A flock of sheep across the capital

My friends and I have gained something of a reputation for a certain activity in recent years. (Actually, I think we have a number of them!) We are known for our passion for hunting inanimate objects…

Back in 2012 it was eggs; in 2013 Gromits; and in 2014 book benches. Elephants, gorillas, buses, Paddingtons and Olympic mascots have also been pursued individually. We take it seriously – dates are planned far in advance; hotels booked at bargain rates; themed goodies baked; and route maps studied carefully. This is not simply a fun day out, it is a mission to be completed!!

Hunting at St Paul's

This year, we’re hunting sheep. Shaun the sheep to be precise. After the success of Gromit in Bristol 2 years ago, 2015 sees a Shaun trail in London over the spring & a summer one in Bristol. Just to show how serious we are, the trail launched on Saturday and we began it on Monday! (More of a happy accident involving Easter holiday dates really.) So if you’re feeling inspired, you’ve got ages to catch them.

Pleasingly, the organisers have appreciated that adults enjoy these hunts just as much as (if not more than) children. Each model of Shaun, designed by a different artist and sponsored by a different company, has a name and theme. These often have a link with its location, and regularly feature some spectacular punning…

Shaun at the Globe? “To sheep, perchance to dream.”
St Paul’s cathedral? “Baa-roque”
Tate Modern? “Br-ewe-nel”
Canary Wharf? “Golden Fleece”

IMG_9203

The latter was a favourite thanks to its shiny ness and potential for reflective photography. Our efforts even prompted its artist to tweet:

(I can’t claim solo credit for this. We all had a go!)

Based on our experiences yesterday and today (and previous escapades), I’d offer the following tips:

  • Plan your route. The map’s available online (you can pick up hard copies too) or there’s an app. We did it over 2 days, but with an earlier start and better weather you could do it in one. Beginning at Paddington, we did the ‘strays’ first, tubing it to Canary Wharf from Edgware Rd then tubing back to London Bridge for the start of trail 4. Trail was done backwards, ending with the first 2 of trail 2. Day 2 began in Covent Garden, included a trek to the far end of St James’ Park for the final lost sheep & ultimately concluding with Shaun number 1 on Carnaby St!
  • Know your limits! Pressing on too long sucks the fun out of it. If you’re local, and/or have children, do the trails over a few days. Trail 4 is long but worth it for the views!
  • Chat to other hunters. You’ll probably see the same people at different locations, so make friends! (I got teased for doing this.) If you’re alone, all the more reason to chat!
  • Snacks are crucial for pepping up flagging hunters. I like themed ones – egg shaped biscuits were a fun treat for egg hunting and a surprise discovery in a pound shop meant that I could repeat the recipe for Shaun. (We also enjoyed Simnel muffins and mini hot cross buns.)
  • Use the toilets whenever there’s a Shaun in a location with free ones.

This is the first trail we’ve ever completed as a group, which is a big bonus for those of us who like to complete things! Bristol’s set to be a 70 Shaun trail, which is rather daunting – but at least we’ve already got our dinner destinations planned!

Shaun HuntingAll 50 London Shauns

A big risk in a big cottage

The ‘friends go away together for the weekend’ is a well-worn trope in the worlds of literature and film. There’s something about the setting of a group of close friends and their partners gathering in the same location that makes it ripe for drama – shocking revelations; fierce arguments; wife swapping; murder; and general merriment.

For years, my parents held up Peters’ Friends as the archetypal friends weekend away film – because so much does go wrong in it, despite how pleased they are to be all together again. [It’s well-worth watching, I recently discovered the whole thing on YouTube, albeit in bits.] The bottom line appears to be that no matter how fun a weekend with friends sounds, it can be a risky business and you never quite know what might happen…

Big Cottage The Big Cottage – one side of it. We weren’t exaggerating. [Credit: Morven.]

