Prehistoric Ghosts and Poisoned Hills – A Writing Holiday in Ireland

I’ve just realised that I haven’t posted anything here for over TWO WEEKS. I’m sorry, this is bad of me. I feel like I led you all on; a horrid little London hobgoblin leading travellers astray… you probably didn’t notice though, so I’ll say no more, other than to excuse my reticence as due to phlegm and illness-induced exhaustion. In my absence I have been awarded not one but two wordpress awards, of which I am very pleased, and will respond to as soon as possible.

The last few days, however, I’ve been in Ireland. Tom and I were invited to visit by Ken McCormack, a writer Tom is working with. Ken has just had a play he wrote performed (which he did previously invite us to watch, but we were frustratingly kept from due to work), and he and Tom are currently researching/ writing a book about an eccentric 1930s writer. I purchased a new Chanel lipstick and nail-varnish (both in ‘Pirate’), and tagged along as a sort of literary groupie.

Ken booked us into the Beech Hill Hotel near Derry/ Londonderry (same place, name dependant upon religious orientation). it hosted American troops in WW2, and Bill Clinton and Will Ferrell more recently, as the photos attest (though not at the same time, sadly). It is a lovely, relaxing hotel. Friendly staff, lovely food, quiet rooms and a relaxing lounge-bar with gas-fires and a pattern of horned cows frescoed in plaster. Damp has cracked and warped the wallpaper in one corner of our room, and toiletries and tea-making facilities are a little basic… but to be honest these are just observations rather than complaints. I quite like the fact that nobody has bothered fixing the wallpaper yet, because it makes it feel more homely, and the room is spacious, and elegantly decorated. We forgot toothpaste, but they found us a tube, and we fancied hot chocolate before bed, so they brought it up from the bar. The service has been impeccable, and I’d recommend a visit wholeheartedly.

Beech Hill Country House Exterior

The hotel

Derry/ Londonderry, and the river Foyle

Ken has also been a wonderful host, and has driven us all across Northern Ireland to show us the sights and give us a feel for the place. He has written a number of books and radio broadcasts on the people and history of the places we passed through, so helped bring the landscape to life. It combines elements of my favourite English locations such as the wildness of Cornwall, the hilliness and agriculture of Yorkshire; even the prettiness of the Sussex landscape in places. I don’t know if I’ve really grasped a sense of Ireland’s identity yet, but I’ll be using that as an excuse to visit again.

The highlight of the day for me yesterday was visiting the celtic ringfort, Grianan of Aileach. It’s believed to be a multi-period site, built in the eighth century AD and partially destroyed in 1101 (then restored in the nineteenth century), though a tumulus (barrow) and well nearby may date back to the neolithic age. I’m using prehistoric archeology in the novel I’m writing currently, so have read a LOT about neolithic structures and society. Visiting a site like this was therefore very exciting. Existing scholarship demarcates it as a fort given its strategic position and reinforced structure, though (without the internal structures that would once have existed being visible, or the marauding Irish savages) it felt like an amphitheatre designed for oration and spectacle to me.

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Slightly dull view from outside, like a flattened stone mound.

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A more interesting shot from above. The walls are about 15ft thick and 16ft high – the tiny person in the foreground here gives a sense of scale.

You can see the terraces and steps between them in the above photo,  which we had great fun darting up and down. It was also incredibly windy at the top, and on reaching the upper level I felt like the past was screaming in my face, ghosts tearing at my hair and clothes in protest at our invasion.

(My fringe seems to think it would look better on Tom, and is trying to escape)

© Jade Everingham

Not the most flattering photo, but a good shot of my Toggi boots.

The view from the wall.

The view of the interior – deceptively large, like Narnia (not really, this is the landscape behind it, with the exterior wall to the right. Just checking if you’re paying attention).

We then drove through Glenveagh National Park, a majestic but foreboding expanse of hills and moorland. The seasons seem to be a month behind schedule this year, so the flush of purple heather that usually blazes across the hills has not yet appeared. It felt a little like a peaceful Mordor, with mountains like sleeping giants looming above placid loghs (pronounced like the Scottish ‘loch’).

