12 December, 2016


It's the run up to Christmas and, for us, that means couriers delivering parcels. More specifically, it means couriers delivering parcels to our house when we're out. Instead of leaving the parcel with a neighbour when we're out, we find that the drivers more often than not just dump the parcel on our mat in plain view to anyone passing by. Not good.

However, we have had a couple of good experiences recently:

  • UPS left a parcel with our local collection point, which was our local corner shop. We hadn't come across this before, but it turns out that UPS have local collection points where they will leave your parcel if you're not in. This means that they don't have to re-deliver, and the parcel is held somewhere safe until you pick it up. Perfect.
  • But DPD go one step further. On the morning of delivery, we received an email giving us a one-hour time slot. We were told who our driver was (including a photo of him) and we could track his route as he made his journey towards us, which meant that eventually we knew the 15-minute time slot during which he would deliver to us. I had some reservations about what this meant for the driver (lack of autonomy, pressure to deliver exactly when expected, etc.) but in terms of customer service, it was great!

29 November, 2016

FREE book promotion for 'Six Months in Paris'

My novel, 'Six Months in Paris', will be FREE on Amazon from Friday 2 until Tuesday 6 December.

It is a light, fun read, perfect for helping you through these cold winter days. Here's the blurb for it:

Anna Chaliss has her life all mapped out…or so she thinks.

Taking a gap year before university, Anna heads off to Paris for six months to work as an au pair. A nice French family. Two lovely girls. A beautiful house in the suburbs. What could be better?

But things don’t quite turn out as planned. Instead of having the time of her life, Anna finds herself on a voyage of self-discovery which changes her future irrevocably.

28 November, 2016

London weekend

We followed our usual annual tradition last weekend of visiting London to do a bit of Christmas shopping and to look at the lights. We wondered whether we might give this outing a miss this year, but the children were insistent...

We had a productive but very long and tiring day. It is astonishing how many people there are walking up and down Oxford Street at this time of year -- it's almost impossible to move, unless you employ the rather crafty tactic of heading down side streets and trekking along back streets, which we did.

Other things that I found surprising were:

  • The length of the queues for the ladies' loos in John Lewis. We waited the best part of fifteen minutes to reach the front.
  • The crowds of young women who seemed desperate to shop in Pink for underwear. My daughters love it, but I really can't see the attraction -- the clothing is definitely not my style.
  • The fact that North Ealing tube station could be completely closed for the whole day due to a shortage of trains on the Piccadilly Line. I mean, is that an appropriate way to manage the capital's public transport system?!
On the plus side:
  • We found a lovely cafe close to Oxford Street for lunch.The Everbean appeared to be independent, was tastefully decorated, had very friendly staff, and served unusual and delicious food (avocado on toast for us!).
  • We enjoyed looking at the lights in Covent Garden, despite the huge crowds.
  • We wound up at an ASK for supper. It was predictable, but pleasant, and we were able to pay using our Tesco vouchers (always a bonus!).

14 November, 2016


We had a rather truncated family last week, as my other half was out of the country on business.

However, the kids and I completed the week successfully, despite the multifarious demands of work, school, freelancing and home. We also managed a fun, albeit very local weekend.

On Saturday we popped into Abingdon and had lunch at The Mousehole Cafe. This place has actually been open for over a year and we've been meaning to go for ages. It is very pleasant -- situated in the basement of the town hall with very friendly staff and a small range of freshly-made food. We had sandwiches and cakes and very much enjoyed our lunch. In the evening we watched the film "Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason". My husband and I saw this years ago when it first came out, but the kids haven't seen it before. They enjoyed it -- and it certainly was a bit of entertaining fun.

On Sunday, we got some fresh air, going for a walk along the Thames path. We do this route quite often and always enjoy it. The walk was very muddy this time, though, due to Saturday's heavy rain. We wound up in one of the local Costas for a hot chocolate, which was a pleasant treat.

The other member of our family arrived back from the airport on Sunday evening, tired and bearing gifts. It was lovely to see him again -- and now we are no longer truncated!

08 November, 2016

Fireworks and family

We had a fun time last weekend.

On Saturday evening we celebrated Guy Fawkes by attending the show organised by the Abingdon Scouts at Long Furlong Community Centre. It was a good event -- the fireworks themselves were very impressive; there were burgers, hot dogs and drinks for sale; and the organisation was good with well managed and quick ticket sales at the gate. The only thing that we missed was a bonfire, which is always good for keeping warm while waiting and looks very impressive too.

