Going to the Food Bank

I started working at the Stroud Food Bank about 9 months ago.  I only work for about 2 hours a week and, usually, only to put away stock and to fulfil (i.e. pack up) orders for the Food Bank’s ‘clients’.  Some weeks I get a bit of extra arm stretching exercise by helping to deliver the (heavy and full) food bags to clients’ homes.

The location is in central Stroud and it operates as one of the outposts for the much larger warehouse, run by the The Trussell Trust, in Brimscombe, a couple of miles away.  In the year to March 2023, The Trussell Trust has delivered almost 3m emergency food parcels in the UK.  In Stroud district we delivered 8,663 of those – a huge 77% increase on the previous year.

Stroud Trinity Rooms Food Bank
Stroud Trinity Rooms Food Bank

Working at the Food Bank has been eye opening and educational around the everyday problems faced by people less fortunate than me.  Often, even with very little income, people learn to manage somehow but what brings them to the Food Bank is something unexpected – sometimes a seemingly small thing – that tips their well-being and ability to cope over the edge.  The pandemic, the war in Ukraine, the cost of living surge and the lack of a proper benefits safety net have all made that tipping over the edge more frequent.

To say I enjoy working at the Food Bank would be to undermine or trivialise these very real hardships but the couple of hours a week I spend there does feel worthwhile.  What is even better for me is that I am able to walk to the Food Bank (and get the bus back afterwards).  That walk has been especially lovely recently due to the advent of a lush Spring and the fortuitousness of good weather when I have to go to the Food Bank.

Ruskin Mill Lake Last Winter

The first 25 minutes of the walk is my normal route to our local town, Nailsworth.  I usually take the direct route along the road but even so, the views over Ruskin Mill’s valley are good and the birdsong at that time in the morning is loud and continuous.  Once in town, I pick up my newspaper and then set out to Stroud along two old railway routes now converted to cycling and walking paths. 

I love the variety along this route. 

Egypt Mill – Now A Popular Bar, Restaurant And Hotel (Deserted At This Time In The Morning)

The first part follows Nailsworth Stream and is dominated by mills and their associated mill ponds.  This is perhaps where bird life and nature along the route are most evident. 

The path then squeezes between vineyards, woodlands and fields on one side and a string of light industrial buildings on the other.  These buildings include a micro-brewery, a pizza factory and numerous engineering works alongside which I sometimes pause to watch the drama of welding sparks.  Then the birdsong is drowned out by the canine users of a large Playschool for Dogs.  I’ve never seen so many dogs in one place!

Under-Bridge Street Art On My Route

I walk under bridges covered in frequently changing street art.  Then I go past a factory making wind turbines and another associated with Forest Green Rovers Football Club’s Chairman called The Devil’s Kitchen which makes vegan meals for the football club and for schools nationally. 

The path runs alongside the main road for a while but from here there are great views up towards Rodborough Common.  Past the old and now converted Woodchester Railway Station, there is a new large residential development and its associated children’s playground before the walk returns to another leafy section.

One Of Several Very Large Oaks Along The Way (The Birdsong Is Usually Intense Around Here)

The woods continue on one side but on the other are acres of factories, some of which now appear disused and ripe for some sort of development.  Most are ugly mass-constructed buildings but some are attractive, Victorian buildings that have new lives as auction houses and bases for hi-tech businesses. 

One Of The More Impressive Factory Blocks

One of the largest and newest of these industrial buildings is the factory which produces Damien Hirst’s art works.  Some of his old works from his Human Anatomy series stand behind the factory and are visible from the path.

Damien Hurst’s Works Partly Obscured By Trees

The route I take then passes briefly through a housing estate and joins another old railway route on the final leg into Stroud.  This is in a deep, old railway cutting which shields walkers from the surrounding houses and roads and then passes over the River Frome and Stroudwater Canal. 

Tree Lined Walks With (If You Look Carefully) Deer And Old Railway Line Infrastructure
River Frome At Stroud

By this time my breakfast coffee intake needs attention so I dive into the recently re-modelled shopping centre before heading up through the town to the Food Bank.  The shopping centre itself is a mixed bag of street food outlets, depressingly empty up-market clothes and accessories shops, and discount goods outlets.  It’s a strange mix of businesses.  Even the large and prominent jewelers in the centre is a strange mix of expensive watches, jewelry and garish ornaments. 

Not For Me But People Must Like These Ornaments Given Their Surprisingly High Prices

In a way, the diversity of the shopping centre, and that of the stock of the jeweler’s shop within it, reflects the unusualness of Stroud and the surrounding district.  It has a left wing, ‘woke’, hippy vibe with one of the best Farmers Markets and (arguably) the country’s first fully organic cafe (Woodruffs).  But it is also very much a grounded, working town surrounded by historical and current wealth.  It is a blend that is also reflected, perhaps, among the mix of ‘clients’ and volunteers at the Food Bank.

Places to Go, Things to Do

Our three sons came from Edinburgh, Bristol and Belfast to stay with us to attend Jane’s Mum’s funeral and then my birthday brunch.  The funeral was very well attended and passed flawlessly, peacefully and movingly.  My birthday was low key but very enjoyable.  It was great to have all three sons in one place for the first time for a while, to hear them banter with each other, and to chat to.

Beautiful Funeral Flowers

Two of them asked, independently, what on earth I fills my time in retirement.  I’m not sure I was entirely candid about my occasional post-lunch snoozes or the rather excessive amount of time I spend looking at my mobile phone – though they are also fairly guilty of the latter so they would understand.  But what struck me once again as I tried to answer is how busy my life still seems to be. 