The Poisoned Glen above (apparently a corruption of the name in Irish which mean ‘heavenly glen’. I prefer to imagine it’s the site of mythical poisonous flora though). More photos/ info here.

Logh Dunlewy, just beneath the Poisoned Glen.

We finished off the day by visiting a monastery (I saw a real live monk and everything), and driving down a gently winding track through Ards Forest Park, in search of the sea. The forest on either side was completely wild and unmanaged, full of bogs and fallen trees covered in moss and lichen.

We didn’t find the sea because the tide was out, but the track ended at a beautiful beach scattered with tiny cockles.

We’re off to a temple perched on the edge of a cliff today, so updates to follow! Has anyone else visited Ireland recently? What did you find?

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Fear and Loathing in a Vegetarian Restaurant

Just so we’re clear, this is a rant.

I usually tell people I’m a vegetarian, as I don’t eat meat or fish. I’ll eat seafood like crab, lobster and oysters, however (not whelks though. Nasty, slimy, rubbery little mouthfuls of filth), so don’t personally consider this categorisation of my dietary preferences to be strictly accurate. It’s just easier than launching into a list of what I will and won’t eat. The term Vegetarian also seems to be a trigger for verbal warfare. The second you mention it whole rooms of people will turn on you… “B-U-T  W-H-Y?” They shout, whilst arming phasers and activating shields.

Unfortunately ‘vegetarianism’ encompasses a huge range and variety of reasons for not eating meat, all of which are amalgamated by carnivores into one collective perception of vegetarians as freaks. Some of them are. There is the ‘vegetables have feelings too’ brigade out there. There are those who feel it their duty to educate the meat-eating world as to their wrongdoing, but who only damage the cause further by pissing everyone off. Some love the taste of meat but abstain for moral reasons. Some people are just fussy eaters.

Personally, I have a number of different reasons, which, after a heavy sigh, I will dredge up and recite every time I am asked “BUT WHY?” Firstly, I am a fussy eater. I have tried different kinds of meat before, and I just didn’t like it. I also have a vivid imagination, and the slightest thing will put me off my food. Images of death, blood, and organs being ripped out of animal carcasses… yep, that’ll do it. The idea that I am eating muscle and tissue, something that was once animated into life, equally disgusts me. I do object for moral reasons as well. I love animals, and eating things you love seems to push the boundaries of what is humane. To be honest, given how far the human race has advanced in terms of knowledge and technology, I find it shocking that we have not advanced beyond eating the flesh of other creatures, flesh similar to our own… But that’s my opinion, and the perversions of the human race will always be difficult to suppress, so I’ll (usually) keep my arguments to myself.

Now, to the real point of this post.

Why does every restaurant offer the same vegetarian options? I have become a lover of seafood, suppressing any moral reaction to this I may have had, largely just to add a bit of bloody variety when I eat out. If a menu lacks seafood, then it will invariably offer me the same old crap. I’m sick of goats’ cheese. I’m sick to death of risotto. I can’t even eat butternut squash anymore, so frequently has it been forced upon me. Waiters stare at me in confusion if I reject a ‘meat substitute’ – “surely madam wants her vegetables to taste of sausage?” – and even mushrooms, those perfect doses of serotonin, are beginning to pall for me.

There are a couple of restaurants in Hampstead that frequently impress me. The Horseshoe, and The Holly Bush. Even their salads are innovative; the ingredients intrigue, surprise, and taste fantastic. Though there will usually only be one or two vegetarian options, and the menus don’t really change frequently enough for this to negate my little rant. Today at The Horseshoe I had saffron and potato dumplings, with asparagus, a tomato-based sauce, some sort of green stuff (possibly pesto?) and button chestnut mushrooms. The boys had fancy fish and chips, and we were all perfectly happy. Last night, however,  I had a full-on sulk at dinner. We ate at the Riverfront Bar and Restaurant on the Southbank, and my only options for a main course were a SANDWICH, or a goats’ cheese salad. I had leek and mushroom soup, a starter (it was passable, but I only had a mouthful then continued sulking), and a handful of  chips (they came in a little bucket, they didn’t just put them into my hands, but it was a side-order so petitely proportioned).