On the Sunday we went to London to visit 'the Irish cousins', who were over for just a couple of days. Given that we live far apart, our kids rarely see their Irish cousins, and so they had been hassling us for a while to set something up. There's a large age gap -- ours are teenagers, while the cousins are a toddler and a pre-schooler, but they seem to get on really well and enjoy one another's company, which is great. We had a lovely lunch at Toulous in London. We eat here fairly regularly and can recommend it if you're looking for casual, not-too-expensive dining in North London. The menu is good and wide ranging, the staff are welcoming, and it is very child friendly.

30 October, 2016

Half term fun

It was half term last week and we had some great family fun. Here are some of the things that we got up to:
  • We visited Waddesdon Manor and really enjoyed wandering around the grounds in the autumn sunshine, playing on the adventure playground (the kids!) and having tea in the courtyard restaurant.
  • We followed our time-honoured tradition of visiting Waterperry Gardens and doing the pumpkin hunt. The kids are really far too old for this now, but we've done it for years and they don't seem to want to let the tradition drop just yet -- plus it's a great excuse for a yummy treat in the tearoom!
  • We went to see The Pantaloons' latest play -- Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde -- at the Cornerstone Theatre in Didcot. It was rather different from previous plays that we have seen by this company -- much less comic, which isn't surprising given the subject matter -- but still very good.
  • Some of us went to see the latest Marvel creation -- Dr Strange. We really enjoyed the film. It wasn't quite all action -- there was a passing reference to some 'deeper' issues (for example, how do you cope if you lose the ability to do the one thing that gives your life meaning), which made it a bit more interesting, plus the cinematography was enthralling (views of Nepal and Hong Hong) and the special effects impressive. Tilda Swinton was also great!
  • We popped into Oxford and wandered around Christ Church Meadow, which was very beautiful. We followed this with a browse through the books and a coffee at Blackwell's.
  • We made our Christmas pudding and mincemeat. This is another time-honoured tradition -- a job that we have done during October with the kids since they were tiny. Now they are old enough that they can do the making themselves without any assistance from us! We use recipes that have been in the family for several generations and it's a great way to kick off the festive season.
  • The kids carved a pumpkin -- we always have a lighted pumpkin on the dining table at Halloween.
It's been quite a busy half term. Now it's time to go back to school and relax!

11 October, 2016

The Making of Us

I have just finished reading 'The Making of Us' by Lisa Jewell, which I really enjoyed.

The basic plot involves three young people -- Lydia, Dean and Robyn. All three were conceived from the sperm of the same sperm donor and, as the story unfolds, each learns that they are a sperm donor child. Furthermore, they each learn, via registering with the Donor Sibling Registry, that they have siblings. They are very curious about this and, in the end, they arrange to meet one another.

Despite the fact that they are all very different personality-wise, when the three meet, they immediately connect on a deep, emotional level. It is as if something was always missing from their lives and now they have found it. They are at ease and relaxed in one another's company, right from the word go. Their common heritage appears to override everything else.

It was this part of the book that I found really interesting -- the immediate connection despite the enormous personality differences and the absence of contact previously. I don't know whether that is true to life for donor siblings, but it is rather different from my experience of (non-donor) family. Having grown up in a very difficult family, shared inheritance -- the genetic connection -- doesn't mean a great deal to me. What matters from my perspective is that someone is a good, decent person who shares my values and understands my way of thinking. That may be a family member but, equally, it may not. There's no hard-and-fast rule: it all depends on your own personal experience, I think.

26 September, 2016


We spent the last couple of Sundays decorating the kids' rooms. This proved to be rather a different experience from that of a few years back. Now that the kids are teenagers, they are as (more?) capable of proficient decorating than we parents are. So, all four of us set to -- two with rollers and two with brushes -- and we were finished in a couple of hours. Amazing!

Of course, what took rather longer was sorting out all the junk in the kids' rooms. They did this themselves and it's incredible how much they have accumulated in a relatively short period of time. We had to do several trips to the charity shop to offload all the unwanted goods...

I've got my eye on redecorating the sitting room next, but somehow I doubt the kids will be so keen to help with a room that isn't all their own!

04 September, 2016

Life without kids

Every summer, our kids spend a few days staying with their grandparents. They always have a great time and, although we miss them hugely, it's a good opportunity for us to be a couple and do lots of nice things by ourselves.

Here's what we got up to last week:

  • We popped down to the riverside Nag's Head pub in Abingdon and sat in the lovely evening sunshine enjoying a glass of wine and a pizza.
  • We visited our local Thai restaurant, the Zabb Thai, and had a delicious (as always) dinner. We love this restaurant: the food's great, the owner is so friendly, and the restaurant is small and intimate.
  • We went to the cinema to see the latest Woody Allen film, Cafe Society.
All of this was great, but probably the best thing of all was what we did together with the kids when we picked them up. We we went to see Macbeth at Shakespeare's Globe. We really enjoyed the play -- it was imaginative and well acted and the setting was stunning.

