Archive for December, 2014

No Longer Dreaming of a White Christmas

Tuesday, December 30th, 2014

The drive home from the Yorkshire Dales on Boxing Day was a tad hairy as the sky let loose a decent downpour of rain. Sir Pubert made us tune the radio to the Boxing Day football commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live and continues to assure me that he was listening to it despite his closed eyes, dropped head and occasional snore.

As the commentary skipped from one football ground to the next, we were informed of the weather conditions throughout the country. Most games were being played in very wet conditions, however Manchester City was playing West Brom in the Midlands where it had started snowing.

As we arrived home and sat in comfort and warmth by the fire, I looked out of the lounge room windows and saw that the usual Manchester drizzle was no longer just heavy rain but had turned into big, floaty snow flakes. It was snowing on Boxing Day – I was counting this as a white Christmas! Sure, the snow melted on impact and it was mostly just sludge, but they were definitely snow flakes and it was definitely still the “Christmas season”.

snow

Eat your heart out, Bing Crosby.

 

As far as white Christmases go, it was a bit disappointing and I will continue to seek a better example of it in the future. However, having spent five winters in Europe, it was about time that snow fell on Christmas. What happens in movies, happens in Manchester.

One Stoat, Two Stoat, Three Stoat, More.

Tuesday, December 30th, 2014

In an attempt to work off our Christmas bellies, Sir Pubert, Katy, Ken and I headed to Malham in the Yorkshire Dales on Boxing Day for a walk in the hills. Ken, local Yorkshireman, avid explorer and map reader, was our guide and had planned the walking route. Having parked our car in Malham, we wrapped ourselves in multiple layers, grabbed our picnic lunches and headed off. Adventure awaited!

Malham

Off we go!

Ken and Katy sprinted off in front of wheezy–Sir–Pubert and “I’ll catch up in a second, I just want to take a photo”–tourist–me. Every minute or so I needed to stop and say, “Wow.” as the scenery expanded and the Yorkshire Dales showed us what they are made of.

We were in limestone country and our first stop was Malham Cove, an impressive and formidable limestone amphitheatre. We climbed up to the top (via some easy-access steps) and then had a view over the rolling hills of the Dales.

Malham Cove

Malham Cove

The landscape shifted from green hills to rocky outcrops with waterfalls and streams winding through the valleys. It was beautiful. I have generally considered myself a city girl, but having the opportunity to stomp through mud, water streams and climb over rocks was very stimulating. This was helped by the fact that the weather held out and we managed to complete the walk sans pluie.

View from Malham Cove

View from Malham Cove

We stopped for lunch (I don’t think many walkers have stilton and walnut sandwiches, but we picnic in style.) sitting on a small rocky amphitheatre. Enjoying the quiet and the expansive view, I spotted a white object tumbling down the small road in front of us.The pure white stood out clearly against the black bitumen and it soon became clear that it wasn’t just a polystyrene cup blowing in the wind. I nudged Ken and asked him what it was. As they say in the north, Ken got dead excited.

sandwiches

Sir Pubert makes some seriously good sandwiches.

The tumbling white thing was a stoat in ermine – a weasel-like creature whose fur coat changes from brown to pure white during winter months. Apparently it was quite rare to spot one of these little guys and I had just spotted something rather special. Ken whipped out his binoculars and we all had a close look at him as he jumped and tumbled his way over rocks and through shrubs looking for food for his own lunch.

stoat

This isn’t the stoat that I saw but look at him! SO CUTE! www.telegraph.co.uk

His tumbling running action (these guys don’t really run – they look like they are having the BEST TIME EVER jumping and skipping and leaping about like 4 year old girls who have just consumed excessive amounts of sugar at a birthday party) and his adorably cute face fooled me into thinking he was an innocent little thing. Apparently not. These guys are vicious killers who bite and snap the spinal cords of rabbits. Coming from a country where everything kills you, I’m not entirely surprised.

Here is a BBC documentary showing the leaping cuteness. It also shows the less-cute rabbit killing. You’ve been warned.

