Plague, Poverty and no bloody Jamaican Ginger Cake! Oh, and Happy Mother’s Day!

So, that was a week wasn’t it. In my last blog, I said how uncertain things were and that I wondered what the future would bring, little imagining that in under seven days both Miss F and I would go down with the Corona Virus. Well, we think we have – a high temperature, exhaustion, headaches, achy joints and muscles, a tight chest and a cough that just won’t stop! Sounds like it, doesn’t it? But then, there are a 101 other things it could be. Better safe than sorry, I guess, and into isolation we went.

That was Wednesday. On Thursday we had our Tesco order finally delivered after waiting nearly a week for it and daily seeing so many things taken from our basket, substituted, put back in and taken out again, that by the time we were finally unpacking it we had no clue what was actually going to be in there.

No eggs, okay, we can manage without for a while. No toilet rolls, no surprise there, thank heavens I tend to stay well stocked with those anyway, so we have enough – for a while. No hand soap, it’s okay, we have bar soap, that will do. No pasta, ok, we have enough for a while if we eke it out. No pasta sauce or passata, I have tomato puree so can be inventive with that. Luckily, Tesco had thought outside the box substitution wise – no almond milk, have oat milk instead. No sliced bread, have a bloomer. I’d put a few treats in the basket to enliven an otherwise bland and spartan diet and had put a Jamaican Ginger Cake in, because we both love it. Well, apparently so does everybody else because they were sold out, we got Golden Syrup cake instead. Hmm, okay.

I did get an absolute blinder of a result. I’d slipped a tiny bottle of cheap gin into the basket and some Tesco bog standard tonic water. For heavens sake, a girl needs some treats. Yep, you’ve guessed it, my £7 bottle of gin was sold out, so they substituted it for a £20+ bottle of artisan Parma Violet gin, and my cheap tonic water was substituted for Fevertree posh stuff. Thank you very much, Tesco.

We certainly have enough for our two-week quarantine period, and, if we ration ourselves and plan our meals sensibly, enough for a couple of months of frugal living. Because we are going to have to be frugal now, very frugal. Friday evening, both Miss F and I found out that our companies are closing for the duration of the virus. That’s right, we are now unemployed for the foreseeable future.

Miss F was only working fifteen hours a week, so we don’t know if she’s entitled to any kind of compensation. Sure, they’ve assured her that her job will be waiting for her when they re-open, but no one seems to know how long that will be. My situation, as of course I am the sole breadwinner, is a lot more serious. My company has closed all of its stores as of next Wednesday. The government has promised to pay 80% of our wages for three months, my company have said they will dip into our holiday pay pot to make up the difference – not sure how I feel about that, but have no say in the matter.

However, before everyone starts rejoicing for me at having three months off on full pay, hold hard. The government are only paying 80% of our basic pay, not the commission we earn on top which changes our pay from subsistence to a living wage. Commission that we will no longer be getting. My basic pay is only about £600 a month. Think about that. Could you pay all your bills and eat on £600 a month?

Miss F and I held an emergency meeting this morning to plan our next move. Discussed were practical ways we can reduce our outgoings, so simple stuff like no lights or devices left on unnecessarily, be mindful of water and take showers every third day, save any unused water for the pot plants, it’s getting warmer so heating off unless absolutely essential (we have open fires and plenty of fuel), reduce the use of the washing machine and hang out clothes on the line whenever possible and not use the drier.

Meals are being reduced to two a day. A substantial brunch at 10:30am then a good dinner at 5:30pm, and not a scrap of food is to be wasted. We’re going to take a look at any subscriptions etc we currently have and cull where we can. Sorry, NowTV and Amazon Prime, but you’re for the chop. Finally, once our quarantine is over, we’ll go through the house with a fine toothcomb and sell anything that we can bear to part with – that’s if anyone is buying of course.

It’s daunting and scary and frightening how quickly our civilisation is being brought to its knees by a virus that still doesn’t seem that deadly. I hope the government does make good on all its promises to help, because the thought of a nation suddenly plunged into mortgage and rent arrears, starving and unable to pay their bills is horrific. I’m sure it won’t come to that, and you never know, maybe this will teach people again how to be thrifty and self-reliant. After all, we did it in the War. Millions of people survived on a lot less than we expect as our right now, perhaps we just need to re-discover that within ourselves.

I think families will be forced to reconnect with one another. If you’re stuck in the house for weeks on end be it through self-isolating or simply because there’s nowhere else to go, then you’re going to have to learn ways to get along without killing each other. Luckily, we have places in our home where we can go to have separate time from one another, otherwise it would turn into the night of the long knives.

In terms of self-reliance, I am better placed than Miss F in that I have so many things I want to do and up until now simply haven’t had the time to do them. Obviously, writing. If I haven’t produced at least one new book by the end of this period, then shame on me. But there’s also reading and reviewing, with twenty books in my physical to be read pile and about 200 on my Kindle, I really have no excuse to be bored. I’m also working on re-releasing Erinsmore and am in the process of giving it its final polish so watch this space for some exciting news about a publication date.

Next on the revamp list are books one and two in the Blackwood Family Saga – Lost & Found and Fixtures & Fittings – and they are currently with my editor. The third book has been written and it will also be going through the editorial stage. So, look out for publication dates for those. Finally, I will regain copyright for The Book of Eve in July so it too will need editing, reformatting and sprucing up for a re-release in August. As you can see, busy busy, lots of plans.

Aside from writing and bookish plans, I also want to deep spring clean my house from top to bottom. Like most busy working women, I tend to get by on a lick and a promise. I clean the bits that show and promise myself that one day I’ll do it properly. Well, one day is now here. Facing at least three months of time off, I have no more excuses. I can take my time, a room a week if I want, but at the end of this, if there ever is an end, I want a house so gleaming with love and attention that Kim and Aggie, those cleaning busybodies from that Nineties TV series could visit and I wouldn’t care.

There’s also the garden. It’s been thoroughly neglected for years because I never have the time to do anything about it other than keep on top of basic chores. My fences all desperately need painting and I’ve had the paint since the beginning of last summer, just never got around to doing it. No excuses now, as soon as the weather warms up a little and I’m feeling less like a worn-out dishrag, then I will be donning my old clothes and getting out there with a paintbrush and my Bluebell garden tones paint. Yes, you heard me, my fences will be blue. That alone is weeks of work and will have the added benefit of getting me outside in the sunshine and fresh air to get exercise and top up my Vitamin D levels.

But Miss F doesn’t have any such plans. Faced with the possibility of an even longer period of enforced house arrest than me as the colleges and schools have all now closed until September, possibly longer, and with no work to go to, no voluntary placement and no coursework (they’ve done their exams so it was just recap work they were doing anyway), she has been left rather adrift. To my comments that sitting around in her PJs for months on end playing video games is neither desirable nor healthy, she snapped at me. I’m afraid I may have to get tough with her. It is essential for her mental and physical well-being that there is structure to her days and definitely some fresh air and exercise in the mix. Perhaps I should force her to pick up a paintbrush with me, although I dread to think what a mess she’d make of it.

I guess we’ll be okay. No, we will be okay. I’ve weathered worse shit storms than this before and one thing I’ve learnt is that this too shall pass. Okay, it may pass like a kidney stone, but it will pass. In a few weeks, months or years, we will look back on this and we’ll all have our survival stories to tell of the terrible plague of 2020. There is some positive news out there. The cases of people contracting the virus in China seem to have slowed and there have been no deaths for two days. We are about three months behind them, so by June hopefully this will be at an end. I hope so, for all our sakes, I really hope so.

There’s news of a vaccine, although with the amount of testing they will have to do before it’s available to the general population I fear it’s a future preventative not an immediate cure. There are stories of the situation bringing out the absolute best in people with generous offers of aid and charity from people of wealth all the way down to next door neighbours helping each other out. I myself have benefitted from a friend dropping off eggs on my doorstep only this morning – thank you, Mary, I owe you big time.

But, sadly, it also seems to be bringing out the worse in some people as well. I’ve been sickened by stories and images of people fighting to get the last pack of pasta or toilet rolls, pushing elderly and sick people out the way and even taking their essential supplies from their baskets. It’s dreadful to think that in this time of global co-dependence and mutual need, that there are those who only seek to ensure their own well-being, taking more than their fair share and stealing from the vulnerable and needy. Come on guys, we need to stand together now more than ever, seriously, you want to behave that way over a packet of penne when you have a whole cupboard of the stuff at home? Don’t be that person, be better than that.

It’s growing late and it’s getting chilly. Although a sunny day outside, inside it’s definitely cold. Normally, I would have put the heating on but today we are merely piling on the layers and I’ve found a pair of woollen fingerless gloves to keep my hands warm enough to type. I feel very Bob Cratchett from A Christmas Carol, and it’s hard to explain but there’s almost a sense of not enjoyment – that is the wrong word – but satisfaction in knowing that we will cope, whatever happens, we will overcome it. Plans for the rest of the day include making a thorough inventory of all our supplies which we will then use to sensibly eke out and plan our daily menus. I need to bring in wood and coal and lay the fire for this evening and bring in the bedding from the line which will hopefully then only need five minutes in the drier to make sure it’s aired thoroughly.

Dinner tonight will be eaten by the fire with just a single lamp on and maybe a candle or two, with Netflix to entertain us. Yes, we’re keeping Netflix for the moment. At only £8 a month it represents good entertainment value and we need distraction of some kind or else we’d go mad and murder each other.

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day. A mysterious looking parcel arrive in the post this morning as Miss F ordered it before all this happened, but I won’t get a card, quarantine took her by surprise and she’s been unable to get one, which is fine. We have a fun afternoon scheduled tomorrow to celebrate of games by the fire and a nice dinner with a glass of something alcoholic for Mum.

It’s sad to think so many won’t be able to be with their mothers tomorrow. My own mother is in self-isolation due to being in the high-risk category, but I did leave her cards and flowers at the beginning of the week and I will speak to her on the phone.

I hope you are all well and safe. Wherever you are and however this virus is affecting your lives, please remember to be kind and treat others the way you would wish to be treated yourselves. Oh, and if anyone knows where I can procure some Jamaican Ginger cake, please let me know.

Julia Blake

What has happened to the world? As the reports flood in from too many countries to count now, it seems a small, inconsequential and localised illness that was far away in China, has suddenly become very real and very scary.

So far in Suffolk where I live there has only been one reported case of Covid-19, but I’m not naïve enough to believe that we will escape unscathed. Watching news reports from places like Northern Italy that are under complete lockdown, it was heartening to hear the residents singing to each other through open windows but worrying to think that we might be next. Although the thought of residents in Birmingham cheerfully serenading each other from bedroom windows is a lovely one, I somehow don’t think that’s how us Brits would react to house arrest.

And how do we in the West respond? Do we remain level and calm-headed? No. Do we think about our fellow man and only take our fair share of supplies? Also no. Panic buying on a mass scale not experienced since the countrywide strikes of the seventies has occurred, with people stockpiling items they consider to be essential should the worst occur, and we all have to self-isolate.

Self-isolate. Now there’s a prissy expression if ever I’ve heard one. Why not call it what it is, quarantine? Because that’s what it is. Going into quarantine to avoid spreading the latest plague to cull mankind. A lot of people I know have expressed a fervent wish that they could spend two weeks at home with no work, no school, no college and no physical interaction with anyone outside their own four walls. I must admit, the notion is attractive, and I know both Miss F and I could manage it just fine. Let’s face it, busy introvert that I am I could quite easily fill those two weeks with home and garden activities and wish for more time. But, that’s not to say I want it to happen.