The routine of walking to the nearest town for the daily shopping and the newspaper, reading that newspaper and the weekly Economist magazine, preparing lunch and (50% of the time) dinner, all takes up hours of relatively relaxed time.  I spend up to a day a week in local climate action and other village activities and another half a day at the Stroud Foodbank.  I have recently inserted an hour or two of gardening into the routine (not enough, but it’s a start) partially at the cost of my frequent walks around the local countryside that usually constitute my main exercise.

Peak Bluebells And Wild Garlic

The early evenings comprise of the ‘Quick Crossword’ over a cup of tea and/or visits to the local pub.  Later, we watch streamed TV series (we tend to gravitate to dark European crime thrillers) and then its time for the BBC News, 15 minutes reading in bed and sleep. 

So, even in weeks without trips to Edinburgh or funerals to attend (and there have been two in the last month unfortunately), I feel pretty occupied.  How did I fit 10 hours a mid-week day on work?  It was interesting to hear Middle Son start to feel the same way now he has given up his job for a bit of downtime before a ‘gap-month’ travelling in Columbia.  He too seems to have found that available time just gets filled with activity.  In retirement, those activities are mainly non-urgent and discretionary; suits me!

Our trip to Edinburgh last month to see First Grandchild (FG) and his parents was as rewarding as usual.  FG is discovering the desire to exert control and is developing a temper, a willingness to do things but only at his pace and when he is ready, and a sense of humour.  Its lovely to see his development in the videos we are sent but even more so face to face.  Maybe I just lack the recall power but I think work got in the way of appreciating all of this in my own children at FG’s age.

The Splendid Roof Of The Scottish National Museum’s Main Hall

As usual, taking FG out to the National Museum of Scotland, to the Royal Botanic Garden and to the local playgrounds were highpoints during our Edinburgh trip.  It’s wonderful to see that everything through his eyes is so new and something to learn about. 

Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh: Rhododendrons Out In April!

However, there were many other treats amid the hospitality offered by Eldest Son and his wife and the fun of being with FG.  Jane and I walked to Leith where I bought her birthday present in advance and with her close guidance.  On the way back we stopped off at Spry, our favourite wine bar in the city. 

We also visited the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art to see an exhibition of Alberta Whittle’s work.  We had seen an exhibition by her in Bath a few months earlier which we had enjoyed.  However, although the exhibition in Edinburgh was much broader in ambition, neither of us enjoyed the individual works so much this time.

‘Taking A Leap Toward The Ancestors’ By Alberta Whittle (2022)

Our cultural immersion while in Edinburgh continued with a brief stop at the private The Scottish Gallery (mainly to see some pretty floral paintings by Angie Lewin) before exceeding all our daily steps targets by crossing the city again to visit the Dovecot Studios.  This was a real highlight.

Part of the Kaffe Fassett ‘Power Of Pattern’ Exhibition

Not only was there an excellent exhibition of textiles by and inspired by Kaffe Fassett called ‘The Power of Pattern’, but the tapestry studios themselves were fascinating.  I was only vaguely familiar with Kaffe Fassett but I loved a lot of the work on show here – mainly because of the vibrancy of the colour – and I learned a lot about his philosophy, way of working and his collaborations with others. 

Close-ups Of Quilted and Tapestry Works By Kaffe Fassett And Followers

The tapestry studios at Dovecote are restored and re-purposed swimming baths that were part of the now defunct infirmary.  The space is airy and dramatic.  The floor – what presumably was the bottom of the swimming pool – is an art space that is currently occupied by a series of looms of varying sizes and types.  Each contained part-finished tapestries that suggested the huge effort that has to go into each.  Upstairs, completed tapestries illustrating various techniques and styles are on display.  We really enjoyed the experience.

Dovecot Studios

To round out the cultural aspect of our Edinburgh trip, I also managed an hour or so in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.  The entrance hall is stunning and I wanted to see that again.  Inside there was no special exhibition this time but the permanent displays – especially the modern section – were interesting enough.

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery Atrium

The Scottish National Portrait Gallery: Two Unusual, Medical Portraits (By Ken Currie)

Back home we have been enjoying an admittedly rather wet spring.  The wild garlic, bluebells and cow parsley adorn the lanes and the woods.  In the garden, the daffodils, the amelanchier and most of the tulips have been and gone but there are allium flower heads about to burst and green shoots everywhere.  In our lush and green field cum orchard, the cowslips and wild geraniums have proliferated and our eyes are peeled for orchids.

Exotic Garden Tulips And Perfect Apple Blossom

A recent visit to The Ethicurean with Middle Son and his partner for Sunday lunch included a wander around the gardens that provide many of the vegetable ingredients for the cooking.  The lunch itself was multi-course but much more than a tasting menu; it was really imaginative, tasty and filling, and delivered at a perfectly slow pace in the gorgeous surroundings of a converted Victorian greenhouse.  We’ll go again.

The Rather Wonderful The Ethicurean Restaurant

Since then, rather inspired by The Ethicurean’s gardens, I have made progress in clearing most of the vegetable patches, planting beetroot, chard, onions and potatoes and getting bean, courgette and squash seeds on the go. 

