up with the sat-nav, that was for sure. I peered slightly closer at it and saw that our estimated arrival time was 5pm. No! That couldn’t be right? I voiced these objections as planes thundered around us and as the sat-nav cheerfully guided us straight on – into central London – and a quick phone call to my step-father confirmed my fears – the sat-nav had been programmed to avoid motorways.  We all began to wonder then if our journey was fated. Maybe we just weren’t supposed to say goodbye to Charles.

We hopped onto the M4, seeing as it was right next to us, and our progress began in earnest. We switched off the sophisticated sat-nav, my mother found a battered old map from 1988 and we plotted our route using that. M4, M25, M26 and then M20 into Dover. Easy. Except, hang on, the cycle team weren’t going to be on the motorways were they? And we needed to find them. What roads were they using? What was their route? Something occurred to us both in one horrifying second – we had absolutely no idea what roads they would be on to travel to Dover. How could we find out? A few quick texts confirmed that nobody knew what route they were going. Brilliant. Not one person had thought beyond their departure from the Cenotaph. And now we were feverishly speeding towards Kent with no clue as to where they might be, and Charles had turned his phone off to save battery so we had no way of finding out. When we thought about it, the only detail that we actually had as to their final destination tonight was, er, ‘Dover’. Using a desperate logic that was our only weapon against our ineptitude, we calculated that they would take the quickest route, which would mean the A20. So we took the A20 as soon as we could and started keeping our eyes open for cyclists. We had no idea whether they were ahead or behind us, so we just kept driving. And then – hallelujah! – Charles switched his phone on and rang. They were ahead of us but had stopped for lunch. We found a pub along their route, ordered some food and sat back to watch the team pass. We waited….and waited….and waited. We knew when they’d set off again but an hour later they had failed to reach us. It was boiling hot, we were standing in midday sun for more than an hour staring desperately down the road. I’ll see that road in my mind until my dying day. And they still didn’t come. I was convinced we, or they, had gone wrong somewhere. Despondently, we climbed back into the car and as I did so, my shoe broke. So I had to drive with one bare foot. It just kept on getting better. We drove slowly along the road checking for them and then – suddenly – a line of bikes materialised in the distance! We had finally FOUND THEM! I did a dangerous U-turn on the A20 and drove alongside them. The windows were down, we all shouted and cheered and clapped and whooped and beeped the horn. They probably hated us. We rushed back to the pub, leapt out and back to where we’d been standing for the last hour and a half and waited for them to come past, which they did, and we jumped around and clapped and cheered and shouted again – our exhausted, injured party and me with one flip-flop on. Then we quickly drove on with the support vehicle and waited for them in a lay-by for when they stopped for their rest. When they arrived Charles looked absolutely exhausted and dehydrated. We were quite worried about him – until we saw another team member had gone to lie down in a graveyard so I think he felt worse. The heat of the day had made it very difficult for them, so we handed out water, smoothed in suncream and generally aided them. Goodness knows what they thought. But it didn’t matter because we had done it. We had caught up with them, we saw Charles, we saw them cycling and now we can imagine what they look like on the road as they make their slow, steady way down towards Istanbul. That’s the important thing. Along with sponsoring them. I’ve included the link to their Just Giving page below and I know it feels like people are constantly asking to be sponsored for something these days, but if anyone does feel that they can spare a pound or two, these guys would appreciate it so much.

the Exeter Uni, London-Istanbul cycle team (photo by Chris Bushe)

And as it turned out, it was a good thing that our sleuthing skills located the team on the A20 because we would never have found them in Dover – they were going to Folkstone.

me and Charles


Friday, July 20th, 2012

La Playa

There’s nothing that focusses the mind on writing a blog like the need to unpack, and wash the contents of, three suitcases from our ten days in Spain. I mean, honestly, HOW did we generate so many dirty clothes? I only remember wearing my bikinis and a beach dress. I think it was bad packing on my part for coming home. It’s all right packing to go away because you have new things and lots of time and you’re excited and you want to make sure that you have everything, so belongings go in neat little piles and everything’s ordered nicely.

