London Loves

London has been in the news way too much recently, for all the wrong reasons. So I wanted to make a space where we celebrate the London we know- not the one that’s full of tragedy and police tape. Every … Continue reading

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“The Wishing Tree” at Little Angel Theatre Studio – 11/09/21

With the restrictions lifting, we were well overdue a visit to Little Angel Theatre. Luckily, we were only halfway there when I realised that this production was at Little Angel Studio, not the theatre itself. Unluckily, I realised this after I’d dropped my phone and shattered the glass so I had to figure out the route through a plastic bag that formerly held my mask and had been hastily repurposed as a makeshift screen cover. Arsenal were playing at home so our route via Highbury and Islington was a little slow but we made it to the show almost exactly on time.

The-Wishing-Tree-performed-by-Chris-Nayak-and-Nadia-Shash.-Photo-by-Ellie-Kurttz

“The Wishing Tree” is the story of Ben, an 8-year-old boy who has moved to a new estate in Islington, far away from his friends and family. He explores the estate and finds himself on a quest to help a tree sprite called Green. It’s a simple and charming story about overcoming loneliness and the voices of real Islington school children are heard, talking about their worries and wishes. There are two performers and, of course, a cast of puppets to tell the story.

The-Wishing-Tree-performed-by-Chris-Nayak-and-Nadia-Shash.-Photo-by-Ellie-Kurttz

I’m always keeping half an eye on Eva during live shows as she gets easily overwhelmed by the emotion involved. And the story was a bit emotional at the start when Ben was missing his old life so much. But she seemed OK, which means that this show is probably fine for even the most sensitive children. There are lots of light moments during the story -like when Ben meets the conker-shaped sprite of the Tree of Play – to keep the kids engaged and smiling. There was a bit of a darker moment with the eyeless sprite of the Tree of Seeing but Eva coped fine with that and the next sprite – a mango-obsessed parrot had her laughing and also “hungry for mango”. Weren’t we all?

The-Wishing-Tree-performed-by-Chris-Nayak-and-Nadia-Shash.-Photo-by-Ellie-Kurttz

Compared to some of the shows in the main theatre, this was a bit simpler using just the one set although the performers and puppets ducked in, out and around it. But the story – written by Joseph Coelho – touched on some very big themes, which might well resonate with the children who have been through such a traumatic couple of years with Covid. Who doesn’t identify with feelings of not knowing your place in the world or how to fill your time while your parents are on work calls? The real-life voices of kids added to the relatability of the piece – these children worried about climate change and not being able to see their grandparents. In a way, they spoke for all the children who’ve had to carry such a lot of anxiety around with them during These Times.

The-Wishing-Tree-performed-by-Chris-Nayak-and-Nadia-Shash.-Photo-by-Ellie-Kurttz

But as I mentioned previously, the show never verged too far into darkness and emotional turmoil. There was enough humour and fun to reassure any kids watching that, even through the darker times, there was still light and colour and optimism. The ribbons of the rebuilt wishing tree at the end very much symbolised this hope – that there was a better future ahead and that kids could make wishes and believe that there could come true.

So, pretty much the perfect show for these times, as we slowly emerge from Covid and try to make sense of the world around us. Challenging in parts, but reassuring too and imbued with a real warmth and humanity.

And Eva emerged smiling from the theatre, which is a real win. Of course, it might have been the prospect of buying a fox glove puppet on the way out that was making her smile too:

Or maybe the prospect of yummy ice cream at Udderlicious on Upper Street:

But either way, it was a lovely day out for me and the girl. And here’s hoping there will be many more theatre trips to come….

Disclaimer: I received free tickets in exchange for a review. All opinions remain honest and my own

“The Wishing Tree” runs at Little Angel Studios until 26th September. For tickets and more info, click here

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Britannia Leisure Centre – 03/09/21

 

It’s pretty much the end of the summer holidays! Eva went back to school today, which meant Roo and I had a day to do something fun together without her. I was on annual leave for the latter half of this week and used yesterday’s day to comb Westfield for PE kit (I’m not blogging about that one. It’s too painful) so I wanted today to be actual fun, rather than just survival. Reuben’s only request was to go swimming and, by chance, a message from a friend on a church WhatsApp group reminded me that we had not yet checked out the new Jewel of Hackney – the state of the art Britannia Leisure Centre.

When I say Hackney, I mean the Borough of Hackney. Not that this sparkly new swimming pool is somewhere conveniently near Hackney Downs or anywhere else easy to get to from Chingford. In fact, it’s tucked right into the south-west corner of the borough, near the Islington border but again, not so near to church that we could just take a variation on our usual route there. The nearest station is Hoxton but that’s not particularly handily connected so I made the bold decision to just walk it from Liverpool Street and stop for brunch somewhere along the way. Which all worked fine, mainly because the boy wasn’t paying much attention to how far we’d walked and instead was busy walking me through a hypothetical battle for global supremacy between vampires and zombies. The vampires would win.

Anyway, we saw some pretty things along the way, like this tunnel of lights underneath Broadgate Circus:

The walk between Liverpool Street and our brunch spot took about 20 mins and was around a mile or so, which means it wasn’t a totally crazy idea with a long-legged boy. I’d spent a while researching brunch spots in the Hoxton and Shoreditch areas because a lot of the options were bound to be way too hipster for the likes of us. Anywhere that threatened to deconstruct a fry up was struck off the list but Muzzy’s Cafe on Pitchfield Street seemed like a likely candidate.

And it did indeed tick all the boxes! At £5.45, the “Little English” breakfast was good value and the bacon was exactly the right level of crispiness. The sausage was properly yummy too. Roo had the Sunshine smoothie and I had the fresh orange juice, both of which were good, and it was all very unrushed and unpretentious….which are rare traits in Hoxton bruncheries. My food photography has not improved, but you get the gist.

Now everyone knows you are not meant to eat directly before swimming because of your stomach falling out or piranhas or somesuch so it was lucky that we had almost an hour to kill between brunch and our booked swim slot at 12:30. I say “lucky”, I mean I planned it this way. Didn’t stop Reuben thinking I’d epically failed when I said we had to hang around Shoreditch Park for 45 minutes before we’d be allowed in. But there’s a substantially sized playground there, so he managed to occupy himself for that fallow time. It looks like it’s been quite newly developed, with challenging climbing apparatus and a “natural” play area.

