Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Kinder surprise

We're sitting in our hotel room, drinking pots of tea and talking about the highlights of our trip to the Peak District. We all have aching feet. Some of us have smelly feet. We've been doing a lot of walking...

The day started in Glossop, a small town about four miles from where we're staying. Nathan wanted to visit his knitting friend, Michelle, who lives there, and to prevent her from being overwhelmed by happy campers, Sam, Matt and I had a little wander around the town, which is full of fairly pleasant shops.

We've noticed that the people in these parts aren't the friendliest folk on the planet. I guess I'm rather used to Yorkshire denizens and Geordies, who are always up for a laugh and are very open. The cliche, of course, is that people who live in the East of England are traditionally more welcoming than those on the West, and my personal experience would definitely bale this theory out.

I find Midlanders a little prickly and this part of Derbyshire is definitely where the Midlands meets the North West... Perhaps their grumpiness is all to do with their location!

There was a rather bizarre moment when Sam complimented a book shop owner on her lovely shop, and she looked at him like he'd just told her she resembled a frog!

The woman behind the counter in Oxfam was also a bit odd. I cracked a joke, which she didn't laugh at, which made me so uncomfortable, I felt the need to explain it. Half-way through my explanation, she looked at me and said, "yes, I know what you meant..." And that was that. Mortifying.

We met the rest of the campers at the campsite, gathered our rucksacks together, and a few bars of chocolate, and took ourselves up Kinder Scout... Or a hill near Kinder Scout. We weren't really sure! Kinder Scout, for those who don't know, is a hill which was made famous by the British Rambling Association, who established their "right to roam" by trespassing on the hill en masse.

The walk was stunningly beautiful, and really quite challenging. None of us are quite sure how little Lily, who is just seven years old, managed the seven-mile round trip without any assistance from her Dad, but manage she did, with a sunny smile permanently attached to her face.

We followed the path of a stream for most of the journey up to the top of the hill. It was very much like something from Beatrice Potter's, Mrs Tiggywinkle, and at one point I got all the kids looking for the cave that Tiggywinkle lives in. There were plenty of candidates; bubbling waterfalls and little pools of water where she might have done her washing. The joy about being around kids is that you can fill their heads with the things you found magical as a child. The joy about being a Godfather is that you can do all this whilst someone else focusses on whether the child has been fed and is wearing clean clothes...

All the way up the hill were bilberry bushes, which the kids seemed to particularly enjoy. My Dad often talks about picking bilberries in the Welsh mountains in the 1950s, and until today I had no concept of what this rare fruit might look like. Turns out it's a cross between a blueberry and a blackcurrent. Rather small. Rather insignificant-looking, and growing on a spiky, gorse-like bush.

We washed and drank from the mountain streams, but stopped upon finding the carcass of a sheep in one of the pools further up-stream, which made us all feel a little weird as we ate our sandwiches for lunch!

As we reached the summit of the hill, the mists descended. Actually, I think, more accurately, we ascended into a cloud. It was a deeply surreal experience. We could see nothing but white and grey mist, and there was a light drizzle. Periodically, we'd look back down the hill and see the faint outline of the reservoir we'd walked alongside at the very start of our journey, but otherwise, we were in a strange white world.

It wasn't frightening, although there was a sense of slight trepidation as we wondered where the paths would end, or if any of the kids would slip and disappear out of sight.

The descent was magical. At a certain point, the mist around us parted like a giant pair of curtains, revealing a giant square of vista like an enormous cinema screen. In the far distance, an area of hillside with a few houses in it, was glowing in watery, golden sunlight. It looked like a faraway magical world. The sort of thing that you only get in fairy tales. Lily stared in awe. "It's like one of the lands at the top of the Magic Faraway Tree," she said, and my mind suddenly filled with images of Moon Face, Silky, the Slippery Slip, and the mist unfortunately-named children, Joe, Bess, Dick and Fanny. The most recent printed versions of the book have renamed Dick and Fanny as Rick and Frannie, which I think is a shame. A name is a name, after all.

At this point, Meriel made us almost burst with laughter by revealing that she'd had a pet goldfish as a child which was named Fishy Fanny. Lily asked why we were laughing so much and was told the name was funny because of the alliteration. Children must find adult humour so peculiar.

We continued down the hill singing ABBA and feeling every bit like a modern-day Von Trapp family, and reached the campsite about four hours after leaving it, feeling proud, achey, tired, excited and like we'd had the most profound adventure.

