Sunday, 27 February 2011

Birthday Road Trip

Sorry for the silence, I've been on a road trip the past week.

Birthday road trip route.


On the 19th I drove from Gloucester to Edinburgh. I was supposed to pick up my friend Cathryn at Birmingham station, but due to work commitments she had to cancel and take the train up the next day.

As I was about to join the M5 near Tewksbury, I pulled over for hitchhikers standing by the side of the road with a banner.

Turned out they were two lads in their last few months of sixth-form, doing a 'jailbreak' for Cancer Research UK. The idea was to get as far away from home in twenty-four hours as possible on ten pounds.

When I told them I was headed to Edinburgh, they leapt on board. It was quite exciting - they hadn't been to Scotland before and we kept getting text and phone updates from their friends saying where they were. One guy's dad worked for Thompson's and they donated flights to the Canary Islands, which I felt was cheating a little as they'd planning it in advance. Seemed fairer that everyone should turn up on the day and have to start from scratch.

It really made the journey go a lot quicker chatting away, and coming over Shap was absolutely beautiful as there was snow on the mountains. I dropped them in the centre of town before driving up the road to my friend's house. Really lovely lads, having fun and raising money for a good cause.

The 20th was my actual birthday - I turned the big three-oh! (30), which doesn't bother me in the least. I've had a fun-filled and action-packed decade to date so bring on the next one.

My friend Martine had her birthday last month and our other friend, Ruairi, bought her a voucher for a meal at Edinburgh's best seafood restaurant, Odine. We decided to use it, and found an expensive bottle of champagne waiting for us when we got there! (Thanks Ruairi x)

It was myself, Martine, Cathryn and Laetitia. Martine and Cathryn were with me in Rwanda - a crazy couple of years. Laetitia had left Rwanda by the time I arrived, but I ended up living in her house:

The house that Laetitia and I both lived in in Kisimenti, Kigali.

When I was having problems with the landlady at the end of the first year, someone suggested e-mailing Laetitia. She was really supportive and when I got back to the UK it was amazing to discover that she lived just around the corner from Martine. Small world. It was wonderful to spend my birthday with such close friends in such a yummy restaurant. The food was sooooo good and we rounded off at Bobby's Bar, then another I don't remember so well... before stumbling home.

Bobby's Bar and the famous dog it's named after.


The next day, Cathryn and I drove down to Hull to catch the overnight P&O ferry to Zebbrugge. It was a fairly calm crossing and we had a cabin with a shower! Slight improvement from the days when my mum used to take me to Germany and you had two bunks to a room.

I was a bit disappointed by the ferry, which is a hangover from the 1980s. Unlike Norfolkline (now DFDS Seaways), you don't get internet access, which I think is a bit stingy on a thirteen hour voyage.

But we arrived in Zebbrugge early Tuesday morning and drove half an hour south to Torhout, where our friends Lies and Kassim live. They've just had a brand new addition to the family - wee baby Noah, who is an absolute heart breaker.

It was Lies' birthday on 24th so there was more cake and presents.

Lies's cake.
Lies is an amazing cook and made traditional Flemish stew:

Flemish beer stew.

I believe the recipe goes something like:

1. Braze beef chunks in butter and remove from pan.
2. Brown onions.
3. Add meat to browned onions.
4. Season with salt and pepper.
5. Add one or two bottles of Leffe Brown and a dollop of mustard.
6. Cook for up to four hours depending on the meat.
7. Simmer and leave overnight to marinate (very important!).

Add corn flour to thicken if required. Or apparently, throwing in a slice of buttered bread does the same!


Slightly stressful dash home. We set off in good time but had the nightmare scenario of going round in circles. Every time we tried to leave Torhout, we found ourselves coming back into it!

Ended up doing a 100mph dash in zero visibility rain to the ferry. Dangerous and irresponsible...but kinda fun. We made it with ten minutes to spare.

Another smooth crossing to the UK with plenty of duty-free crammed in the boot, plus lots of chocolate and beer from Belgium - we like shopping with Lies because supermarkets there allow you to sample lots of food (and even wine!) whilst you're walking around. Very pleasant shopping experience.