The park also has a vast stretch of grass, which had plenty of dogs for us to coo over. And they’re well looked after, with these Pawstations:

So onto the point of our visit – the new pool. As with all Better centres, the facilities are good but the admin can sometimes be challenging. We’d prebooked but when we got there, there was quite a queue at Reception and someone telling us to just scan the barcode to go through the gates. That didn’t work, so we asked someone else who said that we needed a wristband for swimming, so had to join the queue. Which was all fine, but a sign or two with instructions would not have gone amiss.

The changing village is fairly large although I struggled to find a cubicle when we got out. Everything was pretty clean, except for something unsightly in the loos but there was a cleaner on hand to deal with that. Loads of available lockers and piping hot showers…so far, so good.

And then there’s the flume! At the point of showering, there’s the option to turn right for the Main Pool and Training Pool or left for “Leisure Water”. We figured that’s where the flume would be, so took the left option assuming we could come back to the Main Pool later. That assumption turned out to be wrong, and we were told that once we’d picked the flume side, we had to stay there. Again, it’s that Better level of admin where you find out rules as you’re dripping wet by the side of a pool as opposed to at the point of booking. No signs anywhere mentioned that it was only one or the other and I’m sure I read the Attendance Rules when I booked in case of these kind of shenanigans. Looking at the site again, I think because I clicked through from the picture of the slide it only gave me the option of the Leisure Pool booking but, as ever, booking with Better is all very confusing. There is a swimming pool on the Leisure side but it’s designed for toddlers so not really somewhere a 12-year-old can swim without bumping into a tiny one. At the same time, very few 12-year-olds would want to swim up and down the lanes on the other side without giving the flume a go. So it’s tricky if you fancy a bit of sliding and a bit of swimming. But I’m clarifying the rules here so that you read them before you’re on that poolside. To be fair to the lifeguard, she did say something about how he could do the swim test but he’d wandered off by then so we just spent all our time on the Leisure side, probably annoying anyone with a baby or toddler. Sorry about that.

But enough negativity! Because the actual Leisure pool was amazing. I only went down the flume once before concluding it was a young woman’s game but Reuben went down five times. It’s not quite like any other flume I’ve ever been on before. There are lights, sounds and images inside the flume and one bit in particular makes you feel like you’re going through a portal into another dimension. It’s like the opening sequence to Doctor Who but with a better budget and, sadly, no David Tennant.

While Roo repeatedly scampered up the steps to the flume, I relaxed in the toddler pool underneath it. There’s a tiled seat built into one end, with jets of water so it gives the effect of an underwater jacuzzi-sofa. Good for soothing those muscles after our long walk. There are also fountains of water on each side of the pool, which are fun to swim under, and a curious area that is very shallow and acts a bit like a shelf with a couple of inches of water above it. I’m guessing that might be for disabled access but I have no idea and there’s no explanation on the website.

There’s also a paddling pool for the very littlies, with lots of water play activities, and an area called Splash Pad, which had larger scale water jets and showers and a small slide. I don’t think Roo was meant to be in that bit but he did have a sneaky play with the water buckets just so he could tip a load of water into my face. Charming child. The showers that come off the Splash Pad are very hard – also good for aching muscles – and every so often, the giant bucket on the top tips over and we all get drenched. It’s fun.

We left after 45 minutes because I was paranoid about being late for school pick up on the first day back. Roo had to be frogmarched away from all the fun stuff and because we left while the next session of people were getting ready to go in, it was a bit of a challenge finding a cubicle each. So probably best to just use your full hour and then it’ll all work more smoothly.

On the way out, we grabbed a coffee and a Coke and a couple of shortbreads from the cafe, which has two counters and one of them is handily near the entrance to the changing village. We decided to get the bus back to Liverpool Street – or at least as far as Moorgate – so hopped on a 21 but my plan for a leisurely trip back was scuppered when the driver announced the bus was on diversion and wouldn’t be going to Moorgate. So we got out on the wrong side of Finsbury Square and had a bit of a schlep back to Liverpool Street while I tried to convince Reuben that I didn’t need to check Google Maps because I was 91% sure where we going and look, there’s that bit of wall where I once saw something unsightly in a Wasabi box.

Anyway, we made it back and it turns out that Liverpool Street has a whole new extra shopping mall bolted onto its western end nowadays. We didn’t have time to properly see what was there but there’s a list of shops here if you’re interested. At a glance, no sign of that school-uniform-and-teacher-gifts shop us City mothers so desperately need though.

So, a lovely day out with my boy and really excited to find a fun new pool. He definitely wants to go back, we definitely need to work on our route to get there. And Better definitely need to work on their signage. But, in the words of Loki and often quoted by Reuben, what did you expect?

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Kidwelly Castle – 19/08/21

On our fourth day in Llanelli, the weather was looking threatening. After two days on the the beach under ambiguous skies, it was time to find an activity that might withstand a bit of rain. And given we were in Wales, what better than a visit to a castle? I do understand that most castles don’t have roofs and so aren’t really weather-proof at all but the logic was that it would be better than sitting on wet sand  At least we could keep moving.

There are a few castles to choose from but there was another part to my plan. While we’d been sitting on Llanelli Beach, I’d spotted a tiny train that went right along the coastline and for some reason I really wanted to have a trip on it. We could have driven to Kidwelly but we had done a lot of driving and the tiny train would take us there too. It would be an adventure!

The first thing I noticed on our adventure was a level crossing, which made us feel very at home because it’s just like the one in Highams Park. The next thing I noticed was that we were wayyyyy too early for our train. I’d imagined that leaving the apartment would take longer than it did and I’d also imagined that the walk would take longer too. Trains only run every couple of hours so it was very important to me that we didn’t miss it. Which meant, almost inevitably, that we were half an hour early for the train. As we sat on the platform and waited, an announcement told us that the Cardiff Central train had been cancelled. Which was fine, cause that was in the opposite direction to Kidwelly, but it did make me wonder whether ours would be cancelled too. It wasn’t, but it was around 15 minutes late. So we were sitting on Platfform Un of Llanelli station for 45 minutes, all told. My kids were unimpressed by this adventure so far.

But you know what? The tiny train was cool! It went so close to the edge of the coast that it felt like we were about to tip into the sea.

It’s entirely possible that I was still the only one enjoying this adventure. But they’d be fine once we got off the train in the middle of nowhere, right?

Ah no, more complaining ensued. What was not fun about wandering around a small Welsh town in search of a castle?

