Life, Travel

A Night on the Town

In Downton Abbey, they always used to talk about going ‘up’ to London, even when they lived in Yorkshire. I have read somewhere, and it may even have been true, that this was to do with the start of the railway lines. Even though the first trainline built in the UK was between Liverpool and Manchester, the original ‘main’ lines emanated from London. The ‘up’ trains travelled to London, while the ‘down’ trains travelled away.

I pondered all this while we sat stock still on the M6, last Friday, waiting for an accident, a few miles down the road, to be cleared out of the way, thinking, a train ride would have been a better idea. I was also wondering if I was going to miss my birthday present.

Anne had given me just a card on my actual birthday, but written inside, in her loopy letters, was a description of what I’d be getting. A night in the West End, with tickets to see a play and hotel nearby so we didn’t have to navigate the tubes or buses back to her son’s in Mill Hill. Excited much? I’ll say.

As we watched the cars on the other side of the barrier flow freely by, I attempted to reconcile myself to the possibility of missing the play: we would still have the hotel; we could still go out for a meal; I can’t really miss what I haven’t seen. I had almost got to a point of zen when the traffic finally started shifting and we did, just, get to town in time.

The Gielgud Theatre is a beautiful baroque style building, on Shaftesbury Avenue in the West End, and just a walk away from our hotel in Holburn. As we don’t get out much, the crowds on the street were a little overwhelming. But many of the Christmas lights were on, or maybe it’s this sparkly all year round, so we started to feel the spirit of a Friday night in London.

Christmas is coming

The play we came to see was The Mirror And The Light, adapted from the Hilary Mantel book, the last part of the Wolf Hall trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. We had seats in the stalls with excellent views of an excellent cast, including Ben Miles as Cromwell and Nathaniel Parker as Henry VIII.

I haven’t watched many adapted books on the stage and I find it intriguing to see how it’s done. Obviously, great swathes of the book, which is the longest of the three, were removed completely. Many of the characters were also dispensed with, or given a token appearance, to move the plot, or highlight the underlying politics. They gave more prominence to Cromwell’s ghosts and making his father the axe man in order to allow him to say the star line was clever. Plus they began the play near the end of the book which worked very well, starting in medias res (in the midst of things), a term I’ve just learnt on my course so I can bandy it about proficiently.

Walking back, after 11pm, the multitudes were still milling. But, whether it was the interval wine, or the absorption in the play, we felt ourselves in concert with them, rippling out into the convivial night.

A side street, showing lots of people and red lanterns hung all the way down.
Party in the streets

It was a really wonderful evening, and definitely made me want to venture into the heart of the Big Smoke a little more than I have done. But maybe next time, we will take the train.

Running

Don’t Look Ethel

Yesterday and today I ran naked.

Cows in the field, waiting by the gate

No, I wasn’t taking the idea of a run streak literally, and there were no acts of public indecency. I did keep my clothes on, and really, would you, given how the temperature has taken a sudden plummet? What I mean is, that I didn’t keep a track of any running metrics while I ran.

From appalling to anodyne in two short paragraphs, but for a runner who likes to keep a eye of their miles and pace as they go along (that is most of us), it’s quite a big deal to not be able to see a smart watch, or listen to a voice in your headphones periodically giving you your details.

I don’t have a sports watch. Yet. So normally I rely on the lady from the Runkeeper app telling me what’s happening every ten minutes. How many miles I’ve accumulated, what my average pace is etc. All very interesting stuff if you like that sort of thing. And sadly, I do.

It was because I’ve (temporarily I hope) lost my headphones, and I decided to mute my phone volume to avoid passers-by hearing the slightly pathetic information coming through. So I wasn’t completely naked. I did capture my data, but I only looked at the end of the run.

There are very few runners that I know who don’t care about these things. I can only think of one. A man I used to run with some lunchtimes when I worked for a company, a few years back. His name has completely passed me by, but he used to just have a normal watch, that could just tell the time. He looked at it when we started, and then maybe, at the end, if he remembered. He was so zen. I think his preference was trail running and hills, and he was so chilled that he even ran during Ramadan, in the summer, while observing the no water rule, and didn’t seem to break a sweat. Amazing!