The Holly Bush

The Horseshoe

Perhaps I’m just being a brat, but isn’t it about time restaurants put a little more effort into their vegetarian options? It isn’t just vegetarians that want to eat them!

Talking to Strange Cats, and Not Talking to Londoners

I don’t usually talk to people in London. Not just out of misanthropy, but because Londoners don’t talk, unless it’s to complain about the weather or the public transport system. Otherwise, it’s only tourists and crazy people who try to strike up a conversation. If you ask for directions of course, we’ll take out our headphones and turn into a walking A to Z. This is a matter of pride and Britishness. I got lost once somewhere near Bow, and came upon three menacing looking youths with ‘mugger of old ladies’ gleaming in their eyes. “Er, do you know where the 25 route goes near here?” I squeaked, trying to hide behind myself. After staring at me for a long moment, puzzled, one of them took out an old biro and drew me a map, with the bus-times scrawled down the side. Otherwise, however, books and newspapers remain fixed before our eyes.

I get asked for directions a lot actually. I know London pretty well so I usually am able to help, but my demarcation as ‘helpful-looking person’ still surprises me. I’m usually frowning and swearing at my blackberry, and not always under my breath. I have been compared to a female Malcolm Tucker, so it can’t be because I look particularly friendly. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s because I’m always walking twice as fast as everyone else. I’m always late, so I’ve perfected a sort of swishing lope; I feel like Aragorn in high heels and a tweed mini skirt, off to rescue the hobbits teach small children. To the lost and panicked eye, my speed must be indicative of Geographical Awareness rather than poor time-keeping skills.

Usually though, people avoid eye contact. They’ll study the pavement, or the sky, or get their phone out just at the moment when eye contact would otherwise occur. I’ll do any one of these until I’m almost next to someone, at which point I purposefully stare into the distance because hey, I’m not avoiding eye contact. People always stare at the ground when I do this. Maybe it’s weird.

There is one exception, however. Cats. I miss cats like I imagine mothers miss their absent children. If I see one crossing in-front of me, or sitting watching me, it’s like I’ve spotted a long lost family member.  A childhood friend – I’ll do everything to get their attention and strike up a conversation. I’ll kneel down, and offer a hopeful hand. Sometimes I’ll get a quick rub, before I’m deemed not useful, or my perfume sends them into a quick retreat. If I’m lucky though, I’m their new best friend. They’ll insist on both hands being engaged to tickle behind each ear. A full-body stroke from brow to tail-tip will be rewarded with a leap and a wriggle, both front paws lifted momentarily from the pavement.

My favourite London cat is called Rocky. He’s a gorgeous long-haired tabby, with huge, blazing green eyes and Yoda-proportioned pointy ears. He belongs to a cafe in Hampstead, and I often come across him grumpily sitting on the metal chairs outside. The first time I knelt down next to him to say hello, and he realised I wasn’t just pausing for a cursory pat, he climbed right onto my lap and started purring. My heart melted. It was a chilly November morning, and we snuggled up outside the cafe for a good half an hour, my lunch appointment redirected so we didn’t have to be parted.

Rocky, pretending to be shy. Shy this handsome gentleman is not, so do say hello if you happen spot him. He’s just what a girl needs to snuggle up to on a chilly autumn day!

cat-cafe-pic

This is not me. But I would never leave this cafe (Source)

Moral of the story: talk to cats, not to people.

5 Tips on How to Explore a New City

Whenever you visit a new city, you want to see the sights you’ve heard of, but you also want to glimpse the city’s soul. To fill your senses with it, rather than superficially passing through. Like a sponge absorbing the sounds and smells, textures, tastes and colours. I’m always surprised when people visit the galleries and museums the first time they travel to a city. I’m a big fan of art and history, as you may have gathered, but I think it is the fabric of a place that shows you what and who it is, the quality of the air and even (and I shock myself in saying this, antisocial as I am) the people.