This year I have applied a method Jane used for some of her flower seeds to the germination of the beans seeds I recovered from my last two harvests.  Instead of popping them in composted seed trays, I put them between two sheets of wet kitchen roll and put the result in zip lock plastic bags.  I left the bags on the floor of our kitchen which has underfloor heating and, lo and behold, I had a 100% success rate for germination! 

My (Janes!) New Ziplock Plastic Bag Method Of Seed Germination

I have transferred the germinated beans to the small pots and now hope they will grow on with, unlike previous years, zero seed wastage.  Success in a busy retirement schedule is sweet!

Life and Death

Spring is definitely with us after a very wet March.  We have April showers – it even snowed for a minute or two earlier today – and spring flowers.  The cherry blossom is out and there are lambs in the fields.

One Of Many Cherry Trees In Full Bloom In The Local Area

The First Lamb I Spotted This Year

The birds are marking out their territory and gathering material for their nests.  During just 15 minutes of my walk to my Food Bank duties in Stroud yesterday I switched on the Merlin bird identification app on my phone and detected (and sometimes saw) 20 different bird varieties (plus a seagull and a buzzard that didn’t squawk at the right time).  Spring is such a busy time for these little home builders and it was relieving and lovely to hear that our rural pathways are still home to such avian diversity.

Birds Heard In 15 Minutes During A Local Walk

The outside temperatures are gradually rising with the prospect of heatwaves to come.  At Easter, when Youngest Son and Middle Son came to stay for a couple of days and the weather was sunny, we managed our first outdoor lunch of the year. 

Random Roadside Bulbs On The Way To Food Bank

Spring really is a season of new life and promise.

Except that, this spring, we are mourning the passing of Jane’s mother who died peacefully last week in the care home we had all come to love and respect.  Her death came as no surprise after a steady decline hastened by a fall but of course there is mood of sadness around the family.  Easter and its Bank Holiday’s was a convenient pause for Jane to enable reflection on her relationship with her Mum before getting stuck into the administration of funeral arrangements.  Death brings sadness but also a need for clear thinking about the fall out.  Death balances out life.

More Tulips!

Before the funeral we are off to Edinburgh to see Eldest Son, his partner and First Grandchild.  That will be a great distraction and an antidote for Jane to the last couple of weeks of focus on looking after her Mum and then the mourning of her passing.  Of course, discussions about Jane’s Mum and the making of funeral arrangements will continue, but it will be in the company of a little grandchild who will demonstrate as vividly as possible that life goes on.

A few days of tiny, effervescent youth and spring; what could be better!

Paris: Our Last Day

We wanted an early start on our last day.  Jane had spotted, during our first two days in Paris, a hotel that was renowned for its early and good quality breakfast.  This was Frenchie Pigalle in Hotel Grand Pigalle where the chef (Greg Marchand) was a Jamie Oliver mentee/colleague who had now struck up successfully on his own.  Certainly the coffee was good, my omelette was nice and Jane enjoyed her granola.  Satisfyingly replete, we set off to fulfil our pre-booked visit to Sainte-Chapelle.

The Seine From Pont St Michel

In a bit of spare time we walked around the front of Notre Dame Cathedral.  A huge crane towers over the site but it is clear that the restoration following the great fire in April 2019 is well under way.  Its current closure is presumably adding to the popularity of nearby Sainte Chappelle and the queue we joined outside the Palais de Justice was rather chaotic and substantial – even with our pre-booking. 

Notre Dame Cathedral

We had a good moan to ourselves about the French system of queuing and the bottlenecks around security checking but actually we were in chapel with 30 minutes and had to reprimand ourselves for our impatience.  The visit was, in any case, well worth the wait.

Palais De Justice (With Sainte Chapelle In The Background)

The building dates from the 14th century.  Its highpoint are 15 terrific stained glass windows telling stories from the Old and New Testaments which date from that time.  These windows are set in huge panels over 15 metres high under the extraordinarily high, barrel-vaulted ceiling of the Upper Chapel.  Although the stained glass (over 1,000 pieces) is only of five colours, the overall effect is spectacular and there is huge detail in each piece.  Apparently these details, such as facial features, have been picked out by painted-on mixes of powdered glass, oxides and vinegar.

The Upper Chapel, Sainte Chapelle

The bright colours of the windows have been replenished through careful cleaning in recent years and luck and happenstance seems to have allowed the chapel to avoid predations of the French Revolution and war.  It remains an awesome, gigantic space.

Stained Glass Windows, Sainte Chapelle (The Pictures Can’t Capture Their Marvel)

Beneath the upper chapel was a lower one that, with its low ceiling, resembled a crypt.  It too has beautifully coloured stained glass, walls and columns.  It was another lovely room.

The Lower Chapel, Sainte Chapelle

Once back outside, we left the Ile De La Cite and strolled through the shopping streets of St Germain.  I dived into the church of Saint-Sulpice while Jane bought socks.  This is the second largest church in Paris (after the Notre Dame) and its simple internal structure ensured that its sheer size was the first thing I noticed.  There are some famous murals including one by Eugène Delacroix but I found more interest in a small display showing the way the church had been realigned and then expanded from its inception in 1646 through to the late 1770s.


Jane and I split up for the afternoon.  While she returned to the Marais district’s shops, I spent the afternoon in the Musée d’Orsay.  This is a large, old railway station converted into multiple galleries for art but with the original carapace of the building still very much on show.  It is yet another impressive Parisian building.