And, of course, it was wonderful to see the kids again!

27 August, 2016

Chedworth Roman Villa

We had a good day out today at Chedworth Roman Villa, near Cheltenham.

Chedworth was a large and high-end Roman country house, with underfloor heating and on-site bathhouses, and is now owned by the National Trust. There is little left standing and as a visitor you are reliant on the plaques telling you what each room was. However, you can see well-preserved mosaics and the remains of the hypocaust. There is also a small museum displaying a variety of domestic artefacts.

The villa is set in beautiful countryside and manned by friendly and knowledgeable staff. There is a pleasant cafe on site, selling the usual National Trust fare, and a small gift shop.

We very much enjoyed our visit to Chedworth, not least because it made a change from the grand stately homes that are more generally the province of the National Trust.

The Happy Plaice

We had a really good eating experience at The Happy Plaice earlier this week.

The Happy Plaice is a mobile fish and chip van which serves Steventon and other villages in the Vale of White Horse. We heard about it from friends, who recommended it, and our kids were keen to try it out, so we decided to give it a go.

We didn't set off with very high expectations because we tend to find that, while fish and chips sound good in principle, all too often they are pretty horrible--unpleasant fish, soggy chips, etc., etc. However, The Happy Plaice really did live up to our friends' recommendation. Our meal was cooked to order (in fact we, had to wait 25 minutes as others were ahead of us in the queue, but that wasn't a problem as we whiled away the time by walking along the ancient causeway), and when it came was piping hot and fresh. The fish was of excellent quality, the chips were crisp and our meal even came with a slice of lemon! We picnicked on the village green at Steventon, which was lovely, and adjacent to where the van parks, so very convenient.

We would definitely visit The Happy Plaice again and would certainly recommend it as an unusually good fish and chip experience.

08 August, 2016

Summer holiday in Italy

We recently came back from our summer holiday in Italy.

We stayed in a beautiful spot in the hills about 45 minutes' drive from Naples -- Villa Le Favole. This was a privately owned villa with three apartments for guests and a handful of B&B rooms. The setting was wonderful -- in the middle of nowhere with a lovely Italianate garden and peaceful swimming pool. Highly recommended.

We did a lot of sightseeing -- Pompeii, Herculaneum, Naples, Vesuvius, the Amalfi coast towns of Sorrento, Positano, Amalfi and Ravello, to name some of the places. We enjoyed it all, and left with a particularly soft spot for Ravello, with it's winding streets, lovely old church and gardens that were open to visitors.

My husband and I have visited this area of the world before, but about twenty years ago. Our kids were keen to see Pompeii and Vesuvius, which is why we revisited -- and we're very glad we did.

Fun-filled summer weekend

It was sunny this weekend just gone, and my family and I made the most of it.

On Saturday, we drove out to the Cotswolds -- to little-frequented Eastleach Turville, to be precise -- and enjoyed a beautiful, peaceful walk following the River Leach. We took a picnic with us and ate it sitting in the middle of a meadow. It was wonderful -- the warmth, the landscape, the company of my lovely family...

We came home via the heavily touristed, but still very pleasant, Cotwolds town of Burford. We had tea at landmark cafe Huffkins. What did we have? Their famous lardy cake, of course. Delicious! We also picked up some plants for our garden from a little nursery that operates out of the owner's front garden in the back streets of Burford.

On Sunday, we went for a late afternoon swim at the Abingdon open air pool, which was again lovely. Not too busy, dappled sunshine, pleasantly warm water. And we wound up with a post-swim drink at Abingdon's waterside pub, the Nag's Head. Their riverside garden is a great place to enjoy a drink in the sun.

Pretty good for one weekend, I think!

12 July, 2016

Abingdon outdoor pool

My family and I have really enjoyed using the Abingdon outdoor pool over the past couple of weeks -- even in the rain, as today!

We always tried to use the pool each summer, but the increased water temperature this year has made such a difference. It feels warm when getting in, even when the weather is cold and overcast. We plan to use the facility much more this summer, as a result.

I was also delighted to read that the council has announced that, at the end of the season, it is going to replace the (rather dilapidated) old pool with a brand-new pool -- they realised that it would be far more cost-effective to do a complete replacement rather than continually repairing the existing structure. So the pool should be even better in 2017!

