Festive Fun

Several weeks ago, channelling my self-elected role of Chief Planner, I decided it might be nice to organise a festive meal for a group of friends in a central(ish) London pub. I created an online poll thinking the total number who would be keen to join might make it into the twenties if we were lucky…..and here we are, on the day itself with forty people confirmed and paid up for a three course meal in our own private dining room in Primrose Hill.

The planning process has not been without its hitches – the pub calling to say they had messed up and the festive menu would not actually be available this early being the main one (along with other minor irritations such as people dropping out, failing to read the instructions and paying the wrong amount of money into my account). I have also made things unnecessarily complicated for myself by deciding to purchase decorations and gifts for all the guests, but I hope they will add to the ambience and make it a fun afternoon.

In truth I’m not sure I’ll have the energy to do something this ambitious again, so I intend to get the most out of today and enjoy the fruits of my labour. Happy early Christmas to one and all-Ho Ho Ho.

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Turkey’s Off / The Perils of Staff Error

Having frequented public houses for a vast portion of my adult life (and a fair amount of my pre-adult life – shhh, don’t tell my parents), I’ve learned that customer service in such establishments can be somewhat hit or miss. Either they treat you like a member of royalty and refuse to let you lift a finger or put a single hair on your precious head out of place, or they mistreat you so badly you end up thinking a day trip to Hades might have been a more pleasant experience. Staff rudeness is my primary bugbear, closely followed by lackadaisical service. But today I experienced a third category of crap service before I’d even set foot into the pub in question: The perils of staff error.

Several weeks ago I thought it might be nice to organise Christmas dinner in a pub for a big group of friends – a group of forty, to be exact (I don’t like to make things easy for myself). Having scoped the idea out it seemed to be a winner, so I went ahead with choosing a suitably traditional north London boozer and signing people up. Once the numbers were confirmed I sent the festive menu around with instructions for everyone to place their food orders and pay fifty per cent of the cost into my bank account a week in advance by way of a deposit.

So far so (Christmas) gravy, right? Wrong – because this afternoon I picked up a frantic sounding email from the pub asking me to contact them right away. Fearing the worst I did as asked, and once they’d reassured me the dining room itself (which we’d exclusively reserved for the occasion) was still reserved and I’d breathed a sigh of relief they dropped the bombshell – that the festive menu didn’t actually start until three days after our ‘festive’ lunch. Furthermore, they wouldn’t be decorating the pub for Christmas until the evening of the day we were due to dine there (although they did make the noble concession of promising us crackers – hmm). So here we are with an exclusively reserved dining room entirely devoid of decorations bar a handful of Christmas crackers, and a menu about as Christmassy as a Cadbury’s Crème Egg (although as I write this it’s now looking as if Christmas pudding may be back on the menu – hallelujah).

Still, I appreciate these are first world problems and we shouldn’t complain. The Spirit of Christmas is about far more than tinsel and turkey and, unlike many thousands of people across the world who are battling deadly storms, erupting volcanoes and open warfare, we will be safe and warm with good food and great company – and no amount of turkey could compensate for that.

The lapsed athlete

Just when you think the Great British Summer is drawing to an end it pulls out all the stops for one last week to show you exactly what you’ll be missing for the next nine months. It’s somewhat appropriate, then, that I should today be attending a friend’s tropical-themed birthday party to make the most of this final hoorah. Without wanting to be selfish, however, I must admit I’d rather like the temperature to be a fraction on the cooler side for next Sunday’s half marathon. The closer the event has got the more my training seems to have tailed off, so I need all the help I can get to avoid keeling over half way through.

I was reminiscing yesterday (over my second pint of cider) about how seriously I took training for my first sprint distance triathlon in 2009. So terrified was I of being unable to complete the race that I went cold turkey for a month beforehand, giving up booze and fags (these were in the days of my being a dirty smoker) completely. With the second sprint I was a little more relaxed with my regime, though when the Olympic distance triathlon came around I really knuckled down with the training to avoid full scale cardiac arrest half way around the course.