Luckily, we found a playground where we stopped for a while so the children could rest their walking legs and let their playing legs take over.

There was an interesting looking sensory garden there but we didn’t have time to explore. The train back was at a very specific time and we still had a castle to find and walk around.

Luckily, everything in Kidwelly was helpfully labelled, so, having walked down Station Road away from the station, we used Bridge Street to cross the river and then Castle Street was right there on our right.  And there was a castle!

I didn’t realise at the time but it was the castle from the first scene of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I think we were talking about the Holy Grail as we wandered around but it didn’t occur to me that we were in an actual filming location. If it had, we definitely would have had more conversations about swallows from the parapets.

But we did walk the parapets, and the kids saw off any invaders with their light sabre and imaginary arrows:

Nathan and Roo also went to the top of one of the towers but Eva and I wussed out because of the very tight spiral staircase. We got about halfway up and then aborted but the boys made it all the way:

Eva and I also weren’t super keen on the dungeons but Roo and Nathan had a look around the Slytherin dormitories:

Roo’s favourite thing seemed to be folding himself into small spaces that used to be ovens or fireplaces:

Although he also enjoyed the throne room:

And a chance to pose with real armour:

Eva also liked that bit:

We spent around an hour wandering about, with an eye always on that train back that we needed to not miss. We saw some very Good Dogs and stopped on the benches to eat Pringles and hobnobs. Despite my misgivings about the weather, we were actually super lucky and the rain held off. It even occasionally tipped over into “sunshiney”.

There’s a lot to explore at Kidwelly and we could have stayed longer but I think we covered the main bits. We could have used a bit more time to stop and read everything but most of the time we were chasing the kids anyway. I’ve always been slightly sceptical about castle visits ever since a very disappointing childhood visit to a mott and bailey castle, which was all mott and no bailey. In other words, it was just a hill with a sign on it. So it’s always good to find a castle that still has walls and towers and ovens that you can pop the firstborn into.

We left with plenty of time before the train and I was surprised to find out it was a request stop where you had to flag down the train, Railway Children style. We didn’t have any red petticoats but I considered using Nathan’s red t-shirt instead. Luckily, some local people turned up and we had to assume they knew what to do and it wouldn’t involve any spontaneous flag-fashioning,

Happily, the train turned up only a few minutes late and stopped to let us on before delivering us back to Llanelli 12 minutes later. I call that a successful adventure. And the family sort of agree….I think.

 

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“The Prince of Egypt” at Dominion Theatre – 26/08/21

LtoR Christine Allado (Tzipporah), Luke Brady (Moses) & Alexia Khadime (Miriam) in The Prince Of Egypt, by Matt Crockett ©DWA LLC.

I interrupt the series of “What I did on my holidays” to bring you a review of something properly exciting. We went to a West End show! For the first time in a very long time, the doors of the theatres are open and we were there to see “The Prince of Egypt” at the Dominion Theatre. Now, I should probably confess that I’ve never seen the film, unlike the people behind me who were threatening to sing along with all the songs, but I’m pretty familiar with the story.  40 years of recounting it at length at Passover have installed it fairly firmly in my brain. After all, the story of the Exodus is important to both Jews and Christians and our family – as Jewish Christians – have heard it from both points of view. But this was the first time we were witnessing it being brought to life in this way, full of brutality but also humanity.

And it’s pretty brutal to start with. Eva was a bit scared of the cracking of the whips as the Hebrews built the pyramids and she hid her face when the Hebrew babies were being killed. But it soon takes on a far more tender tone, as baby Moses is rescued by Queen Tuya in a beautiful scene that sees the company take on the form of the River Nile, rolling Moses’ basket in Tuya’s arms and his new destiny. I should say at this point that the age rating for the show is 7+ and children far younger than Eva (9) were coping just fine with the slavery scene. But if you do have a particularly sensitive one, it might be worth prepping them that there is some initial peril and suffering but that it’s pretty essential for the story.

So Moses is rescued, and grows up as a brother to the heir to the throne, Rameses. The relationship between the brothers is very much the core of the story and gives it its heart.  From carefree pranksters riding their chariots through the marketplace (“Faster”) to grown men burdened by unbearable responsibility, they drift apart, come back together and are violently wrenched apart again.  Luke Brady (Moses) and Liam Tamne (Ramses) are really convincing as brothers who are genetically different yet bonded by something that’s hard to break, even in the face of war and plagues.

The Prince Of Egypt_Photo by Matt Crockett_27756_RT.©DWA LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

If you’re a Bible purist, you might wonder where some of this source material comes from but it’s probably best not to be a purist about this and just enjoy it as a piece of entertainment. The story deviates a few times – especially the ending – but it’s best not to overthink. Because as a piece of entertainment, it is incredibly entertaining – the songs are spectacular and the effects on stage breath-taking at times. There were audible gasps during the Red Sea scene.  The group dances are full of energy, especially when Moses is dancing with the Midianites towards the end of Act 1. I think that was Eva’s favourite scene as it was a bit of light relief after some of the heavier themes of the first act. And it was led by Clive Rowe who, as the kids know, has performed with my old choir a few times so I have shared a stage with Jethro. True fact.

The second half number “Simcha” was also a highlight, as the Hebrews celebrated what they thought would be their route to freedom. There was such passion in their voices and dances that it was all the more crushing when that route to freedom was crushed. But that led to the Plagues sequence, which was one of the most spectacular parts of the whole show. The Nile turned to blood, fire rained down and the plague of boils was so realistic it was hard to look at. I won’t spoiler it by telling you all the details but it was an immense sensory experience, especially after being away from live theatre for all those months. At the performance we were at, the composer Stephen Schwartz and writer Philip LaZebnik were in the audience and came up to speak at the end. I think they spoke for us all when they said how much they’d missed this and how emotional it was to see the show brought to life. Even tough guy Hotep looked like he had a little tear in his eye.

So, I would definitely recommend this show as a summer treat for older kids. It’s dramatic, poignant and often very funny – you will go through the full gamut of emotions while watching. And “The Prince of Egypt” is taking part in the extended Kids Week 2021 so there are bargains to be had for applicable shows. More details here

I would say that *extremely* sensitive children may find some of the scenes hard to deal with  – the standard disclaimer for the show warns that “flashing lights (photosensitivity), haze, smoke, pyrotechnics, live flame and the portrayal of violence are featured on stage and loud sound effects can be heard throughout the auditorium”. So do make a judgement call based on your own child’s capacity to cope…but it is a very rewarding experience. It’s light on the romance elements, which make it good for kids like Reuben who like their musicals full of action, less full of lovey-dovey stuff. And very much one that the adults can enjoy too. It’s a powerful way to bring such a well-known story to life, full of drama, righteous anger but a lot of heart too.

