Category Archives: Out of Town

In the deep midwinter

It doesn’t feel like winter really gets going until the end of January. December is too jolly, and often too warm. It’s the last week in January that I start to feel winter seeping into my soul.

By February, we’ve had three months of getting up before dawn and heading home after dark. At our rickety office, we huddle around the convector heater, drink tea and eat biscuits to keep warm. This morning, as I gazed out of the window hoping for some kind of inspiration from the same old view of a leafless tree and a street lamp, snow started its soft fall, a teasing flurry that drifted away like a dream.

20171210_093625.jpgI have three survival strategies for winter: books, food and friends. Christmas brought a windfall of the first of these, books to curl up with, food to lay down hibernation layers. I supplemented Ali Smith’s wonderfully strange novel Winter, with Nigel Slater’s The Christmas Chronicles – a beguiling melting pot of recipes for the coldest days, traditions, folklore and musings. I also devoured Edd Kimber’s Patisserie Made Simple, dreaming of a day when I could whip up the lightest of French fancies at the drop of an egg. True to form, the first thing I made from Patisserie Made Simple was a short story about lemon tart.

Life outdoors doesn’t stop, however. I took a glorious walk along the Chelsea Embankment one coldly sunny day in January, striding out to keep warm in the icy wind. There’s even work to do in the garden, keeping down the weeds, turning the compost and planning for spring planting.

We dug a few knobbly Jerusalem artichokes from the iron-hard earth in the community garden, turning pink with effort, then walked the beds, deciding – tomatoes did well here last year, runner beans didn’t get enough sun there. We made plans, imagined healthy leafy plants, ripening fruit, untouched by slugs and blight. Last year, we planted tomato seeds on windowsills, on a snowy day in February. Almost time to make that leap of faith again. I notice my autumn-planted broad beans have sprouted – and a day later, that something has started to eat them.

Late last year, I started writing what I hoped might be a novel. Prematurely, I realise – the roots were shallow, I’d spent too little time ruminating, feeding the idea, getting to know the characters. It needs composting with research, turning in my mind, to put out feelers in the dark before it emerges, blinking, in the light of the laptop.

Some of that mulling happened over tea, cake, wine and cheese, at the Battleaxe Brigade’s winter writing retreat. This year we headed for a picturesque cottage in Sussex, with white clapboarding and a log fire. We shared work in progress, enjoyed a few writing sprints, talked until we were all talked out and laughed till our bellies hurt.

Good food (and wine), a log fire, writing and reading, and friends. If anyone has a better survival plan for proper winter, I’d like to hear it.



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Take five

January passed in a blur of protests, marches, outrage, petitions and emails. Time to regroup for five bars’ rest, before returning to the fray. Here are five things I’m going to do in February to keep me fresh.

  1. Plant some vegetable seeds. Nothing says “hope” like tomato seedlings growing on the windowsill.P1040212.JPG
  2. Go book-shopping, in an independent book shop. I’m working my way through the excellent long-list for the Wellcome Book Prize, always stuffed with thought-provoking literature.G Heywood Hill window
  3. Explore the vibrant art of the belle of Bloomsbury. Dulwich Picture Gallery hosts the first major retrospective of Vanessa Bell, a pioneer in life and in art. Starts 8 February.
  4. Bake some cake. I’ve had the builders in, re-making the kitchen, since the middle of December, and I’m craving the warm, delicious smell of a cake baking in the oven. Which one? I think I’ll see which page falls open first in my well-used copy of Pam Corbin’s River Cottage Handbook: Cakes.img_02135: Walk by the sea. For a clear head, wide horizon and lungful of breathable air, I’m heading out of polluted old London and down to the Kent coast.

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Stories-On-Sea: our writing retreat

What’s better than two days of writing by the seaside, with glorious views, good food, drinking gin, plenty of chances to swim, walk or run? Nothing much – except perhaps doing all of the above with friends.

This was the third year that my writing group convened by the sea for our annual writing retreat. We’re seasoned retreaters now, and the programme’s been honed to a fine edge. We arrive, have lunch, then get down to a quick warm-up exercise. This year we used photos and postcards as prompts for a 20-minute writing sprint. The vignettes produced were by turn funny, angry and poignant.

The second exercise is always the long one. We’d each brought along a ‘mystery object’ to pick out of a bag, with the instruction to tell the story of the object. You’re not allowed to pick your own, and ideally you shouldn’t know who donated the object, either. We spent longer on this one, sharing work in progress after an hour then returning to work on it in our own time, before and after our traditional fish-and-chip dinner.