On a side note -- I bought the kids ice creams at the pool's refreshment kiosk. They chose Cornetto Soft, which they love -- so well done to the pool for stocking that particular brand. I also noticed that Funny Feet lollies were on the ice cream list. I remember these well from my 1970s childhood, but thought they'd been discontinued years ago, so that was an interesting surprise.

All in all, I'd highly recommend a visit to the Abingdon outdoor pool. It's in a beautiful location, is warm and sells ice creams. What more could you want?

19 June, 2016

Trampolining and barges

We had an interesting Sunday out this weekend.

It was our youngest's birthday weekend and she had decided that she would like to go en famille to AirHop, a trampoline park in Guildford. We therefore pre-booked an afternoon session on the trampolines and went to AirHop via Guildford centre for lunch. I've never been to Guildford before, but it's an interesting mix. It is full, predictably, of expensive shops (this is the heart of stockbroker belt, after all) and has some lovely old parts with beautiful houses and picturesque churches, but much of the centre is 1950s concrete at its worst, which is a shame.

AirHop itself proved a real hit. It was spacious and had lots of trampoline-based activities, which the kids loved. I was impressed by how it was run -- by a whole team of what looked liked sixteen- to eighteen-year-olds. They were really doing their jobs properly -- supervising the bouncers very well and keeping the place ultra clean. It was also pretty good value at £23 for two, including non-slip socks.

After AirHop, we stopped off at the National Trust's Dapdune Wharf, where we were able to learn about the barge traffic that used to pass along the River Wey from Guildford to London. Visitors can board one of the old barges, which is very interesting, as well as browsing small exhibitions on barge life and navigating the River Wey. The location is very pretty and there's a small cafe on site serving sandwiches and cakes.

All in all, a very enjoyable birthday weekend.

14 June, 2016

Sugar overload?

I was in a coffee shop today and the person on the table next to me sat down with a fruit muffin and a large hot chocolate with cream and marshmallows. I didn't think much of it until he proceeded to add two sachets of sugar to the hot chocolate.

I tried, but couldn't begin, to imagine how sweet that would be.

At least the muffin was fruit and not chocolate, I suppose...

07 June, 2016


We have two gorgeous kids -- one teenager and one almost teenager. They are lovely (and pretty damned good as people of this age go, I think), but all the things they say about teenagers really are true:

  • They don't come out of their rooms unless prevailed upon to do so, or unless food is on offer.
  • They don't like to leave the house, or not with their parents, at least. Although, see above, if it involves food, they can quite easily be enticed out.
  • They will grunt if they don't want to answer your questions.
  • They will only tidy their rooms if asked to do so.
  • If you suggest going for a walk in the countryside, they interpret this as a fate worse than death.
  • They will get upset if you nag them or disagree with them.

The funny thing is, I distinctly remember being just like this as a teenager. Do you?

01 June, 2016

Bank holiday weekend

We had a busy bank holiday weekend. Here are a few of the things that we enjoyed doing.

We tried out a newly-opened restaurant in our home town -- Wildwood Kitchen. This is a chain, we know, but not one that we have tried before, so we were eager to see what it was like. We were pretty impressed. The food was good -- fresh and tasty, our waitress was very pleasant, and as it was a Sunday evening, the restaurant was quiet -- we had the half of the restaurant in which we were seated entirely to ourselves! The only negative point is that Wildwood's menu is not great for veggies. There are very few veggie dishes on the menu, and the night that we went, the vegetarian risotto wasn't available, leaving an extremely limited non-meat choice.

On the bank holiday Monday, we visited relatives in London and were taken to see a film at the Everyman Cinema in Belsize Park. The cinema was amazing -- quite unlike anything we had seen before. The seats reclined, and you could order nuts and nibbles before the performance, which were delivered to you in your cinema seat on a tray by a waiter! Wow! Posh, or what? Rather a far cry from our local Cineworld, where you're lucky if they have cleared the floor of popcorn from the previous showing...

Before going to the film, we ate lunch at Chez Bob, which is right next to the Everyman. We had a good meal there, with pleasant service. The menu was wide-ranging and the food freshly made. We enjoyed it.

04 May, 2016

Milton Manor: a lovely stately home in Oxfordshire

We had an interesting trip out over the bank holiday weekend. We went to visit Milton Manor, which is a small stately home, situated in Milton village, not far from where we live.

The house is privately owned and is only open for 30 days a year. We have visited once before—probably around eleven years ago now—but it was when the children were very young and so we didn't actually go into the house, but just enjoyed the grounds. We have been keen to visit the inside of the house for a while now and so were pleased to see that it was open on a day that we were free.