Musee D’Orsay

The art on show isn’t bad either!  The collection of Impressionist art is perhaps the museum’s crown jewels.  Its home on the top floor, alongside an equally strong collection of post-impressionist art, was the busiest part of the museum and by the time I arrived at the Van Gogh section I was flagging in the crowds a bit.  This was despite the wonderful familiarity of his self-portraits and a version of the gorgeous ‘The Starry Night’

Certainly there are so many famous paintings at the Musee D’Orsay.  Occasionally, as a layman and non-artist, I felt a little frisson of self-satisfaction as I entered a room and either spotted a painting I knew or guessed correctly its artist creator.

Famous Pictures By Van Gogh, Renoir, Monet and Degas at Musee D’Orsay

Of course there was much that was new to me too.  In particular I was struck by what I think I understood to be a number of ‘realist’ painters.  I understood that realism predated impressionism; while realism focused on portraying accurate, detailed, almost unadorned depiction of everyday scenes, impressionism developed to capture how light interacts with the subject matter.

On several occasions my slow wandering around the museum was arrested by a picture that caught my eye and it often turned out to be by a realist painter.  In the future, I will look out for painters I’d not heard of before this visit like James Tissot and Ernest Messonier. 

Pictures That Caught My Eye By James Tissot

….And By Ernest Meissonier

I will also look out for exhibitions of work by Vilhelm Hammershoi, a Danish post-impressionist (I think – I’m no expert in all the genres) with strong artistic links back to 17th century Dutch masters.  I saw two of his works, liked both and thought that Jane would like the grey tones in them.

Interieur, Standgrade 30 By Vilhelm Hammershoi (1904)

I wandered back through the Tuileries to our hotel to meet up with Jane.  I was both pretty exhausted and over-exposed to art by this time but I was very ready for another go at Buvette for dinner (rather than breakfast which we had tried earlier in out trip). 

Tuileries Gardens

My coq au vin was excellent but the vegetable dishes were a little strange.  Jane’s beetroot and horseradish dish and my chopped brussel sprout, raisin and nuts mix were both cold (deliberately) and so large that it was as well we were prepared to share rather than overdose on each.  It felt good having had another dose of French food though – when in Paris…..

I’m looking forward to the next time!

Paris: A Joy Once Again

Jane and I visited Paris back in 2018 and, last week, we had another lovely visit to what is surely one of the most impressive capital cities in the world.  I loved being back in a big, busy urban centre (I’m still missing London) and Paris has some tourist attractions that are second to none.  The food is excellent again (after what seemed to me to be a dip in recent decades compared to London) and the café culture is thriving.

Paris Stretched Out Before Us – A Great Urban Experience And City

On the back of BBC weather forecasts in the days leading up to our short break in Paris, we had prepared for three days of rain.  In practice, we barely felt any rain.  The afternoon of our first day was sunny and we had decent weather throughout our stay; not bad for February and excellent expectation management by the meteorologists!

We stayed in the gently trendy and comfortable Le Pigalle hotel.  Having checked in, we used the unexpectedly good weather on our first afternoon to stroll around the nearby streets.  As usual when we travel to European cities, we were impressed by the array of independent shops including florists, cheesemongers, bakeries and vegetable and fruit sellers – we barely saw a supermarket chain.  We paused our walk to top up with a street-side burger-and-wine lunch and then wandered around Monmartre just to the north. 

Wonderful Fruit And Veg, Cheese, Bread And Mimosa Along So Many Streets

The Basilica du Sacré Cœur dominates the hill that the shops and residences of Monmartre surround.  From the hill there are great views of almost all of Paris.  The steps between the funicular and the Basilica were teeming with tourists and hawkers of souvenirs, cigarettes and little locks that adorn – no, litter! – the mesh fences around the slopes. 

Basilica Du Sacre Coeur And Great February Weather

I was amazed by the numbers of people; it was mid-week and February after all.  But as we walked 50 yards away from the tourist hot spot, the numbers fell away quickly.  Once we were clear of the souvenir shops, there was peace enough to enjoy the atmosphere, views, architecture and the sight of a great French tradition: games of petanque in the little gravelled spaces between the blocks of flats.

Views Just Behind Basilica Du Sacre Coeur (The Only Crowds Here Are Those Playing Petanque)
Eglise Saint-Pierre De Montmartre (Just Behind Basilica Du Sacre Coeur And Almost Deserted)

It had been an early start and so we welcomed a pre-booked early dinner at Julien Bouillon, a pleasantly traditional French Brasserie with a solid traditional menu of French food and wine.  The stroll back through Pigalle showed how well French city café life has survived Covid and whatever economic travails France may be suffering.  For a mid-week night, the streets and bars were very busy.

Next day we tried out breakfast in the Paris branch of Buvette.  The breakfast itself was fine but the French seem to eat breakfast relatively late and the café was both empty and cold. 

We didn’t linger and jumped on the metro to pay a visit to Père Lachaise Cemetery.  This is the largest cemetery in Paris and, apparently, the most visited cemetery in the World.  Fortunately the sheer size of the place means that its tranquillity is preserved once one is away from the main gate and into the lattice of paths that divide the cemetery into its 97 ‘divisions’. 

Views Approaching And Inside Pere Lachaise Cemetery

We saw some of the famous graves (Jim Morrison, Moliere etc.) but the real pleasures for me are in the scale, extravagance and creative designs of some of the lesser known graves and family mausoleums.  Some of the family mausoleums are as big as houses!