…but, despite the risks, what became known as ‘Big Cottage’ [because we need a big cottage in order to fit everyone in, naturally] was eagerly anticipated from the time of its booking until the weekend arrived 10 months later. We’d gone away as friends before – for weddings, camping at Greenbelt, several Girls Weekends Away, and of course the residential activities that had brought us all together as friends in the first place. However, this was a first – the first time that every single one of us, husbands and boyfriends included, had all stayed together in the same place with the sole purpose of hanging out together. Some of the men hadn’t met before. Some of the men we’d known since before they’d got together with their partners. It’s a peculiar dynamic. My brother-in-law went as far as marking the dates in his calendar with “weird weekend”, which to be honest, he was perfectly justified in doing.

Big cottage big tableBig cottage, big dinner table.

The dynamic might have been risky, but there were two significant factors that balanced it out:

  • The facilities – specifically pool, sauna, hot tub, squash court, several lounges and extensive grounds.
  • The provisions – myriad cakes baked, port, wine, a keg of local ale, whisky and cheese. Lots of cheese.

In fact, one husband was heard to announce upon waking, the morning the weekend began, “tonight there’ll be port”. If that’s not a thought to get you through a Friday and a long car drive, I don’t know what is!

Port drinkingBonus of much port-drinking – finishing off the remnants on Sunday afternoon. As a trainee priest, this was clearly my job.

But, do you know what, there was no need to worry. (Although there was definitely need for the mammoth baking frenzy, booze provision and cheese purchasing. Because cake, cheese & booze makes a weekend.) There were no crises, no dramas, no wife-swapping (despite many, many jokes around the epically huge dining table), no one emerged from a closet, no one intentionally caused anyone else injury (squash injuries don’t count) and both children present emerged unscathed.

Big badmintonSports undertaken at Big Cottage included: squash; swimming; running; hill walking; water aerobics; water volleyball; boules and badminton. We did at least make some effort to burn off the cake, cheese & booze! [Credit: Morven]

Well, I say ‘unscathed’. One returned with a new addition to her vocabulary which may have been uttered for the very first time when she was in my arms, but I refuse to take responsibility for it!

The big cottage turned out to be significantly less of a cottage, and more a converted stables – complete with four lounges (yes, four – each with Sky, meaning that the golf could be on in a room in an unobtrusive fashion). One lounge came equipped with a grand piano and songbooks, meaning that there was scope for late night singing. [As an aside, one of my dreams is to exist in a world where I have a pianist on call to accompany me when singing. Sounds indulgent, but it’s basically the best – and oldest – form of karaoke. Last Saturday, that dream came true, briefly, and was only hampered by a limited range of sheet music.] There were two large kitchens (one for cooking meals, the other for cake, cheese & booze – I kid you not), and others in random corners of the house. Bedrooms were huge, bathrooms were incredible and quite frankly, I wanted to move in and stay forever.

Big piano. Big screen. Grand piano & TV projected on the wall. Comedy Central were showing a marathon of the 20 best Friends episodes – could we *be* any luckier?? 

Singing around the pianoSinging around the piano. No idea what it was at this moment – but clearly something I didn’t know the words to, so it wasn’t Let It Go. Plus, my arms aren’t flailing around, which is usually an indication of an Idina classic. [Credits: Morven]

That feeling was universal. The weekend was such a roaring success that next year’s date is already being negotiated. The site has other cottages too, so there’s no concern should any of the four single ladies acquire a man, or if more children appear on the scene. Quite frankly, Big Cottage was a big risk, but it was so worth all the planning, money and several thousand Facebook messages between the female contingent. If all risks worked out so well, we should take more of them!

Big Cottage JumpingIn the end, the biggest risk was jumping simultaneously into a pool with a depth of only 1.4m!  

Big Cottage 2014Until next time, big cottage! [Credits: Kilvert Photography]

Incidentally, should you be wondering where this incredible accommodation is, it’s The Colloquy in Herefordshire. We highly, highly recommend it – but should you decide to book it, could you avoid next autumn as we haven’t quite decided when we’re going yet. (Also, mention Jenni Kilvert when you book, we may get a discount!!)