1)      Become Familiar With The Map

It’s very important to me that I get a map of a place stuck in my mind, so that I can mentally locate myself, even if I am lost. I often conceptualise thought processes as being like a machine or computer algorithm. I know the human mind is vastly more complex than either, but the process of recalling a correct piece of information reminds me strongly of an electronic criminal database you see on detective dramas, rapidly skipping through options until it locates a match and freezes the screen. Once I have this map inked into my mind, I can add sensory colour through the experiences I gain. A bit like starting with a tube map and transforming it into a living ordinance survey map.

Psalter Mappa Mundi

The Psalter Mappa Mundi (c. 1260 AD). 10 points to Gryffindor if you can spot anywhere at all that you recognise.

2)      Walk Everywhere

The best way to do this is to walk, rather than using public transport or driving (how I wish I’d bothered learning to drive. I put on a bit of weight at the beginning of sixth form so turned into a fitness fanatic, insisting on walking home from school, town and friends’ houses, despite the fact that this was invariably a 2-3hr trek each time. Driving a car did not fit in with this, but I did get thin again so huzzah.) It may be tiring, and take time away from sightseeing, but it will make the experience more visceral and memorable.

My Paris shoes (Dune), purchased specifically for flâneuring, photographed on the steps of Sacré-Cœur

3)      Ask the Locals for Recommendations

The other absolutely essential bit of advice I can give you is ask the locals for suggestions. Tom is excellent at this, as he has a knack for striking up conversations with everyone we meet. The last time we went to Paris we stopped off at a shop selling wine, intending to have a midnight bottle glass of wine on our private balcony together. We asked the vintner for suggestions, and then if there were any good restaurants nearby that wouldn’t be full of tourists. The suggestions he gave us were all unique, and all fantastic. At each restaurant we tried we asked the waitresses to recommend nearby bars along the same lines, and again found each to be exactly what we’d hoped for. I often see tourists in London wandering, horrified, through Leicester Square or along Oxford Street, and want to grab them and send them in the right direction. Stumbling across somewhere to eat/ drink/ dance the night away on your own is exciting and eternally memorable, but capital cities are big places, and you risk finding the worst of them rather than the best.

The view from our balcony in  Paris

4)      Search for the Right Shots, Don’t Just Photograph Everything You See

Even if you’re not a photography enthusiast do take a camera, as you’ll want something to help you remember the trip and to show people, but don’t use it constantly. Use your eyes as well. I have a bit of a fetish for alleyways, so I’m always looking to either side for a shot. Dark and twisting, uneven paving stones or leaning walls, a secret courtyard or walled garden glimmering at the end… these transport my imagination. Look up, look behind you, peer where you’re not supposed to. Capture the buildings, the trees, the people. I never understand why people stand in front of statues, art work etc to have their photo taken with it. Surely you want to be a part of the environment, interacting with and connecting to it, rather than just shouting I-woz-here with a stupid grin on your face? What use is that?

Paris, books and sunshine

The Eiffel Tower (obviously) at night

5)      Do Nothing

You don’t have to see all the sights, or go everywhere your mum/ best friend/ colleagues advised you to. The best way to explore a city is often to do nothing. Wander around, aimlessly, driven only by a desire to see what’s around the next corner or at the end of that strange, unmarked road. Sit outside cafes for hours, sketching, writing or just watching the world go by. It can be a little scary not really knowing where you are or what you’ll find, but as long as you have that map what does it matter? In a new city the ordinary becomes intriguing and beautiful, and that’s what you’ll remember.

The George V

Looking up in an abandoned building we wandered into

I suppose this last shot could be anywhere, but the feel of the sun on my bare arms and a swirl of sounds and smells ripple through my mind whenever I look at it, so to me it could be nowhere but Paris.

Does anyone else have any tips for exploring new cities?

