Meet the Russians

Fox advert

As it happens, I know a lot of Russians, but I also know one in particular.

I met my friend Katia for coffee a few months ago, when she first mentioned that she was being filmed for a TV documentary. She laughed as my eyes widened and I started looking around for a hidden camera crew. As usual she played it down, presenting her role as an adjunct to the real stars, and we left it at that. A couple of weeks later, however, she asked if I’d mind terribly being filmed having tea with her in her flat. I thought about it long and hard (for a good two minutes), before deciding that I should manage not to make a fool out of myself on international TV if I just had to sit still and drink tea, and agreed. A week later, having broken me in gently, she invited Tom and I to a small cocktail party hosted by a friend of hers, also to be filmed for the series. I did have to bribe, cajole and beg Tom to accompany me, but agree he eventually did.

I don’t usually watch reality TV shows, but then I’ve never known anyone starring in one before so an exception definitely has to be made. Friends and family who have watched Meet the Russians have reacted… extremely, shall we say! My mum’s response was probably the best (she’s well clever, my mum), as she was actually quite intrigued by the the innocence of most of the Russians featured; their naivety and lack of self-awareness, so different to the British culture they have settled in which judges others so harshly.

The below table I found online illustrates this quite well, though I’m sure we could add to it! Any ideas welcome.

Translation Table

Tom and I were apparently (room meat) on last night’s episode of Meet the Russians on FOX (Sky only I’m afraid, but that does mean it’ll be repeated  a lot if you missed it). We don’t have Sky ourselves though, so haven’t seen it!  I’m going to take a deep breath, prepare for an onslaught, and ask what you thought. Honesty, good British-style honesty (see above table), appreciated!

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The Holly Bush

One of my favourite pubs in London is The Holly Bush, in Hampstead, so I thought I’d introduce you.

I’m often to be found in here, deep in conversation by the open fire, or staring fondly into the depths of a glass of cider in one of the wood-panelled booths. There are nooks and corners for hiding away in, and larger tables in the back room if you’re bringing a party. It has a lovely, relaxed atmosphere, and is wonderfully free of the bellowing city boys central London establishments are plagued by. It’s usually busy as it’s not the best kept secret, but I always phone up and reserve a table, which strategy has never failed, even late on a Friday afternoon.

There are plenty of ales on tap, as well as Aspalls cider; a godsend if you’re pretending to be ladylike and prefer sipping halves. They also have a good selection of scotch, and the staff are friendly and helpful… and often delightfully eccentric! In addition to the beautiful surroundings, the interesting staff and the excellent range of alcohol, the food is also incredible. Not your usual pub fare at all, though their Sunday roasts are highly renowned. The last time I met my friend Hannah there for a drink, I had the smoked duck egg. As a main course it doesn’t sound the best, does it, but out of curiosity and faith I put my trust in them, and the Holly Bush certainly didn’t let me down.

My meal arrived on a large piece of slate, with a curious white dome in the centre of it. The glass dome was lifted off with a flourish, and a cloud of smoke swirled out before disappearing into the shadows. After this piece of theatre I was left with two large fried duck-eggs, placed on top of creamy mashed potato, itself piled on top of a bed of thinly sliced greens – possibly celeriac, with its subtly nutty, celery-like flavour. Surrounding this was a selection of wild mushrooms Hugh FW would have been impressed by, including winter chanterelles and a huge cep. Everything was infused with a subtle smokiness, and the whole dish was both exciting and delicious. I can’t remember what Hannah had I’m afraid, as my attention was completely focussed on my own meal (I actually stopped talking for a good ten minutes, which rare occurrence she was particularly impressed by) but I’m told it was also excellent. Tom always orders one of their gourmet scotch eggs as a starter, or even if we just pop in for a drink, as he claims they make the best he’s ever had (and he’s from the North, which makes him an expert).  The menu is regularly updated, the food is consistently excellent, and they always have an interesting vegetarian option.

Isn’t that just the most exciting way to present a meal?