On reaching civilisation, we ate chips, sitting with our feet in the little stream which runs through Hayfield. For Nathan and me, it became a little celebration on account of our wedding being short-listed for not one but two Grierson awards, which are like the Oscars of the documentary world. Uncle Archie's Wingspan company have been nominated for a further two awards, which makes them actually more successful than a number of broadcasters. Yay, I say, and thrice yay!

Slippery stones

Today started with a little walk around Hayfield in the morning sunshine. It's a rather lovely place; very oldy-worldy with a joyous stream gurgling through the middle.

We stopped off at the camp site to meet the others and found them finishing their breakfasts in a dew-covered field.

We travelled across the Peaks to a place called Speedwell Cavern, which is an old lead mine accessed by a series of underground canals, which visitors travel along on a rickety old tin boat. It was my idea to visit the place. I'd been there as a young child and found it hugely inspiring and hoped the kids in our group would be similarly excited.

It is a highly atmospheric place. Those above a certain height are forced to wear hard hats, and the tunnels you travel through are only just large enough for the boats and those sitting on them to pass through. I'm told that when I last visited (in 1984) the tour guides would have pushed the boats along with their feet on the tunnel ceilings - which I think I remember - but these days it's all motorised.

We went from Speedwell into the nearby village of Castleton for lunch in a pub. We sat in the garden in bright sunshine, reading about the troubles my parents had experienced in Thaxted the night before, when a massive hail and thunder storm destroyed one of the roads in the town and led to five people needing to be rescued by emergency services. We're told Newbiggen Street became a river, that basements flooded, and that untold damage was done by a milk float driving down the road at high speed which created something of a tidal wave! My mother sent a text saying there were blue flashing lights everywhere and that the whole place felt like a disaster zone. Quite astonishing.

From Castleton we drove into the deepest, darkest part of the national park, in search of the alluringly-named "Slippery Stones", an area just North of the Derwent reservoir, well-known to wild swimmers. There's a two mile walk from the car park, along the banks of a river which had deep orange water, no doubt the product of incredibly peaty earth.

The walk was so worthwhile. The river turns into a glorious plunge pool, where you can swim in clear water and have your entire body massaged by a mini-water fall. We stayed there for hours, repeatedly diving into the water, getting out and then thinking "just one more swim."

The walk back to the car was accompanied by a multi-coloured evening sky, which didn't know if it was stormy or made of treacle. In the end, it delivered a light show of spectacular proportions. The sun turned the mountains a bright shade of green which the reservoir reflected  against a black, blue, brown and slightly pinky sky. To cap things off, two enormous jet planes flew really low through the valley, making us gasp, duck and then laugh!

During our journey home, as we drove up and down over the hills and moors, the sky melted into a spectacular sunset of reds and golds and deep maroons. Morris men were dancing outside a pub in the village of Hope, hikers were returning to their camp sites all sun-kissed and achey, but everyone seemed jolly content. As they all should be on a wonderful English summer day!

Back in Sam and Matt's room, we had a mini picnic of bread and cheese before turning in for the night. I go to bed exhausted and very cheery.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Eyam

We are currently sitting in a tent in the centre of a camp site somewhere in the Peak District. It's all getting rather crafty. All the kids are drawing pictures by lamp light and Nathan and Sam are knitting.

Under normal circumstances we'd be outside, no doubt sitting around a camp fire. It's a lovely summer evening, but the midges are EVERYWHERE! I have never seen midges like this before. The air is thick with the things. Poor little Jago is covered in bites. Thankfully we've opted not to sleep with everyone else on this campsite. When it all gets too much, Sam, Matt, Nathan and I will drive away!

We've been in Derbyshire pretty much all day today, although the morning started in a Travelodge in Loughborough. I've never been to this particular town before, nor shall I again as it's a nasty dump of a place which made me briefly ashamed to be a Midlander!

We were on the road and out of there really very early and tried to have breakfast in Chesterfield, which was another mistake. Chesterfield is another town which should only ever be passed through. You can see its weirdly crooked church spire from the train, and that, I suspect, is all that's worth seeing! The only high point of that particular part of the day was discovering a shop which sold kitchen tiles called Crock-a-tile. You've gotta respect a pun like that!

We ended up in a little village just inside the Peak District where I had a glorious giant Yorkshire pudding with a vegetarian sausage inside.

We spent much of the day in Eyam, which has gone down in history as the village which effectively, (and selflessly) quarantined itself during the Great Plague of 1665/6. The disease ravaged the village, and killed more than three quarters of its residents. Deliveries for the village were left at two boundary markers. A stone, which still exists, had a series of holes bored into it, which were filled with vinegar to disinfect the money the villagers left to pay for the goods which were deposited there.