The stoat eventually disappeared into the rocky landscape and we continued on our walk. We hadn’t walked far when Sir Pubert called for the binoculars and looked down into the valley at a dry stone wall that had some remarkably white stones near the base. Then the stones moved. He had spotted two more stoats living in the stone wall, potentially waiting the lunch that was being collected by the stoat I had spotted earlier.

While it would have been great to stand and watch our new furry friends all day, our fingers and toes were turning numb and the idea of warming cups of tea was too exciting. We walked on, heading back to Malham and to the Buck Inn where we re-heated ourselves by the fire.

As we drove out of Malham the rain started and we drove home in a constant downpour. Perfect timing with the weather, rare animal spotting, fantastic views and delicious blue-cheese sandwiches. It had been a great day.

So Long, Christmas!

Monday, December 29th, 2014

My inner Scrooge is pleased to see the end of all that tinsel, mulled wine and festive cheer, although I am willing to admit that Christmas Day turned out to be a lot better than expected. Some forward planning based on the knowledge that I would be spending the day on my own meant I could fill it with all things “Jess”.

1. Get up early and run a half marathon.

I don’t know many other people who would set their alarm for 7am on Christmas morning in order to get out of bed, eat breakfast and digest before heading off for an extended run. I figured if I had all day I may as well make it a decent jog so I set myself the goal of a Christmas Half Marathon. Seemed like a good idea at the time.

My running route.

My running route.

It was a beautiful, crisp, blue-skied morning and by the time I left home the sun was attempting to show itself. Perfect running conditions as I headed off, getting slightly lost along the way and having to re-route due to muddy conditions. My final distance was a comfortable 24 kilometres, the last seven of which were slightly less comfortable. I fed myself chocolate flavoured energy gels and recovery shakes as reward for my long slog. Holy moly, those things are good. I would run excessive distances every day if it meant I could eat chocolate-flavoured protein bars.

Run, rabbit, run.

Run, rabbit, run.

2. A little bit of stollen.

After de-stinking myself, it was time for morning coffee and a slice of Aldi Rich Fruit Marzipan Stollen. While it wasn’t bad for a budget supermarket cake, it certainly couldn’t compete with my brother’s version and there definitely wasn’t enough marzipan. But then again, is there ever enough marzipan? Ooh, deep.

More marzipan, please.

More marzipan, please.

3. Christmas lunch for one

A week or so before Christmas I saw a recipe on the Sweet Paul Magazine website for a beetroot salad that instantly screamed “EAT ME FOR CHRISTMAS LUNCH!”. Unable to find half of the ingredients (Dear British Supermarkets, please sell fennel. Thanks. Jess.), I adapted the recipe to include roasted beetroot, kale, blue cheese and an amazing mixed nuts selection that I had found at Aldi. Served with a glass of elderflower champagne made by my friend, Garden Boy (aka Jon), it was potentially the BEST CHRISTMAS LUNCH EVER.

beetroot salad

Wow. Just wow.

I Skyped my family back home while munching on my lunch and it was lovely to be able to sit and chat with the folks and the bro. Thank you for existing, Skype.

4. Christmas bake-off.

Thinking I would have all of the time in the world on Christmas day, I had decided to bake biscotti as a Christmas gift for Sir Pubert’s mum and her partner. I suddenly became aware of the rapidly decreasing amount of time I had to achieve this, so I bid adieu to my family and then raced around the kitchen creating what ended up being the best biscotti in my baking career. Boom.

biscotti

Crunchy nutty chocolatey goodness.

5. Father Christmas really does love me.

Sir Pubert collected me and my hundreds of bags and we headed to his house for Christmas dinner with his mum, Katy, and her partner, Ken. Over a glass of champagne I was overwhelmed to discover that Father Christmas hadn’t forgotten me and had left a plethora of presents in a PaperChase stocking just for me. Plus additional gifts from Katy, Ken and Pubert – spoilt, I was.