Close Up Views Of Some Of Pere Lachaise Cemetery Mausoleums

Our joint favourite tomb was that for Antoine-Augustin Parmentier who was an 18th century agronomist who, after living on potatoes as a prisoner during the ‘Seven Years War’, became evangelical about potatoes as a staple food.  His avid promotion of potatoes was very successful and someone has celebrated this by placing a potato on his grave with the words “Merci pour les frites!” (look carefully below middle right).

As we had in 2018 (when it had been 40 degrees of heat in the cemetery) we walked south along the Canal Saint-Martin.  This wide but often tree-lined canal provides a beautiful avenue to walk along with a multitude of bars left and right.  We stopped in one (Brasserie au Comptoir) for a quick beer but enjoyed the place and the hoppy IPA beer so much that we rested up for longer than planned and shared a very nice chicken caesar salad.  This model for lunch was something we tried to follow the following day but beer that we like (rather than lager) is still quite hard to find in the French café scene.

Canal Saint-Martin

We walked into the Marais district, past all the pretty shop fronts, and intended to see the Picasso exhibition at the Musée Picasso.  We had been thwarted in this during two previous Paris visits due to building works and, although we could get into the museum this time, the Picasso exhibition was not open due to a major rehanging of the work.  At least we have an excuse to revisit Paris in the future when the Picasso section of the museum is open.

We sucked up our fleeting disappointment and went into two other temporary exhibitions in the museum.  The first was a retrospective of the work of Faith Ringgold. 

I had not heard of Ringgold and the first couple of rooms, while interesting, did not seem to offer me enough new on black art in late 20th century America.  However, as the exhibition showed how her work evolved into a mix of paint and textiles, and of imagery and text, so I became very engaged.  I liked the colours and the subject matter often, pleasingly, a little oblique to the normal activist themes.

Selection of Works (Paint And Textiles) By Faith Ringgold

The exhibition in the basement of Picasso-inspired works by Pierre Moignard was much less interesting.  What would have helped would have been some imagery of the Picasso piece that triggered each of the Moignard works.  As it was, it was hard to understand or like them much.

Some Of Pierre Moignard’s Work On Show At Musee Picasso

Dinner at Papi that night was a joy.  We had spotted this beautiful-looking and busy restaurant during our walks the previous evening and we had booked the two remaining early evening slots.  We found that the food quality more than matched that of the minimalist décor.  The food and the service to deliver it were lovely and I recommend this restaurant highly.

The dinner capped a full day of Parisian pleasure.  We had one more day in Paris ahead of us.  The morning was partly planned out with a booking to visit Sainte-Chapelle in the morning followed by us splitting up for a while to pursue different interests after lunch; more on that in my next post.

Eiffel Tower From Basilica Du Sacre Coeur

Visiting Two Sons

A couple of weekends ago we drove the 350 miles north to Edinburgh to get another hugely welcome dose of Eldest Son (ES), his wife and their delightful son.  My dodgy back more than held up through the drives up and down, the weather was clear and dry, the electric car charging points we used were all working and available, and so both journeys were smooth. 

The (Long) Road To Edinburgh At Keele Services

Throughout our visit, First Grandchild (FG) was an unalloyed joy.  He only had one 30 minute spell when he was tired and grumpy, but he is now old enough to be distractible and consolable.  Whilst his parents have to deal with more of the everyday stresses and strains (and some very early mornings) than I can really remember from our own parenting days, they are settling into their own parenthood, married life and their flat; and FG seems to be loving life!

We had many little trips out with the little one including to the National Museum of Scotland and the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.  Both venues have become fixtures in our itinerary for every trip since they are both so toddler-friendly and free (while presumably relying in large part on donations). 

Water Of Leith At Leith, Edinburgh

We managed a trip out to South Edinburgh with FG, ES and wife to a lovely, relatively new café (Elliott’s) and we twice slipped into Spry Wine Shop and Bar which is, so far, my favourite bar in Edinburgh.  Jane commented that being on our own in Spry felt like being naughtily awol from grand-parenting duties but we did babysit later to enable ES and his wife to visit the same bar one evening.

It was a lovely few days of catch-up, good food and of being able to see, first hand, First Grandchild’s developing physicality, brainpower and, perhaps most of all, his sense of humour.  The videos we now play every day (sometimes multiple times a day) are those of him mucking about and giggling.  As grandparents he is just an absolute treat and we are lucky to be able to see him every couple of months or so.

Grey Skies Over Edinburgh From The Royal Botanical Gardens

We were able to visit Middle Son and his partner in Bristol shortly after our return from Edinburgh.  A highlight was to be able to see, open/close and touch their new bedroom wardrobes.  These were custom made by a craftsman cabinet maker from our village who is near retirement but who is very skilled and has done work in the past in our house.  We are so pleased we could help make the connection to him.  The wardrobes looked great.

We then all went to a very swish new Spanish restaurant called Paco Tapas which is run by an apparently Michelin starred chef (Peter Sanchez-Inglesias).  His reputation and that of his kitchen clearly goes before him and brings in the crowds – the restaurant was packed despite a cost of living crisis and relatively high prices.  Certainly the food was very good and some of the small plates were exceptional.  I especially liked the lamb rump, pork ribs, patatas bravas and citrusy fennel.  I also loved that I faced the kitchen where much was cooked over open flames in a way that provided a bit of extra theatre.

