21 July, 2017

Bath weekend away

We had a good, child-free weekend away a couple of weeks ago. After depositing the kids with their grandparents, we drove on to Bath for an overnight stay. This is something that we've done a couple of times in the past, but not for a few years now, so we thought that it was time to re-visit our old haunts.

We stayed in Beechfield House, which is a small, country-house hotel about thirty minutes' drive from Bath. We really like it here. The rooms are smart and comfortable, the setting is lovely, the atmosphere is relaxed, and the staff are very friendly. We particularly like the pretty, open-air swimming pool which is heated sufficiently that it is open from March until October. This time, we also enjoyed sitting in the peaceful bar (a lovely room at the front of the house) for an evening drink.

The other highlight of our weekend was our two-hour session at the Thermae Bath Spa. We went on Sunday morning, which meant that we didn't have to queue for too long to get in. We always enjoy relaxing in the pools and dipping in and out of the (this time newly-refurbished) steam rooms.

Other things that we enjoyed were lunch sitting outside at The Cornish Bakery in the heart of the city and dinner at the swish, modern Mint Room Indian restaurant.

04 July, 2017

Birthday celebration

We had a lovely celebration at the weekend for my husband's birthday.

Firstly, we visited Broughton Castle -- a sixteenth-century moated manor house near Banbury. This is a beautiful place to explore. The castle itself is very interesting to wander round and the staff are welcoming and helpful. The gardens, which run down to the river and are full of cottage garden flowers, are lovely too. Broughton is privately owned, which seems to result in an unusually relaxed experience. Visitor numbers are small compared to the many National Trust properties that we have visited and there are some nice touches, such as guests being able to borrow picnic blankets to sprawl on the lawns. We thoroughly enjoyed our trip here.

Later on in the evening, we had dinner at our favourite Thai restaurant in Abingdon -- the Zabb Thai. The food, as ever, was beautifully cooked and tasty, and the service was superb. We love this place!

04 June, 2017

The Miser and Mexican food

We had a good bank holiday Saturday last week.

We travelled to London, parking as usual at North Ealing station (our favourite station!) and catching the tube into the centre. Our kids wanted to do some clothes shopping, so we spent a not-terribly-thrilling morning waiting outside the changing rooms in New Look and Forever 21 on Oxford Street.

The main event of the day was a matinee performance of "The Miser" at the Garrick Theatre, starring Lee Mack and Griff Rhys Jones. I had been given the tickets for this show for my birthday, back in February, and so was really looking forward to going. We thoroughly enjoyed the show -- it was farcical, but very amusing and great fun. The kids also really enjoyed it.

We finished up with an early supper at our favourite London Mexican restaurant -- Cantina Laredo. As usual, the food was tasty and the service very good. We were also early enough to take advantage of their pre-theatre menu, which is quite reasonably priced.

It was then back to North Ealing by train and onward home and to bed.

21 May, 2017

NGS in Headington

We had a lovely afternoon today visiting the gardens that were open in Old Headington for the National Garden Scheme.

Old Headington is a beautiful part of Oxford that used to be a village in its own right. It is full of very attractive stone-built houses and quiet, winding streets, and it is particularly appealing since it is just a stone's throw from the hugely busy and congested new Headington.

We saw several gardens -- some large and some small, but all very pretty. The NGS is a really great way of getting ideas for improving your own garden through looking at all the things that others have done.

We had tea at Ruskin College, which was very pleasant -- brownies, scones and cookies at just £1 a piece! We finished off by popping into St Andrew's Church in Old Headington, which has an interesting history and is very beautiful.

09 May, 2017

Different Class

I recently finished reading "Different Class" by Joanne Harris, which I really enjoyed.

This is  a dark novel that takes place in St Oswald's, a grammar school in North Yorkshire. The main protagonist is Roy Straitley, who has taught Latin at the school for his entire career, and is now nearing retirement. The book flips between 1981 and 2005 and centres on a disturbing set of events that took place at the school in 1981, exploring the way in which they impinge upon the present (2005). One boy, Johnny Harrington, is centre stage throughout -- first as a pupil at the school and then returning twenty years later as the new 'superhead' whose mission is to bring St Oswald's back from the brink.

The plot is tense and twists and turns throughout. It is only at the very end of the book that you fully understand what happened all those years ago -- and, more importantly, who was responsible.