There are some astonishingly sad stories of bravery and tragedy. Apparently one of the first symptoms of plague was a change in the perception of smell. The local vicar's wife, after refusing to flee the village to safety, remarked one night how sweet the air smelt. Her husband knew instantly that she was coming down with the plague and within three days she was dead.

Many of the houses in the village are marked with plaques listing those who died in that particular dwelling. Lists of entire families. Hopelessly sad and yet the town is so beautiful.

We walked to the boundary stone and looked at the picture-perfect view down the valley towards the outside world, and wondered for some time how those poor people must have felt. Surely there would have been a temptation to run away from the village, because by staying they would almost certainly be signing their own death warrants. And yet none of them left...

We are staying in a guest house above a pub in the village of Hayfield, which, we discover, is where the BBC costume drama The Village is filmed. Many of the shops and cafés have decided to keep the oldy-worldy signs which were made to give the TV show early 20th Century authenticity, and the place is absolutely stunning, nestling in a valley surrounded by hills covered in dry stone walls which seem to glow in the sunlight, like pieces of a giant quilt.

The Peak District is truly one of the most beautiful places I've ever visited!

Still not 40!

Today, 23 of my closest friends celebrated my 40th birthday in Cambridge. Unfortunately, I am now aching from top to toe on account of having punted, at speed, to Grantchester and back. Punting is a deeply muscular activity, which exercises parts of the body which don't normally get much activity. The triceps, largely. And the arches of one's feet!

We arrived in Cambridge at noon, having been trapped in a ludicrous traffic jam on the North Circular, which took half an hour to escape. Of course, the cause of the jam was the seemingly arbitrary coning off of a lane of traffic. No one was working on the coned off area. It was just coned off!

People descended on Cambridge via all manner of means of transport, and slowly congregated, largely at the M and S on the market square where, tradition dictates, we always buy picnic food, and way too much of it.

We ate our picnic in a slightly inauspicious spot outside The Mill pub, by the side of the Cam.

At about 5pm a slightly eccentric breakaway group including my brother and Sascha, my godson, Will, Philippa, Mez and Helen set off to see if we could find a couple of college punts. As an alumni of King's College, Edward is entitled to use the private punts of that establishment, and Helen, who works at Trinity is similarly entitled to use theirs. It's always a lottery as to whether any punts will be available and we were lucky at Kings but unlucky at Trinity. It didn't matter in the slightest; in the process we were given private access-all-area tours of the two most beautiful Cambridge educational establishments.

We returned to the rest of the group, who had hired commercial punts, and drifted up the river in four separate crews. My crew included Abbie (who very delicately fell in whilst punting) Will, who captained our ship manfully, and two blokes called Ian!

Will kept jumping into the water and at one stage jumped in specifically to rescue a football which a group of kids had lost whilst playing at the side of the river.

We also witnessed a girl jumping into the water from very high up in a tree. So high, in fact, we felt sure the river wouldn't be deep enough to sustain the drop.

We reconvened in the meadows outside Grantchester, where Abbie, Mez, Raily, Ian and Will swam. Wild swimming is definitely the new not going out!

We punted back in a fiery sunset, through dancing damsel flies and wisps of barbecue smoke from the river banks. The same group of lads had kicked their football back into the river and asked us if we could save it. As I chucked it back to them, the silver ring which Nathan gave to me some ten years ago flew off my finger and disappeared into the murky depths of the river. I was horrified and rather upset.

I shouted across to Nathan to tell him what had happened. "Can you dive in to retrieve it?" he asked, "I'd never find it", I replied, "in which case you need to accept it's gone." He said. Very wise, my husband. And, I suppose, there can be no better place to lose a ring than in my favourite river, on a beautiful summer's evening, two weeks before my fortieth birthday. Perhaps in 3000 years' time they'll find it again and wonder who wore it and why.

Brother Edward and I returned the punt to Kings as the light finally left us. He was able to tell me all about Julie's act of heroism earlier on when he'd dropped the pole, and she'd jumped into the river to collect it. It was a little strange to be with Brother Edward in King's College. Memories of bygone birthdays flashed through my mind, merging with all sorts of recollections of occasions in the early 1990s when I visited him at college.

As we walked along the dark river to the car park at the end of the evening, Julie reminded me that it was exactly a year before - in the very same spot - that I had mentioned the possibility of Nathan and I getting married in a TV musical. She had felt the idea was a little odd and quizzed me mercilessly about it. This evening, she grabbed my arm, and said, "but it was wonderful."

As we drive further North, to a hotel in Loughborough, we're listening to my Requiem, which is making me feel particularly nostalgic. I do have such wonderful friends...