The Avon At Wapping Wharf, Bristol

The restaurant was in an area of Bristol that I didn’t know on the south bank of the Avon estuary called Wapping Wharf.  It was clearly once a heavily used port area.  Large, old cranes still dominate the harbourside while rail tracks criss-cross the roads.  There were still many boats on the quayside from modern cruisers (including one surmounted by a helicopter!), to small cargo ships, to The Matthew of Bristol which is a reconstruction of the boat John Cabot used to discover Newfoundland in 1497.

‘The Matthew At Bristol’ And Princes Wharf Cranes

It was raining so we didn’t loiter but the wharf and nearby marinas, container-based shopping units and restaurants looked interesting and meriting another visit.  Indeed, visiting the cities that our sons have moved to over the last year – Edinburgh, Bristol and Belfast – is one of our great pleasures these days.  However, later this week we are taking a break from that cycle to visit Paris…… whoop, whoop!

Barnsley and Bath

Despite a few days of frosty mornings, spring feels like it is coming.  Cheerful little snowdrops are out in the verges of our lanes.  The birds are getting ever more active and noisy.  We can open the blinds when we come down in the morning and get the start of proper daylight and the afternoons no longer seem so truncated.  There was another heavy frost this morning but another winter is passing into greater light and warmth.

A Recent Frosty Morning – Pretty Though!

I need to start getting active in the garden to clear the as yet unharvested leeks and the rotten stumps of chard and beetroot that I failed to harvest or that the deer got to before I could.  Unfortunately, the very frustrating back strain I picked up while coughing (would you believe it!) last month continues to constrain activity a bit and I continue to use it as an excuse to restrict myself to extremely light, low-value gardening duties.

I have continued to use walking (plus a few elementary and, I admit, rather half-heartedly undertaken back exercises) as a way of gradually increasing my back’s mobility.  In keeping with my wife’s and my joint New Year resolution to get out more when the weather is forecast to be nice, we went for a lengthy walk around Barnsley a couple of weeks ago.  This is not the large market town in South Yorkshire but a nearby village in the Cotswolds that we have visited several times before, but not for a few years.

Despite having a fairly busy road running through it, this Barnsley is one of those picture book Cotswold towns and villages that are full of pretty cottages and large rich merchant and manor houses.  There’s a popular pub and Barnsley House – previously home to Rosemary Verey, a famous gardener – is a popular spa and tourist attraction.  We didn’t visit those but, rather, walked mainly around the village through open fields, woodland and old parkland.  The frost made the ground firmer than expected after the January rain and the sky was brilliant blue.  It was a lovely, refreshing walk.

Winter Scenes Around Barnsley, Gloucestershire

In a further impromptu excursion last week, Jane and I popped south to Bath.  The main element of our planned visit was to pick up a couple of loaves of sourdough bread from the rather wonderful Landrace.  It’s a great establishment that worked hard to survive the Covid lockdowns and which sells the best bread I know of.

A Great Group Of Trees In The Circus, Bath

Bath is a fair old way to go for just bread so we also visited The Holburne Museum.  We also had a very tasty and pleasant lunch at the recently opened Beckford Canteen which is a stylish restaurant set up in an ex-Georgian greenhouse. 

At the Holburne Museum we bought tickets for an exhibition of Albrecht Dürer’s woodcuts depicting The Great Passion of Christ and the woodcut publications of a number of Durer’s mentors, contemporaries and followers.  The links with the development of the printing press and Lutheranism were of interest but we both found an adjoining exhibition of very different, modern art rather more compelling.

One Of 11 Albrecht Durer Woodcuts Telling The Story Of ‘The Great Passion’

The core of this exhibition by Alberta Whittle was a collection of elaborately decorated figures representing African slaves in various poses related to limbo dancing.  What was enlightening for both Jane and I was the fact that slaves on slave ships crossing the Atlantic in the 18th century were offered precious time on deck (away from the stinking and confined quarters below) in return for entertaining the sailors with limbo dancing.  The figures were alongside decorated cartons which, after inquisition of the Museum guide, we understood to representations of the containers that were used for water and cologne used to douse the slave performers so as to reduce their pungent smell while on deck.

‘Dipping Below A Waxing Moon, The Dance Saves Us’ By Alberta Whittle

Whittle’s work here was powerful and informative.  In the subject matter and use of brilliant colour, it was reminiscent of the exhibition of a huge procession constructed by Hew Locke that I saw at Tate Britain last September.  It was the highlight of our day (if only because we didn’t eat the Landrace bakery bread until the following day).

We have a further life highlight planned later this week: our first visit of the year to Edinburgh to see First Grandchild and his parents!  I’m not sure what to expect from my dodgy back after being in car for 8-9 hours, but I am so looking forward to being in Edinburgh again. 

Then, to hurry along time until Spring is really here, we have booked a few days in Paris.  It’s been years since we travelled abroad so I’m looking forward to getting my passport stamped according to the new Brexity rules and being part of Europe again.  There’s nice bread there (and in Edinburgh) too!

Late Winter Sunset

Into 2023 and Clevedon

So, we are into 2023 and armed with our New Year resolutions, good intentions and hope that we can look forward to a good year for experiences and memories. 

Memories Of A Cold Mid-December 2022

So far, the remnants of a chesty cough picked up in mid-December and then a back problem triggered by coughing while in an awkward position have dampened my spirits a little.  But all ailments are easing and, anyway, I have positivity in reserve following a momentous 2022 during which all our sons bought flats or houses, and then a great Christmas period with all of those sons, their partners and, of course, First Grandchild.  We had a great time.