But apart from this guy, I can’t think of anybody who doesn’t record their runs. I’m not sure I like it. I feel bereft. Normally I listen to a podcast in between the ten minute time checks, or I’m chatting to other people if I’m going out with a group, but these last couple of days I’ve got nothing.

Well, apart from the sound of the traffic, the birds, and the occasional mooing cow I suppose.

In my OU Creative Writing course, I am encouraged to observe the world around me a little more closely. To use all the senses and describe what I notice with a little, well, creativity.

What did I notice?

The constant background whirring hum of the nearby motorway: white noise, it fades into the subconscious. The birds twittering in the trees, squeezing behind the last few leaves that have managed to cling on to the bitter end. Squirrels, scarpering silently well ahead of me, when they feel the earthquake of my clodhopper tread. Farmyard aromas wafting on the chilly breeze as I reach the winding country lanes. The cows lining up at the gate, waiting impatiently, to be moved to the greener grass field.

You see! The sooner I can find my headphones the better.

Books

The Betrayals – Bridget Collins

The front cover of the book

Anne got this book out of the library as we’d both read another one by her, The Binding, and loved it.

This book follows a similar pattern in that she creates an environment that is familiar yet not quite. Like a parallel universe.

The main setting is a university or academy, called Montverre, built in a remote mountainous area, somewhere in Europe, maybe France. It feels like a medieval, monastic enclave because of its location and because only men can be students or, generally, tutors here.  But the world around it seems to be a version of Europe of the 1930s.

We first meet the Rat, a feral child living within the shadows of Montverre, only venturing out at night, stealing necessities sparingly, observing from the edges.

Then there is Léo Martin, a fallen politician, sent back to his alma mater to give credence to the official line: that he wasn’t pushed, but resigned. He had been a high-flying young acolyte for this newly established government until he started to question their directives. A party that had swept into power on the promise of cleaning up the streets, but whose ambitions for ‘purity’ lay wider.

Finally we have the Magister Ludi, the main teacher at the school, and the master of the ‘grand jeu’. A game where the rules are never explained but the raison d’etre of the whole institution. The students learn Maths, Science, History, the Arts and Philosophy, all so they can play the game. The ultimate distillation of ideas. This magister is a woman, Claire Dryden. An aberration, a mistake. Tolerated, because of her brilliance, but only just.

The story unfolds from the perspectives of these three, although there is also a fourth voice, Léo’s diaries from when he was a student.

For anybody who has read Herman Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, the idea of such a school will feel very familiar. Collins takes an apt quote from it at the beginning and acknowledges her debt to it at the end. Yet it’s not necessary to know that book to read this one. Anne hadn’t, and that did not detract from her enjoyment of it.

There are some places where my suspension of disbelief is really tested, but generally it kept me with it and I enjoyed it too, all in all. It is quite lyrical at times and moves at a slow pace, yet there is an undercurrent of emotion and menacing portent that runs through it. There are twists to keep you guessing, and revelations.  With Léo, Collins has created a character who comes across as obnoxious and arrogant but still intriguing and vulnerable, and that is a skill indeed.

It wasn’t as fresh an idea as The Binding, the totalitarian tropes are recognisable, but it comes at it from an interesting angle and the story as a whole was a very absorbing read.

Running

Base Training 101

I was hoping to run 10 miles yesterday morning, for no other reason than to see if I still could, since my half in September. I managed 8. This was adequate, but disappointing but it is hard to motivate yourself to keep going for just under two hours (that’s how long 10 miles currently takes me) when there is no race on the horizon.

Although I’ve put my name down for the Helsby Half in January, I’m on the waiting list as they’ve reduced their numbers. I’m 77th in the queue so it doesn’t look like I’ll be getting the call up any time soon, but then again, there could be a flurry of withdrawals in December when people have realised they’ve larded up too much over a festive period that feels like a long time coming.

