Friday, 29 June 2012

"GAVIA"

Most of May was taken up knitting a blanket for my pregnant and soon to be newly wed cousins. Their wedding was at the end of May and I traveled up on the day to witness the matrimonial rituals and partake in a lot of CĂ©ilidh Dancing!

Their lovely wedding took place in Chester and as such I tried to make my goodbyes at around 9pm in order to catch the last train home to London at 9:35pm. I was ordered by both Bride and Groom not to leave, and so of course I couldn't. If there is one day when everything a person says should be law (excluding murder and obvious illegalities) it's their wedding day.

Thankfully, one of my first cousins once removed and one of my second cousins had both offered earlier in the day to have me stay the night so I was not lacking in places to stay. Logistics came to the fore and I accepted the offer of my first cousin once removed (one of the grooms aunts) and went off with her, her partner and her son (another of my second cousins) and two other first cousins once removed at around 11pm.

My impromptu overnight stay elongated itself to a five day holiday! We spent most of the time dozing in the garden, walking along the Mersey, swimming in Leasowe Bay and chatting. Finally I had to bid them adieu and make my way back to London. I did this by detouring to Whitchurch to spend the night with another first cousin once removed (this time the mother of the groom) and her mother who was visiting from South Africa.

During all the catching up and chatting with extended family members it came to my attention that the father of the groom, Benedict, (yes, you guessed it, also a first cousin once removed!) had recently bought himself a little yacht. As a small child my mother used to take my siblings and me to visit this cousin and his family and we had done a fair amount of sailing with him before life took a turn in another direction and visiting far off relatives was no longer on the cards. This new boat was a four berth, 30 footer and was looking for extra crew members. I put my name forward as I knew that my second cousin Stuart (who was born in the same year as I was) would be among the crew and I hadn't seen him properly in ages.

I returned to London, squared things that needed squaring with friends and shops and whatnot and then jumped on a train at Liverpool Street and off again at Melton. I reached the boat the day after Benedict, Stuart and old family friend (and best man at the wedding) Tom had got on board and they had taken advantage of an early tide to take "Gavia" out of Granary Yacht Harbour and a short way along the Deben. I shouldered my sleeping-bag and my small holdall and wandered down to Woodbridge where I was collected at about 2pm.

As soon as I got on board I was given directions on how to use the lavatory. Open the valve on the left hand side of the bowl, grasp the red handled pump and pump out the bowls contents. Unscrew the red cap on the right hand side of the bowl take hold of the white handled pump and add a little water to the bowl, then pump this out with the red handled pump. After which, you refill the bowl with fresh water from the white handled pump and close all the valves. Closing the valves is important as if you don't close the one that allows your waste to be emptied, sea water will pump itself back up the pipes into your latrine, and cause you to sink... death by toilet; not a nice way to go! Once I had received this instruction, Stuart peered over and said "I do it differently!" sitting upright he mimed the actions, pumping fiercely with his right and left hands holding imaginary white and red handled pumps he said expressively "I open all the valves and get my double action on."

Gavia hadn't been sailed or taken to sea for a number of years, her former owner having grown old and unable and she not being sold until his passing. As such, Benedict was concerned that we should have the rigging checked and given the all clear before progressing to the North Sea. The rigger was coming in a few days and so we spent that time running the sails up and down, and learning Gavia's particular oddities and methods of use. I went for a swim in the Deben on the first morning and was taken a little by surprise at the strength of the current, I went in on the port side and called up to ask the boys to put the ladder down on the starboard side. After swimming against the current for what seemed at the time to be a never ending period, I finally reached the bow, grabbed the mooring rope, swung myself round to the starboard side and let the current take me rapidly to the ladder. At some point we also got out the bosun's chair and hoisted me almost to the top of the mast on the main sail halyard to untangle a sheet that had caught and twisted around the jib.

Once we'd been given the all clear and stocked up on supplies on a shore trip to Felixstowe we set off down the Deben under motor power as the winds weren't very good and Benedict wanted to first test the sails in breezier conditions. As we motored out of Woodbridge we spied a red jib flapping wildly. Boating etiquette prevailed and we came alongside, Tom jumped aboard and the jib was arrested and tied back down. Upon jumping back onto Gavia Tom declared "The blighters asleep inside! The radio's on and the windows are open. He's not heard a thing!" Alarm bells rang and we quickly radioed ashore "Thames Coast Guard, this is Gavia. Have just spotted a sail flapping in the wind, went aboard to tie it down and discovered the radio on, windows open and the door locked. We are concerned someone may be knocked out or debilitated in some way inside."

"Gavia, Gavia this is the Thames Coast Guard, can you confirm your location please and if possible the name of the other vessel?"

"Thames Coast Guard this is Gavia, we are on the River Deben just outside Woodbridge. The distressed vessel is 'Dalua' Delta, Alpha, Lima, Uniform, Alpha."

"Thank you Gavia, Gavia. Were you able to see signs of life on board?"

"That is a negative Thames Coast Guard, we just tied the sail down and got off. We did not investigate."

"Gavia, Gavia would it be possible for you to remain on sight till the Coast Guard arrive? We are radioing in your position now, they will be with you shortly."

"Thames Coast Guard, that is an affirmative. We are just picking up a mooring and will wait for the Coast Guard."

