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


Failure to prepare is preparing to fail…

When I travel, I like to prepare. I have an A5 notebook entirely dedicated to packing lists – it lives on my bedside table and contains the details of what I’ve packed for every trip since around 2008. Yes, I am *that* anal.

However, I’ve become rather blasé about packing for vicar weekends. We have lots of them, I need the same things each time, it’s only two nights – what could go wrong? I hate to generalise, but there’s rarely a residential when one of the men hasn’t forgotten something fairly crucial. Toothbrushes are frequently neglected, in fact one friend has now forgotten his twice, including once in France – resulting in a very amusing Franglais conversation in a corner shop in an attempt to procure one.

But, as of this past weekend, I can no longer mock. On Friday, as I unpacked at our latest residential, I realised I’d forgotten my hairbrush. Inconvenient, but by no means a disaster. Especially as I had packed my new hairstyling gizmo (the Babyliss Big Hair – it’s amaaazing), which would brush my hair as I dried it on Saturday morning. Plus, various people offered to lend me one. Easily solvable.

During Friday evening’s lecture, a thought crossed my mind. I pondered which pants I’d packed. (Yes, this is the kind of thought that crosses my mind during a theology lecture. I’m sorry. I’m very easily distracted.) I couldn’t remember and, worse still, I couldn’t recall the action of placing them into my bag. Hmmmm. This could be a difficult one to resolve.

Before bed, I remembered this pondering and checked my bag. No pants. But, at least I had the opportunity to handwash them, and hope that they’d have dried on the radiator (of my very toasty room) overnight. I came up with a couple of back-up plans – namely using leggings as underwear (but only after checking that they weren’t the pair with an unfortunately placed hole in the seam) and persuading someone to drive me to Sainsbury’s sharpish – but fortunately, they were dry by morning. [Why did this have to happen the very weekend I’d decided to risk an outfit that was simply a long top and leggings??]

Obviously, I’d also tweeted about this misdemeanor. Not in a ‘Oh no! I’ve forgotten my pants!’ way, simply: “Hmmmm, looks like my hairbrush wasn’t the only thing I forgot this weekend… #MajorError”. And obviously, my sister instantly knew what I’d done and invoked one of her favourite memories of me from primary school, ending her tweet with: “Does dad need to do another emergency pants delivery?” Yes, one day, when I was 9, I’d worn my swimsuit to school, realised when getting dressed afterwards that I’d forgotten my underwear, and I suspect (though I can’t remember) then threw a wobbly and insisted that my Dad came to school with some immediately. Everyone’s been there, surely?

Facebook revelationsA Facebook status in the same vein. I only went as far as to like the correct response…

In fact, I’ve been there as an adult. Not often, occasionally I’ve forgotten my pants on a swimming day, but never before for a 48 hour trip. On this occasion, blame lies entirely with my new weekend bag. I was clearly so excited by my recent purchase (less than 2 hours prior to packing) and all the extra space it had compared to my gym bag, that I decided not to fill it to its maximum capacity.

I am an idiot.

Treasures in Tewks

It’s great having siblings that know you well. Over half-term (how great is it to have half-terms again?!) I paid a flying visit to the shire, [well, I say ‘flying’, First Great Western got my there fairly speedily by train] and as a special treat, my sister had saved an exciting activity for us to do while I was there…

Tewkesbury, on the surface, is a fairly sleepy town. You can walk round it in 20 minutes. It doesn’t have a wide range of shops (its M&S closed down over a year ago), it does have an ancient abbey. The most dramatic thing to have happened there was the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471 (part of the War of the Roses) – until 2007, when the town was over-run with water:

Thus, the thought of a exciting activity based in the town was rather intriguing – even more so when I discovered it was part of a fundraising activity from church (which in her case is the aforementioned abbey) – but my interest was truly awakened when I realised it was a competitive quiz:

That’s the quiz sheet – a collection of 30 images involving parts of the town (in a defined geographical area) and the abbey. Our mission was to locate them all and we only had a morning. Joyful. I love a good mission and a random adventure!