Disclaimer:  I received complimentary tickets in exchange for a review. All opinions remain honest and my own. For tickets and information, click here

The Prince Of Egypt_Photo by Matt Crockett_27110_RT4_©DWA LLC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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Pembrey Country Park – 18/08/21

I’ve skipped ahead a bit in our holiday blogging because you don’t *actually* want to know about every trip to the chip shop and fight over Netflix, do you? But here we were, in a very nice apartment in Llanelli with a manmade lake on one side, that was lovely for swimming, and an estuary-beach the other side that was only a beach for a couple of hours a day. There was a lot of wet sand most of the time but the actual water was pretty far out. That’s why the lake was my preferred swimming spot. This is me, in the red hat, though you only have my word for it.

After a day or so of pootling around lake and estuary-beach, we decided to go for a Proper Day Out at Pembrey Country Park. I packed sandwiches and everything. It was only a few miles away as the crow flies but the crows weren’t flying that day, so it was about a 20 minute drive. The country park was free to get into but we had to pay for parking in advance, which was £6 for the day. There were paystations around the park but it seemed easier to just do it online before we went. I also booked bike hire for me and Roo online and we needed to pick the bikes up at 12:30. So far, so smooth.

We parked somewhere in the middle of the park, near the crazy golf, and set off towards the Ski and Adventure Centre, where we’d be picking the bikes up from in an hour or so. I lose my bearings very easily in The Countryside and this was no exception. I thought we could just amble through the forest but there didn’t seem to be many paths in the right direction so we wandered along a road that didn’t have any pavements. That road went on for a long way, past several signs to the beach, and the children started to complain.

So we took a sharp left into some grassy bit of land and tried to find a path. At one point, we found a spooky tunnel but it was fenced off and didn’t go anywhere:

And then we found these chainy-beacons, which are apparently for some kind of disc-golf. I don’t know exactly what disc golf is but there were signs around warning us of low-flying discs so I imagine it involves flinging some discs at these chain things?

It took us a while but eventually we spotted a ski slope in the distance, which we assumed belonged to the Ski and Adventure Centre. We were right! We had found civilisation and there were toilets and the promise of ice cream later. I was very relieved.

We still had a while to go before picking up the bikes so we sat down to have a picnic in a pine needle-strewn clearing.

I’ll skim over the bit where we lost Eva because none of us want to relive that. But we found a child who resembled her, so I think we got her back. And it used up a bit of time before the bike pick up.

The bike pick up was a bit protracted but I didn’t mind too much because we had them for two hours and I wasn’t sure I could cope with two full hours on a bike. Procrastination was good. I last cycled in  September 2010, which is another experience I don’t particularly want to relive. But as a kid I did enjoy cycling and this would be better than Waterloo Bridge in rush hour….right?

Yes, yes it was. I was a bit wobbly at first and I caused at least one crash with Roo when I lost my nerve on a very narrow path but most of the time, I managed to power two wheels with my two legs. Result! I am still feeling it in my knees, nearly a week later but still… Roo and I did several circuits of foresty paths while Nathan and Eva went on a wander up some hills and found a bicycle that was even bigger than the one I was riding:

Roo also had a go at the BMX track, though the bike he was riding wasn’t designed for it so the bumps were tricky. After a sit down and a drink, we were ready to go again and this time we were aiming for the playground at the other end of the park. Handily, we spotted Nathan and Eva just as we were taking our break so shared our plan with them and, when we set off again, they were in hot pursuit on foot. Well, kinda lukewarm pursuit.

We took a few wrong turns (again) but made a right at the miniature railway, and here we were at the playground! It was also gloriously sunny by this point, in contrast to the slightly grudging grey skies we’d seen while wandering lost on those never-ending roads.

We didn’t have too long to play before having to take the bikes back but that was fine because we also didn’t have anything to chain the bikes up with. So I kinda squatted by the bike racks while the kids played and then Roo and I cycled back over to the Ski centre.

We made great time on the way there but walking back to the playground afterwards, with bike-sore legs, was a bit of a slow trudge. We did find a golf course in the middle of the forest, which Nathan had told me about earlier but I just thought he was confused and meant the crazy golf. No, there is a proper golf course tucked into those trees too. Ski slopes, multiple golf courses, spooky tunnels…this park had it all.

Including a beach! Which I’d almost forgotten about in all the foresty frenzy. It was boiling by this point, so we peeled Reuben off his second round of playgrounding with the promise of an ice cream as we walked back to the car to get our beach stuff.

Of course, as soon as we sat down to eat our ice creams the sun went behind a cloud and a cold wind started to blow. Would this deter us from going to the beach? Nah, don’t be silly.

The beach was very sandy and gorgeous, which made me wish we’d gone a bit earlier when it wasn’t so cold. Roo and I went straight into the sea though, because I’ve never seen the point in hanging around cold beaches when you could be warming up in the water. I have no idea how that works but it does, as long as you’re properly immersed. When Eva wanted me to go back in later, we were just paddling and not swimming so that bit – in a wet cossie and with a harsh wind blowing – was verging on unpleasantly cold. Half an hour wave jumping with Reuben was perfectly nice and warm tho, as long as we kept moving.

Then Nathan buried Reuben in the sand. Standard.

If we were to go to Pembrey again, I’d probably do everything a bit earlier and book the bikes online a few days in advance so there were more time slots. We probably rushed a bit towards the end and missed the best of the sun to boot. Still, a lovely day out though.

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Bowood House – 15/08/21

We’ve just got back from a holiday in Wales, which I totally intend to blog about at some point. Although I’m quite tired so don’t be surprised if the holiday post goes something like “Wales, sea, fundayzzzzzzz…..”. But I’m determined to at least blog about the first day of our holiday, which wasn’t even in Wales. It was kind of in the right direction though and meant we got to hang out with the Hollies for the day. We’d decided to split the drive to Wales over two days, so had a hotel booked in Swindon for the night. Which left us freeish to explore during the day. We would have been freer if an M4 closure between Slough and Maidenhead hadn’t added some journey time on but M4 closures were a bit of a theme for our time away.