"Many thanks Gavia, Gavia. Over"

We duly picked up a mooring and while we waited Tom and Benedict clambered into the dinghy and sped across to Dalua to see what more there was to be seen. Stuart and I watched from Gavia and listened to the radio crackling and hissing. Once more aboard Dalua Tom gently forced the cabin doors open and went inside. He came out, shook his head, shrugged and signaled that they were coming back.

Back on Gavia Benedict picked up the receiver. "Thames Coast Guard this is Gavia. We have just gone aboard Dalua again, she has no-one aboard. The owner has been carrying out maintenance and repair work, the cabin floor has new varnish which explains the open windows and they must have forgotten to turn the radio off."

"Gavia, Gavia this is Thames Coast Gaurd. Many thanks for that. The Patrol should be with you in the next few minutes, they will secure the vessel and recheck. Can you stand by to receive them?"

"Thames Coast Guard, that is still an affirmative. We are moored up and can see the Patrol now. Over."

An RNLI three manned high speed response craft pulled alongside and re-confirmed all that we had passed to the Thames Coast Guard. We were thanked and given permission to continue on our way. As we slipped our mooring the RNLI boarded Dalua. The jib winding mechanism was obviously faulty as it had once more sprung free and the sail was slowly unwinding again. They saw this and as one crew member secured their craft to Dalua, another refastened the sail and the third researched the cabin.

"Gavia, Gavia this is Thames Coast Guard. Are you still there?"

"Thames Coast Guard this is Gavia. We are leaving our mooring now. The response unit are aboard Dalua and have no further need of us."

The radio crackled and the woman's voice came through one last time. "Many, many thanks for your assistance Gavia, Gavia. Very much appreciated. Please continue on your journey and thanks again. Over"

We pulled away from the scene and Tom immediately began joking "Gavia, Gavia this is Thames Coast Guard. Many, many thanks for your assistance! Gosh she was rather on it wouldn't you say? I reckon she found your voice very attractive Ben. Gavia, Gavia just wondering what colour your eyes are?" Stuart quickly joined in "Thames Coast Guard I am a single white male." Tom's eyes sparkled, "Gavia, Gavia just wanted to confirm dinner reservations for two tonight." A loud bellow burst forth from a wide boyish grin on Benedict's face, "You boys are MAD! Ha!", he steered round a river marker, "Ha ha! What utter rubbish! Nonsense!"

"Gavia, Gavia will we be dining on board or ashore tonight?" Tom teased, "Thames Coast Guard this is Gavia, Gavia. I am a passionate but gentle lover." quipped Stuart.

The banter continued till the drizzle dampened even the boys good humour and instead they fell to reading and commenting on the names of the passing moored boats. Tom declared that if he had a vessel of his own he would call it "Choice". The RNLI, having completed their necessary duties, whizzed back alongside, debriefed and thanked us once again.

The mouth of the Deben now loomed large. We charted her exit signs and plunged into the sea and dipped and dived and felt rather sick the whole way rolling round the coast to "Hook of Holland" in Harwich. Thankful for the calm waters of the Stour, Stuart and I quickly stopped feeling queasy and harangued Benedict into letting us unfurl the sails. The winds were calm and sporadic, so we tacked the whole way to Manningtree. Tom, meanwhile, was dead to the world and snored soundly below deck. Attempts to wake him so that he too could enjoy the sailing fell to deaf ears, and so we left him to slumber in peace.

Manningtree may have had more to offer than we discovered but our excursions were hampered by Benedict's worry that where we had come ashore may be closed off while we were away and that we would have no way to get to our dinghy and from thence return to our ship. He also despised the 'A' road that passed through the village. Decrying it as stupid, dangerous and idiotic he rustled us away from explorations and back into the dinghy. He being thoroughly disillusioned as to anything that Manningtree may have to offer we anchored away and sailed back along the Stour to see if a more suitable resting place could be found in neighbouring Orwell.

Stuart and Tom went below and I received, at my request and after some encouragement, a private mini-lesson in cloud identification from Benedict.

Shortly after entering the Orwell we spied a mooring and quickly settled down for the night. Wanting to take advantage of shore electricity given that rules 3 and 4 on the boat were "3: permission must be sought for use of boat electricity." "4: permission will not be granted for use of boat electricity." Tom asked permission to use the dinghy and go ashore. Grudgingly granted after much persuasion, Tom and Stuart headed off under direction from me that they should call when they were setting off to come back aboard so that I could have their dinner finished and ready for their return.

The boys receded into the lowering dusk and I turned my attentions to the stove. Suddenly an almighty fog horn shook the boat and momentarily deafened the senses. A large shipping container was trying to exit the Orwell but a silly little yachting outfit were defying river rules and were stubbornly remaining in the tankers path. The shocked, dazed looks on the yachts crew members quickly turned to fright and haste. Finally turning on their engine they sped out of the tankers way moments before it would have crushed them under its bow, and the tanker continued on its solemn and stately path.