Because if it did, if we were ordered into quarantine, that would mean it was because the virus had reached pandemic status in the UK and that truly is a frightening thought. It doesn’t seem that deadly a virus, yet. The statistics for survival are high, and with Miss F being only sixteen and healthy, and me being reasonably sound despite a few creaks here and there, I think we’d be okay. We don’t smoke or have any underlying immune issues that we’re aware of.

However, you need to look beyond the “I’m okay, Jack” attitude that seems sadly so prevalent. Yes, maybe you would be okay, but even though this virus isn’t particularly deadly, it is extremely contagious and that’s where the real danger lies.

Reports indicate that you can catch the virus and walk around for days, even weeks, without being aware you have it. You may very well feel fine, perhaps a slight cough or flu like symptoms, but not enough to raise the alarm, so off you pop to work, school, the shops, the hairdressers, the supermarket, all the while touching things and coughing, spreading the contagion even further, and maybe one of the people who catches it from exposure to you isn’t so young, fit and healthy. Perhaps they’re elderly, have diabetes or some other debilitating illness. Perhaps they have an undiagnosed heart condition, perhaps they’re on medication or treatment that has compromised their immune system. Suddenly, the “I’m alright, Jack,” attitude is more than just selfish, it’s deadly.

But what’s the alternative? I’ve seen a lot of posts on social media condemning the government for not ordering us all into quarantine now. I’m not sure that that is the answer though. All reports indicate that this virus won’t peak for another four to six months so maybe the government is wise to delay such a move until it’s absolutely necessary. After all, could you cope for six months trapped within your home? Although we have a good supply of food and essential toiletries, they wouldn’t last that long, and yes, I am aware we could order deliveries but like most British citizens, if I don’t work, I don’t get paid. The government has promised that we’ll all get statutory sick pay from week one of mandatory self-isolation, and the whole nation went yay, but most don’t realise that SSP is only about £3.50 per hour.

Think about that. £3.50 per hour. Could you live for long on that? Could you continue to pay your mortgage, your utilities and insurances on that? How about buying groceries? And what about paying for those Sky and Netflix subscription, because let’s face it, most people trapped in their homes for six months would resort to becoming couch potatoes desperate for entertainment and distraction.

It’s alright for members of parliament, living in their ivory towers with well stocked pantries and wine cellars, and access to savings and endless funds, but what about the rest of us. Who is going to pay for a whole nation being forced to live on sick pay? More importantly, who is going to keep the country running? If we’re all cowering in our homes surrounded by 300 rolls of toilet paper and enough rice to feed a small Asian country, who is going to be running our hospitals, our factories and our emergency services? Who is going to be running the powerplants and water treatment plants?

Maybe the government is right to keep things going for as long as possible, because I do wonder when the Chinese and the Italians and all the other countries that have adopted extreme lockdown measures emerge, what will happen? I have a strong suspicion that the virus will simply return, and it will all have been for nothing.

Am I panicking? To be honest, no. At the moment it all feels very surreal and a bit fantastical. I listen to the news, none of it good, yet all around me life is continuing as normal. We’re still going to work and college, I’m still going to the shops – not stockpiling, I hasten to add, just normal essential shopping – and things are jogging along as they always do.

Will it hit us? Will we be quarantined? Will anyone I know catch it? Will we catch it? Will anyone I know die from it? These are all questions that I know I won’t be alone in asking, but the answers seem up for grabs in that no one knows with any certainty what will happen. Will it be like Swine Flu again – remember that? All that panic and then it fizzled away into nothing. Unless the virus mutates again into an even more virulent strain, I don’t think we’re looking at a pandemic on the scale of the Spanish Influenza that swept over the globe after the First World War. Killing almost one third of the population, it was one of the deadliest pandemics we’ve had since the Black Death.

Even if the virus does mutate, we are still in a much better position that we were then. Medicine has come a long way since 1919, we have instant communication around the world and understand far more about the spread and containment of infection. Most people are stronger and healthier than they were then. Newly emerged from a debilitating and crippling world war, people were malnourished and vulnerable and could offer little or no resistance to the virus.

So, we wait, and see, and that’s really all any of us can do. Sure, be prepared. I’ve made sure we have enough basic food stuffs and toiletries to see us through a month, I’ve also picked up a months-worth of my hayfever medication, figuring it’s not a good idea to be wheezing and struggling to breathe anyway AND catch a dose of Corona. My edict has been – Be Sensible. Not Greedy.

In other health news, Miss F is being tested for asthma. She’s been plagued by an annoying, persistent cough for months now and initial tests show she has a reduced lung capacity. The doctor seems unsure what it is, with options ranging from long term lung congestion to asthma, so twice a day she has to blow into a breath recording device and chart the results. We’re also waiting for an appointment with a dermatologist to get a mole on her back examined. It appears to have grown and changed in texture and is bleeding colour into the surrounding skin. It’s not cancer. The doctor assures us in one so young with no genetic history of cancer, that there’s a less than 1% chance of it being malignant. Still, you don’t muck about with moles so I’m pushing for it to be examined sooner rather than later.

I had a blood test last week and have an appointment for a follow up consultation next Wednesday. I know they’re going to tell me my anaemia has worsened, I think they’re going to tell me my vitamin D deficiency hasn’t improved and I have a sneaking suspicion they’re going to confirm my calcium levels have dropped again.

With these more immediate, closer to home, medical shenanigans, is it any wonder I’m not worrying about the corona virus yet?

A shorter blog this week. I’m tired and a bit downhearted and lacking in things to say. I hope next week to have more positive things to write about, but for now can only say that I hope wherever you are in the world you are well and healthy. Stay safe, my friends.

Julia Blake

Wetwang Welcomes Careful Drivers!

Good morning! Hope you’ve all had a great week. Mine has been uneventful apart from commencing work on re-editing and formatting Erinsmore and having to go to the hospital for a blood test. Although, that was a little bit traumatic. Despite stabbing both my arms multiple times it proved impossible to get any blood out of me – think I must be dead – so they had to take it from my hand, which was uncomfortable and has caused my hand to swell and bruise rather nastily. Treated myself afterwards to a frothy coffee and an enormous butterscotch and pecan Danish pastry for being ever such a brave girl.

So, last week, where did I leave you? Oh yes, I was falling asleep on the first night in our holiday cottage up in Yorkshire, listening to the rain hammering down on the skylight and hoping things would get better and that it would at least stop raining. Well, when I awoke next morning after sleeping like the dead – I was in my old bed after all – (anyone who didn’t read last week’s blog might want to pop back and quickly do so, it’s okay, I’ll wait) – and because I’d had a reasonably early night after the journey from hell to reach our destination – when a three-hour journey takes nine hours it takes a toll on you – I woke up early at 6:30am feeling rested and refreshed.

We had planned to go to nearby Castle Howard for the day, but when I opened my eyes the rain was still pounding down and sounded set to last, so I hastily rearranged plans in my head. I’m one of those people whom when I’m awake, I’m awake, and can’t lay in bed doing nothing. I thought about reading for a bit, but was itching to be up and doing stuff, and I was desperate for a cup of tea, so I quietly got up, washed and dressed. Trying to not make any noise in an echoey, open-plan cottage was a bit tricky, and I soon heard Miss F moving about as I was trying to get out a mug and put the kettle on without waking her.

Deciding she was also wide awake and famished, an early breakfast seemed in order and then we’d plan what to do with our first day. Nothing else would do but a full English, so I set the bacon to grill and went to put hash browns in the oven. No baking trays, not one. Putting them on a Pyrex lasagne dish, I noticed there seemed a dearth of cooking equipment full stop, and not even being able to find a frying pan, we had to have our eggs poached instead of fried. Hmm, bit of a nuisance.

The rain was still belting down, so we donned our waterproof jackets and stout shoes and drove the five minutes down the road to the park and ride carpark for York. Now, I love park and ride. If you’re going into a large city for a look around, lunch and maybe a light bit of shopping, then why would you try to drive in, find a parking space and pay an outrageous amount for the privilege. No, park and ride all the way. Only costing us £3.50 to park our car for the day and pay for bus fares for us both into the city centre and back seemed an absolute bargain.

I know York very well. I’ve been there countless times and in fact the last holiday Miss F and I had had was five years previous when we’d rented a house in the heart of the city and spent the whole week exploring everything York has to offer, which is a lot. So, when the bus dropped us off, I knew exactly where we were and how to get to where we wanted to go. It was still early, only 9:00am and we were the first people into the Castle Museum. If you ever get a chance to go to York, I can’t recommend paying the Castle Museum a visit highly enough. It offers amazing value for money, bear in mind this was five years ago but it only cost £10 for us both, plus I’d made sure I had a good supply of 10p pieces as there are a variety of wonderful old slot machines. For a mere 10p you can watch the last rites of a convicted prisoner standing on the gallows, then the wonderful moment when the trapdoor opens beneath his feet and he hangs over the gap to an accompanying mournful bell. Deliciously ghoulish.

The Castle Museum is a museum about people and life. There are room sets showing you the living space of a family in Tudor times, Regency England, Victorian times, the time of the Coronation of Elizabeth II and a cosy looking crofter’s cottage. There are exhibits about household appliances through the ages, the history of birth, death and marriage, familiar products and medicines. Childhood toys through the ages, clothing, employment and leisure facilities. All crammed together in an eclectic and mind-blowing random assortment, it is fascinating and fun, and the absolute best way to spend the first day of a rain-soaked holiday.

There is even a reconstructed Victorian street in the heart of the museum, complete with a stuffed horse pulling a hansom cab. There are old shops you can go into, and there was a workshop going on in the old sweetshop. We had a go at making peppermint creams which we were able to take away with us, yum. Wandering around the street, taking our time, peering into all the windows, the museum was beginning to fill up a bit and we no longer had the place to ourselves.

A gentleman in authentic Victorian working man clothes approached us and asked if Miss F would care to be a temporary rat catcher. He had been paid by the city to catch rats, he explained, and if she would help him, she would get three gold coins for every rat she found. As the gold coins were of course chocolate ones, she eagerly agreed to help and dragged me off to look for rats. A frustrating ten minutes later she was in despair, when I suggested checking out the rather scary looking public conveniences, because if rats were going to be found anywhere, it was there. Scrabbling around in the dark corners, she gave a crow of triumph and pulled out a fine looking, big black rubber rat and we went to look for the rat catcher so she could collect her reward.

Afterwards, we wandered out to visit the reconstructed eighteenth century mill they have in the grounds of the museum, and discovered it had stopped raining, the sun had come out and it was showing promise of being a nice day. We sat down on a bench in the sun so Miss F could eat her wages. She looked at the empty wrappers.

“I wish I’d kept the rat now,” she murmured. “He was a very nice rat.”

When we finally left the museum at almost three in the afternoon – nearly six hours entertainment for £10, what value for money! – we agreed we weren’t hungry, just peckish. A French patisserie close to the museum seemed perfect, and Miss F was soon happily consuming a mug of hot chocolate and a piece of cake the size of her head, whilst I contented myself with a big frothy coffee and a cheese scone.

The streets had dried up, it was a lovely afternoon, so we walked off our treats and looked in the windows, taking our time and enjoying not having to be anywhere or do anything. We did a little shopping, some treats we fancied and a couple of things I’d forgotten to bring, then wandered back to the bus stop. There was an Argos store opposite and I took the opportunity to buy a frying pan and baking tray, to use whilst in the cottage and to take home with us because we did need new ones.