We stopped at Chieveley for coffee on the way down and, even though we’d got past the closed bit of the M4 by then, decided to eschew motorway driving for a more exciting cross-country route between Chieveley and Bowood House. And it definitely was exciting! We drove through the middle of the North Wessex Downs, which was very pretty, and past the grandeur of Marlborough College. Then we saw some properly impressive stuff – the monoliths of Avebury and the prehistoric mound of Silbury Hill -which I totally failed to get any photos of. Well, here’s a photo of a field to compensate:

All of this brought us to Bowood House by lunchtime, which was something of an achievement. We met the Hollies at the Treehouse Cafe for lunch, which is just outside the entrance of the house and grounds. The cafe selection wasn’t huge  – and they’d run out of jacket potatoes – but the staff were lovely and made a salad especially for Holly. I had a vegan cheese toastie, which I’d mainly picked because it had pickled onion in it, and it wasn’t bad considering it was vegan. Even after ten years of eating mainly dairy substitutes, I still haven’t reconciled myself to vegan cheese.

Once we’d eaten, we went through the entrance gate. We’d booked online in advance, so it was pretty easy to get checked in. We assumed the various kids would head straight for the adventure playground but they got very distracted by various climbing trees along the way, one of which had a telegraph pole growing out of it:

Eventually we got to the adventure playground, which had even more opportunities for climbing and some scarily vertical slides. No wonder the playground says “At Your Own Risk”:

The scariest was under a roof so I didn’t even see how steep it was but the ones I could see were extreme enough:

There was play equipment for younger kids too – swings and a trampoline – but it was good to find a playground that was challenging enough for tweens. The full size pirate ship was ace:

And the boat swings were a bit hit too:

We were in the playground for over an hour and only lured them out by promising a trip to the caves. The kids had formed some kind of super-secret spy corps that I can’t tell you about but it did seem to involve ducking, rolling  and hiding all the way through the ornamental gardens and the slope beyond:

It would have been nice to spend a bit more time looking at the ornamental gardens and a bit less time looking for the “stealthy” children but I did get a few photos on the way through. Like this very worried-looking lion:

And a fragile stag that the kids managed not to touch, after only a few warnings:

And a very scenic arch, with some kind of faerie thing hanging around underneath it:

On the other side of the gardens was the aforementioned rolling-down slope, a vast lake and some ha-has, which is where I presume the road in Woolwich gets its name.  If, like me, you didn’t know what a ha-ha was, let me tell you. It’s a ditch with a sunken fence, which is supposed to prevent livestock wandering all over the lawn without spoiling the view from the house. So, now you know.

The house and grounds, with the lake and boathouse and tiny temple, reminded me a lot of Ashburnham, where we’ve spent many a chilly church weekend away. Turns out they had the same landscape gardener   – Capability Brown – so it’s no wonder they’re so similar. I really am bringing on the facts today.

We kinda meandered round the lake until we found the promised caves. I wasn’t sure what to expect but there was a very dark and twisty passageway that went through the rock and the kids had a great time stumbling around in the dark. I refused to go through it on touch alone so used my phone torch to see what was around the corner. Apparently that’s no fun though. Then the kids packed themselves into another rocky nook to have a spy meeting and we enjoyed five minutes of childfree time gazing at the waterfall.

But then, they found us:

It really was very pretty and a bit like being on holiday somewhere that wasn’t Swindon.  We spent a long time scrabbling up rocks and over stepping stones and visiting a little grotto with fossils in the ceiling:

All of which inevitably meant that Eva’s legs “turned to jelly” and she couldn’t possibly walk back to the car. I bribed her along, inch by inch, with some cookie dough bites that Nathan had bought for the tube journey home the previous day before he remembered how hard it was to eat on the tube with a mask on. At one point she attempted to roll down a slope but that was something she did even more slowly than walking. The rest of the kids shot off down the hill and back the other side before she’d rolled a metre.

Somehow, we got back to the playground and there we enjoyed some well-deserved ice creams from the kiosk:

And that gave Eva the strength to finally make it across the highest of high beams:

It was getting late and we still had a little way to drive before we found our bed for the night. We’d booked the Holiday Inn, near Junction 15 of the M4. It wasn’t anything fancy but I’d made the booking halfway through our stint of self-isolation in July and it had seemed the most exciting thing in the world then that we might possibly leave the house and go and stay in Swindon for the night. It even had a swimming pool! So we checked in around 5:30 and, happily, they had timeslots available for us to swim that evening at 7 and again in the morning at 9. It was lovely and refreshing after a warm day of walking around Bowood and the kids were excited, even if they were disappointed at the jacuzzi being over 16s only. You can’t have everything, kids.

Once we were dryish, we had a late (for us) dinner at the Spotted Cow, a few minutes down the road. My instinct was to walk it after so much driving but the walking route seemed to take us over a dual carriageway with no crossing so driving it was. We ordered through the app, which is one of the only good things to come out of the pandemic, and the food arrived very quickly. Cheap, fast and filling food was exactly what we needed and the Spotted Cow certainly delivered that. We were all exhausted by this point, in case you couldn’t guess.

Then we drove back to the hotel for a slightly restless night (I was sharing a room with Eva and her feet do not stay on her side of the room) and then a fairly cheap hotel breakfast. I’m a real tightass when it comes to paying for breakfast in hotels and hadn’t paid for it beforehand because it was £14 per head, which would have been £56 for all of us. But when we checked it, I was told it was £10 per head and kids eat free. On that basis, we were in:

And we fuelled up well for another swim (allowing time for breakfast to settle first, obviously) before setting off on our drive to actual holiday. But more on that later. Maybe. Wales, sea, fundayzzzzzzz…..

 

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Hanging Around the Southbank -14/08/21

Today was a proper old school LWAT kinda day. Not much of a plan but sunshine and family made it a happy day of hanging out. We were meeting CousinZ and her parents and CousinO under the clock at Waterloo. This has been our standard assembly point since the beginning of time – I don’t remember when we first met anyone under that clock but it was probaly at least 30 years ago. Now, apparently, it’s something that everyone has latched onto:

Still, it works so well as a meeting point that I’m happy to share it. And it worked fine today – CousinO, CousinZ, my brother and sister-in-law were all located right on time and we took the level exit out of Waterloo (just behind the clock and next to Costa) to head to the Southbank Centre. We’d met at lunchtime so the first stop was at the food market at the back of the Centre. I didn’t think Roo and Eva would eat anything that was on offer, so I’d packed sandwiches for them but Reuben spotted some giant Polish sausages in baguettes and asked for one of those instead of his sandwich.