For dinner that night I decided to make a butter bean sauce with mushrooms and red peppers, spread over pan fried potatoes. Thoroughly vegan and thoroughly delicious. Benedict was still in a huff that Tom and Stuart had gone ashore and he would sporadically comment that Tom had to learn to deal with not having modern technologies, that Tom needed to get used to being on a boat and that all this going ashore was nonsense, and that he didn't like the boys using the dinghy while it was getting dark outside. Calmly I tried to point out that given that we were so close to shore it only made sense to take advantage of the available power outlets, that Tom had a partner and family and friends and colleagues that he needed to stay in contact with in case he needed to be called home for some reason or other, and, that both Tom and Stuart had done a lot of boating and that they were both sensible and capable lads and would be fine in the dinghy. I should have ignored him. My quiet interjections served only to antagonise him. Now he turned to the subject of food. "You know we don't need to wait for them. They're going to be ages. I don't think they'll back for hours. If supper's ready before, you and I can eat now." I pointed out that I had chosen a dish that could be made and left to stew and that finishing off would take place once the boys called to say they were heading back. "Bahphff, they're not coming back. They'll find a pub and eat ashore. I know what Tom's like." "I'm sure they will come back, they said they'd be gone for half an hour, however, if you are hungry now I can make you a cheese platter and you can have a starter." This suggestion was met with silence so I tried again, "I can make you a snack now so that we can all eat together later or if you really prefer I can finish off a portion of the potatoes for you and you can have your main meal now." "Yes. Yes I'd rather do that."

I judged an amount of potatoes that would be generous but that would also leave enough for three more people, heated the oil and fried them off. I plated up and served him. By this point I was so annoyed at his behaviour and grumblings that when I passed it to him I said that I was going to sit on deck and read the paper while the light was still good.

I turned, retrieved the paper from where Tom had left it and stretched out on deck. Almost as soon as I had sat down Benedict got up and busied himself around the stove. A few minutes of frying and he sat back down to his meal. When he had finished he, still sitting in the cabin, shouted out "That was absolutely shit. You didn't cook my potatoes properly and you didn't give me any mushrooms. If you're going to make a mushroom dish you can't not give me mushrooms. I had to finish cooking the potatoes because you didn't do them properly. By the time I'd cooked them, the sauce was cold and I had to help myself to mushrooms. If I didn't know you were a good cook, I'd just think 'Oh, that's just the way Rachel cooks.' but I know you are good cook. You're being deliberately disagreeable. If you want to remain on this boat you have to stop being disagreeable to the captain. You can't not cook the captain's meal properly. Do you want to stay on this boat? Because I don't think you do. You're being disagreeable and I won't have disagreeable people on my boat. That meal was shit."

Had we been on shore I would have taken my bags and left there and then. Had I let the situation upset me I don't think I would have been able to recall a time when I had felt so trapped. Thankfully, I had been sailing with Benedict before. I had also known him for most of my life and I knew when I volunteered for the trip what I was letting myself in for.

I folded the paper and replied. "Oh. I'm terribly sorry. If you'd told me that the potatoes weren't cooked to your liking I would have come back in and done them again. I didn't intentionally not give you any mushrooms but I'm glad you were able to find some yourself." I didn't point out that I had never cooked for him before in my life and that he couldn't therefore know that I was a good cook. I also didn't point out that it wasn't in fact a mushroom dish.

"If you're going to be disagreeable you should get off this boat. I had to cook the potatoes myself, they were shit. Do you want to remain on this boat, because if you're going to be disagreeable to the captain you can't stay on board. You didn't give me any mushrooms and I had to get my own."

"As I said, I am sorry that the potatoes weren't cooked to your satisfaction. I tried one and thought it was fine. Had you told me that you'd like them cooked for a bit longer I could certainly have come back in and re-cooked them. It was not intentional that you didn't get any mushrooms and I'm sorry that I didn't give you any. If you would rather I left the boat you can drop me off in Ipswich if we go up that way tomorrow morning."

Silence.

"Or, if you'd rather, I can get Stuart or Tom to take me ashore tonight when they get back."

Silence.

I turned back to my paper and continued peering through the gloom to decipher the articles.

Five minutes of silenced passed before Benedict, in a calm and almost friendly tone, piped up with "You know if you're going to cook that sort of potato you have to make sure the pan is really hot. Don't be worried about things sticking to the bottom of it. It's a very good non-stick pan. What I do when I cook those potatoes is I put loads of oil in the pan and heat it right up and then I do a combination of cooking them with the lid on and off. You can't worry about the noise it makes. It's very noisy...."

The sounds of Benedict "teaching" me, in essence, to suck an egg wafted over the breeze and fell to intentionally deaf ears. I rigidly shut the sounds out and focused intently on the words before me. I'm not sure how long the lesson lasted but I was called back to attention by a mobile phone ringing faintly. Benedict leaped up and grasped his mobile which was lying on the chart table. A brief conversation ensued, he hung up and looked at the phone in his hand in surprise. "Oh!" he said "That was Tom. Their on their way back now."

"Right," I slid back into the galley, "Lets see if I can do a better job of cooking the boys potatoes!"

I looked at my watch. Exactly half an hour had passed since the boys had gone ashore. I laughed to myself and heated the oil.