The guided tour was given by (who we took to be) the lady of the house. There were very few visitors (maybe ten of us in total), so it was all rather lovely and intimate. You were free to ask questions and positively invited to sit on the chairs. As our hostess said: ‘Well, they are made for sitting on!’

The house is very beautiful, if rather dilapidated (peeling exterior paintwork, silverfish in the wallpaper, a broken pane of glass in one of the windows, etc.). It was built in the eighteenth century by Inigo Jones, and the Gothic library and the private chapel are particularly impressive.

There are things to see and do in the grounds too. You can pet the ponies and the llama, cross the stream on the rope bridge, visit the tree house and walk in the surrounding woods. When we visited there were pony rides for children and teas for sale in the stables.

We had a lovely time, and it was good to see a small(ish) private home open to the public and run in such a relaxed and friendly way.

Jobs, pay and the future

I had an interesting discussion with my youngest daughter the other day about the future, job opportunities, etc.—the kinds of things we all worry about for our kids.

My daughter was clear that she wanted a good job. ‘What constitutes a good job?’ I asked. ‘One that pays well,’ was her reply. Well, that’s a valid answer. It’s great to have a well-paid job, but is that what makes it a good job? And what about being well paid? As I tried to explain to my daughter, ‘well paid’ is  a relative concept. You may work in the public sector and be lucky enough to have  a ‘well-paid’ job. If so, your notion of ‘well paid’ will be quite different from that of someone who works in the private sector and has a ‘well-paid’ job, simply because salaries are higher in the private sector than in the public sector. ‘Yes, but as I said, my definition of a good job is one that it is well paid,’ replied my daughter, coming right back at me. She’s not a fan of shades of grey!

When you’re young and don’t have any experience of the workplace, it’s easy to think that the ride will be straightforward. Good school education. University. Good degree. A good, well-paid job should follow, shouldn’t it? But that’s not always the case, of course. It can be difficult to get your foot on the first rung of the ladder, let alone end up in a position where you are senior enough to earn a good salary. Furthermore, it’s not just a case of getting a good degree; which degree is highly significant as well. As we all know, a degree in a science or engineering subject is a much surer route to a high earning job than is a degree in the arts or humanities. My daughter would like to do something that involves writing and pointed out to me that I had said that medical writing is well paid. That’s true—it is. But what she’d failed to take on board was my additional point that in order to be a medical writer you need at least a first degree (preferably a PhD) in the life sciences. So, medical writing isn’t an accessible career for someone with a degree in English.

On second thoughts, perhaps it’s better that we’re not aware of all this stuff when we’re young. Maybe it is just best to aim for what you love, in the belief that things will come together exactly as you would wish them to. After all, there’s always the chance that they will—and, if not, maybe it’s best to save up the disappointment and negativity for later!

17 April, 2016

Colouring for adults

For my birthday back in February, my kids gave me a rather unusual present -- a colouring book and some pencils. It wasn't a child's colouring book, of course, but one specially for adults -- a beautiful volume full of intricate designs of gardens and flowers. You've probably seen this kind of thing in W. H. Smith. It seems to have become quite popular now.

I thought this was a great present. I was sure it would do me good to relax a bit and do something quite different from the kinds of things I usually do (work at the computer, sit in meetings, do laundry, etc., etc.). It took a while for me to make a start on the colouring book, but when I did, I found I really enjoyed it. I started with quite a simple design, and as soon as I'd finished, I moved on to a highly complex, double-spread garden scene. I've still not quite finished that one.

The whole thing is highly addictive. You have a few minutes to spare, so you get out the pencils, but then you find that you can't stop. You think, 'Oh, I'll just colour that flower and then I'll go and do x,' but before you know it, you've coloured a whole meadow of flowers and you've forgotten all about x.

I'm even going to buy myself another set of pencils so that I have a wider range of colours to work with...

So, the colouring book did turn out to be a good present. And if you're looking for something a bit different and a bit creative, I'd certainly recommend colouring for adults.

10 April, 2016

"The Importance of Being Earnest" with the Pantaloons

We enjoyed a great, laugh-a-minute evening yesterday, watching The Pantaloons' production of "The Importance of Being Earnest" at the Cornerstone Theatre in Didcot.

We first came across the Pantaloons last summer doing an open-air production of "Pride and Prejudice". We enjoyed that show so much that we decided to book to see them again as soon as they were performing something in our neck of the woods.

For those of you who don't know, the Pantaloons are a young, touring theatre company who put on productions that are high quality and incredibly funny. They are masters of improvisation, engineering inspired audience participation, and physical comedic theatre.