6. Turkey.

A whole turkey for three adults and a vegetarian is a little excessive. Plus parsnips, potatoes, peas, bread sauce, stuffing and red cabbage. Followed up with homemade and hand-fed Christmas pudding with custard makes for many a stuffed belly. There was plenty of moaning and regret following that meal but a content bunch of over-stuffed humans we were.

christmas dinner

Mmm… too much food…

So while I may whinge about Christmas and its ability to make human beings act like piggish idiots, it was the simplicities of the day that made my Christmas very enjoyable. Great weather, wonderful family and friends, delicious food, and a bloody long run.

The End is Nigh (Again)

Tuesday, December 23rd, 2014

Dear Scientists,

You’re a smart bunch of people. You have done some really neat things that have been particularly useful such as inventing computers, harnessing the power of electricity and finding cures for stuff. Do you think you could please invent a way of slowing down time? I would be most grateful.

Cheers for that.

Love Jess

So it would appear that time has done its thing and passed with rapid speed once again. The expiry of my UK visa is looming, becoming more and more real every time I wake up in the morning. Last Thursday it all became terrifyingly real when I bought my plane ticket home. The culmination of paying an excessively large sum of money for something that I didn’t necessarily want and the fact that I now officially have an end date AND time, made everything sink in.

Mum, Dad, don’t get me wrong – part of me is very excited to be coming home. I haven’t hugged my mum in 2.5 years, which for someone who thrives on Mum-hugs is a really, really long time. Plus I have heard rumours of this thing called a ‘sun’ that delivers ‘warmth’ – that all sounds rather good. Plus I can ride my bike, be babysat by my parents, see my friends and meet some of the new additions that have been produced while I have been away. All of these things are great. But I still don’t want to go.

I have had this feeling towards the end of all of my visas and it is the fear of change, the unknown, the “what the hell am I doing with my life?” that rears its ugly head as the days count down. At least this time I haven’t made myself sick, unlike when I returned to Perth to apply for Paris Visa #2 and spent the month before my departure with a stomach ache. Maybe I am getting used to it and learning that no matter what happens or how hard I try and slow down time, life soldiers on. There’ll be another great adventure and I just have to wait and see what it entails. Still sucks though.

Australia puddle

This puddle that looks a bit like Australia has been outside my office window for over a week. This is the most exciting part of my day.

This morning, like many mornings, the question of “Why didn’t I just settle in a normal job with normal working hours in a normal office cubicle doing something like marketing?”. Then maybe I would be like many of my friends who seem to have found their place in the world and who have real careers, babies, families, husbands, houses, mortgages and sanity. Or I would have gone nuts, smashed down the office cubicle in a fit of rage and run off to deserted island. Hmmm…

So perhaps I should just stop fighting the fact that I need change, I crave adventure and I don’t like sitting still. I always want more, more, more and the purchase of this plane ticket is just that – it is the start of Jess’s Great Adventure #4 and the search for something more. I just wish I didn’t have to pack up all of my possessions every year or two. Fun fun fun.

Snow.

Friday, December 19th, 2014

It would seem that I have had actual paid work and responsibilities this week as I haven’t written about the fact that IT SNOWED last Friday. I had been concerned that I had lost my inner child who becomes ridiculously excited by the arrival of falling icicles; so imagine my relief when I giddily screamed “SNOW!!” when I saw the first flakes fall. They melted instantly and turned into slop but for a brief second I was excited.

Ice patterns on Sir Pubert's car

Ice patterns on Sir Pubert’s car

Friday’s blustery snow arrival was more impressive in hilly parts of the North such as the Peaks, the Lake District and Scotland. So on Saturday, Sir Pubert and I packed an impressive lunch and headed along Snake Pass into the Peaks in search of a picnic spot.

Warming soup.

Warming soup.

 

We headed to the highest part of the Snake Road pass where we were surrounded by fog and scatterings of white icy stuff. We parked and walked a very short way along a muddy, icy and therefore slippery path before sitting and scoffing our faces. The sun managed to come out from the behind the clouds and warmed us up nicely. It was great fun but after we’d eaten our delicious cheese sandwiches and warm soup, we threw a few snow balls and hurried back to the car. Sir Pubert was concerned we would get stuck in the Peaks due to ‘the weather’. That’s Brits for you – always concerned about getting lost/stuck in the ‘wilderness’. We managed to escape unscathed.