*   *   *

Stuart pushed his plate forward and leant back. "Rachel, I can't eat anymore. That was so delicious. I've always been a bit skeptic of the whole vegan/vegetarian thing, but if it's going to be like that..." his thoughts tapered off as he sat back and thoughtfully surveyed his left-overs. Tom beamed at me from across the table, "I liked the cheeky potatoes." His bright eyes twinkling once more he added "Very nice mushroom ratio."

Benedict reached across and took Stuart's left overs, remarking as he did so, that it was one of the finest meals that had been cooked on board and, indeed, one of the finest he had eaten anywhere...

*   *   *

The following morning I was still feeling pretty queasy. Stuart and Benedict had got up before 6am and taken us out of the Orwell part way into the channel. They were discussing where to go next. Either to the marshes or straight across to Ramsgate. I dressed and joined them on deck. "Ben, I'm feeling pretty sick. Is there anywhere that you can drop me off around here so I can go home?" "Oh. You want to get off do you?" He sounded small and dejected "There aren't many places round here. If we go into the marshes we could drop you there but we've just deflated the dinghy so we'd need to find a harbour. How bad do you feel because we could start for Ramsgate now and just get over and do it." I thought about it for a second; I have a friend who lives in Ramsgate and works in London, I could get a lift home from him. Ramsgate's not that far from London, I could walk and I have family, friends and neighbours along the way if I needed somewhere to stop off. "Okay." I said "Let's do. Let's go to Ramsgate. I don't mind throwing up."

"Spoken like a real sailor!" Benedict cried in delight. Tom woke at this point and Benedict gave him the helm, pointed him in a direction and he and Stuart went below to catch up on sleep. As we flapped and floundered in an incoming tide I ran forward to the port bow and lay holding onto the railings and emptying my stomach into the channel.

The crossing was a blur of throwing up and freezing. I couldn't wear my jacket or my jumpers because my head was too hot and it felt like it was going to implode or explode, which one I'm not sure, perhaps a combination of the two, but either way distinctly unpleasant. As we eventually drew close to Ramsgate I was sent below despite my protestations after Stuart noticed that my feet had turned black.

During the crossing I was vaguely aware that we had gone in the wrong direction for an hour and that we had had to double back and try again. Also, that the engine 'off' switch had broken and we couldn't turn the engine off. I say that I was vaguely aware in that I knew what was going on but I had no sense of the passage of time. As I gazed out to sea I fought the urge to step off the boat and simply walk to the horizon - which didn't seem too far away, but then, it never does! I had other delusions, which thankfully I recognised as such and didn't act on any of them! I did man the helm for a short period at the beginning of the journey while Stuart slept and Benedict and Tom poured over charts. Once all the boys had come back on deck the helm was taken from me and, having nothing else to do, I went forward and took up my vomiting position again. Switching every-once-in-a-while so as to make sure I would be throwing up on the right side of the wind and not coat the boat with the lining of my stomach and bile. Occasionally one or other or both of the boys came forward to do something to a sheet or a sail and each time I wondered why, given that I was up there anyway, they hadn't called to me and asked me to do it. At some point, presumably around lunch time, I was offered food and water. I did ask for water but none was forth coming. I could hear the lunch preparations and the boys discussing haloumi and salami sandwiches, my water must have slipped their minds in the excitement of eating.

I was sent below twice during the crossing. The first time I only managed to stay under for, maybe, an hour, but probably less, before my need to have fresh air brought me on deck once more. I lay there, dry-heaving and bringing up bile, until the night sky was verging on blackness. Benedict said that we were coming close to Ramsgate and that it might be better if I went below. I protested but then Stuart noticed my bare feet and exclaimed "Rachel your feet are black! If you stay out much longer you'll need amputation. It's no use you getting hypothermia as well as seasickness." Benedict started complaining about subordinates not following the captains orders, so I took the path of least resistance and went below.

Safely into our harbour space by around 1am the boys turned their attention to the engine and figuring a way to turn her off. Benedict was concerned that letting air into her system might make restarting her prove difficult. In the end that is exactly what they did and after shutting valves and doing various things to stop petrol running through, the engine eventually kicked and sighed and went quiet.

Tom was once more on an electricity rampage. He'd spotted a hotel as we came into Ramsgate and was adamant that he had to get a charge on there and then. This suited me fine as I needed to get onto terra firma and stretch my legs but didn't fancy roaming around by myself. We took the important things with us: the items needing to be charged, their cables and, of course!, a bottle of wine. Having persuaded the nightwatchman to plug Tom's phone into a USB on the office computer we went outside so that Tom could smoke. We found a bench and settled down. I produced my penknife, freed the corkscrew and passed it and the bottle of wine that I had in my coat pocket to Tom. As he pulled the cork free he asked "Are you sure you don't fancy getting into drinking?" "Positive, thanks!"

I leaned back and quietly enjoyed sitting on a solid bench that was bolted to a solid floor that was attached to the earth and had thousands of feet of land underneath it. Tom sat next to me swigging from the bottle and quickly picked up the conversation after I'd asked a few questions. I closed my eyes and let him run with it, every now and again injecting a word of surprise or shock, often laughing at the ridiculous situations the boy seems to have found himself in over the years, and occasionally teasing out further details, but mostly just listening to tales of a well lived life. I had earlier in the trip given Tom the perfect cue for a line he'd been waiting to use: "I'm here for a good time. Not a long time!" and that ethos certainly rang true in the tales he told throughout our voyage.