Then we caught the park and ride home. Back at the cottage, we opened the backdoor to let the evening in and Miss F went to the fence to say hello to the sheep that were mooching about in the field at the bottom of the garden. I heard her chattering away and assumed she was talking to the sheep, then suddenly there was a little girl at the back door with her asking if Miss F could go and swim in their pool, followed swiftly by the owner of the cottage who’d been looking out for us to return so she come and enquire about our journey and check we’d settled in okay. Confirming that they did indeed have a pool and Miss F was welcome to come and play in it with her own children, Miss F dashed off to get into her swimming costume and I made coffee for us.

The owner was lovely, very open and friendly. As we drank, I unpacked the day’s purchases to put away and she looked surprised when she saw the frying pan and baking tray. Explaining that I hadn’t been able to find either that morning, it was my turn to be surprised when she showed me a “secret” drawer at the base of the cooker filled with every type of cooking tin, tray and pan I could ever need. Boy, did I feel stupid.

She left, I prepped dinner, then poured myself a glass of wine and settled down in the small garden with a book to enjoy the evening and wait for Miss F to come home. Birds twittered in the blue sky above, the sheep looked at me and chatted amongst themselves, the sun was warm on my face, my wine was very cold and very crisp, and the book was interesting. What more could anyone want?

We ate dinner, watched TV and played some games, then Miss F went to bed and I watched a film on TV – with the sound off and the subtitles on, of course – although I kept nodding off and missing bits. And that was the first day.

Beautiful Castle Howard

The next day dawned gloriously sunny with a wonderful blue sky and the promise of a fine, summer day. We had breakfast and I packed us a picnic. We were off to Castle Howard. A mere ten-minute drive away, Castle Howard is one of the largest stately homes in Britain and is absolutely beautiful. Set in acres of garden and parkland, with lakes and water features, there is enough to keep you busy for a whole day, which is why I packed a picnic. If it looks familiar, it’s because it’s where the TV drama “Brideshead Revisited” was filmed in the late eighties, and as we drove down the long driveway and the house came into view I kept humming the theme music, until Miss F threatened to stay in the car if I didn’t stop.

How about this for a garden shed?

We spent a whole wonderful day there. Luckily, Miss F and I like doing the same things and exploring old and historical places always makes us happy. We found a wonderful space under a tree by the river to eat our picnic and walked miles around the parkland, before driving home in the late afternoon to find a little girl sitting on our doorstep waiting for Miss F to come and play.

Giving her permission to go and have fun with her new friend, I unpacked the car and tidied away our picnic stuff, wondering what to do about dinner, when suddenly Miss F was back with an invitation from the owner and her family to go over for a barbecue. What a lovely surprise that was. I took over some wine, and spent a very pleasant and chill evening, eating and drinking and chatting with the family and their lovely friends, whilst Miss F ran about with a hoard of children and dogs and had a marvellous time. And that was our second day.

Monday dawned, and the weather was not quite so hot but still nice, so we decided to do a proper beach day and drove to nearby Scarborough. Again, park and ride, because why not? When you’re a stranger to an area it makes sense instead of trying to find somewhere to park and getting stressed out about it. Scarborough is a lovely, traditional British seaside resort famous for its waffles. I hadn’t brought a picnic as I didn’t want to carry it around with me and I knew there’d be plenty of food there for us to forage on.

There was Punch & Judy on the beach, which we watched while eating massive Mr Whippy ice creams with a chocolate flake of course. There were donkey rides and Miss F begged for a go. Even at only 12 she was a tall girl and her feet practically dragged on the sand. I felt sorry for the donkey.

We walked with out feet in the ocean, dangling our shoes by their laces, then had to sit in the sun until our feet had dried and try to brush all the sand off from between our toes. We ate seafood on the seafront and had a portion of chips between us, hot and squishy, with lots of salt and enough vinegar that it formed a puddle in the bottom of the tray. We walked all the way along the front, then turned around and walked all the way back. We ate candy floss, well, Miss F did, I can only ever abide a taste of it as it’s so sweet. Bit like sugar infused loft insulation. The seagulls wheeled and cried overhead, and music pumped from every arcade. Tempted into one by the bright lights and ringing bells, I changed some money and we played on the Tuppence Shove, rolling our 2ps down the slots to try and knock down the big piles teetering on the edge.

Finally emerging the losers, we found during the hour we’d been in there that the skies had clouded over and it was getting dark. Only dressed in light, beach clothing we shivered and even though it was only 3pm I made the executive decision to start heading for home. We still had a way to walk back to the park and ride, then had to wait for a bus, and then it would be almost an hour’s drive back to the cottage. It got colder and colder, Miss F was shivering in shorts and a thin t-shirt, so I wrapped my jacket around her, and we practically ran the last bit, reaching the bus stop just as a bus pulled in.

Safely back in the car, I was indicating to turn out of the carpark when the heavens opened. Monsoon season again, the wipers were working overtime and the car steaming up as I desperately turned the heating up on the windscreen full blast to try and clear the condensation.

Back home, Miss F went off to have a shower and get changed whilst I made us dinner, then we settled down to another evening of TV and games as the rain once again lashed down outside. And that was the third day.

Next day the weather had turned foul. The sky was black and heavy, dense rain was pounding down. A day trip anywhere was out of the question, so we once again pulled on warm clothing, sensible shoes, waterproof jackets and caught the park and ride into York. I’d exchanged some Tesco loyalty shopping vouchers into tickets for the Jorvik Viking Centre in the centre of York, and a cold, rainy day seemed the perfect time to use them. It was early, and luckily the queue for it wasn’t too long and was still under the protective awning. I have seen the queue snake all the way around the building and back again and had warned Miss F if it was that long we’d have to go and do something else. After a ten-minute wait we were in.

Remember how I told you what good value the Castle Museum is – £10 for six hours entertainment. Well, the Jorvik Viking Centre isn’t. Over £30 for the two of us to get in – thank heavens for Tesco vouchers, and we were in there for about 90 minutes. Yes, it’s interesting, and the highlight of the experience is climbing into these mechanised carts which then take you back in time to a reconstructed Viking street, complete with waxworks inhabitants, sounds and even smells. Ahh, the heady aroma of an eighth century latrine pit, lovely. But that only takes about twenty minutes and even with taking our time over every exhibit and looking at everything, it was still only coming up for eleven when we emerged into a cold, dark day. The streets were flooded, the rain was hammering down in Biblical proportions. Any moment I expected to see an ark go floating by. It really was horrible, and all around were miserable and soaked tourists, not dressed adequately and shivering in the cold.

I’d also swapped some Tesco vouchers for meal vouchers to use in Bella Italia restaurants, and deciding an early lunch was in order, we splashed off to find one. Despite being early, when we found it there were hardly any tables left but being only two of us the stressed looking waitress squeezed us in on a little table in the corner by the front window. So, we could watch the rain pound down and drenched people hurrying by clutching their umbrellas.

We were both hungry and I’d exchanged lots of vouchers as this was to be our main treat meal of the week. Miss F chose a big burger with all the works and I went for a steak and all the trimmings, requesting it be rare, as rare as possible.

We waited a long time for our food, they seemed to be short staffed and the whole restaurant by now was crammed to capacity. When our food came, Miss F’s looked delicious, but my steak was the colour and consistency of an old shoe. I poked at it. Miss F looked horrified.

“That steak looks horrible, mummy.”

“Yeah, it does look a bit tough, they’ve overcooked it.”

“Are you going to complain? Get them to make you another one.”

I looked around the restaurant. Our waitress was currently being given a hard time by a group of four people who’d walked in and wouldn’t believe that she couldn’t just “squeeze them in somewhere”. She seemed to be the only waitress on duty, and other tables were demanding the poor woman’s attention. Everyone’s tempers fraying due to the bad weather.

“No, it’s fine,” I decided. “I’ll just eat what I can.”

I ate everything else on the plate. The fries were good, as were the mushrooms, onions rings, grilled tomato and salad. It was just the steak I couldn’t eat. So tough I couldn’t even cut a piece off, I gave up on it. Miss F couldn’t finish all her chips and peas, so I helped her out.

When the waitress eventually came back to collect our plates, she looked at the abandoned steak, curled up on the plate like an old flipflop that had been left too long in the sun.

“Oh, your steak.”

“Yeah, sorry, I tried but I couldn’t even cut it, let alone eat it.”

“You ordered it rare, didn’t you?”

“Yes.”

She poked at the steak and pulled a face.

“That doesn’t look very rare, more cremated. Why on earth didn’t you send it back? We’d have done you another one.”

I shrugged. “You looked like you had enough on your plate, and it’s fine. I ate everything else, so I’ve had enough to eat.”

“We’ve got two chefs and three waitresses off with this wretched flu thing that’s doing the rounds, so things are a bit crazy in here today,” she admitted, and cleared our table and went to get the bill, taking my vouchers with her.

When she came back, I was stunned to find she’d only charged me for our drinks – both our meals not appearing on the bill.

“You were so nice about it,” she said, handing our vouchers back to me. “Not many people would have been so understanding, so thank you. At least now you can have another meal with your vouchers.”

It just goes to show, sometimes having a little patience and empathy for the other side of the picture, can reap its own rewards. Although, I did leave a bigger tip than I intended.

It was only 2pm but it was as black as pitch outside. The temperature had dropped drastically, and the streets were flooded with running streams of water. We decided to go home. Once back in the cottage, we changed out of our wet things and I lit the wood burner and the candles that were dotted about. Miss F found Lord of the Rings on Sky movies and we settled down in our cosy haven with the sound of the rain lashing down outside and the comforting pop and crackle of the fire inside. Not being very hungry, we snacked it for dinner and watched movies until it was time to go to bed. And that was the fourth day.

Next day I’m happy to say with the typical capriciousness of the British weather all the nasty rain had gone, the sky was once again blue, and the temperature had risen – promising a balmy summer day. In the cottage were several leaflets about local places of interest and we’d picked out a Tudor manor house called Burton Agnes to explore. Once again, I packed a picnic and we set out in high spirits to see what adventures awaited. It was about a 45-minute drive and on the way, we drove through some beautiful countryside and villages, including Stamford Bridge, which given our love of history we found very interesting. For those of you unfamiliar with British history, Stamford Bridge is where the Vikings invaded in 1066, aided and abetted by the king’s brother who believed he should be on the throne and not his brother Harold. King Harold had to march his men all the way up to Stamford Bridge, where he thrashed his treacherous brother’s arse in a major battle. His men were exhausted, but when the shock news came that the Normans had invaded all the way down on the South coast, Harold had no choice but to march his battle knackered men all the way back down and throw them immediately into battle against William the Bastard of Normandy.

Of course, Harold lost, but it does make you wonder. If his brother and the Vikings hadn’t invaded or hadn’t chose that particular time to invade. Harold and his men would have been fresh and ready for their battle against the Normans at Hastings and they probably would have won. The Norman conquest of 1066 would never have happened, and Britain would have stayed under Anglo-Saxon rule. Everything would have been different. Makes you think, doesn’t it, how the fate of millions can rest on the decision of one man.

We drove on, enjoying our journey, but as we left one village, I happened to notice the village sign.

“What was that? What was this village called?”

“Wetwang, mummy. It’s called Wetwang.”

I nearly drove the car off the road. What a brilliant name. Of course, technically it’s not rude, but it really sounds like it should be.