Snow at the High Peak

Snow at the High Peak

Since the weekend, the weather has changed once again and turned into a constant drizzle. It is much warmer but I have holes in the soles of my shoes and my feet keep getting wet. Everything is wet. It’s quite horrible.

In other news, today I bought my plane ticket home to where the current forecast for tomorrow is 39 degrees. No rain. This ‘going home’ thing is suddenly sounding ok.

Weather Update

Wednesday, December 10th, 2014

Word on the street is that it is cold – and I concur. Last week, it was with great pain and general disgruntlement that I put on my winter coat for the first time. I hate admitting that it is cold but chilly winds had made the temperature drop from a balmy 12 degrees to a knuckle-reddening 4. This morning on my run, I went past the SUPER ELECTRONIC signage outside Manchester University on which, through the wonders of technology, it announces the time, date and temperature in a rotating sequence. It was 1.8 degrees Celcius and my wet nose and numb hands believed this to be accurate. It was also the first morning where I almost lost my balance as I ran onto invisible ice. Damn invisible ice… It is very tricky to see. Probably because it is invisible to eyes that are watering due to cold winds blowing into them.

I am currently sitting on my own in my office space avoiding going home. It is raining outside and I don’t really wish to get wet. I have had an unusually productive day considering last week I spent 60 per cent of my time procrastinating and the other 40 per cent eating. Today I went for a run, had a meeting, did some work, payed bills, did some more work, and started writing a hopefully convincing description of why I should be allowed to study a masters degree next year. Does anyone enjoy writing about themselves? I certainly don’t, particularly when I need to explain why I have spent the last four years of my life avoiding responsibility and career paths. Being a travelling nomad sounds romantic and fun but it isn’t academically sound. No one really believes in the School of Life, except for perhaps myself and my dad.

I have no exciting adventures to write about this week as the weekend involved a lot of cooking and the painting of skirting boards at Sir Pubert’s ‘Renovator’s delight’ house. That was fun as it involved a visit to an even bigger B&Q and we went to the Tameside Environment Centre, a poetic name for the rubbish tip. Another highlight of Greater Manchester for me to tick off my list of ‘must visit’s.

Ok. Enough blabbering. It’s time to go home.

My Favourite UPT

Thursday, December 4th, 2014

Throughout my trip to Northern Ireland, I learnt more and more about the Unique Personality Traits (UPTs) of family members and the local population in general. It didn’t take me long to work out what my favourite local custom was – the tray bake. I have never before heard the phrase ‘tray bake’ used as frequently as I did in this country. After confirming that a ‘tray bake’ is Irish/British for what I would call a ‘slice’, it amazed me how regularly it popped up in conversation.

While I was never offered of a tray bake during my stay (although at our first family member visit the table was covered in pikelets, meringues, short bread (one could argue that this is a form of tray bake), biscuits and eventually a trifle, but we had already eaten) I did discover that many of Sir Pubert’s family members had freezers full of pre-prepared tray bakes. And not only tray bakes but scones, soup, and entire meals, all frozen and ready to go on demand. One aunt had nine types of scones in her freezer – now that’s my kind of household. Baked goods on demand.

In honour of what I learned on my trip to Northern Ireland, I spent the afternoon at home today and whipped up a little carrot cake in order to use up some eggs. While it won’t go in the freezer and it isn’t a tray bake, I feel it is the least I can do to recognise the tray bake phenomenon of Northern Ireland.

Carrot cake

Walnutty, carrotty goodness.

AONBs

Tuesday, December 2nd, 2014

While visiting Northern Ireland, I had the absolute pleasure of staying with Sir Pubert’s aunt, Lady BonBon. One of the kindest and most generous people that I have ever met, we were treated like royalty during our three night stay. I wasn’t even told to write this – I honestly mean it.