*   *   *

After a few hours sleep we all got up and once more turned our attention to the engine. We pulled her case off from the front and top and Tom, Stuart and Benedict got stuck in. Tom ended up right inside the engine house with his feet sticking up and waving at us on the deck! A bar that was rather superfluously attached to a cord as an 'easy kill' switch had got stuck inside its tube. Once the bar had been removed and we had retrained to turn the engine off, in what actually turned out to be an easier method than the 'easy kill' switch, we were ready to go again and get back on the high seas. Benedict had other plans. For the next few days we roamed around Ramsgate, topped up food supplies, ate, drank, showered and generally made merry. Every time the subject of continuing on our journey was broached Benedict retorted that the weather was too bad, that he didn't want to move on just yet, that I was going to be sick again and that, basically, we weren't going anywhere. Meanwhile he complained bitterly about how expensive it was going to be to stay in Ramsgate for so long.

Finally I got bored of being one of his excuses not to leave. I was also aware that his mistress was going to be coming on board within the next few days to celebrate her birthday and although I am sure she is a lovely woman I have no interest whatever in condoning my cousins behaviour in this respect. Also, my back was hurting and stiff from the bunk that I had been given. As the smallest person on the boat I was given the bunk underneath the chart table. Its height measures 20 inches and there is barely enough room to turn over let alone sleep on your side. I did quite like my little bunk, though getting in and out was a bit awkward, in all the nights I slept in it I only had one awful night and that was the second night aboard. Not really sure why; it was just very painful and uncomfortable. The rest of the time it was merely slightly annoying and only gave mild discomfort. Taking all this into consideration I decided to challenge Benedict, either the boat moved out of harbour that day or I got off the boat. He said the weather was too bad and that we weren't leaving till tomorrow but then only of the weather was good. And so, I took my belongings to the wash house, freshened up, packed everything tightly, went back to the boat and firmly intoned my goodbyes.

Tom checked his iPhone and showed me a route through Canterbury that measured 70 odd miles. I had my compass and I knew that I had to bare west and north. I was happy with the distance I had been shown must be covered and was confidant that I would be fine without a map - given that I didn't have one I couldn't exactly be otherwise! My soon to be ex-crew members were dubious and all said they thought it was a bad 'do'. They walked into town with me and I bid them farewell around 1:10pm after promising to keep them updated on my progress. Tom said that once I'd gotten on the road I would realise how mammoth the journey was and that I'd come back and re-join them on the boat. I laughed and told him that I always go forward. Never back.

Wednesday, 27 June 2012

Rayrigg Hall


This is a wagon wheel of Niddy-Noddies, on sale at PYF

Rachael Matthews of Prick Your Finger fame had, earlier this year, shown me a niddy-noddy and how to use it. Little did she know at the time what my relationship with a niddy-noddy was going to blossom into.

Since January I have become the fastest niddy-noddier around. I also have phenomenal niddy-noddy stamina. It may not look hard, and it's not!, but it can be stressful on the back, leg and arm muscles. Once you've niddy-noddied for 12 hours straight (as I did earlier this year) you'll know exactly which muscles I mean! Especially if you have a bad back in the first place.

Jan 2012

As my skill with the niddy-noddy progressed and as my hunger for things to niddy-noddy grew, I queried where the large factory skeins of wool I had been processing came from and when more would be coming. The answer was "Rayrigg Hall".

Rayrigg Hall is a Grade II listed house on the shores of Windermere. It was the home of abolitionist William Wilberforce while he scripted the wrongs of slavery and is now the home of the Matthews family. Across from the main house lie a series of barns, stables and office spaces. In one of the old stable blocks there is a treasure trove of yarn waiting to be niddy-noddied.

And so a plan hatched. I asked Rachael if I could be locked in the barn and left to niddy-noddy the whole lot. The answer?

Yes!

I was invited to spend a long Easter Weekend with Rachael and her family.

I packed my globetrotter, met Rachael and her brother Monty at Euston Station and embarked on what turned out to be not an entirely niddy-noddying adventure...

At Oxenholme we were duly met by the debonair Mr. Matthews (creator and designer of the Made by Dad range at PYF, and upon arriving at Rayrigg itself we were congratulated by the truly inspirational figure that is Mrs. Matthews. After a cup of tea and a chat around the medieval fireplace in the old part of the Hall, Monty and I slipped into our bathing suits and went off for a dip in a fairly cold Windermere before supper was served.

The menu: imagined and brought to fruition by Mrs. Matthews was outstanding at every level. Each meal was fresh, ingenious, nutritious and delicious. Her meals are an attack - in the MOST pleasant meaning of the word - on all the necessary senses involved in eating food; tantalising smells wafted out of the expansive kitchen and paraded through the corridors, visual treats of multi-coloured vegetables heightened the appetite and increased the expected pleasure of tucking in, and, finally, the flavoursome blends and unusual concoctions served to keep ones stomach on its toes and eager for more at every meal time.