This makes for a difficult limbo land. Do I carry on training as if I will be running, or do I assume it’s a non-starter and give myself over to the gluttony that is to come?

Of course, if I did have an ounce of my dad’s self-discipline, I would be able to take everything in moderation and maintain a balance between the hard work and the play. In the absence of that, however, I need to reshape my thinking. Instead of worrying about the length of an individual run at the minute I should just work on increasing my weekly mileage. I’m hovering around the 17 miles per week mark and I’d like to get it up to a comfortable 25 by the middle of December. That should be very doable if I just remind myself that, most days, I just need to pop out for a quickie, as it were.

Base training can come in different shapes and sizes, but what it basically means is maintaining, or getting to, a decent level of stamina for what you want to achieve in the long run. If you have a race in six months’ time, you don’t want to push too hard from now as you’re more likely to get tired, or injured, or miserable, or all of the above. But, you also don’t want to start from zero, so the first few months will be getting to a nice level of fitness, where you feel healthy but still energetic. It is a hard balance to strike

If I don’t do Helsby, then my next big run is in June, so how do I resist my natural inclination to stay in my pyjamas and crack open an early box of mint chocolate matchmakers?

Well, it’s not easy, but this is a list that (most of the time) works for me.


Number 1 – Get other people to kick you up the proverbial

In my experience running buddies do help. Either, friends who regularly run with me (get better soon Bev!) or being part of a running club. Especially a running club where several of the members are decades older and still wipe the floor with me.

Actually I think that is an important point that I made without realising it: if all the people you hang out with are quite sedentary and you’re the fittest of them all, then it’s easy to get a little laissez-faire about exercise. But if you add a few people who are regularly active, then that starts becoming your new normal.

Number 2 – Break down the time frame

If you’ve got oodles of blank squares in your calendar between now and the big run, then you will probably do what I did for most of my undergraduate degree. Not start until it’s way too late and then cram like crazy to produce a mediocre offering.

Put in some mini challenges between now and then. Parkrun is a great go-to for that, as it’s free and it’s in the same place every Saturday at 9am. Yes it’s only a 5k but if you’re going hell for leather on that one run, then following the 80/20 rule, that’s your 20% done. And the rest of the week can consist of some longer runs that are nice and slow. Plus you get to see an indication of your progression, if you do the same run every few weeks, and if it goes in the right direction, that can be very motivating.

Number 3 – Mix it up

Do other stuff: like cycling, or dancing. Even taking your two year old grandson for a big splash in the baths counts as an add on, as semi-permanently squatting in the shallow end so my shoulders didn’t get cold and keeping hold of him as he didn’t have armbands, was definitely a workout. I have also been doing yoga, a little more regularly at the moment, alongside my running, and from personal experience I think that, or any other big stretchy workout, should be a crucial extra when you run long distances.

Number 4 – Enjoy it

A path with autumn leaves covering the pavement and several trees looming behind the wall running along the edge.

What is not to love about the carpet of autumnal colour ahead of me as I lope along the pathways. The crunch underfoot (well I hope it’s crunchy!), as the brittle leaves break apart beneath me. If you can convince yourself that you’re going out for a bit of fresh air, to clear your head, to explore, to be one with nature, or any other reason that is different from ‘to train’ then it feels a whole lot less onerous to get out.


So those are my tuppence worth of thoughts on keeping motivated between races and I’ll attempt to put them into practise between now and June, or if I’m lucky/unlucky, between now and January!

Books, Running

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running – Haruki Murakami

The book, scribbled notes and all

I’ve just finished reading, or should I say re-reading, this book.

Because my writing course will focus on creative non-fiction, I’m trying to pick up a few more of that kind of book to learn how the professionals do it. Normally Murakami writes novels and I’ve enjoyed many of them, but this book title naturally drew me in.

Even though I’ve read it before, I was still thrown by the start of chapter eight. I had completely forgotten what he does, but then that is often what I do with books. Read them, sometimes enjoy them and then promptly forget most of them. I’ve been known to get well over halfway through a book before I realise that I’ve read it before! Nothing major happens here, and normal people might wonder what am I even going on about with this particular chapter, but the start of it got to me.

