Easter travels

It feels a bit odd to come home after a holiday in Spain and Portugal, much of which we spent wrapped up in warm clothes and rainwear, to good old Blighty where the temperatures are in the mid-twenties, the sun is cracking the flags and it’s shorts and sandals all round. In some ways, though, it’s a good thing. We had a fabulous holiday, despite the weather (and the sun did come out a bit), and there’s no denying that some lovely warm sunshine here has eased the transition back to normal life.

This was our first fortnight’s holiday for 3 years, since our mini inter-rail round Northern Italy and Switzerland when Sophia was a newborn baby. I think we were all ready for it, especially my husband who, in the intervening time, has started his own business and has been working incredibly hard with long hours and very few days off. Last summer he wasn’t able to come on our planned holiday to Anglesey due to last-minute work issues, and although he came to Cornwall in August he was welded to his laptop and mobile for much of each day. This fortnight was a complete switch-off, and it was brilliant for all of us.

san sebastian.JPG

Our first week was in San Sebastian, or Donostia, in Basque, which is the local language. We had heard this was a foodie paradise, and oh my goodness it didn’t disappoint. We relaxed bedtime sufficiently to allow the children to come out with us each evening for pintxos, which is the Basque equivalent of tapas. Every bar and cafe has the most amazing array of delicious-looking morsels laid out, and you just point to the ones you want, or order from a blackboard list if you want the hot specials of the day. The locals invariably eat standing up at the bar, or at bar height outside tables. I must admit that my British sensibilities can’t quite cope with this – I like my meals sat at a proper table, preferably with cutlery and a napkin thank you very much! Also, if you’re 3 or 9, a table which is chest height on an adult doesn’t really work for you. We generally found some stools to perch on, or one inspired night we sat outside on the steps of a local church, eating sublime food and watching the world go by, as well as having a sneaky few glasses of the local tipple txakoli (pronounced something like chickoli) which is an ultra-dry, light, slightly sparkling wine which might well knock prosecco off my top spot. That was one of those evenings you know will stay with you forever.

The flavour combinations were just stunning. Goats cheese with local ham, black olive tapenade, sundried tomatoes and caramelised onions. Roasted red peppers stuffed with a creamy sauce of hake and fresh herbs. Squid cooked in a light tempura batter so tender that it almost literally melted in the mouth. Anna took to all this like a duck to water and revelled in trying everything, the more adventurous the better. Sophia…not so much. She is going through an ultra-fussy phase anyway (I really hope it’s just a phase), and she was resolutely unimpressed. Luckily she loves fruit of all kinds and there was a luscious selection in the shops, so she basically survived on bread and fruit, with the odd ham sandwich thrown in . What she did love was the adventure of going out in the evening and experiencing all the fun and colour and excitement of a new city. She usually still has an afternoon nap anyway, and so was more than happy to catch up on her sleep through an extended siesta.

San Sebastian also has the most beautiful beaches, and the children got to build sandcastles to their heart’s content, and I got to stroll contemplatively along the golden sand with the turquoise (and very cold) waves lapping at my toes, which is one of my favourite things to do in the whole world.


Then we got the overnight ‘hotel train’ to Lisbon. As someone who has travelled across Europe fairly extensively by sleeper train, often in a couchette which has six people to a cabin, cracked faux-leather berths to sleep on, and a fairly malodorous single toilet at the far end of the carriage, these en suite twin cabins with crisp white sheets, snuggly blankets and complimentary toiletries feel the height of decadence. I adored the adventure of our couchette journeys, but that was when we were child-free twenty-somethings. I have to admit that I’ve gone soft, and that this level of comfort now feels like a necessity. It is still the most brilliant system. We boarded the train at about 7pm in San Sebastian, had a picnic tea in our cabin, and then settled down for the night. We woke up at 7am ready to get dressed as the train pulled into Lisbon station. Sadly breakfast on the train had sold out, so we had to make do with a panic snack of the slightly stale bread and leftover fruit from our tea the evening before, but that was the only hitch.