Lady BonBon had collected a range of maps and tourist information for Pubert and I to use to plan our day trips out and about. One of the maps was of the Areas of Natural Beauty (AONBs) to the north of where we were staying. So on Friday, Pubert and I headed out in Lady BonBon’s automobile (a Skoda) to discover them for ourselves.

ANOB #1 – The Dark Hedges

The map was what I would call “diagrammatical” or “lacking detail” and so we took a few scenic detours before finally reaching our first destination. All we knew about the dark hedges was that they were a bunch of trees covering a road and that they were near a golf course. Thanks to perseverance, a bit of GPS Jess map reading, and a lot of good luck, we finally found what we were looking for. A road in the middle of no where with over hanging trees. Thanks to some good weather and a little bit of sunshine, we managed to see the road in great light. Definitely an ANOB.

Dark hedges

The Dark Hedges. WoooOOoooOOOooo….

ANOB #2 – The Giant’s Causeway

I had heard about and seen photographs of the Giant’s Causeway but didn’t know a lot about it. I was thrilled to discover that it was a short drive from where we were staying and that it was an official ANOB on our tourist map. After parking the car and slightly fraudulently getting into the National Trust visitor’s centre thanks to Ken and Katy’s membership, we walked down along the coastal road to the famous site.

Giant's causeway

Walking down to the Giant’s Causeway

Thanks to a volcano, the ice age and various other earthly movements, the Giant’s Causeway is a collection of rocks that have magically formed in hexagonal pillars. It is absolutely remarkable – as I walked across the rocks it became more and more phenomenal how these unique shapes formed. And on top of that, how they have lasted in this manner for hundreds/thousands/millions of years.

Giant's causeway

Giant’s Causeway

My favourite rocks were those that were speckled with what I presume is some sort of algae. The white specks reminded me of the pyrite encrusted ring Pubert bought me for my birthday.

Giant's causeway

Hexagons

After an overpriced and average tasting lunch at the National Trust cafe and having been chatted up by one of the elderly gentlemen volunteers in the visitor’s centre, we headed off towards our next stop on our ANOB discovery tour.

ANOB #3 – Carrick-a-Rede Rope Bridge

Once again, thanks to a slightly inappropriate use of a National Trust membership (“You don’t look old enough to be a senior…”) we made our way to the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge. My new boyfriend from the Giant’s Causeway visitor’s centre had said the walk to the bridge was at least 40 minutes, so imagine our surprise when we managed to do it in around 15. Clearly we were keen to get there.

Carrick-a-rede rope bridge

A long way down.

The rope bridge connects the mainland to a small island off the coast where fishermen used to go to check their salmon nets. They have improved the quality of the bridge, however it is still a hair-raising experience as you step out onto a wobbly bridge, the sea below your feet and a bunch of tourists watching, hoping you’ll slip and fall for the perfect photo opportunity. Unfortunately for them, we both made it across safely.

Carrick a Rede

Nice.

Once again, the views definitely rated high on the ANOB scale.

ANOB #4 – Dunluce Castle

The problem with being a tourist at this time of the year is the extreme lack of day light. The sun is going to bed before 4pm so we were restricted by how much we could fit into our day. We headed back along the coast to Dunluce Castle, old castle ruins sitting precariously on top of the cliffs. We discovered that the once free to enter attraction now had a £5 per person entry fee. We were running short on time, so decided to head down a path to the side of the castle that took you underneath the ruins.

Dunluce Castle

A castle with a view

Below the castle is a cave where boats would come to the shore after being out at sea. Despite signage recommending No Entry and some encouragement from a local man who happened to walk past, we ventured into the mouth of the cave to listen to the waves hitting the shore.

ANOB #5 – Bushmills Distillery

While not technically an ANOB, I am going to classify the Bushmills distillery as a natural beauty unto itself. Anyone who creates a drink as glorious as Irish whiskey deserves a classification like ANOB. We had hoped to do one of the tours and my Giant’s Causeway boyfriend had said that the last tour was at 4.30pm. Turns out his knowledge of tour hours is about as correct as his knowledge of length of walking times. We arrived at Bushmills at 3.49pm. The last tour had started at 3.30pm. Dang.