My course is making me look more closely at the craft of construction, so this time around I’ve made scribbled notes on scraps of paper and slotted them in at the pertaining pages. Not sure how useful they might be when I read them back again, but I feel as if I’m paying a bit more attention by doing this.

The book is set out in the form of mini essays, with a date and location at the top of each section. That makes it sound like a diary but it has so much more fluidity of time and space than a regular diary does. It is a memoir of sorts and there really is a large amount of talking about running (just in case you thought the title was just a metaphor). And even though his running is at a seriously more advanced level than mine, I could relate to it a lot.

In amongst the descriptions of his running methods and progress, he weaves in key moments of his life in a way that feels very natural, and still relating to the point. You get to learn about him as a person, and how he is shaped, metaphorically, and physically, but you don’t get the usual yawn about where he was born or what school he went to etc.

The biggest take I got, is that Murakami is a singularly focused man, to the point, sometimes, of obsession. But this focus propels him in his running/triathlon efforts in the same way that it does his writing. He can sit, every morning, for three or four hours and carve away at his writing, without any deviation. I came away in awe of that focus, a little afraid of not being able to gain it myself. And then again, if I did, wondering what kind of a person I would then become.

I have used a quote from this book which I love, on my home page, as although I’m never going to be that good a runner, I love getting out there. And if I do get more serious about this writing lark, it looks like I’m going to need that running even more.

Running

Running, or was it wallowing (?), in Beacon Park

I’m squatting by a bucket of muddy water outside my house with rubber gloves on and a toothbrush in my hand, wondering if this is what normal people do on a Sunday.

To clarify, the toothbrush has long been demoted from the task of cleaning teeth, and used to have a happy, later life getting around the taps with a dab of Cif. Now, it’s taken a further step down the ladder, and been relegated to scrubbing the mud off the grips in my shoes, as today was my first attempt at cross-country running since my school days.

Although I had taken my new trail shoes for a small, initial spin around Storeton Woods last Sunday, this was their real christening. I can now say that they were worth it, as they were really comfy and they kept me upright.

The day turned out to be a bright, sunny one, albeit with some hefty gusts. Some of our team found that out, when they tried putting the club gazebo up on the grass. By the time we arrived, they were busy taking it down again before it flew away to Oz.

Several hundred people were milling around in the sun in various states of preparation, We had a fifteen strong running group for Pensby, plus some kind volunteers to help look after us all, but I didn’t realise that so many people did this kind of thing for fun on a Sunday morning. Maybe it was the lack of runs in 2020, and the dry day today, but the first race of the North West Cross Country season  was very well attended.

I had triple-knotted my laces, and Claudia had shown me a handy loop on the top of my shoes to shove the bows in, but I was still thinking I should have tightened the laces a little more, and wondering if I had time to readjust, when the horn sounded. The hordes around me stormed ahead and I was swept up in it for a short while, until I was a little out of breath and slowed to a more manageable pace.

At the start, the ground felt quite nice. The grass didn’t feel like it had too many hidden dips and was actually quite springy and enjoyable, once I could breathe again. That didn’t last.

I often worry that, when I get left behind as I invariably do, I may be liable to take a wrong turning somewhere, if there aren’t enough marshals. I didn’t need to worry this time, as even if the marshals and well laid out sign posts hadn’t been there, I had only to follow the heavily churned ground to find my way. At Storeton Woods I did my best to skip over or go around the muddy patches. Here there was zero option to circumvent, and as I ventured to find some non-existent edge, a fellow competitor said: sometimes the easiest way is straight through the middle.

Sage words, and by the middle of the first loop I was heeding them, although I was nearly left shoeless on several occasions, and wished I had tightened up those laces at the beginning. Towards the end of the first loop I was being lapped by some of the front-runners, including Ben, the first Pensby in, who’d been feeding his new-born girl at 4am this morning. I think he just came out for the run to have a rest!