On the first morning of our Easter Weekend I was the first one up, shortly after 8 in the morning I slipped down from my medieval attic bedroom, along the hallway into the newer part of the building, descended the main stairs lined with genuine halberds, out of the garden door and onto the frosty lawn to get a swim in before breakfast. I had decided to go without shoes and simply run across the lawn to the cove in bare toes. A frost had fallen in the night and the ground was icy cold. Jumping into a chilly Windermere upon reaching the other side of the lawn was in fact a welcome relief in comparison to the coldness of the grass!

After breakfast Mrs. Matthews packed a lunch (along with some of her spectacular home-made elderflower cordial) and off we went in Bubble (Mr. Matthews' car) to take a wander up Conniston Old Man. Our troop was made up of Rachael, Monty and myself. As we ascended Conniston, Rachael spotted a goats skull which I retrieved for her and is now in her shop in London. I took a quick turn inside the mines and brought out a handful of icicles to put down our backs and cool our foreheads. Just under the Old Man's brow is a tarn. Here, Monty and I plunged in and had a swim before tucking into cupfuls of Mrs. Matthews Scotch Bonnet Soup. Looking up at the trail to the peak of our mountain we saw to our dismay that it resembled Dante's Inferno and as such we wended a path off the beaten track and went straight to the ridge between Conniston and Wetherlam, from here we commanded a view of Morecambe Bay, the Isle of Man and the coast of Scotland near Dumfries. On Wetherlam's peak we stopped for more hot elderflower and gobbled up the two slices of cake that had been designated to each of us, and at her base Monty and I swam in the reservoir before we all headed back to Bubble and from there headed home to Rayrigg.

The days adventures were slightly marred that evening by both Rachael and I coming down with what we later decided was mild heat exhaustion. Rachael was hit harder than I was and sensibly went off to bed to relax and rehydrate. I stayed up and was absolutely thrashed at chess by Monty.

Friday and Saturday are now a blur of swimming in the lake, splitting and moving logs, painting estate signs and, most importantly, playing epic amounts of scrabble with Monty Matthews. Monty is a scrabbleing god, and I owe him a huge debt of gratitude for markedly improving my game. So much so that when I played a game recently I was so far ahead of the other three players that despite being stuck with the "Q" and the "J" by their devious tactics to prevent me from winning and as such having 18 points knocked off my score, I still won!!!!

On Sunday I was finally shown the long awaited, and dreamed of, barn of yarn. A happy handful of hours were spent merrily niddy-noddying away till a call from Monty asking if I wanted to go for a swim and play some scrabble came and, as it was close to dinner anyway, was joyfully accepted.

On Monday morning Monty left us to return to the Scottish highlands and I ensconced myself in the barn. I came out for lunch, went straight back to the niddy-noddy, came out for a swim before dinner and dinner itself, then went back to the niddy-noddy; finishing only when I was called in for bed around 9pm.

Tuesday morning gave just enough time to get in one last swim, thereby fulfilling my wish to have swum every day that I was at Rayrigg, before packing and stuffing yarn into a 72 litre rucksack became the order of the day. Once the bags were packed and we had stuffed three un-niddy-noddied skeins into the rucksack along with the 80 odd skeins I had niddy-noddied we jumped into Mrs. Matthews estate car and were whisked off to Oxenholme.

Reaching London, Euston I insisted on walking back to PYF with the rucksack of yarn. 


Thus ended my Rayrigg sojourn.

Polar Exploration Party

The 29th of March 2012 signalled the 100 year anniversary of Robert Falcon Scott's fatal attempt to reach the South Pole ahead of Roald Amundsen. And so, of course, I had a party to commemorate the event!

Parlour games included Polar Trivia, Polar Poetry, a "Penguin Cake" bake-off and a search for the South Pole. The dress code was "Exploratory" and I was rather surprised that no-one decided to come as an astronaut! Many people had a devilish time of finding penguins to bake in cakes. If they had only waited till they had gotten here they could have cooked one of my guests, who, fortuitously, came dressed as a penguin! We also had an icicle, an explorer of things both nearby and faraway, a shipwrecked woman, an intrepid voyager who had walked so far that not only had his shoes completely disappeared but his socks had disintegrated! and he came complete with his journey food storage supply sacks (his sister), we had two polar bears (one yellow and one purpleish) and a few others not in costume.

Thankfully the lack of penguins for baking in cakes did not put off my more imaginative guests and we did have three entries: First Prize fell to Aska Welford, for her rustic and delectable blondie cake with a penguin shaped brownie centre, Second Prize fell to the talented Nesba Crenshaw (who wowed the stage with her portrayal of a facist cabinet member in Cerberus Theatre's production of Count Oederland) for her exquisitely decorated cream cheese brownie, covered with a snowy icing, a flag pole and five hand-moulded iced penguins; one carrying a baby penguin, one dragging a sleigh, one with ski's, one with a little red hat and one holding the aforementioned flag pole. Lastly came Chris Loscher's delightful tray of individual melt-in-the-mouth chocolate cupcakes each equipped with it's very own smiling melted chocolate and cream penguin topping.

The South Pole was hunted down after a tricky (and rather nippy) journey. I rang my childhood dinner bell, announced that the race was on and gave the happy participants their first clue:

"Betwixt the leaves of a suitable book, your journey begins if you care to look!"

After trawling through the living room bookshelves Louise Harries quietly slipped into the hallway and calmly selected "Six Great Explorers" from the third shelf down, and there, marking the chapter on Robert F. Scott, lay:

"A solitary penguin so proud of its tale, without this knowledge your quest will soon fail."