"The Importance of Being Earnest" is a funny play in its own right, but the Pantaloons' magic made it simply hilarious. We particularly loved the crass relationship between Miss Prism and Dr Chasuble, the deliberate set up and downplaying of the "A handbag..." line, and the American-style recap scene (with multiple movie references) after the interval.

If you enjoy clever, funny theatre with an irreverent twist, then I would recommend booking up for the Pantaloons now!

04 April, 2016

New book "Six Months in Paris" now available on Amazon!

After a long wait, my new book, Six Months in Paris, is finally available on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk!

It's a fun, entertaining coming-of-age story about a young woman who travels to Paris and finds that her experiences there change the course of her life for good.

Here is the complete blurb:

Anna Chaliss has her life all mapped out…or so she thinks.

Taking a gap year before university, Anna heads off to Paris for six months to work as an au pair. A nice French family. Two lovely girls. A beautiful house in the suburbs. What could be better?

But things don’t quite turn out as planned. Instead of having the time of her life, Anna finds herself on a voyage of self-discovery which changes her future irrevocably.

I hope you enjoy it!

01 April, 2016

Easter weekend on the Jurassic coast

We had a lovely Easter weekend on the Jurassic coast, staying in Weymouth. The weather was a bit stormy at times, but otherwise things were great.

We stopped en route at one of our favourite places -- Stourhead. The weather that day was perfect and we absolutely loved wandering round the beautiful grounds in the bright spring sunshine. The kids, despite being teenagers now, were insistent that we do a National Trust Easter egg trail (they're still prepared to do it for the chocolate!!) and so we did. The (gratefully received) prize was a Cadbury's chocolate bunny each. We also enjoyed eating sandwiches and cakes on the terrace outside Stourhead's cafe. We managed to secure a table in the sun after braving the rather stressful queues for food -- unfortunately only too common in National Trust restaurants these days.

Saturday saw us in Lyme Regis in the pouring rain and howling wind. We visited Dinosaurland, seemingly named for marketing purposes rather than accuracy, given that this museum was more about small fossils than dinosaurs. However, it proved rather interesting -- a large, eclectic collection gathered together over the years from Lyme Regis' beach by a husband and wife palaeontologist team. We did a bit of fossil hunting on the beach ourselves, but didn't come up with anything more than a couple of pretty coloured stones. The wind and rain were a bit of a deterrent, to be honest...

We drove back to our holiday cottage via Abbotsbury -- a beautiful village, originally the site of an abbey. We climbed the hill behind the village to visit the picturesque and windswept fifteenth century church, which was built by the monks. Despite being bare inside, apart from some nesting birds, the chapel still occasionally hosts (presumably standing) services. Well worth a visit.

On Sunday, we visited the absolutely beautiful Athelhampton House. This is a fifteenth century manor house with lovely, award-winning gardens. We truly enjoyed our visit here. It is privately owned and so doesn't have huge numbers of visitors, and when we arrived we were warmly welcomed and actively encouraged to sit on any seat we saw -- most unusual in a stately home! We particularly enjoyed sitting in front of the roaring fire in the magnificent wood-panelled great hall.

We came home via family in Bournemouth, having enjoyed a fun-filled, relaxing Easter weekend.

23 March, 2016

Lovely Tesco delivery drivers

Tesco delivers our shopping once a week and the thing we like about this -- apart from the convenience, of course -- is the drivers.

On the whole, they are a lovely, friendly bunch. And there are one or two who we have got to know really quite well. We spend a while chatting to them on the doorstep and have learnt about what's going on it their lives -- their kids, their spouses, their plans to buy a new car, etc., etc. It's a pleasure when they deliver.

Last week, the driver who delivered to us was quite a surprise -- we hadn't seen him for several months. It transpired that his partner had been ill and so he had transferred to work for a Tesco branch in Wales for a few months so that she could recuperate. He told us all about the beautiful scenery and the relaxed pace of life in Wales. It sounded as if he'd like to go back!

We just enjoy chatting to these friendly Tesco delivery drivers, but I imagine that they provide a real service to the elderly and the lonely. Who would have thought that Tesco could be credited with that?

06 March, 2016

Gender inequalities and success

I attended an interesting talk recently by academic Kate Hoskins.

It was all about successful women in academia -- specifically, what makes them successful and what are the barriers to success experienced by women. Hoskins interviewed a cohort of female UK professors in her quest to find answers to these questions. She also had a particular interest (due to her own non-traditional route into academia) in successful women who come from working class backgrounds.