The marshal optimistically asked me if I’d done my two loops, just after Ben sailed passed me, but no, I had to do it all again before I could take that right turn to the finish. For the first loop, there had been two steepish hills and a few undulations. For the second, it all felt like hills, but, remarkably, I was really starting to enjoy myself. The sun was out, the endorphins were kicking in and I hadn’t fallen or twisted my ankle. What a great day!

Even more lovely, as I was getting to the end and pushing up a crazy final hill to that finish line, I had the biggest cheer from the rest of the Pensby Runners team. I was the last Pensby in but, surprisingly, not the last runner to finish the course. It actually wouldn’t have mattered to me if I was, as someone will always be last. Getting out there to begin with was the win for me today.

The trainers are cleaner than they were five minutes ago but probably not as pristine as they were first thing this morning, which is alright. They feel like they belong on my feet a bit more now that I’ve doused them in the mud. Though I have to remember to tie my shoe laces up tighter next time!

Running

Trails…of destruction?

I’ve decided to take up trail running.

Well I haven’t really, not for definite. But I have now bought some (expensive for me but still the cheapest ones in the shop) shoes for trail runs.

New trail shoe in foot with purple socks
One of my new clodhoppers

I know you can get much cheaper ones online, but I do have a thing about trying to support a real, local, running shop because they’re so useful about giving you proper advice on what type of shoe you should go for. Also the online sites didn’t have my size.

Actually the shoes I’ve bought are several sizes bigger than my foot size which is 3.5. In running shoes I regularly get between a 4.5 and a 5 because there is so much internal padding and you need to allow space for ‘spread’. These ones are a 6 (!) and a very dark pink so in my head I look like a circus clown (Anne assures me that I don’t).

So why have I spent all this crazy money? It’s in the hope that I actually do some trail running. Even though I’m not mad keen on getting down and dirty, especially in the winter months, I’ve read, and been told, about the many wonderful things about trail running and I feel like I should dip a muddy toe in.

Wonderful thing No 1 – It’s very mindful

I had a go at breaking in these deep magenta bad boys on Sunday in Storeton Woods and I could kind of see what they mean. Because you’re busy trying not to twist your ankles on the tree roots and hidden dips that plague your way, you are definitely not thinking about anything else. Plus, as I’m still averse to dirt, I’m trying to skip over or around the many bogs and mud patches that have developed with the unceasing rain. So, if mindfulness means paying attention then, yes, most definitely, I was that.

Wonderful thing No 2 – It slows you down

This is apparently wonderful because we’re all just too busy trying to be faster and we should just chill with nature – or something like that.

As regular readers may know, I am not the fastest kid on the block, nor even anywhere near the middle. However, based on this little trip, my normal sloth speed was indeed further diminished by aforementioned obstacles and dodgy uneven ground so that I had to walk (or rather scramble) in places. Walking is apparently a crucial part of trail running, and while serious road runners would never dream of having one foot permanently on the ground during a run, trail runners embrace it as part of the experience of getting across the terrain – or something like that.

Wonderful thing No 3 – It works more of your muscles

Well, yes. To say I was ker-nackered after that short and slow three and a bit miler maybe gives credence to that idea. I felt that, because my feet were landing at different angles, my motion was sometimes side to side, and my arms were flailing about to keep my balance, parts of my body were definitely being woken up that otherwise wouldn’t have been active.

I am a bit clumsy with my running or any physical activity, and my right ankle has sometimes got nearly or, occasionally, fully twisted when I’ve fallen. So this whole idea of trail running feels a bit counter-intuitive. However, I’m thinking that, if I do it slowly (which has never been a problem) I could actually build up the tendons and muscles around my ankles a little bit more by having a go at these crazy runs.

There is a season of local trail races coming up this winter, and I’m bobbing along for at least the first one this Sunday. I have verified that my presence will not be detrimental to any team positions so I’ll give it a go and let you know.

Books

The Halloween Tree – Ray Bradbury

The front cover of The Halloween Tree

I have just finished a book that was recommended to me by a friend and fellow blogger, Kat. It’s a small book and could be finished off in just a half day if you have that to spare, but it took me three smaller sessions.