We reached Burton Agnes and parked the car. A beautiful Tudor manor house set in acres of quirky gardens and woodlands, there was a giant chess board and other games to play in the grounds. The house was interesting and there were woodlands to wander around with lots of interesting wooden sculptures on display by a local artist, including a whole family of wooden owls of varying sizes peering out of the branches of a tree.

Lovely Burton Agnes

There was a pretty water feature with some unusual modern artwork in the middle of it, and an ancient apple orchard with picnic benches where we sat and ate lunch. A lovely little gift shop was worth a poke about and we bought presents for grandparents and some homemade sweets for us. And that was the fifth day.

Next day was our last day, so we set off early for the hour-long drive to the coastal town of Whitby. The drive was magnificent through the purple heather moors and my little Nissan became like the little engine who could as we chuffed our way up one steep hill – with Miss F threatening to get out and push – flew down the other side, and then did it all over again.

Again, park and ride, and we arrived in Whitby just as the town was opening up to visitors. We poked about the old shops and found a second-hand book shop where we spent some time and pennies. We clambered up the hill to the abbey and admired the view, before coming all the way back down again. We wandered down to the harbour and saw a boat advertising trips around the harbour. Miss F wanted to do it, so we did, and a pleasant hour was spent cruising around the headland. Landing back at the harbour, we both realised we were starving and that a decision had to be made. Have an ice cream and a late lunch or admit defeat and find somewhere nice for lunch now, even though it was only 11am.

Lunch now, we decided, and headed back to a quirky looking café we’d seen called The Magpie that offered a great looking seafood menu. Not realising how popular it is and what a tourist attraction it is, we slipped in because it was only 11am and there were only two of us so we could be squeezed into a little table in the corner of the window. I was surprised how full it was already, then turned my attention to the ten-page menu – all fish and seafood and all looking fantastic – while the friendly waitress went to get our drinks.

“Look, mummy,” Miss F hissed. “Look outside.”

I looked outside. A queue a good ten-foot long was now stretching away from the front door of people eager to get in for lunch. I looked around the packed restaurant, “good luck” I thought smugly and sipped at the one glass of wine I was allowing myself – after all, it was our last day, I’d be eating a lot and not driving for a good few hours – and carried on perusing the menu.

If ever you find yourself in Whitby and you like fish and seafood, I can’t recommend the Magpie enough. Unpretentious, friendly and reasonably priced. It’s all about the food, and the fish is fresh, as locally sourced as possible and beautifully cooked. But go early or be prepared to wait.

After our wonderful long lunch, we mooched about a bit, then headed back to the park and ride, mindful of the hour drive back and the fact we had to pack and clear the whole cottage that evening. I was also painfully aware we were facing that drive home in the morning, and I will be honest, I really wasn’t looking forward to it. Nine hours to get here. How many was it going to take to get home?

Back at the cottage, we set to together and sorted and packed as much as we could into the car ready for the morning. Not very hungry after our mega lunch, we finished off all the snacky things we had left, leaving ourselves exactly what we needed for breakfast. One last film on Sky movies, and then we both turned in for an early night. And that was the sixth and last day.

Next morning it was fine and dry, not too hot and not too cold. Relieved at all the packing we’d done the night before, we had breakfast, did a last trawl through the cottage to make sure nothing had been forgotten – I’m a sod for forgetting charging wires – and we were on the road by 8:30am, leaving a nice bottle of wine, some chocolates and a warmly worded thank you card on the kitchen table for the lovely owners who’d made us feel so welcome.

It was an amazing drive home. The roads were clear, and we hit Bury St Edmunds just after eleven, unable to believe how different it had been to our hellish journey up. We’d had a wonderful holiday. Maybe to some my reports of bad weather and freakish rainstorms sound nightmarish, but we dealt with them and found things to amuse us and simply being together and not having to rush or obey strict routines made it a real break. Having the time to wander about and play games, and even just watch films by a roaring fire and candlelight was a treat.

When I consider how little the holiday costs me – the accommodation was free, I used about £50 worth of petrol during the whole week, Tesco vouchers paid for entry to the Jorvik Viking Centre and our meal in Bella Italia ( and we actually brought those home with us again). Yes, we paid for entry to Castle Howard and Burton Agnes – but Miss F was still a child, so it wasn’t too bad and provided us with two days-worth of entertainment. And yes, we spent money on food, but we would have had to eat at home anyway and I brought most of it with us. By taking picnics where we could and restricting buying food and drink out, we saved money, and I still had £200 left over from the sale of my bed which paid for everything.

We both have wonderful memories from that holiday, and still talk about it fondly, and that is the mark of a truly superb vacation.

Hope you’ve enjoyed going on holiday with us, and I’ll catch up with you all next week.

Julia Blake

This is the Road to Hell… Part 2

A couple of weeks ago, I told you about one of the worst holidays we ever had, so I thought this week I will tell you about one of the best. We’ve not had many holidays, Miss F and I, mostly due to lack of funds, but also because holidays are not much of a break for me. In order to take time off work, I always had to work extra hard to get everything up to date, knowing that when I got back, I’d have to work extra hard to catch up. Also, I was the sole expedition organiser and leader, meaning I was responsible for planning where and when we were going, I had to pay and make all the arrangements. I was going to be the one doing all the driving. I was responsible for making sure all our clothes were washed and packed. I was also the one who would have to clean the house from top to bottom and get up to date on laundry before we left. Miss F once commented:

“I don’t know why you’re so obsessed with getting the house all clean and tidy before we go away. If a burglar breaks in while we’re gone, I don’t suppose they’ll care how dirty the house it.”

“No, I make sure it’s all clean and tidy because when I get back off holiday I don’t want to then have to turn around and clean the house before going back to work.”

We’ve also tended to stick to holidays in the UK. Again, lots of reasons for this. I hate flying. I hate the whole painful rigmarole of airports. My ears go funny when I fly and take days to right themselves. When you’re only having a week’s holiday, to lose two days travelling and feel ill for pretty much the rest of the time seems like a bit of a waste. There are some lovely places in the British Isles to holiday. We can go self-catering so I know there’ll be food that Miss F will eat. If we went on holiday abroad, funds would dictate we would have to share a hotel room, and while Miss F was small and going to bed early, what would I do in the evening once she was asleep? Sit and read and drink in total silence for fear of waking her up, trapped in the room all evening because no way would I leave her alone in a hotel room. At least, in a holiday let in the UK there’d be separate bedrooms from the lounge, so I’d be able to watch TV. Most holiday lets come with some sort of outdoor space, so I’d be able to sit outside and enjoy the balmy evenings. Finally, again, I would be the sole grown-up in charge of the whole expedition.

I had a friend who was a travel junkie. A self-processed sufferer of wanderlust, she was always off to some exotic corner of the world, and when she found herself unexpectedly pregnant did not see any reason why having a tiny baby should change her plans. She once said to me:

“I don’t know why you’re so dead set against going abroad with Miss F. I mean, you’re a sensible person, I know you could cope with any emergency like her getting ill or hurt.”

“Yes, I know I could cope if anything should happen to her. But, how would she cope if anything should happen to me?”

And, as far as I was concerned, that was the whole crux of the matter. Yes, I knew I could cope should Miss F fall ill or be injured. But, what about if I fell ill or even died for some reason. The thought of my little girl, alone, in a foreign country where she knew no one and couldn’t speak the language, with a sick or even dead mother. No. The very thought was enough to make me shudder. We’d stick to holidays in the UK thanks, at least if anything happened to me Miss F could ask for help and my parents were only a car journey away.

Anyway, so when 2015 came around we hadn’t been on holiday for several years. Well. I hadn’t been on holiday. Miss F had had several nice school trips and there had been the odd day out, but as far as a proper, pack your cases, load up the car, we’re going away for at least a week, type of holiday, it must have been at least five years since we’d had one.

Anyway, how we came to have this holiday is quite an interesting story. It was early in the year, probably about March, I was sitting in bed one morning having a cup of tea and looking around my bedroom. It hadn’t been decorated in years and was beginning to look very tired and dated. I need to decorate, I thought, but how could I, with this enormous bed in the way?

Now, this bed was one I’d had many years and was one I’d bought when I was still with my first husband. A genuine Victorian wrought iron and brass bed, it was a thing of sturdy, Gothic magnificence, but it was enormous! Five foot in width and about seven foot in length it dominated the room and decorating around it was going to be a nightmare. Even dismantled, this bed would still be a sizeable pile of ironware. And it was then that the plan occurred to me. Sell the bed. I thought I’d probably get quite a lot for it as it was a genuine antique, then with the money I made decorate my bedroom as I wanted it and buy a smaller bed. After all, there was just me in it, I didn’t need a king size bed, a double one would be ample, and it would give more room in my bedroom. We have a small single spare room that I was quite happy to camp out in while all this was going on.

So, I put the bed plus the mattress, the electric blanket, the mattress protector and two king size duvets on eBay for £700 and waited to see what would happen. Nothing did. There was a bit of interest, but no one placed any bids. So, I dropped the price to £600. Bit more interest then and a few more enquiries about it, and several people were watching it. Then I received a very interesting email from someone.

“Hi there, I’m really interested in the bed, but I can’t quite manage £600. It’s to go in a holiday cottage we’ve just finished renovating and all the money I’ve got left to spend on a bed is £500. Would you be prepared to accept this and a week’s stay for free in the cottage?”

Well, this was unexpected. I thought about it, my excitement growing. Steady, I cautioned myself.

“I might be, whereabouts is the cottage?”

“It’s in a little village ten miles outside of York.”

Now I love York, I’ve been there lots of times and know how amazing it is, plus the Yorkshire Dales are beautiful.

“Here’s the link to take a virtual tour of the cottage. Let me know what you think.”

What did I think? The cottage was gorgeous, and the deal seemed too good to be true. I was still getting £500 for the bed, more than enough to pay for some paint and wallpaper, and I’d seen the new bed I wanted on eBay for £100 so there would be cash left over to save for spending money.

The deal was struck, she paid for the bed, I closed the auction once the money hit my bank account, and she arranged for a courier service to pick it up. Then, when Miss F got home from school, I told her the wonderful news that like all her friends, we too would be going away on holiday after all that year.

We went in August, by a coincidence the day we travelled up was Miss F’s twelfth birthday and she was wildly excited as I packed the car up early that morning. I wanted to avoid the rush hour, so we had a good breakfast and left at 10am. Google maps had promised us it would take about three hours. The car had been serviced and had a full tank of fuel. It was a chilly but bright day and our spirits were high as we drove onto the A14 heading North.

Our good mood didn’t last long. The sky got progressively darker the further north we travelled, before long the heavens had opened and torrential rain of monsoonal properties was battering the roof of the car. Traffic got slower and slower, grinding to complete standstills sometimes, before crawling forward a few more feet. It got worse. The weather got worse. By the time I finally crawled onto the M1 and the motorway went into three lanes, I was seriously wondering about getting off at the next junction and simply going home.

Sitting there in my tiny Nissan Micra, the rain belting down from a black sky, with lorries in front, behind and on both sides of me, it felt like the end of the world, and I couldn’t believe that we’d waited years to have this holiday only to experience this kind of weather in August and this kind of traffic on a Friday morning.

We sat stationary for almost an hour. I had no idea what was happening up ahead and there was nothing I could do about it. We couldn’t go forward and we couldn’t go back. We’d lost reception on the radio so resorted to guessing games to pass the time. Nothing was said, but I was getting hungry and I needed the loo, so I knew it wouldn’t be long before Miss F was complaining about the same issues.