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Tadpole Update

I had been worried about these tadpoles, I have to admit. We weren’t sure if they were still alive, as I’ve never kept them from the frogspawn stage before and the eggs weren’t as firm as I’d expected. They merged into a slippery jelly filled with tiny black dots, and cascaded over the rim of our bucket with the glutinous movement of curdled milk. I was somewhat heartened when I poured the glass jar of eggs into my no-pets-allowed-pond, and rather than bobbing around, stunned, they seemed to instinctively bunch together around the base of the weed, looking more like the protective bubbles they were supposed to be.

The next morning they were the first thought that gained form in my mind, and I made a beeline for the bowl. Joy of joys, wonder of wonders, they were alive! Nearly every egg had hatched overnight, probably due to the increased temperature, but Tom suspected (once I’d woken him up and dragged him out of bed to see them for himself, about which he was obviously delighted) that superior oxygen levels may also have been a factor. They didn’t look much like tadpoles. More like little commas with frilly gills, and they spent the first day clinging to the egg cases, and the next day clinging to the weed, but after that they started to explore. A week later and suddenly they’ve grown alarmingly quickly, and are now recognisably tadpoles rather than looking suspiciously like miniature water-demons.

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I was actually a little alarmed when we came back from Pendley and discovered that they’d doubled in size yet again. I assumed that the surviving monsters must have eaten their smaller siblings, but a vague headcount indicates otherwise.  I feel like Doctor Frankenstein, breeding horrors in the name of science (entertainment). I’ve moved ‘buy bottom-feeder fish food for tadpoles’ to number one on my to-do-list, as they’re darting about quite rapidly, constantly searching for food. Sometimes dark silhouettes  move through the tendrils of weed, sometimes a pulsing brown tail will be revealed in a shard of sunlight that penetrates the surface.

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Apologies for the slightly blurry photos, and the lense reflections – my camera has a fairly decent macro function, but was bewildered by this latest task.It did its best. Unless some sort of disaster strikes, or they all try to kill me in my sleep, hopefully the next tadpole update will be when they start to grow legs. Fingers crossed this takes a while though, as I don’t want them to grow up and leave home too soon. Surely they have to start listening to anti social music, trash their bowl and scream that they hate me first before they morph into sensible, mature adults?

Updates from any other crazy people keeping tadpoles welcome!

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Pendley Manor, and a Picnic on the Ashridge Estate

We were naughty. We were planning a picnic last Sunday, but the weather turned against us, so Tom and I rescheduled our Monday lessons to Friday in order to make the most of the Monday sunshine. After a leisurely morning, we packed a couple of overnight bags and got the train from Euston to Tring (a real place. Not somewhere hobbits live, I promise). Tring is the nearest station to the village of Aldbury (just west of London), blessed by being a short trot from the Ashridge Estate, a National Trust managed former hunting ground of Henry VIII.

It’s amazing. Full of fallow and muntjac deer, wide paths for galloping along and smaller, secret trails for wandering deep into the forest’s heart. You often spot cyclists or walkers, but they’re usually following parallel or perpendicular paths, and never the twain shall meet (if I have anything to do with it). We checked into our hotel first, Pendley Manor in Hertfordshire, eyes peeled for the peacocks I’d been promised. It’s not quite the Prestonfield (just outside Edinburgh, and my favourite hotel that I’ve encountered), but it was originally a nineteenth century country house so I’m not complaining.

Pendley Manor 4

As soon as we’d divested ourselves of a surprising amount of luggage, we changed into Country Clothing (sort of – read ‘semi-sensible’) and headed out to the woods. They’re about a twenty minute walk from the hotel, and half of this is uphill, so I admit I was sweating a bit once we’d reached a suitably secluded picnic spot (Tom, however, was like the bloody Terminator, and seemed to relish carrying a heavy wicker hamper stuffed with food and champagne uphill. Whatever).

(He often reminds me of Tom Sawyer – always looking for trouble)

Looks like weird forest grass, but actually tiny bluebells preparing to flower

The secluded clearing we laid claim to

Now THAT is a picnic!