Luckily, she’d already identified a few of them (like number 25 – the West Window of the abbey photographed from below) so the task was slightly less daunting. Off we headed to the abbey, where we certainly did not use Verger contacts in order to get a head start… We foolishly assumed that #16 was part of a stained glass window – more fool us, how did we not realise it was a roof boss? [Who knew ‘roof boss’ was the official term for those things on the ceilings of abbeys/cathedrals?] However, it was once we left the abbey that things got really exciting.

In addition to the super-exciting quiz, Mim also took the opportunity to show me hidden nooks and crannies of the town. As we ventured up one alley, we unexpectedly found #11, quickly followed by #5 and #23. The next alley yielded even more – and our shouts of excitement with each new discovery were getting louder. As we paused for a breather (and to write down further answers using a bin as a desk) we spotted another three. Within an hour and a half of starting, we’d crossed off the majority – leaving just a few for Mim to finish off with some younger friends.

But the treasures of Tewkesbury did not end there. In the summer, I had an unexpected phone call from my mother, asking me questions about Chalet School hardbacks thanks to a discovery in the town’s second hand bookshop – it yielded me a copy of The Chalet School Goes To It. Clearly, I needed to make my own visit, though there were serious money implications. Within seconds of stepping over the threshold, I spied a shelf of familiar spines. My sister likes to help other people spend their money and she soon had me convinced that the two first editions and fully dust-jacketted hardbacks I held in my hand were veritable bargains (they really were, but it still came to quite a lot of money). Then, I glimpsed the cabinet…

…I think most Chalet School fans covet a few particular titles owing to their dust-jackets (it isn’t just me, is it?) and I would suspect that a highly sought after one would be The Chalet School Reunion, as its jacket features a collection of characters, with a key as to who’s who. As I approached the till to pay for my discoveries, I spotted three CS books in the cabinet – and there was an immaculate Reunion. (Plus two immaculate Coming of Age of the Chalet School. All three were first editions.) One of the books cost the same as the three I held in my hand, but I was tempted. At least I have now held those books, and that’s something.

Joey Goes to the Oberland, A Genius at the Chalet School & Shocks for the Chalet School

Go, visit Tewks! (Just don’t buy the Chalet School books I left behind.) Or, if you can’t be bothered, devise your own photographic treasure hunt and invite your friends along for a competitive afternoon of random object hunting. Fun for everyone.

Journalling a sibling rivalry

One of the good things about having a sibling is that you can test whether certain quirks of your personality are a result of nature or nurture. Mim and I have a reputation for sororal telepathy as far as fashion, birthday greetings and Facebook statuses are concerned (we published near identical ones on our return from Paris and not simply in a “I just came back from Paris” way).

However, one major difference in our personalities relates to travel. I love it; she doesn’t. Flights to and from Belfast are taken under duress. She has absolutely no desire to visit New Zealand. She’s not spectacularly keen on new places. And when she does travel, she doesn’t write a journal…

As I’ve explained before, our parents were very insistent when we were growing up that we should record our family holidays for posterity. Not just photographically, but in writing. As youngsters we were started on scrapbooks that might contain a sentence or two about our activities (very early books indicate some tracing over parental writing) as well as suitable souvenirs and illustrations – drawings of sandcastles, ice lolly sticks, postcards and sheep wool amongst other ‘interesting’ items. This progressed to more writing based journalling – by age 9 I was writing more and in notebooks of my own choosing. Generally, such entries were about food – but I’ve mentioned that before too.

When we went to America the summer I was 10 and Mim was 7 the journalling was even more important – it was part of the deal struck with school to let us out of the classroom a few weeks early for an important cross-cultural encounter. The last time I read through my creation I discovered a bizarre mix of (bad) drawings (particularly one of Ellis Island and someone crying), lists of food (typical) and observations of weird Americanisms (our mother specifically told us before we left that we should only refer to rubbers as erasers in America, it took me years to work out why). Anyway, the pinnacle of Mim’s travel journalling career was reached during this summer, with her description of our 4th July experience in New York:

“We watched fireworks, this is the sound they made: bang.”
[Actually, to give the girl credit, she was still 3 weeks off turning 7 and managed to use a colon correctly.] 