Husband and I went to Lisbon about fifteen years ago, loved it, and have always been intending to return. In the last fifteen years it has become much more of a tourist hotspot  – it sometimes felt as though English and French were as commonly heard on the streets as Portuguese, but it has so far retained all its charm. One enormous benefit of visiting in spring, this time, as opposed to autumn last time, was the heavenly scent of orange blossom which lingered everywhere.

We ate pasteis da nata (gorgeous custard tarts), took a boat across the river, rode on the charming 1930s yellow trams, visited the largest aquarium in Europe which was absolutely stunning – penguins, sea otters and puffins, as well as a massive variety of all kinds of fish and sharks-  and took a day trip out to Sintra. This was the town where, in days gone by the Portuguese royalty and aristocracy built their summer palaces so that they could escape the intense heat of Lisbon to the cooler mountains and coast. It is truly fairy-tale like, an impression heightened by husband having arranged to have us met at the station by a horse-drawn carriage! Needless to say the girls (including me, to be honest) were in heaven.

It was fun to revisit old favourite places, and discover lots of new ones this holiday. We ate delicious food, drank delicious wine, and got lots of fresh (albeit occasionally rather bracing) air. We also got the chance to really relax away from school runs and homework and emails and deadlines and all the pressures of day-to-day life which sometimes mean that I feel all I ever say to my children is ‘hurry up’. It was a total pleasure to watch how much the girls enjoyed each other’s company; Anna made up the most amazing stories to entertain Sophia during long walks or boring airport waits, they ran around ancient squares or enormous beaches together and got lost in elaborate imaginative games.

anna and sophia lisbon

Anna and Sophia in Lisbon’s grand ceremonial central square.

Anna and I are both glad to be home – we love travel and adventure, but we’re home bodies deep down. I think husband and Sophia would travel forever if they could – Sophia got really upset this morning because she thought that me applying suncream when I got her dressed meant that we were going to the beach, and she would have infinitely preferred that to preschool!

But we have had a gloriously memorable and relaxing holiday.


Beside the seaside

Predictably, despite my panics, the summer holidays are absolutely flying by. Only just over two weeks to go, and then we’ll be back in the school-run routine again. I’m taking advantage of a very rare window of peace and quiet when Anna is round at her friend’s building a den to hold the meetings of their secret society (“I think ‘society’ sounds much more grown up and important than ‘club’, doesn’t it, Mummy?), and Sophia is having her nap. Aannnnd breathe…

The lovely thing about this summer is the amount of time we have been lucky enough to spend at the seaside, first of all in Anglesey and then in West Cornwall. I love the sea. Somehow gazing out to sea, breathing the tangy saline air, feeling the sand between my toes manages to calm and energise and inspire me all at the same time.

path to beach

It’s also been brilliant watching how much fun the children can have with a good old bucket and spade – damming streams, digging holes, building sandcastles.

One of my worries about these school holidays was that the disparity in ages between Anna (8) and Sophia (2) would make it really difficult to entertain both of them at the same time, but a beach really is a happy place for all of us.

Of course, it has also helped having lots of family around. We were in Anglesey with my parents and, for half the time, with my brother and SIL, and my MIL was with us in Cornwall. They were around to give me a chance for a solitary walk along the beach of an evening, to teach Anna to play French cricket, to pass a rainy afternoon in reading stories or teaching origami, to take care of Sophia for a few hours and enable us to have a lovely long cliff path walk with Anna. Thank heaven for grandparents and aunts and uncles!

looking at the view

Just looking through my photos as I prepare this post has given me a renewed sense of calm and tranquility. The challenge now is to maintain that in the hustle and bustle of daily life a long way away from the sea. The little cafe just off the beach at Lligwy, where we stayed on Anglesey, had this poster up:

live well sign

Yes, it’s a little bit hippyish, and yes, these things are all easier to achieve on holiday by a beautiful beach than they are on a grey November morning when you have to do three loads of laundry, clean the loo and pay the credit card bill. But despite this, it actually feels like pretty good advice. I suspect that when my life starts to feel overwhelming and out of balance it is because I haven’t been spending enough time doing some of these.

It can’t always be sunset over Penzance Harbour or Lligwy Beach, but I really want to retain some of the magical peace of these beautiful places now I’m back home in East London.