My first long distance run was the Whole Foods Market run in Kingston in March this year. At sixteen miles it was a serious challenge for someone who had previously never run further than ten kilometres. I trained hard and, fortunately, it paid off, as I don’t think I would have managed to get around the course in the freak weather conditions (zero degrees and snowing at the end of March? Really?) had I not been at the peak of my physical fitness.

This time around, however, I seem to have adopted a rather more laissez faire attitude. I’ve put the time in and roughly followed the same schedule as for the March run, but if circumstances (read: social commitments / pub) have made it difficult to fulfil every running obligation then I (literally) haven’t sweated over it. The only big run I’ve missed to date is the nine miler I was planning for today (see previous comment about ciders in the pub to understand why that hasn’t happened), but there’s always tomorrow, right? Or maybe the day after…?

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Summer loving

For the first time this year it feels like summer has finally arrived, and it may even hang around a bit to brighten the collective mood of the nation. Temperatures are high and spirits even higher. We may not get much good weather here in Britain but when we do, by heck do we know how to eek every last drop of satisfaction out of it.

Yesterday I went to Brighton for a mini break with three girlfriends. It had been planned for some time so the good weather was a fortunate, though most welcome, addition. We arrived just in time to secure a good spot on the beach and whiled away a very pleasant few hours in the sunshine before retiring to our capacious hotel suite for a rest and some pre-drinks. Later on we braved the inordinately large number of hen and stag dos congregating on the sea front and made our way to a club called Audio, which played decent music but which was packed to the rafters with what I can only describe as utter pikeys. Nonetheless we had a great night and laughed our heads off, so we absolutely fulfilled our fun quota.

When we returned today the weather was so fantastic that the only logical thing to do was sit in the sunshine on Clapham Common with ice lollies and some summer tunes on the speakers. As I sat and looked around at my friends and reflected on the great weekend I was having I felt a deep sense of contentment, in part because I love the summer but in the main because I realised how fortunate I am to have so many wonderful people to share it with. After a bit of sunbathing I met some other friends in the pub beer garden for a quick drink before heading home and had the same feelings of good fortune and happiness.

It’s all too easy to take the people and places in your life for granted, which is why it’s important sometimes to just stop and look around at what you have – and to realise that despite the odd down day here and there, all is just the way you like it – lovely.

Escape to the country

This weekend I’ve opted out of London life, preferring instead to soak up the glorious sunshine in the sleepy Hampshire village of East Stratton. I’ll admit the weather’s been a stroke of luck; it wouldn’t have been quite as perfect if it had been grey and rainy, though still not that far off.

East Stratton is a picture postcard village, the kind of place the word idyllic was invented to describe. With beautifully restored thatched cottages, a village hall, church and quaint pub (where I’m staying tonight) opposite the village green it’s got pretty much everything a country village needs.

The pub is called the Northbrook Arms. As well as having all the trappings you’d expect from a country pub (including my particular weakness, a real fire) it has several guest bedrooms upstairs which are designed to a very high spec (think satin bed linen and mahogany furniture). It even has an old fashioned skittle alley located in one of the outbuildings, though I can’t say we’ve ventured in there yet (having been seduced by afternoon tea and a game of Scrabble sitting at the pub tables in the village green opposite).

In short, this place is the antithesis of the frenetic London lifestyle that we’ve come here to escape (albeit just for one night). It’s great to know that places like this exist right on our doorstep (East Stratton’s only an hour and a half’s drive out of London). I’ll definitely be reaping the rewards of this little break for some time to come.

 

 

Mother’s Day, mighty roasts and Malbec

The surprise Mother’s Day visit didn’t get off to the best of starts when I arrived home from the supermarket to find half of the dessert ingredients contained an ingredient Mum’s allergic to. Fortunately I cottoned onto this in time to avoid Mother’s Day being memorable for all the wrong reasons, and managed to claw victory from the jaws of defeat by pulling off a pretty decent two course meal (which, since you’re asking comprised pancetta-wrapped tilapia fillets with new potatoes, sugar snap peas and a lemon and caper sauce, followed by baked peaches stuffed with a mixture of amaretti biscuits, brown sugar, lemon zest, butter, almonds and pine nuts – the latter two ingredients being removed in Mum’s portion in order to avert severe anaphylactic shock.