Eventually, the traffic started moving again. We started looking for roadside cafes or service stations, anywhere that had toilets and sold food. We saw signs for an American Diner up ahead, great we thought. But when we approached, we could see a line of people standing outside in the pouring rain waiting to get a table. Nope, I declared, and on we drove.

By now it was almost 3:00pm, we’d been on the road for five hours and were still on the M1. We drove on. It carried on raining, harder than ever now. Our stomachs rumbled and our bladders protested. I knew we had to stop soon, but where? There just didn’t seem to be anywhere.

Finally, at the roundabout junction where we had to leave the M1 and take an A road heading towards York we saw signs for a service station. Not caring what it was, I pulled off the road and we parked the car. Dashing through the foot-deep puddles we were soaked by the time we staggered into the covered food hall and I could feel cold water seeping between my toes. Great.

But, first things first, we dashed to the ladies only to find – of course – a mile long queue. Nothing for it, we had to wait in legs crossed agony – now we were standing up, gravity was doing its part. Finally, we reached the top of the queue. Having sorted out that need, we now looked to our next one. Food. Please can we have a Burger King, asked Miss F, seeing as we’re on holiday. Quite frankly, if she’d had suggested slow roasted aardvark, I’d have been up for it at that point. The queue for Burger King was even longer than the queue for the loo. We looked at each other. Then spotted a little M&S shop next to it. Grabbing a basket, we loaded it up with ready cooked BBQ chicken wings, crisps, sandwiches and cake. I tried to keep things healthy by picking up some fruit pots, even though I knew the chances of Miss F eating them were slim.

We splashed back to the car and sat there with the windows steamed up glumly munching our lunch/dinner as the rain sloshed down. Sitting there, I was taken back to when I was a child, and days out with my parents, when we’d sit in the car parked at some seaside resort or other, staring morosely out at the rain belting down, munching on sandwiches, with my mother sporadically chiming in with – I’m sure it’ll clear up soon – and my father’s mood worsening because, quite frankly, he’d rather have been anywhere and doing anything else than this.

Lunch over, we set off again. By now I was so sick of being in the car and this hellish journey. I was beginning to feel like I’d been born in that bloody car. Was beginning to believe I’d probably die in it as well.

At last, we saw the turnoff for the village. Carefully following the instructions we’d been emailed we bumped our way up a cart track and parked where we’d been told to. I switched off the car. Silence, well, apart from the non-stop rain that was.

I looked at the clock. It was 6:30pm. We’d been on the road for over eight hours. We could have flown to New York in less time. But at least we were here, even though I still had to unpack the car. Unable to park any closer to the cottage, we had to lug everything up a narrow pathway. It was dark. Proper dark. Countryside dark. So, we had to fumble around trying to find the key, get the door open and find the light switch. Miss F had carried one bag to the house, but was so excited to explore our new home for the week, that she dumped it just inside the front door and skipped off, leaving me to unload everything else and carry it all up that dark path in the pouring rain.

I was soaked to the skin. I had wet and muddy feet. I was cold and tired and quite frankly pissed off. Royally pissed off. I was stiff from the stress of driving for eight hours, and did I mention how pissed off I was. Bloody hell, I muttered to myself, this is precisely why I don’t do holidays! This is why I stay home, because this always happens to us.

Grumping and muttering the whole time, it took me four trips to unload the car and get everything into the cottage.

“Come and have a look, mummy,” my over-excited daughter sang out. “It’s absolutely wonderful.”

Struggling to untie the sodden laces on my trainers, I pulled them off and propped them up by the radiator to dry – yes, the lovely cottage owners had been concerned about how cold and wet it was so had popped over earlier and put the heating on. Feeling my jeans stick to my legs like wet blotting paper, I yelled at Miss F to come and help take things upstairs, rather than prancing about all over the place like a useless fairy. Chastised, she came down to help and I felt mean, but also strangely better for venting a little.

We carried our suitcases and wash bags upstairs. The cottage was very open plan and so new and shiny it almost hurt to look at it. Miss F’s room was big and comfy, with one of those beds that can be two singles or a superking. At her request, it had been left as a superking and Teddy was already sitting on it, looking somewhat lost in that vast expanse of bed. There was a gorgeous bathroom, with creamy marble tiles and a huge walk in shower that I eyed longingly. My spirits began to rise.

Then there was my room, and of course, there was my old bed. In the stresses of the journey I’d forgotten I’d be sleeping in it again. It was like greeting an old friend, and my spirits lifted even further. Telling Miss F to quickly change out of her wet things, I peeled off my sopping jeans and felt much better once I was in dry, warm clothes.

Downstairs there was a large open plan lounge, kitchen, diner, with a huge TV on the wall and a woodburning stove in the corner. A small cloakroom was under the stairs, and as we carried our boxes of food and drink into the kitchen and started to unpack, we discovered a homemade lemon drizzle cake with three birthday candles on it and a pack of matches lying next to it. I’d happen to mention to the owner that it was Miss F’s birthday the day we were travelling up, so she’d made her a cake. That cheered us both up, that she’d been so kind and thoughtful.

Finally, in the fridge, I found a little bottle of Prosecco and my spirits were completely restored to their usual levels. We finished unpacking, settling into our home for the next six days. That’s why I like self-catering holiday lets, you can take your own things and make it feel like home.

Neither of us were particularly hungry, so I made us a hot snack which we had with cake, and I had the Prosecco – hey, I was on holiday and I think I definitely deserved it after that hellish road trip. We switched on the TV; Miss F wildly excited to discover we had Sky movies. Bizarrely there was no sound and the subtitles were on, which took a bit of fiddling around with the remote to amend, and I assumed the previous holiday makers had been hard of hearing or something.

An early night seemed a good idea for us both, so Miss F soon went upstairs to her superking bed and I channel hopped, trying to find something to fill an hour or so. Ten minutes later she was back down, complaining that the TV was so loud it was booming in her room, keeping her awake.

The TV was on so low I could barely hear it, so I went upstairs to hear for myself and discovered that she was right. Oh, the joys of open plan acoustics. By some weird trick of sound, even thought the TV volume was on a low setting, it was echoing into her bedroom. What to do? Of course, volume off and subtitles on, so that mystery was explained. And that was how I had to watch TV after she’d gone to bed for the whole week, with the volume off and the subtitles on.

Going to bed myself, I cleaned my teeth in an unfamiliar bathroom where the water tasted “different” from home, and then settled down into my old bed – at least that was familiar. Lying there, listening to the rain hammering down on the skylight above, I wondered how the week would go, and I really hoped it would stop bloody raining!

Tune in next week for part two of the best holiday we ever had – it gets better, honestly.

Julia Blake

The Doctor will see you now

It’s been a busy week, not helped by the fact that I haven’t been very well, so this week’s blog will probably be shorter than normal. I awoke Monday morning with a pain in my back lower molar and a swollen jaw. Oh heck, I thought, here we go again. About seven or eight years ago I had exactly the same thing and it turned out to be a pretty severe infection which required two doses of live antibiotics to clear it up. I was back to work Monday and Tuesday, so there wasn’t really much I could do about it, other than pop pain meds and hope for the best.

My boss asked if I’d phoned my dentist to make an appointment, but I was reluctant to do so, knowing exactly how that conversation would go.

“Hi, I think I have an infection and I’m in a lot of pain.”

“Right, the dentist can see you later today.”

“Well, actually I’m at work so can we make it Wednesday?”

“Hmm, if you can wait it’s obviously not that bad, so let’s say that the dentist can see you a week next Tuesday.”

Like most people, I don’t get paid for having time off work sick so couldn’t afford to have an appointment during working hours. Instead, I walked to the dentist first thing Wednesday morning and threw myself onto the mercy of the receptionist, hoping that the fact the whole of the left side of my face was now swollen like a bullfrog would arouse her sympathies. After all, it’s harder to say no to someone who’s standing in front of you and is clearly in pain, than it is a faceless voice on the other end of the phone.

I was in luck, I only had to wait ten minutes before the dentist squeezed me in between patients. I was in his chair for precisely thirty seconds. I opened my mouth as far as I could, he looked, pulled a face, confirmed it was the same situation as previously, and gave me a prescription for two different sorts of antibiotics with the same warnings as before.

Now, doctors always tell you not to drink at all when on antibiotics, but the truth is the odd glass won’t hurt you because 95% of antibiotics prescribed are inert, dead. However, that wasn’t the case with these ones, and both the dentist, and the pharmacist who filled the prescription, stressed the important of abstinence. Last time I was a good girl and not a drop passed my lips the whole time I was taking them, except… I went for dinner at my parents’ house and mum had made a sherry trifle for dessert and I just didn’t think. I mean, it wasn’t in a glass, so it didn’t count as alcohol, right? Wrong. It so counted, and one tiny bowlful made me as sick as a dog. An experience I wasn’t keen to repeat, so until I’ve finished the course, I’m a teetotaller.

I also have to take a couple of probiotic drinks a day. The live antibiotics are so strong that they will strip all the bacteria from my body and won’t make any distinction between the good guys and the bad, thus leaving my immune system wide open for infection.

I left the dentist clutching my prescription and popped around the corner to my doctor’s surgery – I had to call in to pick up my hayfever pills anyway so hoped the dispensary there could also fill my prescription. They could, but not until next week and I really needed to start them immediately.

I walked back into town. Now, Wednesday is market day in the small town where I live and the place was heaving with people wandering around, stopping right in front of me, and generally being annoying.

I was tired and hungry. My whole face had throbbed with pain the entire night before, so I hadn’t really had any sleep, and my jaw was so sore that eating solid food was also an issue. I really wasn’t in the mood to deal with people, especially people who continuously got in my way and were just generally there!

Boots the Chemist was on my direct route home and I knew it was my best bet for getting my prescription filled immediately. Whilst I was there, I’d also be able to get the probiotic drinks I needed and the teatree oil shampoo and conditioner that Miss F had requested I pick up next time I was in town.

Brilliant, I thought. One shop and I could get it all, and then I could go home to take my first dose, pop another paracetamol and hibernate from the world. I reached the shop and dropped off my prescription at the pharmacy. Five minutes, I was promised, so grabbed a basket and went looking for the other items on my list. Endless aisles of haircare products, any teatree oil shampoo and conditioner? No, of course there wasn’t. I tracked down an assistant, who confirmed they didn’t sell it, but Holland & Barrett (all the way over on the other side of town) might. Probiotic drinks, I looked in the chiller cabinet, everything but. If I’d been in the mood for a Dr Pepper or a Diet Coke, then I could have drowned myself in it. Sandwiches, mini pots of pasta salad and falafel wraps galore, but actual healthy probiotic drinks… nope! My bad, the word “Chemist” tagged on the end of “Boots the” had plainly confused me.

By now, I was hot and dizzy and could feel my irritability rising. I’m a bit like a bear when I’m either unwell, tired, hungry, frustrated and need to pee – add all of those factors together and it makes for a very unpleasant Julia who had to go home before she bit someone.

I went home. Had some porridge with honey and then took my first dose. After a rest, I felt revived enough to walk to Waitrose which did sell probiotic drinks, hooray.

And then the fun began. If you’ve never taken live antibiotics you have no idea what they do to you. Completely stripping your body of all bacteria, it results in gastro combustion which can erupt at any moment and is highly unpleasant. Is it possible to pass internal organs? Asking for a friend.

But, needs must, and if it will get rid of the infection and stop the pain, then I’ll put up with the violent stomach cramps and the frequent bathroom visits.