After some discussion as to whether or not the clue was directing them to another book one of the seekers peeped under the cake displays and discovered:

"Soapy hours are spent in this place, with a sharp eye you will soon spot your case."

Everyone rushed into the bathroom and there they stood and stared for a good five minutes. Eventually Monty Matthew returned to the living room and said "Can we have another clue for the bathroom please?", shortly after additional clues had been given Monty spied the miscreant rolled up in the lid of my bath salts jar:

"A bear it may look like though a bear it is not, deep in it's folds is the clue you have not."

And there, in the right had pocket of my mothers old faux fur coat was stuffed:

"An in-tune note it struggles to play but it hide key news so don't stay away."

The seekers dismally surveyed the battered old family piano. A glass cake stand, a mountain of half finished knitting projects, a dozen balls of yarn in colours of all descriptions, a pile of semi-sewn fabric, pin cushions and knitting needles lay strewn across and piled on top of the out-of-tune upright. Quickly I rushed to the fore and cried "It's not on top!" for fear that we might have an almighty mess to pick up should they start rummaging... The key lid was lifted but only the shiny white and dull black keys stared back. Then Monty started tapping and feeling all around the sides and underneath the keys and there his fingers touched:

"With lowered brow, inside a frame, this sad sweet girl is vital to the game."

Without a moments hesitation the delightful Tania Emery strolled over to my visitors book, took the painting of my mother as a teenager from the wall and unfastened the clue that was sellotaped to its back:

"Creamy skin and crimson lips, this vixens beauty belies your next tip." -- "Well," she joked "You didn't know I was coming so it must be someone else!"

Eyes turned to the portrait of my mother that hangs in the living room to the right of the fire-place. But no, each clue had its own special method of delivery and Louise hit the nail on the head by inquiring of Aska, who was this whole time curled up in my favourite armchair quietly dozing and half-listening to the search "Is it you Aska? It is isn't it?" and sure enough the sleepy response came:

"To see more writ on what you seek into the garden you must now creep."

The mellow March weather that we had been enjoying had broken that evening and suddenly the night was bitterly cold. The hardier seekers gleefully ran into the garden and surveyed the blackness, light from the kitchen windows threw shadows and I quickly tried to light a few of the candles but the spitting flecks of rain would not allow much success on that front and so the seekers were hampered by the descended night. Rachael Matthews grinned and said that it would be nice if the clue was in the buddelia that has been plaguing and tearing my garden wall for years, I encouraged her to have a look. In a crook at the base of the bush nestled a small glass bottle and from its mouth protruded a rolled up clue:

"Smokelessly standing in the gloom, for plenty of secrets it doth have room."

Dotted around the garden stand three imposing chimney stacks. They should be on the roof of my house but for some reason the original stacks were removed while some repairs were being done a decade or so ago. One of these stacks serves as a holder of large poles and growing canes. Around four of these canes lengths of bright blue yarn were tied. Three of the strings had nothing at their ends but at the end of the fourth was the Final Clue!

"Inside the house, within plain sight, protrudes the Pole you have sought tonight!"

Bright eyes and eager faces scanned the kitchen walls and surfaces. A satisfied smile spread across Rachael's face as she leaned back and pointed to a bizarre bit of pipe that was (and still is) sticking out of the kitchen ceiling. "Is that it!" she cried.

Well done! Yes it is.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

London to Oxford

On Tuesday the 20th of March, I unfurled my home-made hand-sewn Dashing Tweeds Lumatwill Trousers, retrieved the rucksack that my neighbour had kindly lent me from the hallway, cooked up four meals and a tray of flapjacks, took a blanket from the linen box and set off to have lunch with my Great Uncle Paul (founder of Greene's Tutorial College) in Oxford.

On the way I met up with my cousin Chris, proprietor of the Toy Shop in Helmsley, York who was on a two hour lay over in London as he travelled back to York from Kent.

I saw Chris onto his coach at London Victoria and then headed off for my adventure. I had a list of instructions in my pocket and new insoles in my trusty walking boots. The weather was fair - perhaps a bit too fair! - and everything looked set for a pleasant two days walking, with the promise of a slap up meal at the end of it.

As I trod Bayswater Road and wended a path to the old London to Oxford road, also known as the A40, I realised for the first time how truly immense London is! Seven hours of walking, and I am by no means a slow or leisurely walker, went by before I finally shook the dust of London officially from my boots. Stopping in a bus-shelter in Buckinghamshire, just outside Uxbridge, I sat down to relieve the pressure on my poor feet caused by the new insoles. What idiot puts new insoles into their shoes before heading off for the longest walk they've ever knowingly made?! Apparently I am that idiot and I suffered dearly for it. Though you wouldn't have thought I was suffering had you bumped into me at that point. The blister created by those new insoles was so dramatic that I still, three months later, bear a scar on the inside heel of my right foot.

The official plan was to reach High Wycombe and bed down there for the night and I was not about to let a poxy blister get in the way of my schedule. Secretly I longed to not bed down at all and make the whole journey in one go. And off I went with that thought in mind. Around 11pm I stopped at the Royal Saracens Head, purchased a cup of tea, used the facilities and enquired how far from High Wycombe I was. The answer given was approximately seven miles. Happy that I'd get there by 1am at the latest and renewed by the tea I shouldered my gear and trudged off.