With Mother’s Day celebrations ticked off the list I trekked from Weybridge to East Dulwich (via two trains and one rail replacement bus service) to meet friends for lunch at the Bishop, a delightful public house on Lordship Lane which was just what the doctor ordered for an afternoon of catching up, scoffing, quaffing and watching a spot of rugby. The staff are friendly and attentive – in particular Chris, the charismatic Manager for whom no request is too much trouble – and the food is quite simply divine. After a series of underwhelming Sunday roasts in similarly underwhelming pubs I felt I’d hit the jackpot today, with a gorgeous cut of prime beef served alongside a mound of fresh vegetables, crisp roast potatoes, a giant Yorkshire pudding and an individual gravy boat and portion of horseradish sauce (being a horseradish addict this last detail particularly delighted me). The Manager’s recommendation of a glass of Malbec was the perfect accompaniment, and a few bottles and several desserts (top tip: The chocolate pot is to DIE for, and I don’t say that lightly) later we rolled out the door feeling sated and content.

And so to the weeks ahead; ten more working days in my current job before a trip to New York and the start of a new job and part time freelance career. After two years of living miles apart my boyfriend has just moved to London for four months which couldn’t be more perfectly timed. Things are changing and it’s about time too. In the words of Orange, the future’s bright.

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History

The pub was steeped in history. Charlotte could feel it the moment she walked through the door. She stooped so as not to hit her head on the dark wooden beams, which were bedecked with brass casts of horse shoes and other relics of the time in which the building was conceived. There was a coat rack by the door, which she duly deposited her rain-soaked jacket onto. She turned around and waited for her eyes to adjust to the dimly lit room before approaching the bar. The floor was carpeted, a crimson blanket, the windows partially obscured by heavy velvet drapes of the same colour. Oil lamps burned on every table, the light barely filtering through their thick glass shades. In the hearth a log fire crackled and hissed, sending thick plumes of smoke into the chimney chute about it.

Charlotte took a step towards the bar and faltered, feeling suddenly anxious. Her skin prickled, the hairs standing up for no discernible reason. She surveyed the room again. Only two of the mahogany tables were occupied, one by a middle-aged man who was engrossed in the crossword, the other by a family of four, the parents struggling to control their hyperactive children. Charlotte looked at her watch. It was only quarter past twelve. She supposed the lunchtime rush would soon start, though there was no sign of it yet. Despite the man and family sitting to her left, Charlotte felt disquietingly alone.

A movement out of the corner of her eye made her jump. Her breathing quickened as her eyes darted to the right. She squinted into the dark corner of the room. There was nothing there. She took a deep breath and walked towards the bar, reaching a hand out to steady herself as a wave of nausea came over her. The clinking of glasses alerted her to the presence of a girl, about her age, who was walking out of the kitchen. She stopped when she saw Charlotte, put the glasses down, smiled and asked if she could help. Charlotte ordered an orange juice and fumbled in her purse to find the coins to pay. When the drink arrived a sudden thirst took hold of her and she swallowed it in one go.

It was then she saw him. He stood on the staircase to the right of the bar, so still he could have been a statue. His hair was smoothed against his head, his shirt freshly pressed. Charlotte’s heart hammered in her chest. She looked at the girl behind the bar, who had gone back to cleaning glasses. Did she not see? Then back to his face, weathered and beaten. His dark eyes bored into her. His mouth, lips slightly parted, seemed wanting to form words to speak.

She got there first.

“Hello Dad. It’s been a while.”

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I thought this image was a befitting accompaniment to today’s post. I took it in a makeshift cinema in Vashisht, a hillside village in northern India which is a haven for backpackers. The man in the picture ran the cinema, which was little more than a room with a flat screen television and cushions scattered on the floor. His daughter was so beautiful, like a little china doll. I was quite captivated.