Pulled up outside Cathryn's house and helped her to take her shopping inside. In there five minutes, came out to find a parking ticket! In the middle of a back street in Southwark, some weekend-working red menace in a helmet had appeared on a scooter from nowhere and given me a fine for parking too close to a drop curb!

Sod's bloody law. He was a really nice guy though, even apologised!

Nice to know that even though most of Southwark council are probably about to lose their jobs, there's still money in the coffers for moped riding moto meddlers to work Saturdays.


Despite the offer of a bed for the night, I drove the final two and a half hours home to Gloucester. Got here, drank wine, ate chocolate covered waffles and relaxed in front of the TV. It's been a most excellent way to spend a birthday and I'm looking forward to seeing what excitement my 'dirty thirties' may bring.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Cirque du Soleil

Had a wonderful day yesterday with dad and Marilyn. I hit the big three-oh! this coming weekend so we kicked off the celebrations by going to see Cirque du Soleil.

We began with lunch at a Turkish restaurant near Baker Street. It was truly scrummy and the inside was decorated with painted flower patterns, large golden plates and an open fireplace. Very cosy.

Cirque du Soleil themselves were wicked awesome. They define visual art. This year's production was called Totem. Each act told a story, rich in imaginary and imagination. It played on the theme of evolution, from the primordial ooze and the first creatures to emerge, through the growth of ape to man, our spiritual awakening and our modern-day scientific era:

We are the primeval waters from which we have emerged...
As the programme says. I've scoured Google for some pictures:

Stunning opener - a human glitter ball brings first light to the earth.
Life awakens.
Juggling balls of light around the walls of a smoke-filled tube.

Cirque du Soleil go to town on everything, constantly finding new ways of performing classic circus acts including the high wire, trapeze and juggling. Their costumes are stunning, their music atmospheric and their stage is out of this world. The show was performed against projections of water and earth on a spherical platform with a walkway that could disappear, extend and double back on itself. At one point, images were shown of shadows swimming underwater, and as these shadows reached the edge of the stage, they transformed into performers.

We caught the matinee of their last UK performance, I think they're headed to New York now, but keep an eye on the Cirque du Soleil website for tour dates, venues and shows (there's several in different parts of the world).

We ended the day at the champagne bar in Paddington, waiting for the train home. It is a little strange drinking champagne in the middle of a station. Their most expensive bottle is £1,200 - I'm not sure that if you were going to spend that amount of money, you'd choose that particular venue; however they do a wonderful classic champagne cocktail.

  1. Take one champagne flute and drop a brown sugar cube into it
  2. Add a couple of drops of Angostura Bitters
  3. Add a measure of cognac (they used Hennessy)
  4. Top up with champagne

Very nice indeed.

I leave you with some music from Totem:


Friday, 11 February 2011


The recent launch of Rastamouse (@Rastamouse_irie) jolted long forgotten memories of my life as a loctician.

Back around 2005-ish, my friend wanted dreadlocks. We looked into getting them done professionally and it would have cost something like £300-£400. So we searched online and found a home DIY kit for a fraction of the price.

Up for a challenge, I told him to order it and I'd have a go.

Possibly one of the most serendipitous moments of my life when it finally arrived and I noticed that the return address was two doors up from my mum's house in a tiny little village in the middle of nowhere.

Turned out my mum's partner taught the guy to drive. He set up the UK's biggest supply chain of dreadlock paraphernalia. Sadly it's since closed down. Shame, as I discovering that I had a natural aptitude for dreadlocking hair - I did it prolifically whilst studying for my MA.

Here's some of my favourite moments:

The very first attempt - brave man.
It's traditional to name your first dread.

Back comb, back comb - lock peppa, back comb...

About eight hours later...

Dreads are taking over the world! Mwahahaha....

12 hours of X-files in....

Et voila!
Those self same dreads six years later in 2012!

It's amazing to think that six years ago, I created a work of art that's still walking around today.