To me, Ray Bradbury is a sci-fi writer for adults, creating dystopian nightmares. I’ve read Fahrenheit 451 and The Illustrated Man and loved them both for that aspect. This, on the other hand, is a children’s story.

A children’s story that demands to be read aloud, with a very poetic musicality. There is alliteration and rhymes in lines, and a sing-song galloping rhythm. The whole style reflects the energy and zeal of the group of boys dressed in makeshift Halloween costumes ready for trick or treating high japes.

In one vast swerve, one doglike trot and ramble, they circled round and down the middle of the cobble-brick street, blown like leaves before a storm.

It was published in 1972 but feels older. The boys have an innocence similar to Kay Harker in The Box of Delights, or the children in Swallows and Amazons, even though they’re at the beginning of their teens. That doesn’t detract from it but I wonder if today’s readers need to be a couple of years younger in order to get into the spirit of the book.

This is the story of Halloween and some of its origin stories. The boys swoop across time and space with the help of a strange creature called ‘Mr Moundshroud’. In my head, he is a cross between Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka and ‘The Gentlemen’ from an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (you might need to look them up!).

They are ostensibly going in search of Pipkin, their dear friend and the best of them. But the idea of an incredible adventure is a big pull too. Their search takes them from Illinois to Egypt and countries farther still. It takes them to the depths of history, when the Sphinx was brand new and Romans hadn’t yet marched in England. The ceremonies to mark the dead and the beginnings of Winter are witnessed up close and fleetingly as this rollercoaster must end before midnight.

And before Halloween ends they must also make a Faustian deal to finally save their friend…

I really enjoyed the book, and without a suitably aged child to read it aloud to, I had to be content with the child in me. And that will have to do.

Running

Run To The Hills

I was saying to Sue last night that …

Well I wasn’t so much saying, as gasping, barely able to get a syllable in, between the short and desperate inhalations.

Despite my wheezing, we managed to hold a conversation of sorts and I was explaining that I’d not done any hill training for two, maybe three years. And it showed.

I’m not talking about going for a run that has hills in it. These are the more repetitive, and therefore somewhat more challenging, efforts that I inexplicably volunteered for last night at the club.

I was at the back. At the back during the 1.4 mile ‘jog’ to Teals Way, and at the back during the repeats. However, it’s an exercise that I cannot do with the same amount of push by myself. I would have walked some of it. I would have gone slower. I would have given myself a million excuses not to do it in the first place because I wouldn’t have been accountable to anybody but myself and I am a rubbish taskmaster!

A small section of our hill – courtesy of Google Maps

Those excuses were obviously listened to as I’ve not done hill repeats for years and there are plenty of hills in my vicinity. Red Hill Road and Rest Hill Road are neither red nor restful but they are both several levels above ‘undulating’.

So here I was, slightly knackered before we’d even begun, at the bottom of Teals Way pulling off my extra layers on a dark but rather warm evening. Andy, our drill instructor, is a deceptively smiley chap. He looks on you kindly and gives you encouragement and then blows his whistle.

The first ten minutes was to go up and down at a steady pace to get ‘a feel’ for the hill. Up to the first bend it’s a gradual incline. Then you veer gently to the right and you can feel your lungs starting to work as it gets a bit steeper. A bend then to the left again and this is the ‘pinch’, the steepest section and your breathing has shallowed as you try and get oxygen in as quickly as possible. It levels out a little at the top as you go right, and around the green electrical box and finally down the hill again, you pull in deep breaths to recover. Then you do it all again!

I think I managed about three hills to everyone else’s six and this one was the easy exercise! However, as I explained, haltingly, to Sue, during the second ten minute drill (she had popped up here as she’d been late getting to the club and this was the only group she knew the location of – that’ll teach her to be late!), my participation, and my uber slow circuits should just be an encouragement to all the runners who think that hill running with the gazelles is too daunting! Someone will always be last, and sometimes, like yesterday, someone may be last by quite a distance. But absolutely nobody will mock you and you will get a nice sense of achievement for some hard work done.