Ingredients for a surprising day

Take a date 2 months earlier than the event being celebrated, for maximum surprise factor.
Ensure those co-ordinating possess epic planning skills.
Find an excellent group of people who can keep secrets and sustain the surprise.
Maximise contacts who can enhance the day immeasurably.
Allow to brew for several months, then watch the surprising day unfold…

It has become Clutterbuck practice that 30th birthdays are celebrated in surprising way. This time 3 years ago, I had just discovered that I was being taken to Paris to celebrate mine. Time seems to have flown, and since Christmas, plans have been afoot to celebrate my sibling’s approaching birthday.

Our birthdays are late July, but thanks to her planned excursion to America’s East Coast and the limits of school holidays for a teacher, we fixed upon a date nearly 2 months before the day she actually turns 30. There was no Eurostar to Paris, but instead, a couple of days in London doing fun things – the nature of which she was completely kept in the dark about.

You might be thinking that a day in London doesn’t really compare with a weekend in Paris, but if you add in enough surprises, it does. Mim is terribly at weasling information out of people (in that she’s very, very good at it), so keeping things secret was an absolute imperative. Knowledge was strictly on a need-to-know basis – even her husband and father remained utterly clueless, just in case! But all involved kept the day’s plans under their hat and, my goodness, it was worth it!

Mim thought she was having 24 hours of fun with her sibling and mother – which she did, but with many extra lovely people thrown in too. We lulled her into a false sense of security with dinner and cocktails the night before. Mum took her on a nail-biting trip on the Emirates Skyline the next morning (how I wish I’d been with them to see their reactions – neither like heights), followed by a boat trip down the Thames, en route to meet me for brunch at our favourite bread themed restaurant. All good.

Bar buddies Cocktails for three. Obviously. 

The surprises of a trip on the London Eye (her very first), afternoon tea and concluding with a trip to see Les Mis would probably have been more than satisfactory. After all, she must be one of the last drama teachers not to have seen the world’s longest running musical! But what made the day especially surprising was the steady drip of surprises…

  • The arrival of four unexpected friends while we took a tea break at the RFH. The mother of two of our favourite friends might have been a coincidence, but it was soon clear that her daughters were due to arrive any minute. Their company might have been predictable (although nonetheless very appreciated), but the appearance of Mim’s favourite uni chum was not. I patted myself on the back for that effort.
  • Tickets for the London Eye were distributed. Mim suspected this might be on the schedule, but still, she didn’t know for sure.
  • Arriving at our afternoon tea destination and being greeted with “two of your party have already arrived” – Mim may have thought our party was complete, but no. Some people had even made the journey from Gloucester to celebrate.
  • Gloucester friends’ London based eldest daughter was an added bonus, arriving during a Prosecco break at my flat.
  • A dash through the West End culminating in the distribution of tickets for a long-loved show – courtesy of another of Mim’s uni chums who sourced the tickets for us. In his words “Anything for Mim!”

Girls on the EyeOn board the Eye.

I love it when a good plan comes together. I love it even more when it’s abundantly clear that absolutely everyone has had an excellent time – not just the birthday girl!

Tea Time

 

Focaccia and friends

After a bit of a break in which to write a lot of essays, last week marked the continuance of 2014: The Year of Bread. Having pretty much perfected the basic white loaf in Brilliant Bread, I had moved on to rolls in February (which still need a bit of work, but they tasted fine) but hadn’t challenged myself to anything else since.

With the hosting of a Matryoshka Haus meal on the horizon, I decided it was time to get stuck into another recipe. What better to go with a summer meal of chicken and salad than a fresh focaccia?

Baking James’ recipes involve extra proves and less kneading, which means that the actual time spent in the kitchen fiddling with dough is limited. As I discovered when I happened to check the focaccia recipe the day before the meal, in this recipe, you can leave the dough to prove in the fridge for an extended period of time – meaning that I could put it in overnight; stretch it to the baking tray first thing in the morning; and leave it in the fridge until the final prep before baking. It’s the kind of thing that’s incredibly useful if you need to be out of the house all day.