the girls suitcase before we flew out

We had one suitcase for us and one for the girls and nothing crossed over between the two. The third was for, well, all the stuff that we didn’t need, frankly. Packing to come home on the other hand, I find a depressing waste of time. I basically feel like the holiday’s over the minute I drag the suitcase out of the wardrobe. It just sits there, accusingly, a black lump in the corner, waiting to be filled and reminding me of planes (I HATE flying). Consequently, I don’t care about packing then; clothes get flung in at random, ours – the girls – other people’s – whatever’s to hand. The ten pairs of shoes I didn’t need, the five pairs of shorts I didn’t wear, the £50 bikini I wore once (I LIVED in the £10 one from TK Maxx) . The dirty beach towels in among the clean t-shirts, the sandy skirts in with pristine tops – they all get muddled and by the time we got home, more or less everything needed washing. Which is wonderful in this wet British weather, so suitable for drying washing lines full of clothes. The girls’ suitcase I haven’t dared go near yet because I know it’s worse. Children’s clothes always are. So in there will be the 90% of clean clothes that they didn’t wear with the 10% that they utterly trashed. Orange juice mixed with Coke blended with ketchup, sand, chocolate sauce – you know, all those nice substances that transfer so easily from one item of clothing to another.  I’ll deal with it all later.

We had a great holiday. I love Spain and I enjoyed the chance to speak Spanish again properly, I’ve missed that. We spent most of our time on the beach or by the pool. The beach was where I fell foul to the temptation of having a henna tattoo done. Well, we all did. But now theirs have all faded and mine is as dark as ever – I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll have a Spanish bull on my ankle forever…..

un toro de Espana

We did a couple of little trips, I say a couple because after the first I told my husband I wasn’t getting in the car with him again. Obviously in Spain they drive on the right, now my husband had a problem with placing the car correctly on the road, he was constantly too far over to the right by about a foot. Which wasn’t a problem unless we were doing 120kmph on the motorway – or we were winding our way through the Spanish mountains to visit the little town of Ronda. The roads on these mountains barely qualify for the description. They were narrow, rutted and with a crash barrier between us, and a sheer drop of hundreds of feet into unforgiving  terrain, of the size that our gerbils could hop over if they spied their food bowl on the other side. A foot to the right on these roads was going to matter very much. I tried telling him, of course I did. I tried telling, yelling, cajoling, but he’s one of those people that just doesn’t listen, so eventually I accepted that I was going to die. This was it. Goodbye, cruel world, I am going over the edge of this mountain because my husband has a problem with spacial awareness.  Obviously, that didn’t happen. He did eventually come off the road because he was too far over but luckily we’d left the mountain by then so it didn’t matter too much. But it made for a tense day, matrimonially speaking. Ronda was glorious though, and worth the drive. I’ve been before and I just adore the bullring, it’s the oldest bullring in Spain; steeped in history. And the view from near the Punte Nuevo was stunning.

bullring at Ronda

There were a couple of downsides to the holiday though, the first of which was flying. I hate flying. I hate it so much that I hadn’t flown for eleven years because, to me, the holiday wasn’t worth it. But the time had come to do it again, so I did it. With diazepam and wine. And having cleaned my teeth thoroughly in case I needed to be identified from them. I was OK-ish going out there, but on the return journey I cried from the boarding gate to mid-way through the flight; not my most edifying moment by any stretch of the imagination. But I DID IT. And that’s what counts.  I only have two phobias, one of which is flying and the other of which is vomiting. Of course on Day 2 of our holiday I took  five year old Alice to the bathroom, turned my back and a millisecond later heard her vomit all over the floor. Twice. Of course I fled the scene and fetched her father, as Molly commented “Oh Mummy, you’ve had to face your two biggest fears in just a couple of days.” Correct. What a great start to a holiday!

the vomiting child

The other downside comes with a warning. Ladies and gentleman, do not – ever – go near a company called Diamond Resorts. They are atrocious. We were accosted one night on our way to dinner by a British lady who said that if we were over 28, married or living together and had time to spare the next morning looking round a hotel we could get a 50% discount on the tickets to the water park that we planned to visit. We looked at each and shrugged, why not? We didn’t have to sign anything or buy anything or give any details. It seemed worth a try. So we duly turned up the next morning, the lady from the night before took us into the hotel, said “Just stay as long as you like” and someone came to chat to us briefly and explained that we would be given a guided tour. Lasting, at the most, 90 minutes. We glanced at each other in alarm. 90 minutes? Wasting 90 minutes of sunshine? The first tendrils of unease began to uncurl themselves in my stomach. Then Donald turned up to guide us. Donald from Diamond Resorts. Diamond Donald. He looked a nice man. He was Scottish, had his sales patter all ready and everything seemed straightforward once again. Until we got to the bar where he insisted we sit for 45 minutes, drinking water that we didn’t want, whilst he transparently acquired the information that he did want. Eventually we left and were taken on a short tour of a very small hotel, which we were assured was just one of about 20 million worldwide. In the same league as the Marriott Hotels, would you believe. To be fair, everything we saw looked fine. Nice, even. But Diamond Donald kept going on about how nice their apartments were, how clean, how inviting, how comfortable – and yet we were not invited to see inside one of those. Which I didn’t care about because by now we’d been there 60 minutes and wanted to leave. So my husband began on the closing stages of the conversation by asking:

“OK, so how much? That’s the information we need.”

The response surprised us: “Ah. I can’t tell you that.”


“Well if you’ll just come to our boardroom, we can sit there and discuss how the company works. It’ll only take an hour.”

“No, I don’t think so, thank you. If you could just give us your price list.”

“I’m not allowed. We need to explain how we work. If you’ll just come this way.”

At this point, my husband’s patience began to expire and Diamond Donald hurried to get his manager to see if he would allow us to be told the price of the accommodation. The man who appeared, his name is Pete by the way, was not only rude and unhelpful, but also quite threatening and without an iota of knowledge of good customer service. We were not to be told of prices (and they’d spent a great deal of time discussing the prices of every other hotel in the area, “£1000 a week you’ll pay, for a room,” we were told cheerfully) unless we sat through God knows what for a further hour with two bored, hot children. Eventually, the conversation got uncomfortable when Pete began a sentence with “If you were an intelligent person….” and we walked out. Not as fast as Pete however, who tripped past us smartly to find a rep and as we left the complex he was busy whispering something to him and looking menacingly at us; presumably informing him that we were not to be allowed our ticket discount. Not a problem – we wanted nothing further to do with the place. I have never felt so uncomfortable or bullied in a hotel in my life. Hence my warning – Diamond Resorts are anything but. Perhaps others have positive experiences, but ours was dreadful.

And now, on to the actual point of this blog! See, I’ve just rambled on for 1,514 words. I originally started this to write about the wonderful books I read while on holiday and I got sidetracked by the holiday itself. The first two books I read were ‘The Beach Hut’ and ‘The Long Weekend’ by Veronica Henry. I wandered around Waterstones before I left and these two books were genuinely the only two to captivate me in the entire shop. I don’t know why, they weren’t on display, they were just on a shelf, but the minute I’d picked one up, read the synopsis and a page or two, I knew I had to have both. I can’t remember the last time that happened. And what a cracking find they were. Both are about the lives of four or five different couples in the same place; a group of beach huts in the first and an hotel in the second. They are delightful; engaging, very emotive, beautifully written and absolutely enchanting. I loved the characters so much I didn’t want the books to end. Especially ‘The Long Weekend’; I preferred that one by an infinitesimal amount. They’re both great books, I thoroughly recommend them, either for the beach or just at home. And Veronica assures me that more are on their way, which I’m thrilled about. She’s hopped straight into my top 5 favourite authors – which is an achievement because there’s tough competition,  Henry 🙂 The next book I read was a very different one. It’s quite a dark, searching, mysterious, tense story by Louise Douglas, called ‘The Secrets Between Us’. I bought it at the airport, I was lured by a sticker which read “If you love Kate Morton, you’ll love this!” And I did love it. It had me spellbound until the last page and the characters and their emotions stayed with me until long after I’d finished the book. It was captivating and deeply moving. And the last new book I read was Sophie Kinsella’s latest, ‘I’ve Got Your Number’. When I read the synopsis I thought it sounded a weak premise for a book but she’s always written strongly before so I thought I’d try it. And I’m glad I did. It was engaging, entertaining and made me laugh out loud; another great, easy holiday read.

Right, I’ve now written about 1,000 words more than I intended so I shall stop here. I need to go and clean the house – and myself – because my in-laws are coming tonight for a belated birthday celebration, it was my Father-in-law’s birthday on Wednesday, so I need to change the tablecloth at the very least. And after that, I’ve agreed to go and stay with my mother for the weekend so that means yet more…..yes, you’ve guessed it….PACKING! Goodness knows what I’ll pack, of course. At this rate ice-cream stained clothes, a dirty beach towel, sandy shorts and a bikini that’s the closest thing I have to clean underwear.

in full Fiesta mode!

Hasta luego!