I was pleased with my lucky dip; an old-fashioned black leather purse with clasp that closed with a satisfying click. Purses and the secrets they contain are massively evocative. I smelled the leather, explored the pockets and felt the weight of it in my hand. ‘The purse snapped shut,’ I wrote, imagining the woman who might have held it. I was away.

For me, the absolute joy of a writing retreat is the magic of conjuring stories out of (almost) nothing. No matter how blank your mind is at the start of the session, at the end there’s always something; maybe just the nub of an idea of a story, or an amusing sketch, but something. Sharing these raw beginnings can be daunting, but among this familiar group of friends I always feel supported. Comments are always thoughtful, praise generous and criticism well-founded. My purse story has joined my ‘work in progress’ stories file, and I’m considering working it up for a submission.

On Sunday morning we shared work in progress from our ongoing projects. This session showed the variety of our work, with a tear-jerking short story, a fascinating memoir and a comic novella all up for discussion. Our final exercise of the weekend was to pick a short news item from the local and riff on it. I found us a story about the success of a Deal curry house, and was amazed how differently our resulting fictional stories turned out.

It wasn’t all hard work. We talked hard too, laughed even harder. The joy of sharing stories isn’t confined to the written word. The weekend left me brimful of confidence, excited about the possibilities of my writing, and grateful for my witty, wise and wonderful writing friends. Thank you Julie Bull, Angie Macdonald and Yang May Ooi.


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Going rural: walking Shakespeare’s Way

Poppies and churches

Poppies and churches

It was a romantic idea. We’d pack our rucksacks and walk through the heart of England, dallying through the picturesque Warwickshire and Oxfordshire countryside that William Shakespeare would have passed on his commute from Stratford-on-Avon to the London playhouses.

A couple of things got in the way of this idyll. Firstly, I’m now unable to think about that journey without picturing David Mitchell complaining about carts being derailed and replacement donkey services, in the peerless BBC comedy Upstart Crow. Secondly, we set off three days after the Brexit vote, and I wasn’t feeling that fondly towards the heart of rural Britain. It felt like entering the belly of the beast.

So it was with trepidation that I boarded the train from Marylebone. By the time we arrived, the train was 90% foreign students heading for Shakespeare’s home town (51% leave voters). In fact, about 90% of Stratford seems to live off overseas pilgrims to its literary shrine. You don’t mind taking foreigners’ money, I muttered to myself, eyeing the  locals with suspicion.

Drama at Shakespeare's birthplace

Drama at Shakespeare’s birthplace

Naturally, everyone we met was lovely, from our briskly friendly B&B owner, to the volunteers in Shakespeare’s family home, to the staff in Hathaway Tea Shoppe (yes, really). The town is preserved in aspic, its black and white Elizabethan houses sleepy in the afternoon sun. Perversely, we chose to see a Ben Jonson play at the Swan Theatre, which was excellent.

After paying our respects at Shakespeare’s grave in Holy Trinity Church, we set out along the path beside the river. (If you visit, check out the eye-popping scenes of medieval debauchery on the misericords). The path wound through ridiculously picturesque villages, taunting us with mill ponds and watermills, wildflowers and skimming dragonflies. Our first lunch stop was on a village green complete with maypole. That was when it started to rain.

I should have known better than to book a UK holiday for the first week of Wimbledon. The next couple of days can best be summed up as rain, mud, fields, cows, wheat, fields, mud, rain. It’s not the most exciting countryside – if I didn’t know where all our wheat and barley came from, I sure do now. There were lots of ancient churches to visit, though, and the hedgerows were full of poppies.



After a hard day wading through mud, a comfortable bedroom and decent dinner become particularly important. We stayed at a couple of funereal pubs, where rooms came equipped with carpet moths, silverfish and the world’s smallest bathroom. We found a few nice places to eat, the more ambitious marked by stuff served on slates and chips in little metal baskets. (Guys, plates are fine.) We also ate some of the nastiest food I’ve tasted since the 1980s, served with a mixture of indifference and outright hostility. Not enough cheerful migrants around to raise standards, clearly.

So yes, I’m a spoiled Londoner who’s fussy about my food. But what about the politics in these pubs? Were they shaking their pitchforks and celebrating their victory over the metropolitan elite? The main difference was that no-one was talking about Brexit. Unlike London, where we’d been unable to talk about anything else, people were getting on with their lives and ignoring the seismic change in our political landscape. Rants about humiliating exits from Europe turned out to be about football. I heard one political conversation – a red-faced Tory endorsing Theresa May with the observation:  “Better than Gove. He’s not just a shit, he’s an unprincipled shit.”

