Sunday, 29 December 2013

Christmas at Home

Jackie preparing her Christmas Chocolate Log

Our pre-Christmas baking paid off, but Jackie’s Chocolate Christmas Log was better than my mince pies and coffee and walnut cake. My pastry was a bit too wet, making them less crumbly than ideal and the coffee and walnut cake was also a bit ‘heavy’. I blame the oven, which was partly true, but I probably didn’t whisk the eggs enough, so the two problems gave me a less than ideal finished product.

Jackies Chocolate Log and my mince pies and coffee and walnut cake. A good days baking!
L to R: Sam, Steph, Sarah, Nick, Jackie, Paul and Denise
Christmas Day at Denise and Pauls was fabulous, with Steph and Sam, plus Nick and Sarah, a huge turkey and more vegetables than you could imagine, many of them fresh from their allotment, washed down with Steph’s home cooked Christmas pud with brandy cream, trifle and our cakes. Plenty of singing to karaoke Christmas tunes, a couple of games and then….the mince pie competition! Steph and Denise had entered along with me, Jackie arranged the blind tasting and the result….Denise first, Steph second and me third! Not surprised, mine were great tasting, but not as crumbly as either Denise’s or Steph’s. Needless to say, Denise was delighted!

Stephs Christmas pud, alight with brandy
Sarah, Nick, Sam and Steph in full voice

This is Harry, Nicks hamster, who came to stay as well
Harry in his cardboard tube assault course

That's a great Christmas jumper, complete with flashing light Steph!
Boxing Day. L to R: me, Fiona, Jenny and James
We stayed at their house for the night and got the day organised for Boxing Day. Steph and Sam left to visit my daughter Fiona on their way down south, Fiona, James, Abbie, Becky and Jenny turned up at 13:30 so we could do it all again. Denise had done almost the same dinner, using a turkey crown this time, ably assisted by Jackie as sous-chef. It was another very enjoyable day with plenty more carol singing and game playing, Jenny singing a solo ‘Little Donkey’ carol that was so sweet we all had tears in our eyes!

My granddaughters Becky and Abbie in a balloon fight
James, Fiona, Jenny and Sarah

My sister Denise and Paul
James, Fiona, Jenny, Nick and Sarah in full voice singing carols

Charles and Caroline on our brisk walk
Having stayed another night at Denise’s we left on the 27th to drive down to see Charles and Caroline, Jackie’s nephew and niece, in Edlesborough, but not before Denise provided an excellent cooked breakfast (as though we were hungry!). Great day at C&C’s house, a brisk walk over the fields by Whipsnade Zoo and a run back when it started to rain!

Lots of good-byes going on now as it will be the last time we see them all until late May when we return to the UK for Steph and Sam’s wedding on 24th May.

It’s now all action to get our stuff ready to take to France for our ski season, leaving the UK on 2nd January, so it’s been panic stations and plenty of stress, but with some pleasant interludes. Saturday 28th daytime was our first sort out of our clothing and ski gear at our house and at Pauline’s (Jackie’s mum) house, where most of our gear is stored in her loft.

Saturday, however, started even earlier for me as I foolishly had agreed to do a Park Run in Cannon Hill Park with Martina, Bill’s wife at 09:00am on 28th. We had met up with Bill and Tim (who came down from Derby) on Friday night for a meal in Diwans in Moseley (with a pint beforehand in the Old Moseley Arms of course!). Diwans was very busy with no spare tables, but Jay managed to fit us in, coincidentally right next to a table occupied by Paul Hennely and his girlfriend Julie. Paul is a member of Solihull Mountaineering club and is a keen rock climber, ice climber, skier and ski tourer. It was Paul who first introduced Jackie and me to ski touring, so I planted the idea in his head to come out to Morzine in France in April to ski tour near to where we will be based. Who knows, it may happen! Anyway, Bill mentioned the Park Run, I said I’d do it if Martina did (thinking with a daytime temperature of 2.5⁰C she wouldn’t), Bill phoned her and she agreed – damn!