Having a holiday off work last week was wonderful. Exhausted from the Christmas season and the January sales, it was nice to have a break, and I was determined to make the most of my eight wonderful days off. Usually, I waste my holiday frantically trying to catch up on housework, but I’ve come to the conclusion it is a complete and utter waste of time because I will never catch up. There will always be something that needs doing, so I might as well accept this and instead do something else with my time off, such as write.

I haven’t written an original word since last April, when I finished writing Chaining Daisy. Okay, I’ve blogged every week, but I’m not sure that counts, so I was determined that during my week off I would write, and only write.

Monday, I couldn’t get started. Begging the main character to give me a clue about her life, she remained stubbornly silent, so I pressed on and did the few chores I needed to get done in the week all in one day.

Tuesday morning, as I was eating breakfast, that obstinate Miss whispered in my head – “My life is small”. That was it, just one line, but it was enough. With rising excitement, I sat down at my laptop and typed the opening line – Her life was small. And from then on it was easy. Why was her life small? That was ten days ago, and I’m happy to report that to date I’ve managed to write 40,000 words. This is book three in the Blackwood Family Saga and as they all run to about 50,000 words each, this is a massive chunk of the novel written.

I’m very excited about this one. It’s completely different from the plot I had in my head, but I’m happy with the direction it’s taken, although, if anyone looks at my browser history I’m going to be in trouble. With searches covering the topics of burner phones, habits of serial killers, police safehouses, what is the range of an assault rifle and how much damage would a bullet do to a body if fired from such and such a distance, it’s enough to raise eyebrows in my direction. I’m a writer, honest, it’s all research.

I hate being ill. I’m the world’s worst patient. Hopeless at all this self-love nonsense, I push myself too far, refuse to rest, forget to take my medication at the right time, and generally drive myself crazy with my refusal to simply give in and admit that I’m not well.

I think it’s because for most of my life I have had to struggle on however sick I’ve been. Single parents have no one to tag in and take over to give them a rest. I could be bleeding from the eyeballs and Miss F would still need feeding and picking up from work.

Different story when she’s ill, of course, then it’s a constant chorus of – “Mum, can I have a drink,” “Mum, my bed’s all messed up,” “Mum, I can’t find Teddy,” “Mum, I feel… bleuughh… Mum, I’ve been sick again.”

Funny story, when she was a little one, about five or six, I noticed that she was very rosy cheeked one day, I mean, glowing, like a painted Dutch Doll. She also had a slight rash on her torso and was off her food. I took her to the doctor. Our normal doctor – who knew me and was used to my slightly off kilter sense of humour – was on holiday, so we had to see someone else. An elderly, very correct, doctor, he examined her.

“She has slapped cheek syndrome,” he told me.

“That’s impossible,” I replied.

“Oh, and why is that?” His eyebrows rose at my impudence in doubting his diagnosis.

“Because I never slap her where it shows.”

My usual doctor would have just laughed, understanding it was a joke, but this one looked at me in utter horror and scribbled something in his notes. Probably putting me on a list of some kind.

Over the years, Miss F has had the usual childhood ailments. She caught chicken pox off her cousin, and whilst she barely had any spots at all, poor Miss F was completely covered with them. They were everywhere. In her ears, up her nose and on her eyelids. Strapped into cotton mittens so she wouldn’t scratch and scar herself, for a week she was daily subjected to oatmeal baths, Calomine lotion and drops in her eyes – which were distressing for both her and me. Afterwards, I daily rubbed bio oil into her scars and they mostly cleared up, except one nasty one which has left a permanent spot in her left eyebrow where no hair will ever grow. Barely noticeable, I think she quite likes it, leastways even now that she is a teenager with access to eyebrow pencils, she never fills it in.

When she was ten, she came down with a virulent and rather nasty viral infection which settled in her joints and left her bedbound for a week. The doctor told me she had to have utter bedrest, and that too much exertion could leave her permanently afflicted with rheumatoid arthritis. Of course, I phoned the school as soon as I had this diagnosis and spoke to them at length about it. Absolutely, Ms Blake, they reassured me. We completely understand, keep her at home as long as necessary. Please just keep us updated as to her progress.

Duly, I telephoned them every day, letting them know how she was and that sadly she still wasn’t well enough to come back, but please could they email me some of her coursework for us to go over so she didn’t fall too far behind. I mean, obviously her education was and still is very important to me, but the doctor had terrified me with his grim warning, and, quite frankly, her long-term health seemed far more important than missing a few days of school at age ten.

Five days into her illness I received a letter from the school. Miss F had missed a lot of school, they said. They were concerned she might be truanting. Was I aware of quite how much time she’d had off and how that would impact on her future exam success? It was with regret, they said, that they were planning on starting legal proceedings against me!

Absolutely furious, I was going to telephone them, but this kind of anger had to be vented face to face. I did telephone my doctor though, who was horrified at the school’s attitude and again warned that under no circumstances was she to be moved yet. In fact, so adamant was he how detrimental to her health this would be, he sent me a very strongly worded email to print out and take to the school with me.

My mother drove in to sit with Miss F whilst I went to confront the school. Now, I’m normally a mild-mannered, let the waves wash over my head, kind of parent when it comes to schools. Trying not to be that parent – the one always making a fuss – I never had time to anyway, I firmly believed in keeping my head below the ramparts and not getting noticed. But this was different. I’d been in daily contact with them, keeping them informed at every step about her condition and the doctor’s diagnosis. To have received a letter like this, well, it was beyond belief!

I drove round there, girded my loins, and invaded the headmaster’s office. No appointment, no warning, I marched through his receptionist as if she wasn’t there and slapped the letter down on his desk. I’ve always felt that if you have a serious issue with an organisation, don’t waste time talking to the monkey, go straight to the organ grinder.

I talked. He listened. Once he realised what the issue was, he was horrified. Dragged the receptionist in demanding an answer. Why had this poor parent been dragged away from her child’s sickbed and threatened with legal action for merely obeying the doctor’s very strict instructions – here he waved the email under the woman’s face.

I did actually feel sorry for her by this point as, red faced, she scuttled away to see what had happened, confirming that she knew precisely what the situation with Miss F was because it was her I’d been reporting to each day. Turns out, there was an automated gremlin lurking at the heart of their computer system. Crouching there, it kept a record of all pupil attendance and, when a certain number of days had been missed, spat out this offensive letter, which was automatically posted with no one bothering to check or confirm its accuracy.

The issue was resolved, and no real harm done, but it did get me to thinking. What about if Miss F’s condition had been even more serious than it was? What if she was lying in hospital with a potentially terminal illness? How distressing would it have been to have received a letter like that?

Talking about receiving distressing letters, I received an odd one this week that I don’t know whether to laugh at or be offended by. After ten long years of Miss F’s father not contributing a penny to her upkeep and the Child Maintenance Agency proving worse than useless at getting anything out of him – apparently, the poor love is not earning anything and is filing nil tax returns. Really? So, the company he owns and the racehorse he’s just bought and splashed all over his Facebook page are just Scotch mist, are they? – Anyway, I gave up expecting any support from him years ago, be it financial, emotional or any other kind, but each year the Child Maintenance Agency send me a long letter, at the end of which they inform me that the child maintenance I can expect to receive that year amounts to £0.00 and what bank account would I like that paying into?

So, you can imagine my surprise when this year there was a change. He is going to finally contribute something to his daughter’s upkeep – wait for it, a whole £6.51 per week! Like I said, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry, although on reflection, I think I’ll just shrug my shoulders and accept that it is what it is.

Anyway, I said this blog wouldn’t be a long one and here it is at almost 3000 words. It’s gone 8pm on Friday evening, and I will soon have to turn out on this cold and windy night to do the twenty-minute drive to pick Miss F up from work.

I’m glad I’ve managed to write this tonight. I have one more day off tomorrow before going back to work on Sunday and I’m desperate to get back to my story. My hero and heroine were left in a very precarious position and I really want to know how things worked out for them. Anyone know how quickly chloroform works? Asking for a friend, honest.

Take care, and I’ll catch up with you all next week.

Julia Blake

This is the road to Hell…

I’ve been on holiday all this week and I must say it’s been wonderful. Not having to get up early, although of course I haven’t exactly had lay ins, I’m afraid my ability to sleep in was destroyed by having a baby and I’ve never got back into the habit. Nevertheless, it was nice not having to be up and out of the house but being able to take things a little easy.

I was determined during this holiday to forget about catching up with housework or all the other things I tend to waste my time on during my precious days off, instead I was going to concentrate on writing book ten. Apart from blogging, I haven’t written anything original since last April and like most things, the longer you let things slide, the harder it is to get back into it.

Monday, I struggled to start. My main character was refusing to play ball and wouldn’t give me any clues about herself, so I did all the bits and pieces I really had to get done during the week, including a massive pile of ironing that had been glaring at me for days. Finally, early Tuesday morning, she whispered one line to me – My life is small. And that was it, that was all I needed, because with an opening line of – Her life was small – I was able to ask the question why? Why was her life small, and from that point I was off and running. I won’t bore you with too many details, but at the time of writing this blog on Saturday, I had written almost 30,000 words of the book. Not bad going, and considering the Blackwood family saga of which this will be book three, are all books of about 50,000 it means I’m a good chunk of the way through. I must say, this book is turning out to be very exciting and I don’t think I’ve ever written such an action led book before.

So that’s been my holiday, and it may sound boring to you, but to me it was bliss. Not only time to write, but time to read and time to cook a nice meal every evening for me and Miss F. It was Valentine’s Day on Friday, and even though I don’t hold with such nonsense and Miss F was working anyway, I still made us a lovely three course meal on Thursday evening to celebrate.

It was funny though, in the week leading up to my time off, every time I happened to mention to someone that I had a weeks holiday coming up, their immediate reaction was – “oh, how nice, where are you going?” – and it’s interesting how most people don’t consider it a holiday unless you’ve actually packed your bags, left your home and traipsed off somewhere where you probably won’t be as comfortable or as relaxed as you are at home.

I love being home and I love being home with nothing major to do. It’s so relaxing to be able to just chill out and read a book, or catch up on a TV series, or have friends round for coffee or lunch, and in the summer why would I want to get into a sweaty car and sit in a traffic jam for hours to sit somewhere that isn’t as nice as my own garden?

We haven’t really had that many holidays over the years, Miss F and I. For a start, funds have rarely been available, and as holidays are so expensive there has always been the tussle between wasting money on an experience that will be over and done with in a week, or spend it on essential improvements to our home which we’ll appreciate for years to come. Also, there was just Miss F and me, and when she was younger and going to bed early in the evening, that meant I’d be left sitting on my own in a hotel room or holiday cottage, having to be quiet because I didn’t want to wake her up. Not much of a holiday for me. It’s also exhausting, being the sole adult and the one responsible for all the packing, the driving and the decision making, the few holidays we did take, I came back needing a holiday to get over it.

I remember one particularly bad time we had when we were going to stay with friends down near Portsmouth for three days, before then travelling on to stay with other friends for a couple of days who lived in Gosport.

Things didn’t get off to a good start when we were sitting in a fully packed car and I turned the key, only for the engine to go clunk. Panicking, I turned it again. Nothing. I could not believe it. This was our holiday. We hadn’t ever really had one before, and the fecking bloody car wouldn’t start. I tried again, muttering curses under my breath, aware of little ears strapped into a car seat behind me. On the tenth go, the ignition caught, and the car flew into life. Phew. We drove onto the A14, only ten minutes behind schedule, so that was fine.