Beside the seaside

It’s an appropriately grey, rainy and blustery day for the first day back at school, preschool and work after a (mainly!) sunshiny half term at the seaside.

We rented a cottage in Hastings for the week, and had the most idyllic time imaginable. I’m surprised Hastings isn’t better known as a holiday destination, because it is perfect in every way, from the narrow, higgledy-piggledy streets of the Old Town lined with independent cafes and delightful antique shops, to the dramatic cliffs rising up straight from the town, their tops a lush carpet of wildflowers leading to the South Downs beyond, to the waves crashing on the beach and the fishermen pulling in their catch, to the traditional family holiday amusements of fairground and crazy golf it has everything you could want.


We spent hours on the beach, paddling, wave jumping, hunting in rock pools, searching for pretty pebbles and shells, burying each other’s legs and damming streams. The children were both in their element. The miraculous thing about a seaside holiday is that, even though we took practically no toys (Anna had her Kindle and her favourite soft toy, Sophia had a handful of picture books as well as Mouse and Bunny, who are indispensable sleep aids), and we bought a couple buckets and spades, and they were both totally content with these for the whole week.


We had a morning at the fair, and an afternoon playing crazy golf (which by some fluke I won, managing no less than two holes in one!), and then a couple of day trips out to National Trust properties in Sussex. Bodiam Castle is the ultimate child’s storybook medieval castle, complete with moat, and we got there by steam train! Bateman’s is  Rudyard Kipling’s old home, and dreamily beautiful. June must be one of the best months to see an English country garden, and this one was spectacular.


I was feeling totally fed up with cooking and housework at the beginning of the holiday, and really needed a break. I was a bit worried that self-catering meant that I wouldn’t get one, but I needn’t have worried. We had fresh sourdough bread and pastries from the local organic bakery for breakfast each day, picnics for lunch – either humous and oatcakes or sausage rolls from the same bakery and a bit of cucumber and some cherry tomatoes to keep scurvy at bay, and then dinner was either fish and chips, a Waitrose ready meal courtesy of the Ocado delivery I booked for the first day, or something really simple like locally smoked mackerel and salad which was well within husband’s limited culinary capability. All delicious, no-one starved, and I have come home with a renewed enthusiasm for cooking. As for housework, well, we were out pretty much all day every day, so things didn’t really have a chance to get messed up.


I find being by the sea so therapeutic that I have come home refreshed, calmed and energised. Oh, and determined to start a fund to buy a second home in Hastings Old Town. Maybe if I start saving £2 coins…?

A week in Provence

My husband had a migraine yesterday. He’s started getting them periodically over the last year, and we’re still trying to work out the triggers, but one of them seems to be release of stress – he’s fine while the adrenalin is still pumping, but when things calm down his body protests. Apparently this is quite common, and the phenomenon is sometimes known as ‘weekend headaches’. In this case, however, the migraine came the day after we got home from a week’s holiday. I suggested that this time it could be straightforward nerves, as he is not only back to work today, but also starting a new job. He said it wasn’t, it was actually the release of stress after successfully completing our holiday, in particular the nine hour journey back from the South of France by train. Holiday planning and booking is very much husband’s job in our household, and apparently he was so stressed out by how annoyed I would be if he had messed up the bookings and we found ourselves stranded in Lille that it triggered a migraine. Oops. Note to self: Be nicer.

I wouldn’t say the journey home will go down as one of my favourite ever days. For a start we had been inadvertently booked in the quiet coach, and ‘quiet coach’ isn’t a concept you can really convey to a fifteen month old. Not an English one anyway. French children, apparently, not only refrain from throwing food, they have all taken a vow of silence. My attempts to exchange conspiratorial eye-rolls with other parents were met with frosty glares, and I actually thought the middle-aged woman across the aisle was going to spit on us. I felt slightly guilty about disrupting her journey, until I was pacing the vestibule area with Sophia and discovered that being a stickler for the rules on quiet carriages didn’t prevent her sneaking off to the loos for a sneaky fag or eight. Puh. However, none of this was my husband’s fault. And I didn’t shout at him. I just drip-fed Sophia raisins whilst internally exercising my A-level French to the max in order to compose cuttingly sarcastic comebacks which I would obviously never have the nerve to utter.