Anyway, I picked her up at 08:30 and off we went. It was cold and icy with some slippery sections on the paths, so care was needed, but I kept fairly close behind Martina who came in at a very respectable time of just under 27minutes for 5km. My time was dead on 27 minutes, I could not have gone any faster and was unable to talk for a few minutes as breathing was more important! Glad I did it, but my legs are still aching now, but a new Personal Best for me!

Me, John, Sarah and Jackie in the Dilshad
The rest of Saturday was not the most laid-back day, but we made a good start on our packing before going round to Sarah and Johns for our Christmas meeting and meal with them. Sarah had booked a table at the Dilshad Indian restaurant in our home village of Alvechurch to have the excellent Kurzi Lamb, which is a whole leg of lamb cooked in Indian Spices for hours on end, producing an enormous and hugely tasty meal. It’s a whole evening out as it starts with popadums, a starter, the main dish, desert, coffee and a complimentary Baileys, all washed down by many glasses of beer! 
Look at that fabulous lamb, it really does taste as good as it looks!
It’s a massive meal, very tasty and a great night out. We took Bill and Marilyn, our friends from Australia, there several years ago for the same meal, with Jackie’s mum and Rob and Alex and they remembered the occasion and how much we all enjoyed it then, and it was equally as good this time.

Jackie being Jackie and gnawing away on the bone
Bird TV for cats!
Really good to catch up with Sarah and John again, we just don’t see enough of them, but this time we stayed at their house for the night and had a night-cap, watched ‘cat TV’, which is a Youtube video of birds that captivated Socks, their cat, and provided us with plenty of entertainment!

Today it was back to Pauline’s to further organise our packing, which is now all back at our rented house, ready to be loaded into the car on 1st January, ready for the ‘off’. There’s a bit more still to be done tomorrow (as well as shed dismantling with Bill in the morning at our rented house, well, it has nearly fallen down, he wants to replace it so we’ve agreed to don our old clothes and wield big hammers!), before going round to stay at Ian and Helens for our final Diwan Balti on 30th with them, Phil and Sue, Iain and Bev and a few others and through to 31st and their New Years Eve bash, going on into the early hours. Really looking forward to that, plenty of laughs and plenty of drinking! Must try not to have too much as we have to sort out all the kitchen utensils we will need in France from Ian and Helens loft and then go and pack the car on 1st, ready for an early start for the channel tunnel on 2nd. Time is short, but plenty to do.

No doubt our next entry will be from our apartment in France where we can report on our New Year celebrations and our trip through France. Hopefully we’ll meet up OK with Ash and his son Simon Price (he who we met in Melbourne in August and who took us skiing), who went out to the apartment yesterday (28th) and are staying until 5th Jan, two days after we arrive, so we’re hoping to get a couple of days skiing with them before they head off home. It will be nice seeing Simon again and being able to repay his Melbourne hospitality.

Happy New Year!

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

From the Cotswolds to pre-Christmas rush in Birmingham

A final picture of Isla in Jackies arms

We’ve had plenty of things to do since we left Tresham and our two pussy cats, we went home via Oxford in order to meet Rob, my friend and former work colleague at Andantex. He was out delivering Christmas wishes to customers, so Jackie continued the journey home while I went with Rob to revisit people I have known well for many years. Dave and Jan on Wednesday and then a full day on Thursday in Colchester to see Allan and Ian at one company and Chris at another, all of whom reported that they are very busy and business is very good, so maybe we should believe the politicians this time, who tell us how well the British economy is doing now! 

Tea in Tresham to celebrate Roni's birthday via Facebook
The early start, followed by the ‘rush hour’ traffic on the A14 (particularly that stretch between Kettering and Cambridge which is almost a permanent car park!), a full day seeing people and then driving back in the dark and rain (this time avoiding that A14 stretch as the overhead signs said ‘A14 J21 to J26, long delays’ and going via Ely), but still getting stuck in queues on the M6 at Coventry, it reminded me just why I wanted to retire; I’ve done enough of this!