Nathan and I had BBQ bowls from the Korean BBQ stall and they were pretty good – I had some kind of sticky chicken on a bed of kimchi rice and allllll the pickled radish. So yummy. I got something beefy for Nathan but don’t exactly remember what. I avoided the super spicy options just to…errr…simplify the day. I won’t elaborate.

We found a bench near the river, using the wheelchair friendly route round the right side of the Southbank Centre (after you come out next to Giraffe, there’s a graduated slope through the middle of the steps to get you up to the river-level). The kids were obviously immediately distracted by the classic Southbank benches, which are now more postbox-red than neon-orange-red, and ran off to climb on them as soon as they’d finished eating. That kept them happy for a bit but once Reuben and Eva started arguing, we moved them swiftly on to the playground proper. On the way, I realised that the South Bank itself looked different to how it used to. Is it just me or has it got a lot leafier of late? I know these trees were always there but were they always so…well…treelike? I’m not complaining, it’s just something different.

The playground worked fine until Roo and Eva started arguing again, at which point Nathan took Reuben off for a round of hipster golf at Between the Bridges. For anyone who hasn’t been to the South Bank lately, that’s the patch of land between the Southbank Centre and the playground that was the Underbelly arena at one point and has had a million names since.

Golf was fairly pricey – £9 for adults and £5 for kids – but kept them occupied for a bit and gave Reuben something fun to do after the disappointment of Free Comic Book Day being postponed again. Nathan didn’t take any pictures, but it was apparently “a bit confusing” and squeezed into a repurposed dodgems arena. When Roo and I popped over there to enquire about availability, a whole crowd of young people were singing “Spice Up Your Life”. It was, as Nathan said, a bit confusing.

Golf aside, we lasted around two and a half hours in the playground with various trips to the M&S Food Hall to get drinks and to the Southbank to use the loos. The centre is open to the public still but seemed weirdly empty. The loos are accessible through the doors on the terrace side and other bits of the centre are roped off. Luckily, it was outdoors weather so that’s where we spent pretty much the whole afternoon. In fact, it was so outdoorsy weather that CousinZ declared she wanted to find a swimming pool to dive into. Now, swimming pools are in short supply in Waterloo (despite the watery name) and my South London knowledge is not what it was, after 7 years in the North and, quite frankly, a year and a half in my lounge. So I googled and found that there was a water feature in Victoria Tower Gardens (I think the playground is actually called Horseferry Playground) and did remember, in the dim recesses of my memory, that I had blogged about a water feature being put in there some time ago. It wasn’t a swimming pool or even a fountain but it was nearby and it would have to do. What’s the worst that could happen on the way?

Well, the unlikely answer is that we would be unable to cross Westminster Bridge Road because of a barrage of naked cyclists. I had to think for a while about what the collective noun for naked cyclists would be. A bikepump of naked cyclists? I don’t know. I do know that I should have called this post London With a T0dger but that would forever have got me the wrong kind of Google searches. Plus, it wasn’t just one. It was many, many.

The World Naked Bike Ride has been a London institution for years now but I’m not sure I’ve ever spotted it in the wild before. I have a memory of maybe glimpsing the tailend, if you will, when I worked in Oxford Street but I’ve certainly never been at eye level to it before and it was indeed eye-opening. Not that everyone was fully nude, no no. One guy was wearing a high-vis but nothing else and another guy was diligently covering his shoulders in a thick layer of suncream. Just his shoulders tho.

The website warns that children may be disconcerted by the ride and I think that’s fair to say. I mainly found it amusing, especially as the riders were gathered right outside Nathan’s office, but the kids  – and I include CousinO in that – were a little perturbed. “It’s so inappropriate!” CousinZ shouted as we walked along Westminster Bridge with the riders riding freely in the other direction. Very freely indeed.

Anyhoo, that made the walk a bit more interesting and took the kids’ minds off their hot and aching feet. When we got to Horseferry Playground, it did indeed have an underwhelming water feature which the children mostly ignored, but it was nice and shady in there so a good place to play on a warm day. It also had a statue of Emmeline Pankhurst, who Eva identified almost-correctly as “the leader of the Suffra-Gets”:

and some horse statues which reminded me of Artax from Neverending Story:

The playground has come a long way since the sad single slide we visited on New Year’s Day 2013. It now has a kiosk, selling quite impressively overpriced cans of Coke and ice creams and toilets that are accessible by paying 20p on a credit or debit card. Which is better than having to have change but I wonder if I’ll forget about it until the statement comes and ponder over what the weird 20p transaction might be. It also had disabled loos, which are free with a radar key.

It also still has a decently sized sandpit, a roundabout, swings, a slide, a wooden boat on springs and a swing that’s big enough for all three kids:

We stayed for an hour and a half or so before crossing Lambeth Bridge and wandering back along the Albert Embankment to Waterloo.

So, some old LWAT turf but unvisited since pre-pandemic times. It was really nice to be back and the South Bank always delivers when it comes to hipster food and something new to look at. I just wasn’t quite expecting exactly what we did look at….!

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“How to Make a Better World” at Chickenshed – 07/08/21

 

Wow, Chickenshed…it has been a long time. It’s been a long time since we saw any theatre at all – I think I worked out it was 18 months since our last gasp of theatrical freedom before Lockdown#1. So it was brilliant to be invited back to the Shed to join in with their Festival of Fun.

The logo for Festival of Fun is a rainbow, which was pretty appropriate because it was tipping it down when we left the house:

But sunny by the time we got there. Everything had worked out super-smooth on the journey so we even had some time to kill. We wandered around the parks just behind Chickenshed and discovered there was a playground there, which I’d never noticed before:

It was a bit too soggy for Eva to play on but worth bearing in mind if we are ever early again (seems unlikely, I know). There’s also this random bit of Art Deco clock towerness:

Which fits rather nicely with the superb Art Deco escalators at Southgate:

I know, I’ve probably mentioned them before but Southgate really is one of the best stations on the whole tube network. If nothing else compels you to go to Chickenshed, then a visit to the space station surely would.