Going into 2023, I have renewed my vows meet my monthly and annual targets for my weight, my alcohol intake and continuing exercise through walking.  Last year was a big ‘tick’ on those and I hope I can sustain that discipline in 2023.

An additional resolution is that my wife* and I intend to be more spontaneous about travel around the United Kingdom.  This is a resolution that we made together a few years ago but failed to follow through for long, mainly due to the COVID lockdowns.  Now, we plan to use our bigger car battery and judicious use of weather forecasts to slip off to places for day trips or overnight stays in sunny places we know and don’t know.

Already, we have visited Clevedon.  This is a seaside town in North Somerset – no more than 40 miles from where we live but never visited by us before.  It was an eye-opening day.

The first thing that struck me was the number and large size of so many of the Victorian houses.  The town had clearly prospered during Victorian times as a seaside resort and presumably had benefited from money flowing from Bristol in the aftermath of the slavery trade.  Clevedon is now a dormitory town for Bristol and most of the huge houses are converted into flats.  However, the sheer number of well proportioned, well built and well maintained Victorian residences was a surprise.

Clevedon Beach And Pier
Pretty Much As Close As We Could Get To The Pier – Too Windy!

We walked down to the sea front where the wind was blasting spray up over the sea wall.  We moved quickly past the pier – one of the earliest surviving Victorian piers in the country – up onto the adjoining cliff path and its views of the town and its rocky and pebbly beach.  We walked along the coastal path – slightly gingerly in my case due to the unsteadiness of my back – and loved the unexpectedly clear views up and down the coast and across to Wales. 

Looking South West Along Clevedon Beach

Below us on the way was a brown churning sea; the drama and noise of the waves crashing onto Clevedon’s low cliffs was reminiscent of coastal walks in Devon or Cornwall and got us thinking that trips out in the future might see us venturing a little further west along the coast to even more dramatic coastlines. 

Coastal Walk North East Of Clevedon

We turned inland across fields and through the nicely named, and occasionally pretty, village of Walton in Gordano and then back to Clevedon’s Victorian streets.  There we tucked into a pleasant pizza lunch at Scoozi Ristorante and then headed back home while it was still light, having had a very worthwhile day out.  More to come!

St Paul’s Church, Walton in Gordano

Three Property Purchases and a Funeral

Last month we went to a funeral for a very popular, lovely, family man almost 10 years younger than me.  He had died suddenly leaving his family and friends shocked and bereft.  It was an absolutely packed and emotional church service – he was a terrific guy who was enormously popular – followed by an equally packed reception.  The whole occasion was very moving and I have thought about it a lot since. 

Avening, Church Of The Holy Cross

Of course, the overriding feeling during the service and afterwards was sadness that it represented a life cut short, especially as he was so full of life, he had looked so well and was so obviously a vital part of his family, the organisation he worked for and his local community.   However, the speeches and readings at the funeral were largely an uplifting celebration of his life.  There were many amusing anecdotes and also a lovely poem by David Harkins that provided a positive slant on death that gave a little boost even in such a sad situation.

You can shed tears that he is gone
Or you can smile because he has lived

You can close your eyes and pray that he will come back
Or you can open your eyes and see all that he has left

Your heart can be empty because you can’t see him
Or you can be full of the love that you shared

You can turn your back on tomorrow and live yesterday
Or you can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday

You can remember him and only that he is gone
Or you can cherish his memory and let it live on

You can cry and close your mind, be empty and turn your back
Or you can do what he would want: smile, open your eyes, love and go on.

Into this mix of shock, sadness and a celebration of a life well lived, was a feeling of being the recipient of good fortune in that I am still here and reasonably healthy.  I have seen three sons settle with three delightful partners and seen Eldest Son produce a wonderful child with his wife.  And, this year, I’ve seen all three sons purchase homes with their partners that are each very different but which seem very well suited to each pair; a flat in Edinburgh, a terrace house in Bristol and a semi-detached house in Belfast.

Old age may bring aches, pains and worse but it is a privilege to have had longevity to be able to see our sons grow and establish themselves in the world, to be happy and to establish a platform into which they could introduce new life.  As I stood in the crowded church at the funeral, I thought: lucky me.

Late Afternoon Walk With Middle Son And His Partner Near Their New Home In Bristol

Even as Christmas approaches and we look forward to hosting our sons and their partners at various times over the Christmas period, Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I are starting to think about making the most of our time with a few trips next year.  First, we want to get to Belfast to see Youngest Son’s new house but we will be trying to visit Edinburgh too and, I hope, spending smaller but more numerous fragments of time in nearby Bristol.  Plus, after a few years of abstinence, we want to travel abroad again.

Meanwhile, I continue to potter through my local routine of walking, shopping, cooking, and working a bit for the local Climate Action Network and Food Bank.  In recent cold, clear weather, the local walks have been a real treat.

Plus, of course, I have been watching a lot of football at the World Cup.  Qatar may have been a crazy choice for a number of reasons but the overall quality of the football has been great.  For all the concern about the Qatari views on LGBTQ rights and workers rights, it has been a pleasant change to see the joyous, ebullient crowds in the stadia in contrast to the thuggery and tears at Wembley at the Euros a couple of years ago.

My normal routine was also interrupted but enhanced by a trip to Lewes in Sussex.  I tagged along with LSW who wanted to visit a specific shop called Freight there.  It was a long way to travel for a shop but it was very much LSWs thing and Lewes is a very attractive town. 