The second and third drills involved sprint sections: the second before the ‘pinch’ and the third, actually on the steepest bit itself. I didn’t have the lungs to sprint but I did attempt to lengthen my stride and pump my arms more for those bits.

We could see the silhouette of a man looking at us all from his bedroom window: hard to imagine how normal people may view this merry crew? Sue stayed with me even though, given her ability to string a longer sentence together, she could have gone faster. We managed to do one round of the final drill before I suggested making an early exit. I knew that the 1.4 miles back to the club was mainly uphill and I figured that, for a first stint in ages, I’d done alright.

The one good thing about doing these hills on a dark night in October is that there is less likelihood of tripping on tree roots as Teals Way is a wide, quiet and well lit road.

Of course, the other good thing is that it will, eventually, make me stronger. If it doesn’t kill me first!

Life, Travel

Northcote Hotel

I realised, whist reclining in the bath, during a one-night stay at Northcote, that I should have brought the pumice stone.

Handmade chocolates on a bed of cocoa nibs
Not the stone but handmade chocolates at the end of our meal. Something to entice the reader.

It’s a dark grey holey piece of rock (probably actually scoria rather than pumice) and looks like a torture device. It has sat sadly neglected in the drawer at home since we became shower-only, so on those rare occasions we visit an establishment with a bath we should bring it along.

Northcote Manor sits in the Ribble Valley between Blackburn and Burnley. It holds a Michelin Star restaurant presided over by Lisa Goodwin-Allen. She was the chef who won three of the six final dishes in the 2020 season of The Great British Christmas Menu, pretty astounding considering how many top chefs were in competition with her. We caught an idea of her star quality when on checking out the following morning, Anne saw a menu at the desk, with a request that the kitchen staff sign it!

When everywhere was closed during lockdown last year, Northcote started doing an uber-posh version of a ‘Deliveroo’ service and sending out rather sumptuous three-course meals, but I could never manage to bag any of them before they had sold out.

I don’t have expensive tastes, but I really, really enjoy eating, and every now and then, I like to try a little bit of the high-end stuff. So when they put out an offer of an overnight stay with a five-course menu last December, I couldn’t resist it. I used the excuse of our wedding anniversary to present the voucher to Anne, but you know it’s the perfect present when you can enjoy it too! We decided to book for October, partly as it was more likely to happen after all the lockdowns, and partly because at that time, October did not seem like a busy month!

Well, we drove up two days ago, on a journey that should have taken us under an hour and a half, but was nearly three as a lorry had turned on its side and across the central reservation of the M56! We saw it as we climbed the slip road at junction 10, and felt like terrible voyeurs but it is hard not to look.

Thanking our lucky stars that we were not involved, we continued incident free to the manor. It looks rather grand from the outside and our room on the inside did not disappoint. Old fashioned elegance and a really comfortable bed, so we had a nice afternoon relaxing and reading (Anne on the bed, me for bath no 1, and then the chaise lounge) before our meal.

A hotel bedroom at Northcote
Our bedroom for the stay.

For a very expensive restaurant, in the back of beyond, on a Wednesday night, the place was packed, and apparently, according to a waiter, this had been the case since they opened up again. We weren’t the only ones who had heard of Lisa, it seems. It was a late dinner, half eight by the time we got taken to our seats, so it was handy that we didn’t have far to go after.

This was possibly the poshest meal I’ve ever had, and I was grateful for the bread!

The thing about haute cuisine is that it’s beautiful, and the tastes, in this case anyway, are amazing, but it’s tiny! It did mean that we had space to properly savour each of the courses and Anne was sated on the just those. I needed the artisan bread and the home-churned butter to fill in the gaps and then I was good.

The following morning, I enjoyed another chapter of my book in the bath and that’s when I remembered the stone. Apparently Douglas Adams (of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame) spent a lot of time in the bath and had his most creative ideas there. That creativity obviously doesn’t work with me, if all I could think about was a lump of volcanic rock.