The week preceding the journey home was lovely, though. For a start we broke the outward journey with a blissful 24 hours in Paris, managing to cram in a walk along the Seine, people-watching and listening to live jazz in a street cafe, a sneaky coupe de champagne or deux, and a very decent amount of croissants, pains aux chocolats, quiche and profiteroles. Oh, and a four-hour stint kneeling on the wooden floor awkwardly leaning over the side of a travel-cot to which Sophia had taken exception, and would only consent to lie in if I stroked her tummy. Every 20 minutes or so she would look so deeply asleep I would think it was safe to withdraw, and every time eyes and mouth immediately snapped wide open. Finally, I discovered that singing to her had the same soothing effect without crippling me, so I lay in bed next to her, singing lullabies until fell asleep, and I assume she must have done too.

We were staying  the rest of the week in Marseille. Anna is now a huge fan of Marseille, largely because the flat we were staying in had a hammock in the bedroom and a treehouse in the garden. I was slightly less sure. The people were so warm and friendly, and the views from the many hills were spectacular, but there was a bit too much graffiti, noise, dog poo and dangerous driving for my lamentably Northern European sensibilities. However. We ate some truly fantastic food. Fresh seafood in a cafe where you chose what you wanted from an enormous ice-chipped counter, and then they cooked it for you fresh. With mountains of the best chips I’ve ever tasted. And home-made alioli. Stuffed vegetables and gratin dauphinoise from our local traiteur. Mille-feuille. Local strawberries. Cheese. Pate. Fresh bread and pastries. Ratatouille. Crepes. To be honest I’ve never totally ‘got’ French food before this trip, always finding it a little bit too rich and heavy and lacking in vegetables. Maybe my tastes have changed, but I also think that Provencal cooking has much more emphasis on loads of fresh vegetables to accompany the inevitable cheese/butter/cream fest, and I prefer it for that. Anyway, I came home 1lb lighter, despite eating like a pig all week!

We also had fantastic trips to Les Calanques – the dramatic rocky cliffs and coves around Marseille, Aix-en-Provence and Arles. The weather was mixed, but good enough that my beloved Saltwater sandals got their first outing of 2016 and we could introduce Sophia to the delights of paddling.

The nicest thing about the week, though, was some proper family time uninterrupted by the demands of housework, paid work, school and all our various mobile devices. Absolute bliss. And now my husband has recovered from the migraine seemingly brought on by terror of me losing my temper, we all feel refreshed and ready for the new term. salawaters

My March Books

I absolutely definitely do not have time to write this blog post! We are off to France for a week on Saturday, and I have a lot to do to get ready. It is a home exchange holiday, so in addition to all the usual pre-holiday prep of packing and so on, we also have to leave the house in tip-top condition for our guest family. And, of course, the children need feeding, watering and entertaining as usual. Just to make life even more fun, our drinking water went off this morning, and so I spent quite a lot of time I definitely did not have boiling and cooling water, and organising an emergency plumber. And then a lady from First Utility called to have a matey chat about my kilowatt unit costs and how I could be reducing them. It felt too important to hang up, but wasn’t how I’d envisaged spending 20 minutes of Sophia’s precious nap time!

However. If I don’t write my March books up today, then it won’t happen until mid-April, so I have despatched Anna to tidy her bedroom (possibly for ‘tidy’ read ‘curl up on her bean-bag and listen to her Paddington CD), and Sophia is in her cot. The chatting and burbling indicate that she is in no way asleep, but I am choosing to ignore that for the time being and call it nap-time. So, March books here we go.

March booksCasting Off  and All Change by Elizabeth Jane Howard

It feels like a long time since I finished the final two novels in Howard’s amazing family saga, right back at the very beginning of March. Having absolutely loved the first three in the series, these two definitely did not disappoint. We follow the lives of the Cazalets into the social change and economic uncertainty of the years immediately following the Second World War. The characters whom we met as children are now grown up, many of them with children of their own. The intimacy of the writing is such that every turn of the plot feels like news or gossip about old friends. “Ooh, Polly’s had twins!” or “Thank goodness Hugh has met someone else at last.” or “I always thought that Wills was probably gay”. I absolutely loved, loved, loved these books, and know that I will return to them again and again.

