An awkward blogpost

September 2015 is – without doing any kind of check whatsoever – the first calendar month in years in which I’ve not posted a blogpost, and we’re now two-thirds of the way through October. Therefore this post is simply awkward, like a coffee date with a friend unseen for years with no explanation, it just needs to be got through. In fact, reading it is entirely optional!

September 2015 was also a month in which a few things happened:

  • My housemate gave birth to the rather delightful Serenna on the 2nd. Her time in hospital and the impact of her return home meant that I was on babysitting duties with her older brother a little more than usual. Plus, it turns out that living with a newborn can prove distracting!
  • Newborns are both distracting and therapeutic. Serenna proved to be an excellent relaxation tool at the end of a long day writing – after all September 18th was the day on which my final MA essay and my dissertation were handed in! (That would be 27,500 words across the two assignments.)
  • How better to celebrate a completed MA than by watching one’s home nation playing their national sport in the city that was also one’s home for 9 years? Tonga Vs Georgia at Kingsholm may have had a disappointing result, but it was an ideal celebration the day after the deadline.
  • Big Cottage number two marked the start of a well-deserved fortnight’s holiday and two consecutive Sundays off. It was fabulous, not least because I had sole use of a ridiculously huge bathroom. (This is a big deal when current bathing arrangements at home involve a bathroom shared between 6-9 adults at any one time…)
  • What to do with nearly 2 weeks off? Go to America, naturally! I took the opportunity to gallivant off to the East Coast, visiting New York and Vermont respectively. There is much blog fodder from this trip.

The above isn’t so much a blogpost but a listicle. So to finish up and get this inconvenient ‘Er, hello! I’m back!’ post out of the way, I’ll leave you with a story…

As mentioned, I went to the Rugby World Cup to see Tonga play – which was fab, especially as it gave me a chance to catch up with a few Gloucester chums. I booked a train back to London at the sensible hour of 7.15pm (that early start on a Sunday still doesn’t feel normal!), which coincided with the time at which a number of clergy were also leaving Gloucester having attended the landmark consecration of the first female diocesan bishop in the Church of England at the cathedral. [Whooop! Go Bishop Rachel!] We were scheduled to reach Paddington at just after 9pm, however, due to unforeseen events – the Rugby World Cup primarily, because no one knew that was happening… –  I didn’t get there until nearly 1am.

My journey was scuppered by a cancelled train; queues of rugby fans leaving Cardiff; trains that couldn’t be boarded in Bristol; a taxi to London that broke down on the M4 just before Heathrow; a 2 hour wait on the hard shoulder; a rude First Great Western employee at Paddington and his even ruder manager; and two night buses which eventually got me into my bed at 3.30am.

Grounds for complaint to First Great Western (who, as if to distance themselves from this debacle, renamed themselves Great Western Railway not three hours after I returned home), no?? Oh yes! A bullet pointed email was duly dispatched on the Monday morning and I awaited a reply that was supposedly due in 5 working days…

…20 working days later, I received an email. It informed me that my train from Gloucester was never going to run, because of an amended rugby timetable – but that I wouldn’t have known this in advance as they decided not to advertise it. It also mentioned that we were diverted to Bristol (despite the chaos caused by the rugby in Cardiff) because they’d rather we waited for hours than used another train provider – a victory for privatisation! Most importantly, it agreed that the station manager should have put my taxi passengers (there were 5 of us, including an elderly couple) into taxis at Paddington to ensure that we reached our homes safely. Did I mention that we’d turned up at the station clad in foil blankets from Highway Patrol?? Oh, and they refunded my ticket (with a cheque, not rail vouchers) and gave me a free 1st Class return anywhere on their network (apparently Penzance is the furthest I could travel…). Not too shabby!

22 working days later, I received a very large package. An anonymous admirer had sent me a delightful bouquet of roses! Oh. Wait. It was First Great Western, apologising in style.

Great Western Roses

Great Western Railway. You provided rubbish customer service last month, but you do apologise in style!