It is striking how, after so long cooped up, the kids aren’t used to the tube any more despite being born Londoners. I bought Eva a lollipop as her ears go funny on the Victoria line and, as we emerged out of the tunnel on the Piccadilly line, she could hardly believe that there might be a tube train that goes over ground, despite the fact she’s travelled that route loads of times before. “I can’t believe I’m seeing the sky on a tube train” she exclaimed, over and over again.

Anyway, the fairest of winds meant we had time for a pot of tea and a bag of crisps in the Chickenshed cafe before the show started. The cafe isn’t yet back to doing hot food but they sell ice cream, cakes, hot drinks and other snacks so it’s a good place to sit down for half an hour or so. Eva also had a wander around the Chickenshed garden to “get a bit of fresh air” as she called it.

Once I’d finished my tea, it was time to go in. Covid precautions are still in place so ticketing is contactless – the staff members scanned QR codes, either off phones or printouts – and there are gaps between allocated seating blocks. Plus masks on for the adults during the show and the usual hand sanitiser stations etc. Other than that tho, it felt like old times. Before the show started, we were given a quiz to fill in, that was taken directly from the source material for the show “How to Make a Better World” by Keilly Swift. The quiz helped you work out what kind of activist you might be – Eva filled in most of it before the lights went down but it was revisited during the show itself so there was no need to try and get it done beforehand. She got Animal Rights Activist, if that at all surprises you.

There was a video intro to the whole thing by Keilly Swift herself, explaining that her book was non-fiction but Chickenshed were going to do a dramatic interpretation of the themes within the book. And that’s what they did. There was a loose kind of narrator character, called Prof, who introduced himself by saying how important adults were and how little children knew about anything. It got the reaction you’d expect. Of course, by the end he’d *spoilers* changed his mind and realised that children were a vital part of making the future better…but I’m sure you’re not surprised by that.

The show was very interactive, with ideas from the children forming a manifesto of how to actually make the world a better place. This was split into two parts – the first was on the subject of “People” and the kids in the audience shared their ideas, which were typed live onto a giant screen at the back of the stage. Eva was too shy to speak up at this point but she did pipe up for Manifesto Part 2, on the subject of “The Future”. Her idea was to invent a litter-picking machine so that there would be no litter on the streets. She had also previously mentioned another idea to me – “Fill the world with puppies” – but clearly she thought this might be a bit flippant in a show that dealt with weighty issues like climate change and discrimination.

If this sounds all very downbeat, be assured it wasn’t. The more serious bits were interspersed with high-energy songs and dances, such as one inspired by Frida Kahlo that I think was called “Paint Your Own Reality”. As someone who never could colour inside the lines, I really connected with that one. There were also some sketches, with typical Chickenshed surreal humour. Eva particularly enjoyed the one with the question aliens, who could only speak human when using one of their translation portals (which the non-alien among us could mistake for hula hoops). The aliens’ costumes were also very sparkly, which Eva obviously appreciated, and it was the aliens that hosted the “Which Activist are You?” quiz. One of the other sketches was to do with how different heritages could be interpreted through potato dishes, which Eva also appreciated as a big fan of most types of potato.

There was a mix of live and recorded music, with a small live band to one side of the stage and a live vocalist harmonising with the recorded track. It’s lovely to hear any kind of live singing again after so many months without music and theatre. I’m really happy that it’s back. The Chickenshed ensemble dance and act so joyously that it’s hard not to feel more positive about the world after you leave and that’s the message of the show too – yes, our children might be inheriting a world full of problems but they’ve got some great ideas as to how to sort it out. As we left, we were given a printed copy of the manifesto to take home so that the kids could start putting their ideas into action (tho “No, no, no!” might take some interpretation). It was the right balance of inspiring and entertaining without tipping into being overly worthy – there were plenty of laughs and Eva enjoyed heckling Prof (“Children know a LOT!”) as well as all the songs and dances. The run was sadly a short one so today was the final performance but hopefully it will return to Chickenshed some time in the near future.

We bought a copy of the book on the way out and Keilly Swift was there to sign it in person:

It was lucky that she had some brand new reading material for the way home because the luck we had on the way did not replicate itself on the way home. We got stuck at the bus stop, at Finsbury Park and at Walthamstow Central but the 90 pages lasted her the entire way. Plus another lollipop, obviously. She seemed to really enjoy the book and it certainly took her mind off all the delays.

And once we got home we even saw a real rainbow. I mean, it was very faint but you can more or less make it out if you squint:

And I almost forgot to mention that a new soft play and cafe has popped up at the back of Chickenshed, which we may need to try next time we’re visiting the Shed. And guess what it’s called? Yes, there was a bit of a theme today:

Plus Eva was wearing her rainbow wellies and the garden at HP stations has recently become adorned with hundreds of crocheted rainbows:

Seeing as rainbows are a symbol of hope,  it felt appropriate that we saw so many on a day when theatre finally returned to our lives. Hope is here….

Disclaimer: I received a free press ticket in exchange for a review. All opinions remain honest and my own. For more information about Chickenshed’s upcoming shows, have a look here

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Another Day Off – 22/07/21

I say “Another Day Off” because all through these lockdown months, I’ve been idly daydreaming about that time in December 2019 when I took a day off from work and parenting and just wandered around Central London like a happy little Christmas elf. One day, I reasoned to myself, one day I would take another one of those. And so Nathan and I booked 20th July off work and made vague plans for lunch in London’s most holiday-like destination, St Katharine Docks. Our stretch of self-isolation beggered up those plans but we had a back up. The day off was shifted out two days – we wouldn’t be able to have lunch because it was the end of term and Eva would finish school early but dagnam, we were going to have food of some sort in a scenic location. So we did.

I worked briefly near St Katharine Docks before our office move so I was pretty sure on the walking route from Liverpool Street. If you want to follow it too, it’s about a mile and is mainly flat. It may involve some dodgy road crossing near Aldgate but other than that, it is a very pleasant stroll. Well, the kind of stroll I enjoy anyway cause there are things to see en route. And it’s not just the inside of my lounge.

So first off, you want to leave Liverpool Street by the Bishopsgate entrance and cross Bishopsgate in front of the Polo 24 Bar and Disappointing Wasabi. If your luck is in, the pedestrian crossing will be functioning and will allow you to cross safely. Our luck was not in but we made it across unscathed.