Hmm. Did I really say I would share the picnic with you Tom? I forget. Perhaps it’s all for me…

Champagne, olives, smoked salmon, salami, fresh bread, a huge pork pie and quince-jelly (no idea – sounded good though) from Fortnum and Mason, brie and port salut, chopped avocado and chilli beetroot (thank you Waitrose for somehow making beetroot even better – I crave this stuff like a drug), strawberries and a F&M chocolate-owl for dessert. An excellent picnic! We even saw a tiny muntjac deer mere metres away, wandering past us without a care in the world, which made it even more special. We engendered the same type of outing a year ago, and were surprised by five fallow deer in ‘stealth mode’ trying to creep past us. It was wonderful to see antlers bobbing past so close, and we had to stifle giggles at their pink panther tactics (completely invisible guys. No idea you even exist).

We tried a ‘selfie’ but came out looking like serial killers. Never mind.

Hunting chocolate owls

(This is my ‘scanning the horizon’ pose. I’d have been great in the army)

Then Tom… ripped its head off. It was delicious though.

Afterwards we climbed trees, as any respectable adult would of course do, and played catch with a tennis ball (I am surprisingly skilled at the game of catch when I concentrate, thanks to years of training from my dad. He wanted a boy, he got me. Thus have I acquired Boy Skills such as building fires, and passable catching and throwing). Trees creaked and groaned in the breeze, a blackbird screamed his war-cry and the bushes rustled, but otherwise we were surrounded by astonishing silence. That is, until ‘catch’ moved to the top of a fallen tree, and my imaginative expletives filled the air as I darted up and down trying to catch Tom’s intentionally-erratic throws.

We wandered through the woods, sometimes following paths sometimes not, and came across this empty clearing. Or was it…

A short rest.

We eventually headed back down to Aldbury when the sun began to set. The walk back is all down-hill (thank god), and you end up at a lovely little pub called The Greyhound. Village duck pond, old houses, open fires when it’s cold and plenty of ales and ciders on tap… a very nice pub indeed. You know how in London sitting outside a pub means dealing with roaring traffic, chain-smokers and guffawing city *ankers? Not here. Here you’re watching ducks waddle around the pond, buzzards soar overhead, and cats pretending to be feral (they’re  completely nuts – far too much time on their paws. You can see a theme-tune being mimed behind their crazed eyes as they ner ner nER ner, ner neer ner around the pond and under parked cars).

The Greyhound

After a couple of drinks and mad-cat sightings, we lazily got a taxi back to Pendley and went to dinner. The meal was lovely, and the service excellent, though our waiter remembered our order wrong and I was brought duck rather than duck egg (I’d gone for the vegetarian option, so this wasn’t ideal), but they came back with what I’d actually ordered in a remarkable ten minutes, and brought us a free desert.

We then made our way to ‘The Shakespeare Bar’ (recently refurbished and – cringe – re-themed). I had a couple of great cocktails though, and spent a pleasant hour writing, curled up in a leather armchair with my feet tucked underneath me and a tartan woollen shawl wrapped around my shoulders.

Pendley has a spa and swimming pool (as well as offering clay pigeon shooting, hot air ballooning, croquet and other fun outings), so Tom and I went for a swim before breakfast the next morning. Growing up surrounded by the Pacific Ocean on an 8.1 sq mile island, I’m pretty good at swimming, but chlorine makes my gills itch, so as usual Tom showed me up with the speed and efficacy of his polar bear stroke – a bit like doggy paddle, but more alarming (in the sea, however, I literally swim circles around him, but you’ll have to wait until summer to see this!)

Three lovely older ladies had a sort of water… dance class going on, which we politely tried to ignore but nearly drowned in our sudden curiosity when they were instructed to ‘do the seahorse’. They soon gained an audience…

We had breakfast in our room, after a bit of peacock spotting, then got the train home. If you’re tired of London, but aren’t able to go on a proper holiday, then a brief sojourn to Tring is exactly what you need. Does anyone else have any secret escapes for when the fug of fumes and blare of voices gets too much? Let me know!

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