Amongst the women who Hoskins interviewed, almost all became successful, not alone, but with the help of either a sponsor (someone influential in the field who had recognised their potential, picked them up and actively made opportunities for them) or a mentor (someone who had been assigned as a mentor to that person and thereby supported them, gave them advice, etc.). Several of the women also attributed their success simply to being in the right place at the right time.

The talk was thought provoking and got me musing quite a bit around the subject. What about people who succeed in the absence of a mentor or sponsor? Do men also become successful through the support of sponsors and mentors? What effect does part-time working have on success?

Other things that Hoskins touched on were:

  • The effect that one's schooling can have on success. Those who are educated privately have a far higher chance of becoming successful. Did grammar schools give opportunities (or a leg up) to those who showed promise in a way that today's comprehensive system does not?
  • How should we deal with the fact that women feel less confident about seeking out promotion than men? 
  • Being middle class gives you privilege and opportunities, which, on the face of it, is a good thing. But there is a flip side. A child who comes from a middle class background will very much feel the weight of expectation to do well and to succeed. But what if their aspirations are different from those of their parents? Or what if they have no desire to become successful?  In that case, this weight of expectation may become disabling rather than enabling.

All big, important questions, which, I'm sure you will agree, are very interesting to consider...

04 March, 2016

Birthday celebration

I had a lovely birthday weekend a couple of weeks ago, and felt very spoilt as the celebration extended over two days!

On the Saturday, we visited Lacock Abbey, a National Trust property in Wiltshire. Some of you may know that some scenes from the Harry Potter movies were filmed in parts of the old abbey. The cloisters were used, and one of the abbey rooms served as the potions classroom in the early films. At the time of filming, one of our friends was the house steward for Lacock and had to admonish Alan Rickman for repeatedly bursting through the ‘potions room’ door! (The repeated impact was causing damage to the ancient wood.) All of this was highly entertaining fare for our kids, of course.

Despite the fact that the weather was wet and miserable, we had a great time at Lacock. The house itself is beautiful and exemplifies several different periods of architecture. The abbey was also home to pioneer photographer William Henry Fox Talbot in the 1800s, and so there is an interesting photography exhibition on site. The National Trust owns not only the abbey, but also Lacock village, which we thoroughly enjoyed wandering round. We especially enjoyed the opportunity to explore inside one of the ancient houses in the village (currently a gift shop) and to visit the old tithe-barn, which is particularly impressive. We also enjoyed lunch (and tea) in the NT café – the food comes highly recommended.

On the Sunday, we ate out at a local Thai restaurant – the Zabb Thai in Abingdon. The food was delicious, the venue small and intimate, and the owner very pleasant and friendly. I would definitely recommend the Zabb Thai for all lovers of Thai food out there. And the kids loved it too!

18 February, 2016

Theatre, lunch and a dedication ceremony

We had a busy and fun-filled weekend last week.

On Saturday afternoon, we went to see Hetty Feather at the Oxford Playhouse. It was our youngest daughter who was so keen to see this, being a firm Jacqueline Wilson fan, and we weren’t altogether sure what to expect. However, we all enjoyed the show. It was very imaginatively produced and rather acrobatic, with actors making full use of ladders, aerial ribbons, and an aerial hoop, which is always impressive to watch. The only downside was the amount of whispering and sweet wrapper rattling during the show. Inevitable, I suppose, in a theatre full of kids.

On Sunday, we were invited to a dedication celebration for a friend’s baby. This began with the dedication ceremony, which was part of the regular Sunday morning service at Trinity Church in Abingdon. Trinity is a Methodist/United Reformed church and one thing I didn’t realise was that the hymns sung by Methodists are different (or at least were different at this service) from those sung in a traditional C of E church. I enjoy hymn singing, so was rather disappointed that I didn’t recognise any of the hymns! Never mind.

The service was followed by a lovely three-course lunch in the Barn – the function room at Abingdon’s Crown and Thistle Hotel. This was very enjoyable. The Barn was beautifully and sympathetically restored, with lots of lovely old timber and fairy lights wound around all the wooden struts – very pretty! The food was excellent too. I had pumpkin soup, salmon, and a kind of Eton Mess with cherries, all of which were delicious. Highly recommended!

15 February, 2016

University pay discrepancy

There was an interesting article in the news last week about pay rates within the university sector.

We learnt that vice-chancellors at UK universities received average salary packages of £272,000 last year, marking an increase of £12,000 on the previous year. We also learnt that thousands of pounds more were spent on hotel accommodation and flights for vice-chancellors, with 50 per cent of flights being either first or business class.