Anyway, the bottom line is that travel journalling is a past time that me and my parents value immensely, but she doesn’t. My journalling has been refined over the years to the point that I’m now terribly specific about what is required (what a surprise, me, being terribly specific about something!):
  • A5 sized notebook, lined, preferably with an elastic band round the cover. 

  • Different colour pens. (Or, as I acquired recently, a pen of many colours – not had one since school!)

  • Scissors, glue & sticky tape. 

  • Pile of stuff gleaned from places visited – tickets, boarding passes, receipts, postcards, business cards, maps, food packaging… 

  • [Top tip for you: if you want photos of landmarks etc, pick up as many brochures as you can find in tourist information centres, then cut them up to illustrate your writing.] 

I’m incredibly glad my parents instilled this in me. In fact, it probably goes some way to explaining my fondness of blogging and did, in part, lead to my Palestinian blog which is basically a write up of my journal from a trip there in 2007. I dug out the diaries (or at least the grown up ones) last night for the purpose of this post and read the one from my first trip back to the Pacific from cover to cover. I’m quite proud of that one – I was a student and had plenty of time on my hands to work on it when I got back, which probably explains this hand-drawn map of Waiheke Island: 

One of my favourites is from my US trip two years ago. Perhaps because I travelled solo, I got a lot more of it done along the way, and it’s full of random bits of rubbish – an Oreo packet; mini cereal box; and Magnolia bakery boxes to name but a few. I had a lovely A5 notebook, with a classic NYC image on the front, but the irritating thing was that because American paper sizes are different, stuff I collected didn’t always fit – thank goodness I carried scissors… 

Oh yes, and the other thing I’ve got into – the notebook cover collage. As if the inside wasn’t enough!
Going back to my sister and journalling. As we waited for the Eurostar at some unearthly hour of the morning the other week, our Mum handed us a notebook each and informed us that she was carrying glue – just in case. I hadn’t been sure that two days in Paris would merit a journal, but this was only an A6 sized book and it was, after all, my first trip there. I wrote up some of the trip while we were there and on the way home, Mum took notes from guidebooks and my camera on the train and what did Mim do? Sleep. No mention was made as to whether there would be a prize for the best completed journal, but if there was, I hope I’d win after the effort I put into finishing it on Sunday.
Creative use of the Paris iPhone photos and a classic cover collage. 

What’s that you say? I ought to get a life? At least the next time I visit Paris I’ll know exactly where to find the truly amazing patisserie we visited…

Happy birthday to…


A lot of the American blogs I read go in for super cheesy birthday posts in honour of their loved ones and offspring. It’s not something I’d generally indulge in, except that as I’m tent-bound, writing a birthday greeting on my sister’s Facebook wall is an impossibility – but scheduling a blog post is not.

So, this is what she looked like 26 years ago today:

Here’s an indication of how our sibling relationship developed:

And, just so she can’t complain that I’ve posted potentially embarrassing photos of her online, here’s one in which she definitely comes off better than I do:

In the gushing American blogs, there would now follow a piece on how wonderful and amazing my sister is. But I’m neither American or gushing, so I will simply say that I hope she has a lovely day that makes up for me having given her (at her request) the saddest birthday present ever – thanks to her being hugely grown up and having just bought a house. Oh, and I hope there’s cake and she doesn’t have to make it herself! 
Our parents rather conveniently organised it so that our birthdays are only five days apart, ensuring that:
(i) It would be difficult to forget both dates, what with the first being a reminder of the second.
(ii) Joint birthday parties are excellent money saving devices.
(ii) Two summer birthdays also result in very small birthday parties, what with everyone having gone on holiday.
Now that we live miles away from each other, we no longer have to suffer the indignity of joint celebrations – so whilst it might cost more (and involve more organisational skill) to get presents where they need to be, at least there are some advantages…