Let that be a lesson in complaining for you all…

When is a retreat not a retreat?

When it’s a pilgrimage that encompasses over 200 miles of travelling; includes three churches, one ruined Abbey and one minster; and eight separate acts of worship – all in the space of 48 hours.

Pilgrimage Places of WorshipPickering Parish Church, Lastingham, Old Bydale, Rievaulx Abbey & York Minster.

Retreats are meant to give you space away from the rigours of ordinary life. Often, they involve extended periods of silence; time in prayer; meditation; focusing on icons or Bible passages; and generally getting away from it all. But not this one!

Each year, as part of the vicar school programme, we get to choose a retreat. In my first year, I went ‘fingerpainting for God’ [my title, not theirs] and inadvertently created a pair of heavenly orbs. Last year, I was on the only retreat that wasn’t cancelled by snow, a retreat in daily life that lasted the whole of lent. This year, partly owing to some epic diary clashes (all my own fault and largely theatre related), I was prompted to go for the mid-week retreat, rather than a weekend. Plus, this particular retreat looked right up my street. It would be a return to Wydale Hall near Scarborough (where we got creative 2 years ago), which is in a stunning location. And, it involved travelling around North Yorkshire, visiting churches and learning lots of history – basically, what all Clutterbuck family holidays were made of.

There wasn’t much time for sitting quietly, reading and meditating – but there were a lot of other things that you wouldn’t necessarily find on a typical retreat…

1) Steam trains
Sitting in the parish church of Pickering, listening to a talk on its historic wall paintings, I heard the unmistakable “peeeeep” of a steam train whistle. A moment later, I noticed the friend next to me checking the map on their iPhone and  wondered if they were checking to see where the train line was. As we left the church for a short break, it emerged I was correct in my wondering – so we set off to locate the train. Turns out, Pickering has a gorgeous old-school station for the North Yorkshire Moors Railway. ‘School’ was the operative word, as it looked like a location for many of the school stories I hold dear.

Pickering Station

2) Lambs
You know you’re not in London any more when you find sheep in a church graveyard. You’re definitely outside any kind of urban environment when you find a farm next to a vicarage! Up in the tiny village (hamlet, possibly) of Old Bydale, we met brand new lambs, some just minutes old. (In fact, we met a few lamb placentas too, but I decided they didn’t need photographing.)


3) Lectures on the history of spirituality in north-eastern England. As I sat upon the ruins of Riveaux Abbey’s Chapter House, listening to our Assistant Dean tell the story of St Aelread, I reflected that twenty years earlier, I would have strongly rebelled at such behaviour. In fact, I might have stropped back to the family car in protest of my Dad’s (because it is always our Dad who reads aloud from guide books in this way) über embarrassing actions!

4) Ruins
I love a good ruin. Especially on a sunny day and with 90 minutes to spend amongst the stones. (This was the most meditative point of the retreat. I spent a lot of time sitting on stones.)

Reivaulx Abbey

Reivaulx Abbey

5) Actual saints. Some of our contemporaries spent time contemplating icons. We spent a morning taking communion in the crypt of a church built upon the tomb of St Cedd. You can’t get much closer to an actual saint than that…

Lastingham Crypt

All in all, it was an excellent experience – albeit one that I’ve come away from realising that in my life I need both interesting, historical pilgrimages and space to meditate and reflect. At the end of the 48 hours I could have done with a retreat from the retreat!

Moi, j’y vais en TGV

It’s funny the things you remember from school. The title of this blogpost is the first line in a song about the French rail network (well, specifically, a journey from Paris to Geneva) – until I googled it, I could only remember the first two lines:
Moi, j’y vais en TGV
J’ai mon billet, faut le composter

If your French is lacking, all you need to know is that it’s a curiously informative song from the classic French textbook Tricolore – beloved of most British secondary schools. The singer is delighted to be travelling on a TGV; they have their ticket; and they have had it checked by a machine on the platform. If you’d like to sing the whole delightful tale, simply follow this link… [Tricolore did a good line in educational songs – such as ‘une, deux, trois – salut, c’est moi; quatre, cinq, six – j’abite à Nice…’ Catchy, non? To be honest, I was always jealous of top-set French – they got to learn French Celine Dion songs.]