With Jo and Mike in the Big Wok in Birmaingham
Poor Love, he makes swanning around the countryside sound difficult! While he was pottering about socialising I was working hard with Alex (Rob’s partner, as described below). We painted the front room of the new house, first coat, though I may have at one point caused more work than I did! Walking along the top of the newly constructed platform, I stood on one end of the metal sheeting, it went down, I went through and the paint tray (fortunately nearly empty) spread its contents over me, the wall and the dust sheets on the floor! By the time I’d cleaned myself up, Alex had salvaged the wall, and fortunately I hadn’t managed to hit the window or curtains. I do have a lovely bruise on my inner thigh though! We then scrubbed the kitchen and bathroom, because you have to, though in truth they weren’t too bad before a second coat of the walls.

Rob and Alex's old house
This last weekend has been a weekend of helping Rob (the same Rob as above) and Alex move house, something we doubted would ever happen. They have been living in a rented house in Kings Norton for six years or so (Alex is from Aberdeen and has a broad Scottish accent, Rob is from South Wales and has a broad Welsh accent, how do they understand one another?) and have finally bought a house about two miles away, still in Kings Norton, after nearly buying probably a dozen or so in the intervening time. Alex told Jackie in an email that they had bought one just before we arrived home and I said ‘I’ll believe it only when they have signed on the dotted line and can’t back out’, but it happened and just in time for us to help. 
The dressing table on the stairs
Rob broke his ankle in July and still has various plates inserted (that’s apart from his other breaks and injuries over the years!), Alex has MS and sometime struggles, so if two people needed help it was them! In addition to us helping, an email they sent to the Solihull Mountaineering Club membership produced other helpers, Jo and Mike, Margaret, Ian, Phil and Helen, Tony and Debbie and Mark so, with the help of the Andantex large Transit van and Tony’s campervan it made the job relatively easy and good fun.

Ian, Jo, Mark and mike still there half hour later!
The bedroom dressing table would have been easier if it had been decided to remove the mirror before getting it halfway down the stairs, but they decided it would fit down still assembled, on finding it wouldn’t, Jo had to unscrew while Ian, Mike and Mark supported it on the stairs. Thankfully Phil convinced Rob the triple wardrobe would not clear the stairwell and need dismantling in the bedroom before getting that halfway!

Why does the garage door have this small door in it?
I thought it had all gone quiet at this point and that everyone must have gone to the new house, so was really amused to stick my head out of the kitchen, my home for the day, to see them still on the stairs with an assumed air of nonchalance as though this was a normal way to spend a Saturday! I’d made my way into the kitchen on arrival as Al was packing up the fridge, and never left, once empty, Al had gone to supervise at the new house, so I started cleaning, and never left! Jo did the bathroom and Helen the living and dining rooms. Fair division of labour? Who knows, but boys can’t be trusted to clean properly can they? Brian: I always knew a womans place was in the kitchen! (did I really write that and will I have bruises next time you see me?)

Here's their new house. Not very different, but they own this one!
Crystal selecting what we're going to eat, yes, that's Chinese writing!
Fortunately we had a deadline, a meeting of the ‘Sunday tea club’ (yes, yes it was Saturday, but ……) this involves meeting up with Helen and Ian, and Crystal and Manu, in Chinatown, and Crystal (who is Hong Kong Chinese) selecting which of the little restaurants we are going to and selecting all the food, in Chinese, from the Chinese menu. Spoilt? Us? Oh yes!