We’d barely gone five miles, when I had to slam on my brakes and ending up bumping into the central reservation to avoid an accident literally two cars ahead of me. Shaken, I checked that Miss F was okay and then got out to see what had happened. A car had slid into the side of a lorry. Luckily, no one seemed hurt, but the road was blocked. Two other lorries had stopped, and their drivers got out and between them shoved the slightly damaged car over to the side. Producing brooms from the back of their lorries, they swept all the broken glass off the road and then waved us through. Phew, I thought again. That was lucky.

We drove on another five miles, then from the back of the car came those words that no parent wants to hear at the beginning of a long drive to go on holiday. “Mummy, I don’t feel very… bleeuugggh!!” Vomit erupted from my child all over herself and the back seat of the car. Now, she’d had blackberry porridge for breakfast, so you can imagine what that was like.

Now edging into full blown panic, I desperately wondered what on earth I could do? Turn around, go back, abandon the holiday? Plainly, the gods were telling me something and the universe quite clearly didn’t want me to have this holiday. I saw the turn off to Exning approach and remembered that’s where my aunt and uncle lived, so took the turning.

Driving through the village, my phone clamped recklessly to my ear, I shrieked out the situation to my mother and begged her for directions because I couldn’t for the life of me remember where they lived.

“White gates, look for some white gates.”

“There are no white gates!”

“Turn right by the butchers.”

“I have no butchers, I have a bakers and possibly a fecking candlestick makers, but no bloody butchers.”

By this point I had passed through the town of full-blown panic and was approaching the suburbs of mild hysteria.

Eventually, I found them and bless them, they rose magnificently to the challenge of their niece and her small, seven-year-old daughter arriving unannounced on their doorstep one Monday morning, with a car covered in purple vomit.

My uncle manfully volunteered to deal with the car and my aunt hustled us up to the bathroom, where I stripped Miss F and hosed her down in their shower and helped her clean her teeth, whilst my aunt quickly washed her clothes and poor Teddy. Being held in her lap I’m afraid he’d borne the brunt of it and wasn’t looking very happy about the situation.

All this took time, of course, and I phoned my friend who’d been expecting us for lunch, warning her it would be more likely mid-afternoon by the time we reached them. Then we got back in the thankfully now freshened up car and set out once more on what was rapidly becoming a quest of almost Tolkien proportions.

Now, I’d been given strict instructions what route to take and they were taped to my dashboard for easy reference. I knew I had to stay on the M25 until I reached the M something or other to Portsmouth and after that it would be plain sailing. I sat on the M25 for what felt like hours, and suddenly saw a sign proclaiming that Watford was ahead. What?! I thought, isn’t Watford on the North side of London? Had I missed the turning? Had I almost done a complete lap of the capital?

Panicking. When the next junction announced it was the A something or other going to Portsmouth, I automatically took it, assuming I’d stupidly written down the instructions wrong, and, to be honest, so thankful to see a sign pointing in the right direction I didn’t stop to think. Just as I turned off the M25 and was fully committed to taking this road, I saw the next sign along – it was the M something or other to Portsmouth.

Too late, this was the road I was on, so this was the way I was going. I drove for another thirty minutes, desperately wondering how badly I’d screwed up and how much time I’d added to this road trip from hell. I saw a sign for a Wimpy roadside café – I hadn’t realised they still existed – and took it. I was starving hungry and desperate for a wee and a cup of coffee.

We parked and got out, both incredibly relieved to be out of the car. The facilities were before you entered the main restaurant, so we used those first, then went in to get something to eat and drink and it was as though we’d stepped through a time-warp and ended up in the 1970’s. Seriously. Orange and brown flock wallpaper, brown lino on the floor. Brown Formica tables with orange padded bench seats and those big ceramic lamps hanging overhead. There was waitress service – I kid you not – and the menu had all the things I remember there being when stopping at a Wimpy was an occasional, longed for, holiday treat.

I just ordered burger and fries for myself, with coffee, water and some toast for Miss F. She said she wasn’t hungry and was still looking a bit green about the gills, so I didn’t want to risk putting anything more exciting into her. My aunt had given us an old ice cream container, which Miss F had clutched like the Holy Grail all the way, but I really didn’t want any more incidents in the car.

While we waited on our food, I phoned my friend to fill her in with what had happened. She seemed a little annoyed at my ineptness but gave me fresh instructions and assured me I’d only added about twenty or so minutes to my trip which was now reaching epic proportions. We’d left home at 9:30am, thinking to reach theirs by midday at the latest. It was now 1:30pm and we still had at least half the journey still to go.

After lunch, we reluctantly climbed back into the car and set off. For two pins I would have turned around and gone home, but not only were people expecting us, I was quite looking forward to catching up with friends. Maybe I wasn’t so desperate to see the first friend we were staying with again, but I was definitely looking forward to staying with the second couple.

The rest of the journey seemed to pass uneventfully, but I went wrong somehow navigating her complicated instructions around various villages and suburbs. Peering at road signs, trying to make sense of it all, there was a sound from the back seat. Yep. The toast had made a reappearance and we now had a full ice cream container of vomit in the car with us.

I pulled over, there was a woman working in her garden with a little girl helping her and I shamelessly threw myself completely on her mercy.

“Please help me, my little girl’s just been sick in the back of the car.”

“Oh, you poor darlings.”

I kid you not, that was what she said, and then she just kind of took us under her wing and sorted everything out. She got Miss F out of the car and disposed of the vomit down a handy nearby drain. I fished Miss F’s toothbrush out of the case, again, and her daughter who was about ten, took Miss F inside to help her clean her teeth and wash her face and hands.

Our lovely saviour helped me clean up the little bit that had splattered on the seatbelt, and she then looked at my instructions and drew me a handy little map with a clear and precise route marked on it. Seriously, she was like an angel who’d been sent to earth to help other mum’s when their offspring had barfed in the car. I never got her name, and of course I never saw her again, but I’ll never forget how amazingly kind she was. People like her totally restore my faith that there is still good in the world.

Finally, we reached my friend’s house at almost 5:00pm. We’d been travelling for over seven hours. I think I could have flown to Kief in the time it took us to get there. But we were there. Surely now I could relax and enjoy our holiday? Wrong. In the couple of years, it had been since I’d last seen this person, her snobby pretentiousness had got worse. Before, it had been funny. Now, it was so pronounced that it made me very uncomfortable and I was livid at the way she treated my child.

Now, I’ve had parents with small children come to stay before and always I check with the parents what kind of stuff they like to eat and make sure I get that in, together with some fairly safe standbys such as fishfingers, oven chips and spaghetti bolognaise. Bearing in mind, Miss F was only seven-years-old and also bearing in mind I’m not the richest person in the world, so our normal diet isn’t too extravagant most of the time, also bearing in mind she knew how sick Miss F had been on our trip there, I was a bit taken aback to find out our meal that night was going to be squid in a really rich red wine sauce. For a seven-year-old.

Now, I would hesitate to offer squid to a grown up unless I knew they really liked it, let alone expect a child to eat it. I knew Miss F would (a) refuse to put the slimy heap of tentacles in her mouth (b) wouldn’t like it even if I could persuade her to eat some, and (c) probably throw it up everywhere. I managed to persuade my friend that as Miss F was still feeling sick, could she possibly just have some toast and an early night, and then I was sure she’d be a lot better in the morning.

Things went downhill from then on. Now, I’m not a slob, but when someone immediately plumps the cushion you’ve been sitting on as you stand up, and hoovers up under you every five minutes and snaps “Shoes” at you the second you walk in the front door, then I begin to get a bit twitchy. And when every single meal comprises of ludicrously expensive, rich and over the top fish dishes that your child has had no experience with and simple won’t eat, then things start to get a bit tense between the grown-ups.

There were whispered conversations about me in the kitchen, which of course I could hear. There was forced politeness, and sympathy for me for being saddled with such a “fussy” child. I wanted to slap her for that one. Miss F was no worse and a hell of a lot better than most of my other friends’ kids, but we didn’t inhabit the type of world where having squid and crab and lobster was a normal, everyday occurrence. I just wanted to grab my child and go. Her brat of a child who was the same age as Miss F also didn’t help. Totally spoilt and presumably spoon fed squid with his mother’s milk, he was simply foul to my daughter and actually hit her so hard around the head with his lightsabre that it raised a bump the size of an egg and I wondered whether I should take her to A&E.

At last, it was Wednesday morning and we could go. I packed up the car as quickly as I could and then there were polite hugs and promises to stay in touch. Her son really put the cherry on the top though, as we were heading out the door, I heard him say.

“I’m so glad they’re leaving, mummy.”

Yeah, you and me both, kid.

We got in the car and drove to the top of the road to turn around, and as we drove back past the door where they were standing ready to wave, I muttered through clenched teeth to Miss F.

“Right, big smiles, wave goodbye.”

We waved goodbye until we turned the corner and could no longer see them, when the smiles and the waves abruptly stopped.

“Don’t worry, darling,” I promised. “We are never going back there again.”

And we never did. I also never contacted my friend again and she never contacted me. Which, I guess is a shame, we had been friends for several years and had had some good times together, but she’d broken the universal code of friendship, which is never, ever criticize somebody else’s child to their face. Sure, Miss F could have her moments, and maybe she didn’t know what a mussel was and really didn’t want to try one, thank you very much, but then I know a lot of adults who won’t even try seafood either and she was only a little girl.

I knew why my friend had behaved like that. She was one of those people for whom appearances was absolutely everything. An immigrant from Ukraine, she’d worked very hard to get what she called the “nice things” in life and cared passionately about them. She could never understand why I didn’t give a hoot about my home being glossy magazine perfect. It was home, and so long as it was clean, tidy and warm, then I didn’t care about having co-ordinated cushions which exactly matched the rug and exactly matched the picture frames.

She was what my mother used to call “showing off”. Look at me, I have all these things and earn all this money. Aren’t I wonderful? In a word, no. I’ve never cared about what my friends have or how much money they make, only what they’re like. Furthermore, if any guest in my house had ever been made to feel that uncomfortable then I would have been ashamed of myself.

So, did our week get any better? I hear you ask. Oh yes it did. We made it to my old friends, where I fell on their necks with relief at being there. They had a log burning stove going, with a big comfy sofa in front of it, with Willo-the-Wisp DVDs for Miss F to watch and fishfingers, mash and beans for her tea. It was heaven. They were renovating an old house and things were a bit chaotic, but that didn’t matter a bit, because it was warm and homey, and they were pleased to see us and made us feel so welcome.

And that, at the end of the day, is how it should be.

My, how I’ve run on. I was going to tell you about the best holiday we ever had, but I’ll obviously have to save that for another day. I hope you all have a wonderful Sunday, and I am going to celebrate my last day off work with an enormous roast dinner and a glass or two of wine.

See you next week

Julia Blake

Are you sitting comfortably children? Let’s talk about TV.

I was talking to Miss F last night about the television programmes she remembered watching when she was a kid. That led onto ones I remembered watching even further back, when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I was a child. Before I knew it, she was pulling up clips on YouTube and we were laughing and reminiscing about favourites and remembering theme songs that we’d loved.

Some forty years ago there wasn’t the choice of children’s programmes that there are now, and we certainly didn’t have channels dedicated to them. We were relegated to that time between getting home from school at 3:20pm to the time our fathers got home, and tea was on the table at 6:00pm. I remember in the mornings there would be programmes for school on, and many a sick day was happily spent watching “Stop, Look, Listen” and “How We Used to Live”. There were maybe a few programmes for young, pre-school kids on at lunchtime, but us older kids had to be content with the two hours and forty minutes we got in the afternoon.