Tottering home through the cobbled streets of Hampstead also feels like stepping back in time, and is a far more pleasant end to the evening than walking past vomiting clubbers closer to the centre of London. Let me know if you pop in for a drink, or if you have any other recommendations for similar watering-holes in the UK (anywhere at all, I will travel!)

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Welcome to the ‘Maison Bentley Style’ Blog Party!

Another blog I follow is throwing a party, and everyone is invited. She’ll give you a warm welcome over at Maison Bentley Style where you can also meet the other blogging guests, see what they’re wearing, and how they’re partying on their own blogs.

I’ve mixed up some of my hedgerow cocktails for you, so enjoy, and let me know which is your favourite!

I’m wearing a 1920s cocktail dress with gumboots, because it’s going to get muddy… I’ve cleared a dance-floor in the middle of a forest, and a jazz band are tuning their instruments as you read this. Fairy-lights and lanterns are glowing all around us, but if that storm hits we’ve been promised then we’ll retire to my seventeenth century pavilion, and continue the party from there. The Rolling Stones have already started on the banquet, but there’s  plenty for everyone!

What’s everyone else wearing, and who have you brought along as your plus-ones?

The New Mulberry Zip Tote, and the Importance of Shopping Ethically

SO. I bought a Mulberry handbag.

I know, I know. Before you say it, or even think it, I can hear a horrified wave of tutting and gasps building in the distance, like a tsunami of disapproval. I’ve been (half) jokingly lusting after one for years, and Tom finally turned round and said that volunteering to teach all summer instead of going on holiday was the cherry on top of the working-70-to-100hr-weeks-for-the-last-four-years cake, and I deserved a reward. I thought about just posting a few photos and weathering the storm (“Mulberry handbag? Where? Gosh, how did that get there?!”) but decided, actually, to use this opportunity to write about the importance of paying good money for the things you believe in.

Don’t worry, I’ll post photos as well.

When I was growing up, designer clothes only existed in Vogue. People at my state comprehensive certainly didn’t wear them! If you wanted to dress in something that wasn’t from Topshop you rummaged through the charity shops, which resulted in wonderfully cheap and eccentric outfits. I was perfectly happy with this at the time, but I did know that there was something else, something better, out there. I found it in London.

I still shopped in Oxfam, vintage stores and Topshop (have you SEEN the flagship store at Oxford Circus?! It’s amazing!) but I began to develop an eye for other, better quality British brands. I noticed the difference in quality, both in design and materials. Fabric that regained its intended shape even after numerous washes, that didn’t wear through with holes or split at the seams, and that didn’t fade at the first threat of water or in bright sunlight. Real leather that was supple and weathered with age, rather than plastic that didn’t. Shoes that didn’t cripple me.

I did my research as well. I read about horrendous working conditions in sweatshops producing cheap clothes. When 1,129 people died in the Primark-supplying Rana Plaza factory in April 2013, it reminded me that paying more for clothes is not simply vanity; it helps prevent tragedies like this. The damage done to the environment by industrial levels of pesticide and bleach (poisoning local water supplies and wildlife) in the mass-production of cotton, is another example of destruction resulting from greedy consumers demanding cheap clothing. I’ve always tried to buy organic food as  I don’t particularly want to ingest toxins if I don’t need to, but also because it sends a message to the supermarkets. They control farming these days, and if the consumer says they want to pay a tiny bit more for organic food then the supermarkets will themselves encourage this. Buying clothing produced sustainably and fairly is an extension of this.

Also, although I love clothes and shopping, I dislike mass-consumerism. I don’t need a wardrobe bursting at the seams, and I find the modern flippancy towards clothes, happily throwing away last year’s fashions to make room for this year’s, distasteful. I spend a lot on my clothes, but I probably only buy one item each month, if that. Why would I need any more? My clothes last! If I do manage to damage them, I repair them. I think carefully about every pair of shoes or garment that I buy, and I value them as a result; I take pride in their ownership. A value that our consumerist society has, paradoxically, lost.