Harris' prose is a pleasure to read -- tightly crafted, funny and very intelligent.

If you're looking for a book that is both gripping and thought-provoking, I would highly recommend this one.

Junk in the loft

At the weekend, we started on a task that we've been meaning to do for a while -- tidy the loft. Over the space of twelve years in this house, we've put things up there without thinking too hard (we may need them again at some point in the future, you never know...) and so the space has been getting fuller and fuller.

We did a first pass and removed quite a few things -- old baby clothes, cardboard boxes, broken lamps and lampshades, old rugs that had seen better days. But the funniest thing was that we brought down seven (yes, seven!) child car seats. These were for various ages -- full baby seat, toddler seats, booster cushions -- and were used in our two cars for our two children, but it still seemed like a ridiculous number. And, what's more, it's not the total number that we owned -- we got rid of one or two a few years ago!

Things are definitely looking clearer in the loft, but we still haven't finished the job -- we'll do a second pass next weekend. Hopefully we won't find any more car seats lurking up there, though!

30 April, 2017

A Cotswolds day out: Banbury, Farnborough Hall and Farnborough village

Yesterday, we had a good day out.

We started off by driving to the market town of Banbury and doing a bit of shopping there. We then stopped off at Cafe Veneto to get some lunch. I wouldn't particularly recommend this place. The staff were friendly enough, but the service was very slow and our paninis, when they finally arrived, were tiny -- half the size of those offered by other cafes and one-and-a-half times the price. We left rather disappointed and somewhat hungry.

We then drove on to Farnborough Hall, which was the main purpose of our day out. This is a National Trust property which is rarely open to the public, as it still has a tenant in situ. The house is very beautiful -- eighteenth century, with stunning plaster-work ceilings and many interesting pieces of furniture. Only three ground floor rooms plus the staircase are open to visitors, but we felt that they were well worth the trip. The (very friendly) tenant was manning the front desk and encouraged our youngest daughter to play the piano in the library, which was lovely. We also enjoyed wandering in the grounds and poking out noses into the various Palladian structures there -- hunting lodge, game store, etc. The views from both the house and grounds are spectacular.

We then made our way to Farnborough village and enjoyed delicious homemade cakes and tea in the village hall. We also visited the church, which was very pretty and peaceful, and spent some time admiring the Cotswold stone cottages in the village.

All-in-all, a very enjoyable day out.

25 April, 2017

Their Finest

We went to see new film "Their Finest" at the weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it.

The action takes place in 1940 London during the Blitz. The central character is a young Welsh woman (played by Gemma Arterton) who, as a result of all the young men being called up, is given the opportunity to write the script for a film aimed at lifting the British public out of the doldrums and persuading the Americans to join the war.

The film is a great success. Along the way, Gemma Arterton's character falls in love with a fellow scriptwriter (played by Sam Claflin). Predictably, this does not end well. Light relief is provided by Bill Nighy in his role as an ageing and eccentric actor.

"Their Finest" touches on some interesting themes, such as the rise of women in the workplace and the lack of meaning in life and death. It is moving and well acted. I would recommend it.

23 April, 2017

Lost in Translation

On the plane journey back from our trip to India, I watched one of my favourite movies -- Lost in Translation. I have seen this several times over the years, but never seem to tire of it. It is by turns funny, moving and rather sad.

The film focuses on two apparently very different types of people who are trapped in a hotel in Japan. The first is a disillusioned, middle-aged actor (played by Bill Murray) who is there to film a commercial for whisky. The second is a young, recently and unhappily married woman (played by Scarlett Johansson) who is accompanying her photographer husband on a shoot.

The humour in the film focuses on what it is like to be lost in an utterly foreign environment -- in this case jetlagged and lonely in a country where everything is just so different. Japanese showers seem to be made only for short people; the running machine in the gym unaccountably speeds up with no warning and it's impossible to get off; the hotel curtains open automatically at a pre-set time, no matter whether you are asleep or awake; why does it take twice as long to say something in a foreign language as it does to say the same thing in English.

Murray and Johansson, both lost and lonely, strike up an unlikely relationship and find that they have more in common than appearances might lead one to expect. They are both in failing marriages, they are both questioning the direction of their lives, and, of course, they are both trapped in Japan.

This film does a fantastic job of communicating feelings and experiences rather than objects and events. It's a hard thing to do, but this film excels at it. That's why I love it, I think.