Saturday, 26 July 2014

Wined and dined on an eye

Today started with a small, rather insignificant incident which upset me disproportionately! I was walking along Archway Road and noticed a rather troubled young man, who looked a little shifty. He heard a siren at the top of Southwood Lane, waited for the police car to get closer and then screamed "f**k you" at it at the top of his lungs, before, rather tragically hiding in a door way until it had gone past.

It wasn't this incident which upset me, but the response to it from a young mother who heard the man bellowing and instantly grabbed the hand of her son who was walking next to her - essentially to protect him. The response was instant. Subconscious. But her face registered such fear. And in that moment I knew that this woman would have done anything on earth to protect her son, and I found this deeply touching.

As though to compound my feelings, as I reached the tube, deep in thought, the little cafe was loudly playing "Cantus In Memory of Benjamin Britten" by Arvo Pärt, one of the most poignant and beautiful compositions ever written. My eyes duly filled with tears and the cafe owner looked at me rather concernedly. If only he knew what it was like to be in a world where surging emotions are triggered by the merest musical suspension!

This afternoon I met my oldest school friend, Tammy. I met her off the bus from Bristol (although she actually lives in Italy.) Her bus terminated at Marble Arch, which gave me ample opportunity to explore what must be the most horrible area of London. It's a deeply soulless place, filled with wealthy Arabs, silly tourists and ghastly tacky-yet-pricey souvenir shops masquerading as convenience stores. There's nowhere to sit, and it's noisy, congested, polluted and rather pleased with itself. I shan't be returning there any time soon!

Tammy and I walked from Marble Arch through Soho (where we had tea) and Seven Dials (where we ate chips) to Covent Garden (where we got stuck in an horrendous thunder  storm which made us both laugh so much we almost wet ourselves!)

It was so lovely to see her again. We've known each other for 29 years, but haven't spent any time together for at least three, so, in amongst the reminiscing, there was a whole heap of catching up to do. She has two children, neither of whom I've met...

From Covent Garden we walked to the South Bank with soggy shoes where we met my father who celebrates his seventieth birthday today. The birthday treat was a wine tasting "flight" on the London Eye for twenty of his nearest and dearest; a veritable rag-taggle bunch of warm-hearted people my parents have gathered during their combined life-time.

Seeing London from above is always incredible. Seeing it first against the backdrop of a glorious sunset, and then with its myriad lights twinkling and shimmering was almost too much to bear! The wine-tasting aspect was great fun as well, although God only knows why people drink wine. To me, I was sampling nothing but rather bitter tasting vinegar. Brother Edward and t'other Ted assured me that we were consuming the nectar of heaven, which I'm obviously happy to accept as a desperate philistine. (I went to school with a Phyllis Stein.)

The exciting drink experience for me, however, was a delicious hot chocolate afterwards in the little open air cafe underneath the Eye, where you can sit and admire the astonishing feat of engineering which created this epic London landmark. What a wonderful, wonderful day.

Friday, 25 July 2014

The perfect day

I've just had the most perfect day. It was one of those occasions where everything aligns. The weather. The company. The ratio of expectation to actuality...

At 10am this morning, American Cindy, Llio, Nathan and I assembled at Starbucks in Muswell Hill and drove west along the M4 to Avebury. Yes, yes, we were there less than a month ago, but neither Cindy nor Llio had ever been, and both are such highly spiritual creatures that it felt rude to deprive them of a potentially magical experience. Besides, I'd probably visit Avebury weekly if I could, as it's become something of a Mecca in recent years. I turn up at Avebury and instantly feel both alive and relaxed. And, as A-ha once sang, The Sun Always Shines on Avebury.

We went via Hungerford, which is always a treat, because it means we can point and laugh at the name of the owner of the major car show room in the town: Dick Lovett!

We stopped in Marlborough to buy picnic food and some fancy sunglasses for Nathan to ward off his migraines which are often generated by sun glare. Rather comically, the spell check on my computer would rather Nathan use sunglasses to ward off migrants! Thank God I double checked!

The girls made all the right noises as we pulled into Avebury itself. Frankly, it would be impossible not to be wildly impressed by a stone circle so large there's a village in the middle! I can't think of anything in any way comparable anywhere else in the world. So deeply and quintessentially English. Historic, beautifully pastoral, yet simultaneously shambolic and utterly eccentric.

We picnicked under our favourite lichen-covered standing stone. We always sit and eat under the same stone. It's turned into a proper tradition. The highlight of the picnic was almost certainly strawberries and cream. Again: terribly English...