Finally, I also like supporting British brands. Hobbs, Barbour and Really Wild; Karen Millen, Reiss and Ted Baker; Turnbull and Asser, Aquascutum and Mulberry. I’m not saying they need my money, but I feel proud to wear British fashion. I know with Mulberry in particular I’m paying a lot for the label, but as someone who has built a brand based on quality myself, I respect that. They’ve earned it. I’m also contributing to our economy positively, helping to provide desperately needed employment and maintain high standards; our laws on production, wages and working conditions are a lot stricter than in developing countries. We should pride ourselves on this.

I’ve worked hard as long as I can remember to be able to live a lifestyle I enjoy, but being able to make moral choices is a major factor in this. Most people don’t even notice my Mulberry handbag, as it’s not exactly ostentatious, but that’s not why I bought it. Apart from all the other arguments I’ve offered you I’ll probably use it for the next thirty years, which works out at £50 per year, and it’s not just a part of my wardrobe now: it’s a part of me.

Plus these choirs of angels start singing whenever I look at it. Funny, Mulberry didn’t mention that that would happen!

Coat Karen Millen, shoes Hobbs.

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Climbing Mountains

I seem to have had an unusually glamorous couple of weeks in London, what with cocktails, outings to the theatre and being filmed with Katya for Russian TV. I was starting to feel a bit too citified, so thought it high time I got covered in mud.

Tom, Dave and I spent the last weekend climbing mountains.

We’ve been visiting the Lake District in Cumbria since I first met Tom, and he and Dave were living in a grotty ground-floor flat in Muswell Hill together (grotty is a polite understatement). The first time was over New Years, and the hills were covered in snow. It was magical. For about a mile outside of the small town we were staying in the ground was solid, compacted ice, hundreds of walkers having trampled it into a slippery sheet. Off-putting for most walkers, who were understandably wary of breaking replacement hips or of needing them, once we’d managed to traverse it we were practically alone in a snowy wonderland. We sheltered in a pine forest at one point when a snowstorm turned the air white, but otherwise the weather was perfect. Freezing, but perfect! Subsequent visits, however, have been disastrous in terms of the weather – constant driving rain – and illness suddenly striking.

New Year’s Day

A farm dog we met taking the day off. He trotted over to keep us company when we stopped for lunch.

Lakes NY 1

This was taken four years ago… and I’m still wearing the same coat.

You can imagine our delight then, when we checked the forecast and discovered that blazing sunshine was predicted the whole weekend! Tom had seduced me with tales of glorious weather and sublime countryside (to go on holiday to the Lakes, that is; it wasn’t how he got me to go out with him), as he used to regularly go walking with his brothers. They’d easily cover twenty miles each day, sometimes thirty, and often camp on the hills at night. Our plans were less ambitious this weekend, as although Tom and Dave are both very fit I most definitely am not!

We stayed at a B&B in Keswick for convenience’s sake, though there was much talk of renting a holiday cottage next spring. Getting people to agree to a trip and actually go is a bit like herding cats though, so we’ll just have to see. We (Tom) planned a fairly relaxed walk on our first day, covering about twelve miles and ascending to 362 metres (1,207 ft) at most. We wound our way to the top of Latrigg, Then headed down its other side and meandered through farmland until we reached the stone circle at Castlerigg.

Dave and I ascending Latrigg

I’m not quite sure what this lot are up to…

Castlerigg stone circle

It’s an incredible location, ringed with towering peaks that appear to be staring down at the small plateau. The circle averages 100 ft in diameter, there are about forty stones, the heaviest of which is estimated to weigh 16 tonnes, and there is a roughly rectangular setting of a further ten stones within the circle. It has been speculated that the smaller, internal structure was a later addition, intended to demarcate it as a site of feasting or perhaps discussion. Having read a fair bit of modern archaeological theory, I wonder if its purpose was to differentiate between two belief systems, or even political factions, overlaying the old with the new in order to utilise the powerful associations and draw of the old whilst simultaneously disrupting and thus dominating them.