Us with Crystal (you can't see the others, but they were there!)
Carefully balancing on the perspex roof!
The next day Jackie and Alex continued the unpacking while Rob and I spent the day on the garage and ‘lean-to’ Perspex roof trying to seal it. Rain (we’ve had plenty of it recently) had been pouring into the garage through a leaking roof gutter and into the lean-to through the corrugated Perspex roof sheets that are notoriously difficult to seal (however the quantity of water coming in meant we could at least improve on the sealing). The time spent in the cold (it was really cold) and sometimes rain (we covered ourselves in plastic sheeting and used a hairdryer to dry the surfaces we were trying to seal), balanced on a ladder laid over the Perspex, which was held up by only small bits of wood, giving us the distinct feeling it could crack and give way at any moment (don’t lose balance or step in the wrong place, it would all go horribly wrong!) at least seemed to seal the garage roof and reduce the lean-to roof to only drips. Not the perfect solution, but it’s only temporary as they are going to replace it all next year with a proper extension with proper walls and roof.

All rounded off by R&A taking all available willing volunteers out for a balti on the Sunday night, and jolly yummy it was too! What with Al’s mince pies and scones (specially for Brian) to eat all w/end we certainly didn’t go hungry!

(L to R) Margaret, Alex, Jackie, Mike, Jo, Helen, Phil and Rob at R&A's balti treat
Going to make another one of these today! Better get started...
So now it’s Christmas Eve, the first two storms with huge quantities of wind and rain seemed to have passed (but there is another on the way for the 27th apparently) and today seems a bit calmer with a good but cold forecast for Christmas Day and Boxing Day (we may even get a ‘white Christmas’ if the weather forecasters are correct – only one flake of snow has to fall on the London weather centre for it to be officially classed as a white Christmas and they think that is a possibility), but wet and windy after that. Ah well, we are baking cakes today, including mince pies for my family’s ‘mince pie competition’ on Christmas Day. I think only my niece Steph will be my competitor this year as Denise, my sister, is not taking part this year after losing to me in 2011, something that had not happened in the five of six years of the competition before (naturally I was satisfied with the result of the blind tasting panel). To be fair, she is cooking Christmas and Boxing Day dinners this year, as well as hosting her Christmas Eve party, so I suppose she has enough on her hands.

Happy Christmas to all our readers!

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Life in Tresham, Gloucestershire

Isla in playful mood

After almost a week here in Fiona and John’s house looking after Fitz and Isla we’re feeling quite at home. The weather is typically British for late autumn/early winter, coolish, cloudy, damp, quite windy and short daylight hours (light around 07:45, dark by 16:00), which hasn’t stopped us getting out, but we’ve also taken advantage of the space and comfort of the house, reading, cooking, watching films and interesting programmes on TV (yes there are some, you just have to find them!) and doing a jigsaw!

Fitz chilling out on his radiator bed
Pauline (Jackie’s mum) has been down here to visit for a few of days so, as people who used to go on the SMC skiing holiday that Pauline also came on know, a jigsaw puzzle is part and parcel and it’s all very relaxing!

Pauline and Jackie on the Cotswold Way looking towards Alderley
Took a walk out with Pauline the other day, “there’s a nice walk along the ‘Cotswold Way’ to a town called Alderley. It’s about 2.5 miles and there’s a pub at the end. I’ll leave you in the pub and run back to get the car” I confidently said, making sure I took my wallet this time! A cloudy, damp day with a bit of drizzle and everything being downhill from Tresham, the Cotswold Way turned out to be a bit muddy and slippery, on a path that had recently been churned up by a digger, mmm, not quite as good as I thought! 

Jackie and Pauline
Nevertheless, we pressed on, turned onto a slightly better path, uphill and arrived at the small village of Alderley, which comprises traditional Cotswold stone built houses dating from the 18th and 19th centuries, but a village of much older roots having been mentioned in the Doomsday Book of 1086, then referred to as Alrelie (apparently meaning ‘woodland clearing where alders grow’). A nice village, but having walked round twice, no pub! Spoke to a local who said there is no pub here, only in the next village, but he did bring out his 10 week old puppy for us to stroke! 
Alderley House, built in mid 19th century
I’m sure Trevor across the yard told us Alderley had a pub, but maybe I misunderstood! Oh well, I left Jackie and Pauline to carry most of the gear and walk slowly, while I went off to jog the 2.5 miles back to get the car. Seemed like a good idea, but the statement ‘everywhere from Tresham is downhill’ means that everything back is up, and it certainly was and very steep in places. Making sure I’d run until out of their sight, I had to stop on a number of occasions to let my heart catch up, 170bpm, probably a bit fast! Anyway I got back, got the car and found them still walking up hill, near the top, but I had saved them over 1 mile of walking, so I felt the run was worthwhile.