Not Forgetting the Whale

I recently finished reading a novel that I really enjoyed -- Not Forgetting the Whale by John Ironmonger.

It starts off rather oddly with a young, naked man being washed up on the beach in a remote Cornish village. But the story soon unfolds and covers some very interesting issues including how the financial markets operate, how we are disturbingly reliant on global supply chains for our food, what the effects of a global pandemic such as flu might be, and more. There's also a passing reference to the story of Jonah and the Whale...

If you're looking for a book that is an enjoyable and uplifting read but deals with issues that make you think and from which you learn something, this one may be for you.

Cream tea at Rosie's Tea Room

Yesterday we had a real treat -- a cream tea at Rosie's Tea Room in Abingdon. This was actually my Valentines present to my husband, but this was the first weekend that we were free to enjoy the present.

It was very good indeed. We had a classic cream tea comprising two scones (one plain and one fruit) each plus a pot of Oxford Breakfast tea for me and a cafetiere of coffee for my husband. The scones were homemade and delicious and the tea was lovely -- a far cry from the usual watery cuppa that you get in a cafe.

The atmosphere is also very relaxing in Rosie's Tea Room, so we were able to stay a while and chat after we had finished our tea, rather than feeling the need to rush out.

Before tea we popped into Belinda's Jewellery Box next door. This little shop is full of cards and pretty things that would make very good gifts -- jewellery (of course), handbags and purses, scarves, ornaments, etc. -- at very reasonable prices.

We are very lucky to live in Abingdon with all its lovely and useful local businesses!

22 April, 2017

India celebrating twenty years

We have recently come back from an amazing holiday in India. We don't normally visit such exotic locations, but this was in celebration of our twentieth wedding anniversary, so was something rather special.

We flew out to Delhi and spent the first half of the holiday full-on sightseeing in Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. Particular highlights for me were:

  • In Delhi: visiting the spice market (a beautiful ancient building with an overpowering scent of spices that made us all sneeze!), a rickshaw ride through old Delhi (exhilarating!), visiting the Sikh temple (the kitchens where they prepared enormous cauldrons of daal over huge open flames to feed scores of homeless people every day were incredible).
  • In Agra: the Taj Mahal at dawn was lovely -- such beautiful light and far fewer crowds than in the middle of the day.
  • In Jaipur: sitting at the elephant pool watching the elephants commune with their keepers.

We then flew down to Cochin in the south. This was the relaxing part of the holiday and we spent quite a bit of time swimming in the hotel pool. We did some sightseeing, however, and the thing I particularly enjoyed was the day cruise that we took on a houseboat along the Kerelan backwaters. We had the boat to ourselves and were looked after by the captain and by the on-board chef who cooked us a delicious lunch in the boat's galley kitchen. We spent the day drifting along and watching the world go by, including women washing clothes, dishes and their hair in the river.

All of us found India an incredible experience -- it is just so different from life in the West. The traffic is crazy, the colours are vibrant, the poverty is on a different scale altogether. It simply feels like a different world.

The trouble is that we are now hooked and wondering when we can next afford to visit somewhere truly different!

27 March, 2017

The Essex Serpent

I recently received Sarah Perry's novel, "The Essex Serpent", as a birthday gift. I have just finished reading it and very much enjoyed it.

The novel is set in 1893 in London and Essex. The central character is a highly intelligent and wealthy widow called Cora Seaborne. The story, very broadly speaking, is about Cora's relationship with, and growing love for, Essex vicar William Ransome, whose wife Stella is dying of TB.

However, the book is so much more than a love story; it is an education. It touches on numerous topics including domestic violence, society's view of women at the end of the nineteenth century, the developing field of surgery, the growth in natural history and palaeontology (and the contribution of women to these fields), and the appalling living conditions that the poor had to endure at this time as well as the efforts that individuals were making to highlight and improve the plight of the poor.

I found this novel extremely interesting and I learnt a lot from it. The prose was also very well written and expressive.

If you are looking for a book that is a pleasure to read but also challenging and though provoking, I would recommend this one.

14 March, 2017

Yoga in Kennington

I recently had to look for a new yoga class to join because the teacher whose classes I had attended for the past ten years or so was taking a break from teaching. I was rather disappointed because I thought that it might be difficult to find a good replacement for my old teacher.