Upon reaching High Wycombe, I discovered to my dismay that it was in fact a horrible built up and citified place and that not even the bus shelters were accommodating to the weary and footsore traveler that I had become. "Well," I thought to myself, "I'm not staying here!" So on I went.

I had considerably slowed down from when I initially set off, I was now managing two and half miles to every hour rather than my usual four and half miles an hour. I reached the outskirts of Aston Wood at around 5am and collapsed in a little heap in the perfect hedge. When the sun came up, under an hour later, I found that the hedge was in fact part of a children's play park. Almost as soon as the sun peeped over the horizon life began stirring in the little village of Stokenchurch. Dogs began rustling the leaves in the park, small voices could be heard in the distance - protesting at having to get up and brush their teeth and all manner of things that small children wail at - vans began speeding past my hedgerow at an alarming rate, and heavy footsteps trod over my head.

I left my dwelling after forty winks and, having no idea how far I was from Oxford (or indeed at this point where I was in general) due to the fact that I didn't take a map with me!, I wearily stuffed my blanket back into my neighbours rucksack, popped some flapjack into my mouth and got up. Wincingly I continued along the A40 and through what I discovered was Aston Woood upon reaching the other side, where I saw a sign stating:

Oxford 15 miles
Wheatley 9 miles
Tetsworth 2 miles

The joy at being so close to my destination was akin to that of a small child being given the toy they have been dreaming of in the weeks leading up to their birthday. Relief that I was in fact almost there and pride in having gotten there so quickly washed over me. Buoyant, I picked up my pace and started along the road with new vigour. Sadly this vigour did not last for long. The initial joy and relief at being so near to Oxford quickly descended into despair at the perceived slowness of my speed and the agony that had become the swollen stumps previously known as feet. Every few minutes I fell into the bushes lining the A40 and sat and contemplated my predicament. Rising again I would manage a few more minutes before once more falling to the floor. The pain in my feet and the distance I had yet to travel became insurmountable in my mind. I calculated that at my current pace I wouldn't reach Oxford for another six hours. And so I resolved to stop at Tetsworth, find a payphone and ask Great Uncle Paul to drive out and rescue me. Then I saw another sign post:

Oxford 14 miles
Wheatley 8 miles

No mention of Tetsworth.

Tears streamed down my face as I contemplated the arduous journey to Wheatley. Short sharp breaths quickly got me into a state of agitation that I struggled to allay. Though I told myself that Tetsworth was simply at the top of the rise and not off to the left or right of the road I was sticking doggedly to and that I hadn't "missed" it and that everything would work out, the tears of exhaustion continued to roll down my cheeks. The rise came and fell and a pavement slowly manifested in the distance. This must indeed be Tetsworth. It was 8:20am. A lady jogger exited from a field and eyed me with caution. I looked forlornly half at her, half past her, not wanting to disturb her in her routine. She jogged closer and asked if I was alright.

"Yes," I explained, "Is there a payphone in the village? I've just walked from London and would like to ask my Uncle to come and collect me."

Completely un-phased she returned "There's no payphone but you can use my mobile. Would you like to come to my house and have a cup of tea and some breakfast and then carry on? If you stop now you may regret it tomorrow and wish that if you'd rested a little you might have made it all the way."

"Thank you, that's very kind of you, but really I can't. I walked all night and my feet are swollen. If it weren't for them I could go on. But they're too swollen and I can only hobble!"

I recited Great Uncle Paul's number and she duly punched the digits into her mobile, handed the phone to me and stood back to witness the conversation.

"Hello?"

"Hello Uncle Paul, it's Rachel"

"Oh hello! I was wondering how you were getting along. Where have you got to?"

"Well, I'm not quite sure how I managed it, but, I'm in Tetsworth."

"Good heavens! Why you're almost here. That's wonderful, you'll be here for lunch today then, not tomorrow. Phph, well, my..."

"I'm awfully sorry, but that's why I'm calling. I wondered if you could come and pick me up? I walked all night and my feet are swollen and they hurt too much to continue walking on them."

"Oh! Oh I see. But of course. It will take me a while, I've got some things to do. Do you know where the Black Swan is? I can pick you up there and we can have some breakfast. It's just along the High Street."

"Thank you, yes I can get directions. I'll see you when you get there. Thank you Uncle Paul"

The kindly jogger pointed me in a forward direction and said that the pub was on the right hand side and I couldn't miss it. Reaching the Black Swan I found, unsurprisingly for that hour of the morning, that it was shut. I perched on the surrounding low brick wall, ate some more flapjack and awaited my Uncle.



The car journey from Tetsworth to Pembroke Street was too surreal and a whole experience and adventure in itself. Suffice it to say that between my motion sickness and Uncle Paul's old fashioned way of handling a car whilst telling, and showing me, the appalling congestion - far worse than in London you know - and rising bollards in Oxford and insisting that we find somewhere to feed me while I asked him about when he passed his driving test and did my level best to keep what was currently in my stomach precisely there, we had quite an eventful and seemingly never ending drive home!