Comfy pussy cats!
Pauline left yesterday (Saturday) after a few days of excellent cooking (coffee and walnut cake – yum!) and a day of Christmas shopping in Nailsworth that was pleasant, but of little success. After helping to put her bags into her car she left, we closed the door, had a bit of a chat, then saw her handbag in the hallway! She probably thought I’d put it in the car, so much for me helping!

Grabbed the bag, jumped into the car and set off in pursuit, catching her up at the first set of traffic lights, but she was across them and they turned red on me. Off in pursuit again and caught her up just at the 30mph signs in Nailsworth, but couldn’t signal to her as there was a car in between us. More traffic lights on red, ‘shall I jump out and run to her car?’ I thought. Too late, she’s off again, lots more traffic in town, up a hill where there’s a bus at a stop, she gets past, I can’t, had to wait for the bus at the next stop, eventually got past to see her coming the other way, tooted the horn but she didn’t notice, turned round came after her, but she’d gone, I know not where. Searched around for a bit, phoned Jackie who told me the route she intended taking to the M5, junction 13, so set off again, determined to catch her. Got all the way to the M5, so decided I’d have to go onto the motorway to find her, just got past junction 12 when she phoned to say her mum was back at the house! On up to junction 11A, I turned round and got back to the house about an hour and a half after she’d first left! Good job she phoned, otherwise I’d have gone all the way back to her house!

Malmesbury Abbey
Today started off fairly clear and bright so decided to go to Malmesbury Abbey, as Trevor across the yard told us how good it was. However, by the time we left the weather had clouded in and there was definite heavy drizzle/light rain, but we pressed on.

Malmesbury is a very quaint old market town of huge character (it’s also the home and HQ of the hugely successful and well known Dyson Technology Company that was founded by Sir James Dyson in 1993 and best known for his novel designs of vacuum cleaners). It is said to be once the site of an iron-age fort and is the oldest borough in England, created around 880AD by charter from Alfred the Great (he who started the process to bring all England together as one country). 
Malmesbury Abbey, situated in the heart of the town atop a hill, was founded in 676 as a Benedictine Monastery and has a huge amount of history. Alfred the Great’s grandson, King Athelston was buried nearby and has a tomb in the Abbey, King Henry XIII closed and sold the Abbey with all its lands in 1539 as part of his ‘Dissolution of the Monasteries’ when he fell out with the pope and formed the Church of England and damage is evident from the fighting during the English Civil War. Today less than half of the original Abbey remains, the rest, including a 131m high spire, the tower it was built on, two thirds of the nave and transept collapsed in a storm around 1500, followed in 1550 by the collapse of the west tower that demolished the three westernmost bays of the nave. The altar has no stained glass windows as might be expected, only a huge stone wall, built to separate the ruins from the remaining church.

Inside the Abbey. It's not really curved, it's the panorama maker software that's joined four photos
We had a pleasant but wet walk round the town, the heavy drizzle continued, the Abbey still had its morning service going on so we couldn’t get in and even though it was 11:45, the museum volunteers hadn’t turned up to open up at the expected 11:30 advertised time and the only guy there didn’t know why and couldn’t let us in, but was quite happy to chat. We retired to a tea shop to wait for the rain to stop and came out to carol singers in the square in front of the Abbey and finally got into the Abbey at 12:15, just as the congregation were filing out, so we achieved what we wanted to and returned back home for lunch, afternoon tea and a film!