That TGV song had taught me practically everything I knew about travel on the French rail network, prior to my inaugural journey from Paris to Limoges en route to Chateau Duffy III. It wasn’t hugely helpful, largely owing to the fact that the character in Tricolore who travelled from Paris to Geneva didn’t have a 1st Class ticket…

Oh yes, this was European train travel in style – kinda. I’d passed on responsibility of ticket buying to my travel companion, which turned out to be an excellent move as they noticed that 1st Class was only a little more pricey than standard. [To clarify, on Eurostar there’s actually two divisions of 1st – Business and ‘Standard Premiere’ – we had the latter.]

What they’d also manage to do was forget to tell me of this purchasing achievement. (Though, to be fair, I had a copy of the email so if I’d read it properly, I might have known.) This meant that I managed to look a little bit of a twit once on board the Eurostar as I gazed around in awe and wonder wondering why it looked so different than on my previous three trips. I then immediately began to wonder what the complimentary breakfast would be like.

Eurostar BreakfastBreakfast. Rather nice actually. Passengers had a choice of pain au chocolat or apple – who would choose fruit over pastry??

Because we are actually both idiots, neither of us realised that we’d also be in 1st on our SNCF TGV service from Paris Austerlitz to Limoges Benedict. Rather sheepishly, we climbed into our 1st class carriage leaving three Texan friends to enjoy standard further down the train. (Fear not, we had our come-uppance – our seats faced backwards meaning that travel nausea was inevitable.)

Ever wondered what an SNCF 1st class carriage looks like? It’s a bit like this:

Ok, so not that exciting. Also, there didn’t seem to be the freebies you’d usually get on a British train – we weren’t offered anything, but there may have been a French system we were unaware of. Certainly, train gin & tonics were not forthcoming. However, the seats had an array of features that could be played with, which kept one amused for all of ten minutes – they reclined, had foot rests, tables, bins, plug sockets, magazine racks and, most importantly, a beverage holder.

Brilliantly, because we’re really that idiotic, we didn’t realise that our return leg was 1st class until we boarded the train back to Paris. It turns out that evening Eurostar journeys are even more exciting than early morning ones – there’s booze…

Only downside is that all meals are served cold.

 Not only is there booze, but there is a decent choice. We were offered white, red or rosé  – but choose red (as my neighbour did) and you then get further choices. Wonderful. Oh, and the seats reclined beautifully too and were wonderful for napping in – I know this because I napped all the way home once I’d finished playing with my food.

One thing’s for sure, the Vicar School jaunt to Lille on board Eurostar in November is going to be very tame in comparison.

Speaking too soon

Or, in this case, blogging too soon.

The other day I extolled the virtues of sailing to Ireland, rather than flying. At the back of my mind was the thought that perhaps I should save the post until I’d completed my return journey, but in the end I decided to go with it.

The morning after I published it, I got a text from the ferry company informing me that severe weather conditions had put my crossing in jeopardy. Within two hours, it had officially been cancelled. I was automatically transferred to one of two slower crossings – one at 8.05 or 20.55. This boiled down to a choice between a 5am drive to Dublin, or four and a half hours on the platform of Holyhead station in the early hours of the morning. The former – thanks to a generous offer of a lift from my father – won.

A good thing about ferry crossings is that even when fast crossings are cancelled, the slow ones almost always go. It’s not like flights where cancellations wreak havoc; it simply means that the massive slow boats (on Irish Ferries, it’s the Ulysses, which seems appropriate) become fuller and you’re faced with a four hour voyage instead of a two hour one. However, there are fewer crossings – which can mean if the quick ferry is cancelled at the last minute, you have a lot of time to kill in Dublin. [Seven years ago this happened to us on one of the coldest days I’ve ever known. My mother insists that this has put her off the city forever.]