It took me a few tries to find a new teacher who is (a) local, (b) good, and (c) runs sufficiently challenging classes, but I've managed to find someone who is great. She is called Elli and runs regular classes in Kennington near Oxford.

Elli teaches hatha yoga. The classes are very well structured and quite demanding -- focussing on increasing core strength as well as maintaining flexibility -- but they are also fun and easygoing. Elli herself is lovely -- very friendly and relaxed. The classes take place in a large school hall, so there is plenty of space.

If you're looking to join a yoga class in or near Oxford, I would recommend this one. You can find out more about Elli's classes on her website.

11 March, 2017

How you view buildings

Something struck me the other day when walking into the building where I work -- how you perceive a building very much depends on your state of mind.

The place where I work has a (fairly) impressive entrance lobby, with a dedicated and very professional receptionist and comfy chairs and corporate literature for waiting visitors. There's a big stairway that sweeps down into the lobby and, when you come down that stairway, those people waiting in the lobby in the comfy chairs look up expectantly.

I remember coming for my interview here. It all seemed rather intimidating at the time -- waiting and watching the stairs for my host to come and collect me. But now that I work there, the building doesn't seem imposing or intimidating at all. It's all quite familiar; it's just where I work, after all.

Isn't it interesting, then, how your mental state or the way you are feeling can affect your perception of concrete things?

The Tidal Zone

I have just finished reading a book by one of my favourite authors, Sarah Moss.

This one -- her most recent -- is called "The Tidal Zone" and is a really interesting, thought-provoking read. The basic story line involves a fifteen-year-old girl who almost dies from an unexplained anaphylactic incident whilst at school. The book is told in the first person (from the girl's father's point of view) and follows how the girl's family copes after this incident.

However, this basic story line is in fact a container for a whole host of other things -- and it is these things that the book is really about. Moss covers the NHS (how it operates in today's chronically underfunded and chronically overcrowded world), the nature of family, how one's previous experience shapes one's reaction to future experiences, how the the practicalities of everyday life impact on a relationship, the role of breadwinner versus homemaker... The list goes on.

This description makes "The Tidal Zone" sound like a very serious book -- and in some ways it is, or at least some of the topics that Moss writes about in it are serious. Yet the writing style is light and lively and Moss is genuinely funny, drawing out the humour in the banalities of everyday life.

If you're looking for a book that is superbly written and easy to read but also intelligent and insightful, I would recommend "The Tidal Zone".

03 March, 2017

The Waterfront Cafe at Benson

I just wanted to write a blog post singing the praises of the Waterfront Cafe at Benson.

My friend Sally and I meet up here regularly for coffee, cakes and a chat. It is right by the river, so has a lovely outlook with lots of boats and meadows beyond. There are lots of tables inside and a large, canopied terrace outside, so you can always get a table -- including one in the fresh air and sunshine, if you wish.

The coffee is good and they have an unusual and scrummy range of cakes (we are particularly partial to the Portuguese custard tarts). They also serve a range of hot meals, cooked breakfast, etc.

The waiting staff are friendly and efficient.

What more could you want?!

Eltham Palace

A couple of weeks ago, we celebrated  my birthday with a day trip to Eltham Palace, which is near Greenwich.The last time we visited was when our oldest daughter was a tiny baby, so more than fourteen years ago...

We found Eltham as interesting now as then. It was a royal palace for centuries, dating back to the time of Edward II, and Henry VIII spent much of his childhood there. Only the great hall of the original medieval palace remains, but this has been incorporated into the modern mansion, and it is really stunning.

The modern house that stands now was built in the 1930s. It is a beautiful mansion, with an enormous, wood panelled entrance hall. It is really interesting to see a stately home from this contemporary period when what you are used to visiting is ancient houses from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Even the kids were impressed -- they really enjoyed seeing something newer and different.

The gardens surrounding the mansion are also beautiful and we spent an enjoyable half hour strolling through them. We finished off with lunch in the newly-built visitor centre, which was very good. There is also an outdoor adventure playground, which will be of interest to families with young children.

We all thoroughly enjoyed our day out at Eltham Palace, and I would certainly recommend a visit.

07 February, 2017

Getting older

My husband and I are struggling with elderly parents at the moment. We all have an inkling, I suppose, that our parents getting older can be a difficult time, but it's not until you're in the midst of it that you fully appreciate all that this entails.