The justification? 'The salaries of university leaders in the UK are ... comparable to similarly sized public and private organisations,' according to Universities UK.

Fair enough, you might think. But hang on a minute. What about those working at lower levels in UK universities? They certainly do not receive salaries comparable to people working in similar roles in the private sector. When entering the university sector, you do so in full knowledge of the fact that your salary will be lower than those working in similar roles in other sectors. It's just part of the deal. And there is absolutely no question that you will travel anything other than economy class, wherever you go -- assuming that your department has the budget for you to travel anywhere at all, that is.

A spokesperson for the University of Oxford said: '[the University's] research output is vast, it has more than £1bn a year in turnover, not including the colleges and Oxford University Press, and it has great institutional complexity. The vice-chancellor's salary reflects that.'

All of this is true, but it is no justification for the VC earning so much more than the University's other employees. After all, all of these people need to navigate the institution's complexity in order to do their jobs. And, let's face it, it's not the VC who brings in the research income or balances the University's books -- it's all those hard-working academics and administrators who are committed to their jobs, despite their pay being (often much) less than those working at a similar level in other sectors.

08 February, 2016

Clothes shopping and changing fashions

I am a creature of habit when it comes to clothes shopping. Once I've found a shop or product that I like, I stick with it. I don't enjoy searching for clothes, so this is a good solution for me.

However, what this means is that, when things change, I find myself rather at sea. Years ago, I used to buy work clothes from Laura Ashley, but then our local branch closed, and I had to find something else. I liked the Per Una label at M&S while it lasted, but after a few years it all but disappeared. My local branch of Monsoon closed recently, giving me yet fewer options for clothes shopping.

And now the same thing has happened with underwear. The only bras that you seem able to buy these days are like armour -- underwired, padded, moulded, you name it... Whatever happened to nice, soft, comfortable underwear? Surely I'm not the only person who thinks like this?!

29 January, 2016

Time and time and time

Like many parents, I can’t believe how fast my children are growing up. Remember how, when they were babies, everyone said: ‘Enjoy it while you can – they grow up so quickly!’ You don’t believe it at the time, of course, when you simply can’t see beyond the feeding and the nappies and the nights…

But, I can testify that it really does go fast. And this was brought home to me with a bang this week when I attended my eldest’s GCSE information evening. She makes her GCSE choices in just a few weeks’ time – how on earth did that happen?! I then did a quick calculation and realised that she would be leaving home in just over four years, which is simply stunning.

In another two years, both my children will have left home and my husband and I will have to find new (or rediscover old) ways of filling our time. By then, we will both be in our fifties – something else which I find very hard to believe…

23 January, 2016

Shopping in Newbury

We took advantage of the good weather last weekend by visiting Newbury for a family shopping trip. We had been there years ago but couldn't really remember it at all. We were pleasantly surprised.

There is a new, open air shopping area in the centre of town, which is very pleasant. We visited John Lewis (very useful), New Look (for the kids), Marks and Spencer (useful again) and Waterstones (looking to spend our Christmas book tokens). All of these are staple shops, of course, but they weren't too busy or crowded, which made the shopping experience much less stressful than usual. The modern, ‘industrial look’ architecture was also easy on the eye, making the shops seem unusually spacious and clutter free.

We had lunch in the Waterstone’s Café, which was a good experience. Very friendly staff and locally sourced food, which is always a bonus. Again, there were just a few tables and it wasn’t too crowded, which meant that we were able to enjoy a relaxed lunch. There was also a very nice-looking Paul up the road (with café prices that weren't too steep), but that unfortunately was full, so we couldn't give it a try.

On the way back to the car, we had a quick wander round the older parts of the town. The town hall looked interesting, as did the church and riverside walk. We didn't have time to explore these places, but I think we might plan another trip to Newbury in the near future, this time focussing on its history and culture.

05 January, 2016

Back to life, back to reality

My family and I had a lovely Christmas break -- almost two weeks with no work and lots of time just to enjoy ourselves. But that seems plenty and, in some ways, almost too much. There's a danger with having a block of time off work -- that you find you don't want to go back. If you're in non-holiday mode, accustomed to the rhythm of work, then you don't really think about what you're doing, you just carry on as usual. But if you fall out of the habit, then it's hard to get back in to it. And the more you think about returning to it, the less appealing it becomes.

So, perversely, I feel rather relieved to be returning to work (even though I'm not looking forward to it much at all). After all, I know that it'll be much more enjoyable when I'm actually doing it!

There's something strangely surreal about holiday time. And there's something to be said for the routine and banality of  everyday working life.