Harvey’s brewery is based in the town and the smell of hops was delightful as we walked down the high street.  It is a smell that reminds me of my home town of Reading which was the home of Courage breweries in my youth.  I love it. 

After a very good value and pleasant lunch at Bill’s, LSW and I split up for a bit.  While LSW surveyed the shops, I wandered around the town’s castle and gardens.  The gardens are a bit bleak at this time of year but the weather was fine and the views from the visitor-friendly castle were pretty impressive in all directions. 

Views Of And Views From Lewes Castle

Since getting back home, the weather has been very cold and then surprisingly snowy.  We had about seven inches of snow and it stuck around for almost a week.  My Yaktrax Ice Grips allowed me to continue my normal round of walks to and from the local towns and the frost and snow made the local countryside en route even prettier than usual.  A week of such weather is, though, enough in my book; I am looking forward to temperatures rising a little bit before Christmas.

And so on to Christmas!  Hopefully our sons and their partners will be able to avoid the issues caused by strikes and weather to make it down to us from their various new abodes.  Then we can feel so lucky all over again…..

A Cold And Not-So-Lucky Grey Heron In Ruskin Mill Valley

Onwards to Dundee and Edinburgh

Having stayed a couple of nights at the small, tasteful and quirky Taybank hotel, Long-Suffering Wife (LSW) and I moved on and stayed for further couple of nights in Dundee at a large, modern Premier Inn.  This was right on the Tay estuary, over which we had a great but very windswept view. 

The Tay Bridge At Dundee

It was also conveniently close to the new V&A Design Museum outpost in Dundee.  This is a wonderful building, designed by Kengo Kuma.  The museum provides a video explanation by Kuma of why the museum looks like it does and that made it even more interesting for me.

Dundee’s V&A

The weather was intermittently very wet (dreich is the appropriate Scottish word I believe), so we went to the dry comfort of the V&A twice.  We took in not only the standing exhibitions, but also the temporary ones including a very comprehensive and wide ranging one about Plastic: ‘The Remaking of Our World’.  Fortunately that was every bit as interesting as the big exhibitions I have seen in recent years in the V&A London.  It’s great that Dundee has such an impressive centrepiece.

The V&A And RRS Discovery And Some Sun!
V&A Dundee: Part Of The Plastics Exhibition

While in Dundee, LSW did start to eat again following the illness she had picked up from First Grandchild (FG) the previous weekend.  However, she quickly regretted it and, with the rain still persistent, our movements were limited.  Then, for a while, the weather relented and we did make it to the McManus Art Gallery and Museum.  This is a lovely looking building exhibiting proudly the seafaring and industrial history of Dundee, its art and its most famous people.  Then,, as the weather closed in again, we visited the Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA) centre. 

The McManus Galleries, Dundee (And More Sun!)

At the DCA we saw an exhibition by Manuel Solano.  He became blind after contracting AIDS and, incredibly, the exhibition contained just work that he had produced since losing his sight.  Another interesting hour was passed out of the showers. 

Manuel Solano In The Big Spaces Of The Dundee Contemporary Art Gallery

While at the DCA we also saw Living, a new and very moving film starring Bill Nighy.  He is perfect for the lead role and is supported by excellent acting all-round in a really lovely film.  We both enjoyed it hugely. 

It was great to have visited Dundee and to see a different Scottish city.  The weather changed our plans of what to do there and the rain reinforced our impression that the car was king along the city’s coastline since we seemed to spend a lot of time getting wet waiting for the little green man lights and for the traffic to allow us to cross.  But, given the tricky weather blowing in from the East, and given that LSW wasn’t fully operational, we did a lot of good things in Dundee. 

View From Our Dundee Premier Inn Room (When It Wasn’t Sunny!)

On our way back to Edinburgh via the coastal road around East Fife we had to take a couple of diversions to avoid flooding.  We spotted the huge waves off the coast as we passed the famous golf course and lovely buildings of St Andrews and decided to stop at the fishing village of Crail on the easternmost coast of Fife to take a closer look.  We parked and walked down pretty, narrow lanes to the harbour.  As I rounded a corner to get a closer look at the breakers and take a souvenir picture, I was astounded to be instantaneously splattered by sea spray even though the sea was 40-50 yards away.  It really was startling weather.

Crail Harbour

We drove on along the coast and stopped at a recommended coffee house in St Monans (The Giddy Gannet) where LSW managed half a scone.  Then we pressed on and had lunch at The Ship Inn right on the coast in Elie where LSW watched me eat a tasty plate of fish and chips with all the trimmings.   Then, with one of us rather more stuffed than the other, we set off for a final 36 hours or so in Edinburgh.

Back In Edinburgh: The Royal Mile

Remarkably given the pressures and events of the last few days, Eldest Son (ES) and his wife were entertaining again (with help from her Mum), this time to celebrate her Dad’s birthday.  It was a lovely evening with, as usual, lovely food and a chance to meet one of ES’s new uncles-in-law and his wife.  Gradually LSW and I are getting to know our newly extended family.

To round off a momentous and lovely week in Scotland, (lovely despite what viruses and the weather occasionally threw at us), we had a few hours with FG including a visit to the National Museum of Scotland.  We had taken him there earlier in the year and he loved it again even though he was still recovering from his illness.  I previously vowed to take him to this wonderful museum whenever possible when in Edinburgh and that vow stands; it is so exciting for him and, as he grows up, I think it will retain his interest (no pressure FG!)