This summer is beginning to feel like some of the summers from my childhood, and right on cue, the thunder bugs descended. I don't think I've seen thunder bugs for years, but, despite them going hand in hand with long, hot summers, they don't half start to irritate after a while. I must have murdered thousands of the little critters every time I scratched myself. The silly things don't fly away. They just seem to attach themselves to your skin and sit there until you try to brush them off, at which point they turn to dust!

We went to the wishing tree; a beautiful ancient oak, with the most astonishing above-ground network of roots which looks like a waterfall of arteries. People write messages on pieces of ribbon and tie them to the tree. Our great friend Ali, who had been with us in Avebury on Nathan's birthday, gave us a little piece of ribbon in a bag with a pen attached at our joint 40th on Sunday, with a little note which simply said "For Avebury." We cut the ribbon in half, and dedicated one half to life-long friends like Ali, and the other to the Leeds Pals.

Llio stood in a pool of dappled sunlight as she attached her own ribbon to the tree. The sun shone directly into her eyes, and turned them into little pools of ice blue water. I have seldom seen a person look so beautiful.

To tell you the truth, hanging out with both of the girls with their deep red hair glowing in the sun was no hardship. Avebury today was a riot of colour blocks. The deep blue sky, the bright yellow of the cornfields, the vivid green of all the trees. Add the red of Llindy's hair and we had our very own Kandinsky painting!

We went from Avebury to West Kennet Longbarrow, a prehistoric burial chamber, which is also the home of a family of house martins with brilliant comic timing. When anyone wanders into the burial chamber, which is dark and spooky, one of the birds flies out, like the bats on Scooby Doo. It always causes a scream and then much hilarity!

In the fields next to the long barrow was a crop circle. A different crop circle to the one we visited a month ago! As we arrived, we happened upon a neo-Pagan dangling a crystal in the middle. "It's not a genuine one," she declared, sounding more than a little fed up, "it's not perfect enough." Apparently the crystals were in agreement with her damning verdict.

From the long barrow, we drove into Oxfordshire, and up to the Uffington White Horse. When you visit that place as often as we do, it's easy to forget how stunningly beautiful the scenery is from the top of that ridge. You can see for miles up there, the whole of Oxfordshire mapped out in a patchwork quilt of green, yellow and brown fields.

We sat around the eye of that iconic landmark, played games with pen and paper, took hundreds of photographs, and finished the picnic we'd started seven hours before, as the sun slowly melted into a bright red ball and twinkling lights started appearing in the valley below us.

We listened to Llio's stunning album on the way home, stopping at a service station for tea, where Llio declared; "we have a phrase in Welsh for days like this: diwrnod i'r brenin... A day of Kings..."

As ever, I feel proud to let my Welsh people have the final word!

Diwrnod i'r brenin.

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Finished!

About ten minutes ago I finally sent off the last orchestration from Brass. I then sent off my programme notes, the final draft of the script, a head shot and biog, so, give or take the odd bit of underscoring and a piece of play-out music, Brass is complete. It feels so strange to be done. All those hours of orchestration... Done! I can now enjoy the two weeks before rehearsals start. The weather is set to be lovely and warm. I can visit places, and celebrate my birthday, and lie-in and relax and book myself a massage...

To celebrate this extraordinary mile-stone, Nathan and I took ourselves down to the Rose theatre in Kingston to watch the first of the NYMT's three summer shows, The Ragged Child. It was a little unnerving to see a show from the same season as Brass being performed, knowing that Brass has only just been written!

The NYMT have been performing The Ragged Child for more than 20 years. It's a well-oiled machine and perfect fodder for the company because it's written for an epically large cast, all of whom get a little moment to shine. It's also chock full of roles for very young kids; the kids we couldn't even contemplate for Brass.

I had a vested interest in one of the members of the cast, the talented Jack Reitman, who is coming into our cast to replace another Jack who had to pull out. New Jack was playing a character called Jack in The Ragged Child, which in my book is too many Jacks! Still, there will never be as many Jacks on Brass as there are Bens. I still think it's astonishing to have a leading man, a composer, an MD, a chaperone and a stage manager all with the same name!

We opted to drive to Kingston in rush hour traffic, which in retrospect was something of a mistake. Fortunately the show went up late, so we didn't miss anything by arriving considerably late!

In the car park after the show, we saw an urban fox. He didn't seem at all worried that we were there, and stared at us for some time before casually trotting away. He was a scrawny beast, however, with no hair whatsoever on his tail! As a result he looked more like a jackal or something.

Urban foxes are curious creatures... So much more muted in colour than their rural cousins. I remember seeing foxes in my childhood which were deep red with incredibly shiny coats... The ones we see in London are so pale, they're almost yellow.