Focaccia dough - 1st proveAfter the first prove…

Focaccia dough - final proveAfter the second prove in the fridge.

Focaccia for the ovenReady to bake.

It has to be said that unlike February’s rolls and the pitta breads I also baked on Wednesday, the focaccia was a success first time round. And the Matryoshka Haus crew was definitely the right group to feed it to – my ego was massaged with plenty of oohs, ahhs and cries of disbelief…

Focaccia doneNot too shabby, even if I do say so myself!

However, the real fun with friends and focaccia didn’t happen until every crumb had been consumed and I posted a photo of it on Facebook. It turns out that as well as having friends who appreciate good baking, I also have friends who love a good bread pun. When I awoke the next morning, I could do nothing but moan at the sight of these comments:

Focaccia CommentsWho needs Mel & Sue’s baking puns when you have friends like these?

Looking back, 2013 times

Another year has passed and thus it is time for the obligatory end of year round-up blogpost. 2013 began with an optimistic blogpost about the start of the new year and the end of my project to count up things I had done for the first time.

This post contained a commitment to Project 365 – the taking of one photo a day – which should have been an easy task, given that barely a day goes by without my taking a photo. But a combination of illness (not leaving the house for 3 days isn’t conducive to photography) and forgetfulness meant that it didn’t last past March. However, an unexpected development of 2013 was my commitment to the 0-5km running app, meaning that between February and May I learnt to run 5km – which has since evolved into a fairly regular running habit and an Instagram hashtag of #photographyontherun. It’s amazing what you pass while running…

Photography on the run 2013Before you ask, I’ve got very good at jogging on the spot while taking photos. It basically came about because the RunKeeper app allows you to save photos to your runs, so why not keep track of where you’re running? 

Several of the year’s highlights came with their own form of ID or pass. Obviously, the first thing one does when given one of these is take a photo of it. (Especially as you never know whether you’ll get to keep them at the end of your visit.)

Passes

That would be Matryoshka Haus’ meeting at Apple; my glorious evening at Facebook; the Ask DEC event at BT Tower; writing for the Church Times at Greenbelt; and being interviewed by 8 different local BBC stations. Effectively, have a pass, have a highlight of your year.

This time last year, I already knew I’d be heading to Africa for the very first time – on a trip to Uganda with Tearfund in February/March. Without a doubt, it’s a trip that will never be forgotten. Lately, I’ve been having to re-tell some of the stories of our time there, as part of the promotion for Tearfund’s 2014 bloggers’ trip to Cambodia. (You have until Jan 5th to enter, get writing!) Apparently, this time 12 months ago, I expressed a hope of a return trip to Texas. It didn’t happen, but luckily, Texas came to London in the form of the first-ever Matryoshka Haus Learning Lab. And then a plan became concocted that saw me make a debut visit to San Francisco in September. Combined with a Chateau Duffy trip and a return to Merville, and all-in-all, this year’s travel hasn’t been too shabby!

Travel 2013

The other main highlight of 2013 would be the people I got to share it with. As I rather soppily wrote back in October, I am lucky to have some incredibly long-standing and fabulous friends – but they are not the only ones. The Matryoshka Haus folk have played a big part in the year, as have Vicar School chums, but most excitingly, there have been plenty of new friends too!

Friends 2013

Finally, while traipsing through the blog’s 2013 archive, I couldn’t resist compiling a list of 2013 Firsts. Even though I’ve not been keeping track of them throughout the year, it’s amazing what I can remember just with a few prompts. I found so many that I’ve had to create a separate post for them. I guess it will always be a really positive way of reflecting upon the things that have been achieved in a single year!

Oh, and my happiest moment in the whole of 2013? Don’t judge me, but it would probably be this:

Murray wins Wimbledon