We went inside anyway, checking out the gift shop and then wandering into the cafe area. We were contemplating purchasing a whiskey to drink to help us get over our disappointment for missing the tour, and the lovely girl behind the bar offered us a free sample.

Thanks to this knowledgable wee lass, we managed to get a lot of the tour information and learnt a lot about the Bushmills range. We sampled four whiskeys, debating on which were our favourites. We managed to agree on our number one choice while the other three were a mixed bag.

We left without buying anything. So overall a very successful visit.

ANOB #6 – ASDA

Our final stop for the day was an ASDA supermarket where Pubert and I were given the task of purchasing ingredients for Lady BonBon to use for a funeral catering service she was preparing for the following day. We wandered around the supermarket looking for square bread, salad cream and crushed pineapple.

And then it was home for a delicious meal with Lady BonBon and an evening in front of the fire. Good times.

Pubert’s Highlight

Monday, December 1st, 2014

Sir Pubert discovered the wonder of automated public toilets during our visit to Belfast. His fear of public facilities somehow led him to decide that a self-cleaning, coin operated toilet was better than a sneaky visit to a pub. Borrowing 20p from me, he entered cautiously and waved goodbye as the door closed behind him.

A few minutes later he emerged declaring his visit as being the highlight of his day. Whipping out his phone, he showed me the photographs he had taken from the inside – the count down clock displayed how many of his 15 minutes he had left until the doors would open again; the button that dispensed rationed sheets of toilet paper; and the hand washing sink that discharged soap and water at the same time.

Public toilet

Sir Pubert is in there.

The bright eyed boy was happy and it only cost me 20p. Now I just have to find an equivalent in Manchester and I will have sorted out his Christmas present.

A Trip to Northern Ireland

Monday, December 1st, 2014

Last night I returned home from a four day visit in the land of limericks and leprechauns. Early Thursday morning, Sir Pubert, his mum, Katy, his mum’s partner, Ken, and I loaded ourselves into a BMW with sports suspension and low-profile tyres and drove to Northern Ireland. We drove through three countries in one day – England, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Neat.

Sir Pubert was born in Northern Ireland and we were off to visit the plethora of aunts, uncles and cousins who live in and around the Antrim/Ballymena area. My recent experience discovering new family members in my own clan has made me an expert at understanding family connections. I had been provided with general descriptions of each of the relatives I may or may not meet prior to departure and again at regular intervals throughout the trip. I am now very well versed on the Unique Personality Traits (UPTs) of Sir Pubert’s various family members and could almost draw a family tree. Almost.

Northern Ireland

Sunny Northern Ireland.

Having never previously visited Ireland or Northern Ireland, I was a tad excited and also somewhat surprised to discover that it was located so far south. In my somewhat naive head, I had always imagined Ireland as being significantly further north than England, but it turns out I was wrong. So there we go. This was good news, as it meant the drive to get there would be much shorter than I expected.

At this point I would like to mention that never before have I travelled in a car from England to Northern Ireland with such a good looking, fun and intelligent group of people. I may or may not have been told to write that.

With a brief coffee break in Dumfries, we made our way to Cairnryan where we drove the car onto a large P&O ferry that took us across the Irish Sea to Larne. This was definitely more enjoyable than my last car-on-boat-crossing experience that I had had in 2007, travelling from Custines to Bognor Regis with a bus load of french teenagers who were hyped up on sugar and pretending to not be homesick. This ride was smooth, the boat was half empty and Toblerone cost £5 in the gift shop. Ridiculous.

P&O Ferry

All abord the P&O ferry to Larne

Having arrived in Northern Ireland, I cheered for having added yet another country to my extensive list, and we drove off to visit family member #1. And so began a weekend of conversations where I desperately tried to work out which Aunt was being discussed, who they were related to and what their UPT was. I eventually gave up and just sat around eating for four days.

More adventures in Northern Ireland to follow.