Next thing you want to do is go down New Street and into the Devonshire Place complex. Walk on through it and you’ll be greeted with a tree that is, quite frankly, giant by City standards:

Look at that! It outstrips the buildings. Not all the buildings, obviously. Once you turn right out of Devonshire Place, you’ll see two notable City buildings that are even taller than that tree. One looks like it’s sitting atop the other like a little hat:

Now this is really stretching my powers of building-naming. The hat is obviously the Gherkin (or the Harlequin Hospital if you’re of a certain generation of parents) and I’ve deduced that the one in front is known as the Can of Ham though I can’t say I’ve ever heard anyone use that name. Still, a lovely gherkin-topped hamwich if the walk is making you hungry.

You can see the two grandiose white gates that mark the edge of the Devonshire Place Estate. Go through those and turn left, walking along Cutler Street and White Kennet Street until you come out at the back of Aldgate station:

More trees, shiny buildings and old buildings. See, I told you this was scenic. Now, the next bit is dead clever – there’s a thin alleyway to the direct left of the station called Blue Boar Alley. Take that, and you cut a corner off. It brings you to the front of the station, where you can either do a devil-may-care sprint across the road or go a bit out of your way to use the crossing by Peter’s Cafe. I used to do the former until I almost got hit by a bus coming out of the bus station so now mainly the latter.

Are you still with me? Good! Wohhhh, you’re halfway there! Don’t worry, we’ll get onto brunch soon.

Now, just duck down the alleyway next to the barbers labelled “Little Somerset Street” and follow it round to the left and you come out onto Mansell Street, which leads almost all the way down to Tower Bridge. Best to cross over early, as the crossing down by the Wetherspoons is a bit tricky and you wanna stick to the left of the street as you go under the railway bridge (past the sign for “Barneys Fish”) but all this will bring you out right by the Tower of London. At which point, you can take some touristy photos and discuss why one of the towers appears to have been rebuilt by some shoddy 60s architects:

Someone, sometime in the past thought that was an adequate restoration job. Anyway, some more manic road crossing over The Highway will bring you to the top of a flight of stairs which you can descend into the tranquil surrounds of St Katharine Docks:

Brunch time! We chose to go to Côte because it was fancyish but not too priceyish. Apparently there are no branches of Harvester in St Katharine Docks, or anywhere even remotely scenic. As much as I was craving the breakfast buffet, I was also craving somewhere that to eat that wasn’t a carpark in Chingford. So Côte it was.

And we went All Out. Because it was the first time we’d even been slightly Out in eight days. I had a coffee AND a juice and French Toast AND A sausage baguette. Crazy, I know.

If you’re insanely jealous of past Kate-and-Nathan at this point, let me tell you that the soy latte wasn’t ideal. I’ve experimented with a lot of non-milks in coffee as they can curdle easily and this latter had, sadly, fallen victim to that. If you’re wondering why I didn’t say anything, just check out the giant pile of non-non-dairy on my French Toast:

I think I might have looked a tad hypocritical complaining about the foam on my soy latte while also sticking my face in a pile of Crème fraîche. Besides, I still drank the coffee. And ate both my brunch dishes. It was awesome. The only regret I have about the whole thing was sitting outside rather than requesting a seat on the terrace, which had a view over the marina. But then I spilt my coffee over myself so it was probably for the best that we were away from the more civilised people.

After all that food, we needed a bit of a wander about. It really did feel a bit like being on holiday.

We walked around the dock and saw a bright red mini-Tower Bridge opening for the lifeguard boat, with the real Tower Bridge in the background. Wonder if this ever confuses tourists who want to see the legendary Opening of the Bridge?

After watching that for a bit, we crossed over a wobbly bridge and past the Dickens Inn, which is possibly London’s Most Flowery Pub:

It got a bit less pretty after that as we stumbled into the more industrial bit of the docks. Eventually, we found our way to the Thames Path and spotted a statue that, at first, looked like it was the side of Yoda’s head:

It made a lot more sense from the other side:

We’d somehow ended up in the Hermitage Riverside Memorial Garden, which was a new park to us even though we’d tried several out last time we wandered around Wapping. It was nice and peaceful, with only a smattering of semi naked men sunbathing on the grass, so we sat on a bench by the river for a while and rested after our epic journey.

But school pick up was drawing ever closer and it was time to find the 100 bus. On the way, we spotted another lovely water feature, which Nathan described as a “mini-Louvre”. You can’t see it in this photo so you’ll just have to trust him.

I don’t know why being near large bodies of water on a hot day is soothing as I wasn’t allowed to plunge into any of them but still, it had the right effect. Leaving the house for approximately five hours is as much of a holiday as we’ll have in July so I feel like we made the most of it….cause who knows when we’ll be pinged again?

 

 

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Sooo…..now what?

It’s July 18th and we stand on the cusp of Freedom Day. Except it really doesn’t feel like it. Swathes of society from the Cabinet to school kids to footballs fans are in self-isolation and daily cases are back at the kind of levels that saw us entering Tier 4 (remember Tiers?) in December.  It’s tricky to feel like tomorrow will be particularly freer than today is, especially as Nathan and I are on day 4 of 7 in self-isolation (the kids, thankfully, were out of contact range). It feels about as far from freedom as you can get, given we can’t even leave the house. But yet we’re pressing on with Freedom Day tomorrow.

I know that the vaccinations are helping to deal with the severity of infections. I know hospital admissions are down for now. And I know about the metal health issues caused by months and months of bleak lockdown and the devastating effect the lockdown has had on the arts and events sectors.

It’s just hard to cheer our new freedoms when the data is not cheering us back:

And what even are these new freedoms? We will still have to wear masks on the tube and all other TfL services. Institutions are starting to come out and say that face masks will still be mandatory, so it seems likely that days out this summer will still be masked and distanced, end-to-end. Which, I gotta admit, does not sound much like freedom to me.

So what’s actually changing tomorrow? Will nightclubs reopen so we can go to sweaty raves with thousands of other people, even as we have to still wear masks in Tesco? Will the PM tweet about the glorious conquering of the pandemic even as he self-isolates? I don’t have the answers….goodness, if I did then trust me…I would have Chris Whitty on speed dial. The most realistic scenario is that we will spend a few weeks wandering about over the summer in masks, basically still restricted, and then go back into some kind of lockdown in the autumn. My hopes of a “normal” choir Christmas season are fading as rapidly as my freezer is emptying itself of ice lollies.

If you have any more positive predictions, I would love to hear them! And enjoy Freedom Day…

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