A Summer at Sea by Katie Fforde

Katie Fforde is one of my top go-to authors for romantic escapism and comfort reading. I can also report *gets ready to boast* that she is an absolutely delightful person. I met her at the Romantic Novelists Association awards when my own book, Two for Joy was short-listed for Contemporary Novel of the Year a couple of years ago. Sadly I didn’t win, but it was fantastic to meet Katie, and she was kind enough to say that she had really enjoyed my books, which was a fantastic compliment. Anyway, a new Katie Fforde is always cause for celebration, and although I buy most of my books in our fantastic local Waterstone’s, when I saw this on special offer in Sainsbury’s as I did the weekly food shop one rainy Monday morning I just couldn’t resist.

Emily, the central protagonist, is a midwife – a career I seriously considered myself for a while – so it was particularly interesting for me. As always, Fforde has obviously done her research very thoroughly. Throw in some beautiful Scottish Highlands scenery, a heavily pregnant best friend and a ruggedly handsome Scottish doctor, and you’ve got a total feel-good read which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Murder of a Lady by Anthony Wynne

I don’t like writing negative reviews. I understand very well just how much effort goes into writing a book, and it feels downright churlish to publicly tear all that to pieces because it doesn’t meet your personal taste. I would never say I enjoyed something I didn’t, but prefer to operate on the principle of ‘if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all’. In this case, though, the author has been dead for many years, and so is unlikely to be hurt by my saying that this was one book I just couldn’t finish. I got about half way through, but found both characters and plot so implausible I was actually looking for excuses not t0 read! I decided enough was enough, and just skim-read to the end to discover whodunnit. I won’t be counting the book as one of my 52, but I have included it here for completeness.

My Life in Houses by Margaret Forster

After not enjoying Murder of a Lady I was looking for something to really get my teeth into, when this book by Margaret Forster caught my eye on a display in Waterstone’s. I still had book tokens from my birthday, so was able to treat myself, and I’m really glad I did.

The book does what it says on the tin. It is an account by Forster of every house she lived in during her nearly 80 years. She was born in a  two-up, two-down council house in Carlisle, and ended up with two homes, one in affluent Dartmouth Park on the borders of Hampstead Heath in London, and a holiday home in the Lake District. The book covers the personal – the story of her family, education, marriage, children, career and the illness which ultimately killed her, and the socio-political – how our homes and what we expect from them has changed over the course of the 20th and early 21st century.

Forster’s personality shines through her vivid descriptions, and so it was particularly poignant reading it just a few weeks after she died. The enormous importance and significance of ‘home’ to her is also something I feel very strongly myself, and so there was that fantastic chord of recognition which is one of the chief pleasures of reading.

Death in Devon by Ian Sansom

I wasn’t sure if I was going to love or hate this book before I read it.  It is the second in a new series of detective fiction set in the 1930s. They are a very deliberate ironic pastiche of the Golden Age crime novels I love so much, and at first I wasn’t sure if I would find the satire annoying. In the end, I didn’t. I felt, rightly or wrongly, that it was an affectionate, ironic satire, rather than a biting attack, and I enjoyed it. The narrator, a Spanish Civil War veteran, is highly likeable, and the plot was cleverly thought out, with a shock ending in the best tradition of Golden Age fiction. I will definitely be looking out for more books in this series.

The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G.Wodehouse

I had a bit of a Wodehouse-fest last month when I wasn’t well. Thankfully I haven’t had tonsillitis this month, but we did have an evening with a financial advisor talking about life insurance. The intellectual effort of trying to bend my mind around figures and statistics and probabilities and the pros and cons of different models, combined with the existential horror of contemplating a scenario where I am a widow with two young children, or my babies have been left motherless or orphaned meant that by the time our (very nice, helpful, friendly and intelligent) financial advisor left, I was in no fit state for anything but a mug of hot Ribena, bed and an instalment of Jeeves and Wooster. That made everything ok again.