That was in Woodstock, just up the road from Churchill’s grave, which I’d visited earlier in the day. What would he have thought of the shenanigans, I wondered, getting the uneasy feeling he’d probably have backed Boris. The day before we’d been in Chipping Norton, fabled home of the Cameroons, although they were not in evidence. The Cotswolds mostly voted remain – indeed, I had the one Brexit conversation of the week there, with the owner of the lovely Jaffe and Neale bookshop, who said book purchasing in the town had been down since the vote.

We made it into Oxford (a strong 70% remain vote) on Saturday afternoon, shocked by the plunge from hazy water meadows into its noisy, crowded streets. We sought out the site of a pub where Shakespeare had supposedly stayed. It’s now a Betfred, which wasn’t very romantic. It took a while to acclimatise to the roar of a big city, but Sunday morning found me ensconced in the terrace cafe of the Ashmolean Museum, sipping perfect coffee, planning the day’s cultural tour. I’d gone rural for a week, and survived.

Recovering in the Ashmolean

Recovering in the Ashmolean

Recommended places:

Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Henley Street, Stratford on Avon. I was cynical about this at first, assuming I already knew everything there was to know about Shakespeare. I was an idiot. It’s fascinating, especially John Shakespeare’s glove-making workshop, which would probably have stunk the entire house out.

The George Townhouse and White Bear in Shipston-on-Stour. We liked a lot about this charming village, and dinner at the nicely-refurbished George was a highlight. Breakfast at the White Bear was jolly good too, and they were very kind about the amount of mud we brought in from a wet day’s walking.

Jaffe and Neale bookshop, Chipping Norton. Friendly bookshop with a good selection of books and gifts, and a nice cafe. A great pitstop in this pretty but rather pleased with itself little town.

Turl Street Kitchen, Turl Street, Oxford. Great, local food in a relaxed and friendly bar/restaurant. Good selection of wine and beer. An excellent place to recover from a taxing week’s holiday.




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Bath, Bristol, Boats, Books, Beer and the Boar’s Head

Add together, mix well and serve with friends, for the perfect weekend.

View from Jane, Bristol harbour

View from Jane, Bristol harbour

Our trip to Bristol last weekend was a compendium of my favourite things. Instead of staying in a boring hotel, we hired a colourful narrow boat moored in Bristol harbour, as a base for our explorations. Jane was homely, if a little basic (nearest loo a brisk five minute walk) but the wood-burning fire was jolly and it was a great central location. We would have missed the early morning rowers, and the fighting swans, if we’d opted for creature comforts over fun.

My friend in Bristol had spotted an advertisement for an intriguing-sounding theatre event at her local pub, so we went along to see what it was all about. Midnight at the Boar’s Head, from Fine Chisel theatre company, was something else. We were transported to 16th century Cheapside, in a rattle through some of Shakespeare’s rowdiest tavern scenes from Twelfth Night to the Henry history plays, performed by a terrific troupe of players, who were also superb musicians. The music was an integral part of the show, with songs and poems by Shakespeare set to the group’s own foot-stomping compositions. I’m usually averse to audience participation, but the surroundings and the show meshed so well that I was soon on my feet, cheering Henry V’s rallying cry and preparing to do battle armed with party poppers and balloons. It felt like Shakespeare restored to its crowd-pleasing origins.

Mr B's Emporium

Mr B’s Emporium

On Saturday we took the train into Bath to visit two bookshops that I’ve long wanted to see. Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights is a stylish, quirky shop with lovely personal touches, such as the arm chairs and free coffee in the reading room upstairs, and the plethora of hand-written recommendations. I decided to challenge them to choose my next novel, based only on the information that my favourite recent novels were Andrew Miller’s Pure and Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. I was impressed by their choice, Carsten Jensen’s We, The Drowned, which sounds right up my street. I’ll report back.

Around the corner was Toppings & Company Booksellers, which simply draws you in with its amazing selection of travel books,

Toppings and Company

Toppings and Company

outdoorsy books, nature writing and other non-fiction. It was refreshing to visit a bookshop where fiction is not the main attraction. I found loads of books on my reading list, including several science books that I’ve been meaning to read for ages. Finally I plumped for Richard Deakin’s diary Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, a book as delightful and eclectic as the shop.

Finally we repaired to the nearby Salamander pub for some excellent Bath Ales, which sustained us on a lovely walk along the river back to Bristol.

The Salamander pub

The Salamander pub

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