At the moment we live in fear of the phone ringing, because one of our parents has fallen a couple of times recently. They have a bracelet around their wrist which allows them to contact a private company that can call an ambulance if they are unwell or have fallen -- otherwise how would anyone know, with them living alone? That's positive, of course, but it's not straightforward.

The foremost problem is that, once called, it takes ages for the ambulance to come -- over four hours, last time. So, you are left with an elderly person lying on the floor in the cold unable to get themselves up. Once the ambulance arrives, the staff are absolutely great, but it's the wait that's the problem.

An added problem is that the company that calls the ambulance doesn't have a call back number, so while they will ring to tell you that your relative has fallen and an ambulance has been called, there is no way of ascertaining when the ambulance has arrived or how long it might be. If you live at a distance from your parent, this leaves you with a huge dilemma -- do you embark on a journey of several hours to reach them or will the ambulance get there first? Last time, not wanting to call 999 when they were clearly so busy, we had to resort to scrabbling around on the Web for possible non-emergency numbers to ring in a bid to get hold of any information.

Social care is another problem. Social services will only visit the elderly on a regular basis if they are incapable of looking after themselves and are in need of personal care, i.e. help with getting out of bed, washing and dressing. If an elderly person is capable of doing these things, then they are judged to be able, but of course there are other things that they may need help with. For example, they become reliant on meals-on-wheels services and hired domestic help if they are not up to cooking or cleaning.

It can also be difficult to persuade elderly relatives to do things that would actually be helpful to their situation. We have suggested joining befriending networks of other elderly people and even hiring someone to help with transport to events, appointments, etc., but with no luck so far.

What we have really learnt from all of this is how important it is to plan ahead. We all need to acknowledge the fact that we will get old (however unwelcome the notion) and think in advance about how we will deal with this and the help that we may need to organise.

06 February, 2017

An Inspector Calls

We visited London at the weekend. Our main reason for doing so was that we had tickets for An Inspector Calls at the Playhouse. Our eldest is studying this play for GCSE, so we thought this would be a good excuse for a trip to the theatre -- one of our favourite things.

The play, of course, is superb -- and its message is so relevant in today's climate of nationalism and individualism. The performance was excellent too. This is a revival of the National Theatre's 1992 production using the original 1992 set, the centre of which is a house which closes up and opens out, a metaphor for the family's ignorance of, and lack of care for, the lives of those far less fortunate than themselves. As the family is forced by the inspector to pay attention to its fellow citizens, the house opens up to the elements, eventually collapsing as the family's self-satisfied world is torn apart.

Before the theatre, we had lunch at Zizzi in Bow Street, which was a good experience -- tasty food and very friendly staff.

And we made use of our favourite tube station, North Ealing, on our way into and out of London. We love this station -- it has a fast, direct line into the centre, is very well managed, and has lovely, clean loos. What more could you ask for?!

30 January, 2017

Algorithms versus the human mind

I read an interesting article in yesterday's newspaper. The strap line was: [Computer] Algorithms are capable of errors and discrimination. The article continued to give examples of such errors and discrimination:

  • a beauty contest used an algorithm to judge contestants but, because it had been trained only on white women, it was found to discriminate against women with dark skin;
  • a man had his driving licence revoked because anti-terrorism facial recognition software mistook him for someone else;
  • over 1,000 people a week are mistakenly identified as terrorists at airports by the algorithms used there;
  • an algorithm used to assess teacher performance scored a number of teachers badly -- yet these same teachers had previously been rated highly by parents and school principals. The reason? The algorithm based its scored on a very small number of student results and some teachers had tricked the system by suggesting to their pupils that they should cheat.
So: Generalising on the basis of a very small number of instances. Mistaking someone for someone else. Discrimination due to narrow exposure. Being duped by another person. It all sounds eerily familiar, doesn't it?

So much for computer programs being more reliable than human beings. Turns out there's not so much difference between the two systems after all...

29 January, 2017

La La Land

We went to see 'La La Land' at the cinema last night. I wasn't quite sure what to expect -- other than that the film was a musical and was highly acclaimed. However, I found that I really enjoyed it.

It was lively, fun and quite a spectacle. The dancing was amazing to watch -- it's impressive that something can look so effortless, when you know full well that it's not. The music was very good too -- especially the 'funked up' jazz. And I found the two main characters engaging -- I actually did care what happened to them.

So, if you're looking for something fun, light and easy on the eye, then 'La La Land' comes highly recommended.