Tom posing leaning against the tallest stone

lunch time

We’d bought a fresh loaf from the farmer’s market in Keswick, and a few wax-coated cheeses, so settled down to a picnic just inside the stones. The view was slightly marred by the American tourists standing on-top of the stones to pose for photos. Their voices somehow managed to carry further than anyone else’s, and their enthusiastic need to clamber all over the stones was viewed with bemusement by the Brits and Germans who were choosing instead to sit quietly and contemplate the landscape. The best time of day to visit the stone circle would certainly be dawn, though there is unfortunately a quiet road nearby and space for parking, so it may be full of people even then.

The light began to change as we headed back towards Keswick, the glare of the midday sun being replaced by a golden glow that flooded the landscape, turning it a tawny colour and somehow bringing it more into focus. We came across a small tarn, its surface so still that the hills behind it were perfectly reflected. The peace and quiet and fresh air are of course a welcome relief after the bustle of London, but the landscape itself feels like it is quietly standing sentinel; watching over us as we traipse across it.

A small tarn we came across

The same tarn, camouflaged when the sky is no longer reflected in its surface

Once we’d all had chance to shower and examine various blisters, we headed to the Square Orange. We shared huge plates of tapas, and delicious thin-crust pizzas. There’s a common perception that food outside of London is poorer fair, but places like this prove that prejudice to be unfounded. Walking up and down hills all day also makes you feel like you really deserve a meal; something we certainly took advantage of!

The next day we had a more adventurous route planned. We’d decided to climb Skiddaw. Rising to 931 metres (3,054 ft) it’s one of highest mountains in England, and it certainly felt like it. The highest in England is Skiddaw’s neighbour Scafell Pike (978 m or 3,209 ft), and the highest in the British Isles is Ben Nevis in Scotland (1,344 m or 4,409 ft). Although the sunshine hadn’t disappeared the warmth of the previous day had, and a sharp wind had forced us into jumpers and coats. There was a steady stream of walkers making their way to the top, from children running up and down as they waiting for their parents to catch up,  to octogenarians clutching hands as they trudged slowly forwards.

The nice, gentle slope (ha) before reaching the base of Skiddaw

The mountaineers

I can’t remember the last time I did any real exercise (I know, I know shame on me) and there were a number of moments when my body told me to stop being so bloody mad and get off the damned mountain; but I managed it. Just about (though Tom did ask me several times if I was going to be alright as I looked on the verge of collapse, apparently.)

Just taking a little break. Tom… may have had to drag me to my feet again. And push me ahead of him to get me to move again. That heather was really comfortable.

Walking back down was remarkably almost as difficult as walking up, as a different set of muscles were suddenly required and the pressure shifted from well-plastered heels to toes. We did descend in half the time though, and were relieved to escape the wind.  We spotted a path leading off the main track and into a pine forest, and ducked through the gate to search for a picnic spot. A small grassy clearing basked in sunshine seemed perfect, so we settled down to tuck into the packed-lunches made for us by the guest-house owners. I don’t think walkers usually do this, divert from the prescribed route, so we were able to eat our lunch in complete solitude, with only a couple of spiders for company.

The perfect spot for a woodland picnic

Dave found a stick

This is the face of exhaustion

Dave had to return to London when we reached Keswick, but Tom and I were able to stay an extra night, so we got a taxi (my feet were refusing to do any more walking than was necessary by this point) over to the Lodore Falls hotel. It’s a nice little hotel with a well-stocked bar, and fantastic views across the lake. We sat in the lounge sipping Dalwhinnie, and watching the light fade from the hills surrounding Derwentwater.

lodore falls hotel Lodore Falls Hotel

My legs still ache, and the blisters still make me wince, but just two days of walking in the Lake District felt like sustenance for the soul. Has anyone else been walking in the Lakes? I’d love to hear your stories.

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