It always started with Play School – and which window were we going through today? BBC had only British made programmes, but ITV had imported American ones, and my brother and I would be jumping up and down like jack-in-the-boxes switching channels to get our favourite shows. This could cause friction – in the days before catch-up TV and even video recorders, if your show clashed with someone else’s then you’d missed it for good – but we muddled along somehow, compromising and making deals.

Saturday mornings was also strictly for kids. And back in the day we had a choice between Swap Shop on BBC and Tiswas on ITV. Now, my mother preferred that we watched Swap Shop, thinking it was a much nicer show because it was sedate and was hosted by that nice Noel Edmonds and lovely Keith Chegwin and sweet Maggie Philbin. As opposed to Tiswas, which was anarchy incarnate with characters like Spit the Dog and the Phantom Flan Flinger, and its steady diet of farts, custard pies, buckets of water and sheer silliness. Needless to say, us kids loved it and would watch it sneakily, always poised to jump up and turn over if we heard my mother coming in.

Swap Shop vs Tiswas

During the school holidays there would be telly just for kids in the morning, and bizarrely enough it always seemed to be black and white foreign imports with subtitles, which were repeated each and every holiday for what seemed the whole of my childhood. But I didn’t care. I would watch them over and over, and I still have very fond memories of Robinson Crusoe, the Singing Ringing Tree and White Horses – on white horses let me ride away…

White Horses, Robinson Crusoe and the fabulous
Singing, Ringing Tree

There were programmes that were supposed to educate children, but we even loved them and lapped up shows like Play School, Blue Peter, Jackanory, John Craven’s Newsround, Vision On, Magpie and the unlikely named Why Don’t You Switch Off Your Television Set and Go and Do Something More Interesting Instead?

Play School, Blue Peter, Magpie, Jackanory, Why Don’t You, John Cravens Newsround, Vision On

For me though, two bears ruled the airwaves – Paddington and Rupert the Bear. I loved them, I don’t know why, but there was simply something about talking bears that got me. I took Miss F to see the newest incarnation of Paddington at the cinema and loved it, happy they kept the essence of the stories but made him even more personable.

Paddington and Rupert the Bear

I can even just about remember really old black and white shows like The Flowerpot Men, Andy Pandy, Lambchop and the Romper Room, but the era I remember the most probably spanned 1972 to 1980, when I was five to thirteen years old. Apart from books, TV was our only form of indoor entertainment, and we were fortunate to have such quality shows as Bagpus, The Clangers, Crackerjack, Rainbow, Pipkins, Grange Hill and Dangermouse.

Bagpus, Grange Hill, Andy Pandy,
Crackerjack, Dangermouse

Then there was Captain Pugwash. A rumour has gone around that the pirates aboard this ship all had rather suggestive names – Seaman Stains, Master Bates, One Eyed Jack and First Officer Dick, with Roger the cabin boy, all aboard the Black Pig. Now, I’m pretty sure I remember the cabin boy being called Tom and have no memory of the other names. I’ve been told it’s an urban myth, that the names of the other pirates were all perfectly respectable pirate names with nothing rude or suggestive about them. I suppose I could check, a moment on Google will give me the truth, but I don’t want to know. It’s a wonderful story and one I rather want to be true, so please don’t comment about it and spoil the fun.

Captain Pugwash

But it wasn’t all British, we had American shows as well. A lot were pretty awful, but there were some that I really enjoyed. Shows such as the Banana Splits (that theme song has been stuck in my head since the early 1970s – Google it and you’ll see what I mean), Deputy Dawg, Top Cat, Thunderbirds, He Man, Scooby Doo, Bugs Bunny and Little House on the Prairie, which I absolutely adored.

Thunderbirds, He-Man, Bugs Bunny, Little House on the Prairie, Deputy Dawg, Banana Splits, Top Cat

As I said, at about 6:00pm children’s TV ended, and screen time was handed over to the adults again, but there was always a little five minute short programme to end the day with before the boring news came on. In those last five minutes we had programmes like Fred Bassett, Crystal Tips and Alastair, Ludwig, Noah and Nelly, Ivor the Engine, Willo-the-Wisp, and of course, the wonderful Magic Roundabout. Everyone loved the Magic Roundabout, well, what wasn’t there to love? A permanently stoned rabbit, a mad cow that seemed to be on happy pills, an OCD dog and some weird spring like creature called Zebedee. Once, the BBC in its wisdom, shifted the showing time of the Magic Roundabout to earlier and were stunned at the countrywide outcry it caused. Most adults made it home in time to catch it and were not amused that due to its earlier time slot they were missing their daily hit of psychedelic madness. Giving in to rather heated demands, the BBC swiftly moved it back to its 5:55pm time.

Willo-the-Wisp, Fred Bassett, Ludwig, Ivor the Engine,
Noah and Nelly, The Magic Roundabout,
Crystal Tips and Alastair

Then I grew up. Life got busy and I had no time for children’s programmes anymore, not until I had a baby of my own and Miss F became old enough to begin watching them. To my surprise, some of the shows were the same although updated, but there was also a whole batch of new shows to enjoy or suffer. There were dedicated channels just for children, some on 24/7 although quite why they’d be on long after children should be in bed, I never did understand, and a lot, more American shows.

There were the Teletubbies that she loved, but vaguely worried me as I feared it might have a negative impact on her vocabulary, but it didn’t seem to. When she was a little older, she really loved a show called Wynx about a fairy school. I didn’t let her watch excessive amounts of TV and it always went off an hour before bedtime so we could snuggle down and read some stories, but she was allowed to watch pretty much whatever she wanted on children’s channels such as CBeebies and Milkshake, as I knew there’s be nothing inappropriate on them.

Wynx and the Teletubbies

One day I was busy cleaning and Miss F was watching something on the BBC children’s channel, CBeebies. Passing through the lounge I glanced at the screen and noticed that one of the female presenters was quite clearly pregnant.

“Oh, how lovely, she’s going to have a baby.”

Miss F stared at me.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, see how big her tummy is? That’s because there’s a baby in there.”

Miss F stared at the screen curiously, then seemed to shrug and dismiss the matter. I carried on and gave it no more thought, until 3:00am that morning when I was ripped from sleep by Miss F having the screaming ab dabs. She’d had a nightmare about a witch that ate babies and thought it was coming to eat her. Of course, my throw away comment which I’d instantly forgotten about had sunk down into her mind where it had brewed and bubbled. A baby in her tummy? Well, as far as Miss F was concerned, there was only one way anything got into someone’s tummy and that was through their mouth!

I soothed and comforted, and explained that no, she hadn’t eaten a baby, but instead was keeping her baby safe and warm and fed in a special place inside her so that it could grow and be strong. And that, when it was big enough, it would come out and be her darling little son or daughter that she’d love very, very much, just as I loved Miss F. She thought about this, then gave me a look and said.

“So, how does the baby get in there then?”

I was stumped and so not ready for THAT conversation. Thinking rapidly, I replied.

“God put it there.”

And to be honest, at age three and at 3:00am, that was as good as she was going to get.

One of her favourite programmes was Lazy Town, and for those of you who don’t know what that was, Lazy Town was exactly that – a town full of lazy, slothful people who have their lives transformed by the arrival of Sportacus, a six foot, Icelandic, Olympic gymnast who dressed top to toe in blue Lycra and would spend each episode flexing his quite considerable muscles, and bouncing energetically around the screen, much to the secret joy of every bored mummy who happened to be watching.

One day, I had a funny conversation with Miss F where she meant one thing, and I, bad mummy that I was, meant something completely different.

“Mummy?”

“Yes?”

“Sportacus is really fit, isn’t he?”

“Oh yep, he certainly is.”

“Is he fitter than Fireman Sam?”

I considered the question.

“Well, Sportacus is all athletic and stuff, but Sam has the whole fireman and uniform thing going for him. I mean, he’s used to slinging women over his shoulder and carrying them away.”

“Well, what about Bob the Builder?”

“What about him?”

“In a fitness contest, who do you think would win? Sportacus, Fireman Sam or Bob the Builder?”

“That’s a tough one, like I said, Sportacus works out every day and he’s really got the body to show for it, and Sam, well, he’s a fireman, need I say more, but Bob, he’d put up shelves for you and fix things around the house, and that’s always… handy.”

Naughty mummy.

Battle of the hotties – Sportacus, Bob the Builder
and Fireman Sam

There were the Fimbles, Rosie and Jim, Mister Tumble, Come Outside and Peppa Pig – an especial favourite was Peppa Pig, and I remember whilst shopping in our local supermarket, Miss F had a complete meltdown upon the discovery of a pack of Peppa Pig sausages in the chiller cabinet!! Who thought that was a good idea?!

Most of the programmes that I saw with Miss F I quite enjoyed, I especially liked one voiced by Stephen Fry that I cannot for the life of me remember the name of. Stephen Fry was delightfully sarcastic in a way that children completely missed but bored adults really appreciated. And then there was In the Night Garden…

Oh, good lord! In the Night Garden! Has ever a more turgid, soul sucking, mind melting programme been created? Millions of parents were forced to watch it, slumped on the sofa, slack jawed, their eyes glazing over and their brains leaking out of their ears. For those of you lucky enough to have escaped this torture, it was set in a bizarre, psychedelic garden somewhere, full of odd characters that did nothing but run around repeating their names. And that was it. There was no plot, no story, nothing to explain what the heck was going on.

There was a weird blue thing called Iggle Piggle that danced about clutching a red blanky, an even weirder big bottomed, rock collecting creature called Packa Macka, the Tumblyvors who never had on any underwear, and a girl character called Upsa Daisy who wore a very short skirt that kept flipping up and spent most of her time in bed – I’m saying no more, you make your own judgement.

Then there were spaced out birds that made funny noises, and rather scary big balloons with googly eyes that moved creepily through the trees. There was the Ninky Nonk – a train thing with different sized carriages that tore through the garden like it had a ton of cocaine up its funnel, and the Pinky Ponk – an airship type thing that farted its way through the sky. I may have the names of those last two mixed up, but really, who cares?

Every parents nightmare

Finally, there were these two little families that live in adjoining houses under a big tree. Both families comprised of a dad, a mum and then eight children that all looked about the same age. One family dressed in identical red robes and I think were called the Ponty Pines and the other family all dressed in identical blue robes and I can’t remember what they were called. They were odd. There’s no other word for it. Well, other than cultish, I guess. They didn’t go out much, the papa’s in both these families seemed to rule the roost, and they all slept together in the same room! None of the kids went to school, had healthy relationships outside the immediate family or were encouraged to express their individuality at all. Obviously, Social Services never visited the Night Garden, otherwise all those kids would have been taken into the care.

The absolute worse thing about this programme though? It was on every single fricking night and lasted for thirty minutes! Thirty minutes of people dressed in costumes running about going “Iggle Piggle” and “Packa Macka Wacka Do” and “Upsa Daisy!” It was enough to drive any parent to drink.

But now Miss F is sixteen and the programmes she wants to watch are more along the lines of Love Island, The Vampire Diaries and Pretty Little Liars, so clearly her standards have lowered. My time watching kid’s programmes is once again over, and I suppose I won’t start watching them again until when/if I ever become a grandmother. I wonder what programmes will be around then? How much will they have changed?

Anyway, that’s it for another week. I hope you’ve enjoyed my trip down memory lane and I wonder if it jogged any memories of programmes you used to watch and enjoy yourself, either as a child or maybe as a parent.

Take care of yourselves and have a great week.

Julia Blake