The experiment that launched a thousand dreads :)

My first professional gig - meet Jack Sparrow!

Also my longest - thirteen hours!

I eventually met my nemesis. Not someone who wanted dreads, but someone with nine year old natural ones, who needed them separating!

Natural dreads mean that they were created by just leaving your hair alone, rather than by 'dreading-up', which is what I'm doing in the pictures above. It's very hard to achieve natural dreads with caucasian hair, but he'd managed it and they were all the way down his back. The problem was that they had 'congoed' together (loctician speak for 'they'd grown into one another'). This was the first time I'd ever properly separated dreads and I was terrified I'd cut one off!

The problem.

The length of the problem.

Success story.
Possibly my finest hour :)

I managed to pull five dreads out of that congo.

Here's a couple of other memorable clients:

The lady above had naturally red hair which she had dyed darker at the bottom. It created quite a funky effect from above.

This lady worked in a crystal shop in town. One day she got bored and decided to dreadlock her own hair using the splitting method. This is where you take a length of your hair and pull it apart. You just keep repeating that until, eventually, you have a dreadlock. It's incredibly hard to do, not to mention time consuming. It took her (if I recall correctly) about nine days. But the result was stunning. The softest dreadlocks I'd ever worked with - and I love what she did with the coloured wool.

Above is my friend Lies, who I'm off to see in a couple of weeks. We met in Rwanda through another friend. The moment I mentioned I tidied up dreadlocks, I regularly found myself in her house being plied with chocolate and tea. A good loctician is worth looking after ;)

This is her after one of those tidy-up sessions. I even tidied them for her wedding.

So, as a side-line, it did me well. Helped me meet new friends, stopped me starving as a student and definitely gave me something to talk about at parties.

Quite a laborious way to earn a living, though. Lots of sitting around watching DVDs, and sore thumbs from combing.

But an unusual talent I'm proud to say I possess.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Rococo Gardens

Hot on the heels of my last snowdrop walk, I took a little drive out to Painswick Rococo Garden today with Dad.

Also about £6.50 to get in, and also masses of snowdrops. But includes some fairly funky follies.

Not much else to say except look at my pretty pictures :)

Picturesque Pan.

Sea of snowdrops.

Rococo folly.

View of the Gloucestershire countryside.

Water feature.

Lambs' tails.

Tree shadow.

Bathing pool.

Lady by the spring.

I learned a new word for all of this from reading D. H. Lawrence. Apparently it's 'bucolic' - meaning 'everythign nice and idyllic about the countryside', more or less. Unfortunately it sounds like a cross between bubonic and, well, colic...but still. Very pretty.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

Snow White

Had a lovely day out today at Colesbourne Park. They have one of (if not the) most impressive snowdrop collections in the country. About 80 different species! I didn't even know there were that many types of snowdrop. And apparently several of them were discovered in Turkey!

Reminded me of an article by Bernard Cornwell (Sharp) in the  2010 Writers' & Artists' Yearbook in which he discuses the minefield that is historical fiction:
There were no rabbits in King Arthur's Britain, which I knew, but a helpful reader (there's always a helpful reader) wrote to tell me there were no snowdrops either. Got that wrong.
I always think of them being a quintessentially British flower - but, like much else of these fair lands, they really aren't. 

The snowdrop walk is open throughout the month of February for visitors to wander around. Costs about £6.50 to get in, but over eight grand's worth went to charity last year.

Beautiful place to visit :)

Here's some pics:

Traditional-looking snowdrop.

Frilly snowdrop.

Fairy-skirt looking snowdrop.

Green-tipped snowdrop!

Sea of snowdrops.

Yea oldy ice house.

Ring of snowdrops around a tree.

Church on the Colesbourne Park estate.

Yup - even snowdrops inside the church.

Old dry-stone bridge.

Mill house on the Blue Lake.

The Blue Lake is naturally very blue.

You can also buy rare snowdrops at the shop, and they have a nice tea room with really good home-made cake. Lovely day out. Dogs welcome.