Anyway, this change of plan basically meant that today, my already epic journey became epic-er. At 5.15am I waved goodbye to my Mum; by 7.15 I was boarding the boat – so far so good. However, by the time I finally disembarked at midday (and endured a ridiculous baggage fiasco) and got a seat on a train that was packed (thanks to the simultaneous arrival of two packed ferries), my patience was wearing very thin. Add to the confusion train announcements that were entirely in Welsh, and by 12.30 I was beginning to unravel. I spent a good while actually believing I was on the wrong train – after all, surely a train going to Cardiff from Holyhead couldn’t also be going north to Chester? [Turns out it does – Welsh trainlines are very special.]

All that kept me sane was a serious dose of magic, in the form of Harry Potter 2, 3 and 4, and a picnic breakfast/lunch/tea made lovingly by my mother. Exactly 12 hours after I’d left Belfast, I arrived at my front door. After so many hours travelling (and making it through four different countries), you might have thought I’d have ended up somewhere a lot more interesting…

Friday Fun with tat and trains

My Post-It Note of possible Friday Fun ideas is overflowing this week, which would usually be a good thing, but today is something of a sober and holy Friday and some of it wouldn’t be suitable for such an occasion. (Even less suitable than that fun family past-time of watching The Life of Brian on Good Friday.) Last year I solved the Friday Fun/Good Friday conundrum by finding some virtuous fun, but I’m pretty sure little on my yellow square today is virtuous. Plus, I’m writing this yesterday as today I’ll be in sunny Hemel Hempsted hanging with my girls [yep, I’m going gangsta on you] and won’t be near a computer to spot appropriate fun that turns up on Facebook and Twitter.

Preamble over, the gist is that I’ve got some fun for you today and, as a special Easter bank holiday bonus, more fun tomorrow…

You know what’s happening this time next week? Two people will be tying the knot in a London church and the people of Britain will be celebrating/enjoying an extra lie-in. I call myself a republican, but secretly I love watching this kind of thing – I just think it’s fascinating from a historical point of view – even if the media manage to get completely hysterical about it. Then there’s the merchandise…

There’s a lot of it and much of it’s complete tat. I won’t be owning any, but I did have to pop into Cath Kidston earlier in the week to buy some of their (rather classier) celebratory merchandise as a present for a friend who just adores this stuff. Don’t worry though, you don’t have to go hunting for the worst of the worst – there are people out there who’ve done it for you. Like Royal Wedding Tat which does exactly what it says on the tin.

Image from here

Wills & Kate Pez dispenser? Fridge? Pizza? Pies? Honestly – utterly ridiculous.

If the thought of the wedding and all the associated shenanigans simply makes you want to burrow underground then have no fear – I have some fun for you too. You know how much I love London Transport and its disused stations, well yesterday I discovered another relic of a former underground system – the Mail Rail.

I say ‘discovered’, it’s not as if I fell down a hole and landed on one of its platforms. All I did was read this post chronicling a journey a group of trespassers had along its tracks. [That link worked fine on Wednesday, but as I write wasn’t – hopefully it’s just a case of too much traffic rather than the Post Office shutting it down.] It’s both fabulous and utterly crazy – they scaled a wall to get in and walked 14 miles overnight documenting their discoveries, running the risk of being caught several times. For years they had wanted to see the retired (as of 2003) Mail Rail system and recently they managed it. It was track that ran from Paddington to Whitechapel and connected the major Post Office sorting depots along the way – as ever, with such nerdy things, there’s a fairly comprehensive Wikipedia page on its history. When it closed it was simply mothballed, thus much of it remains intact – as if someone had just gone out for lunch. Wonderful and unsurprisingly, terribly tempting.

So that’s my ‘clean’ fun for this week – wait till you see tomorrow’s.