Monday, 30 August 2010

Bank Holiday Monday

It was a traditional British Bank Holiday Monday so of course it must have been raining. We went off to Newport beach regardless...
It rained... was too crowded...
...the water was cold and filthy...
...we didn't have any fun at all...
Okay, so I jest. It was pretty darned gorgeous. Perfect waves for body boarding and wall to wall sunshine but with a brisk onshore breeze to stop it being too warm. And it was packed. There was standing room only in the car parks and the cars on the beach were three rows deep. Everyone was good natured and having a nice time. Yes there was one person who abused the right to park on the beach by driving too fast and being aggressive (we were blocking the way through with the tailgate of my 4x4 so she had to demonstrate her annoyance, even though I apologised profusely. Poor thing probably lives in a city...) There's always one.

People were pulling on wetsuits and bikinis (the tougher types) and leaping into the waves clutching children, body boards, dogs (not banned on this beach - so long as you scoop the poop), sea kayaks, speed boats, water bikes. Others set up camp around their cars and lit barbecues, played cricket, football and boules. Some escaped the car area and headed off into to bake in the soft sand under the dunes. A few sat in their greenhouse-like cars and watched this colourful spectacle.

This is Newport beach and it's huge (which is why the Welsh call it Traeth Mawr - big beach). There's plenty of room, lifeguards, a shop and you can park on the beach which the National Park Authority doesn't like but is a huge bonus for people with kids and body boards and all of the other things it's nice to take to the beach (like a table and chairs, teepee, picnic blanket, buckets and spades, kites, boules etc).

This is the beach the Guardian called the 'new Rock' though not having been to Rock I can't say whether that is correct or not. I expect Rock is packed like the rest of Cornwall, so perhaps Newport beats it on space and the fact that you can have bits of it to yourself even on a rare sunny August Bank Holiday Monday. It's got a Blue Flag now too... Hang on I'm making it sound far too nice! It's awful! Never visit - because it's mine, all mine...

Sunday, 29 August 2010

The 50 monster

"I don't want you to be 50," wails R6 on the eve of my birthday, flinging her arms around my neck.

"Er, I'm going to be 44 tomorrow, not 50," I reply. "Why don't you want me to be 50?"

"Because 50 is old," she says from the depths of my hair.

"Not that old," I reply. It's just around the corner now for me so it doesn't feel 'old' any more. I know lots of people in their 50s and older - none of them are 'old'. "And anyway," I add, "It'll be six years before I'm 50 and that's your whole life all over again."

That's a long time for a six-year-old. She hugs for a bit longer.

"Daddy's nearly 50," I remind her. Well, he's 48. Fifty is not so much round the corner for him as on the horizon, nearly visible. The hugging arms relax slightly. "And Granddad's going to be 70 on Monday, is he old?" Small head shakes no against my neck.

"Tell me who's 50," she demands, face still buried. I give her a list of all the people I can remember. It's quite a long list. All busy, fit people, very young seeming too. When I was in my 20s, 50 seemed ridiculously old. To R6 it must seem like forever.

She lets go and skips off happily, fears of the '50 monster' allayed. I contemplate it for a second but it still seems far off; hiding around the corner.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

The Darling Buds of August

I can't do it any more. I can't eat and eat and drink enough to sink a battleship and then get up bright eyed and bushy tailed the following morning. (This has nothing to do with the fact that I'm 44 on Saturday does it?)

I feel I let the side down badly. You see we've just spent a few days with B's sister L and her partner JB whose idea of hospitality would put Ma and Pa Larkin in the shade.

Where we, credit-crunch fashion, can make an M&S dine in for two serve a family of four, they serve up a family of four plus themselves enough for a family of 12 who have invited the local rugby team over for dinner and there's still enough left for seconds and thirds and left-overs.

The table groaned under the weight of a particularly delicious cannelloni which was accompanied - fusion style - by melt in the mouth Indian spiced courgette fritters, Greek salad and four loaves of garlic bread.

I think - although my memory is slightly hazy - that was the day we started off with two pints of the local beer before progressing on to bottles of Bordeaux. Glasses never seemed to empty. The level of wine stayed resolutely half an inch below the top of the glass no matter how much was imbibed.

Then there was dessert, a cartwheel of a pie laden with creamy custard studded with honeyed greengages. That was just perfect with a glass or two of Calvados - but that could have been the night before the cannelloni meal. Like poor Cedric "Charley" Charlton in the Darling Buds I rather lost track of time and why I was there in the first place. After three days of such lavish and generous hospitality I was in danger of collapsing in a quivering heap of indignant gall bladder.

In other words they spoiled us rotten and we had a fine old time. It wasn't all eating and drinking - though that was the major part - we also visited B's Mum, wandered damply around Windsor, patted Sefton (the second, not the original) at the local horse sanctuary and I fitted in a three mile run past the Spitfires at Bomber Command and back.

Patting Sefton.
This (below) is L and JB's gorgeous cat Isabelle who must be well over 100 in cat years.

She's recharging her solar batteries on the windowsill (where she wouldn't be allowed to be if she wasn't of such advanced years). This is who is really in charge of this household.

Then it was back home down an M4 which resembled a river - a long and tiring journey. We got back to a cold and damp house, a pile of early birthday cards for me and this message on the answerphone courtesy of an Indian call centre. If you clicked it you'll know he called me "fatty" but he called me "sexy" first so I can't complain. I have to laugh because I've called Indian call centre workers much worse in my time and it sounded as if the poor thing was having a particularly exasperating day. Mind you, if he'd called me "old" I would be out there now, hunting him down...

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Review: The Princess and the Frog

When Disney's The Princess and the Frog came out I have to confess I wasn't all that keen. I thought my daughters might be a bit past all that princessy stuff now. I thought it looked a bit dull.

Yeah, yeah, so it's a princess who kisses a frog and he really is a prince and they fall in love and then live happily ever after lah-dih-dah. The End. Yawn. Take me to Pixar.

Except it isn't. This fairytale has been set in New Orleans and marinated in voodoo and gumbo. So things aren't quite what they seem.

Tiana is a black left-handed waitress and Prince Naveen is a penniless, ukelele-playing good-for-nothing. He gets turned into a frog by scheming voodoo magician Dr Facilier and only a princess's kiss can turn him back into a human. But he kisses waitress Tiana by mistake and she too turns into a frog. The pair then journey down the Bayou looking for voodoo queen Madam Odie to break the spell, on the way picking up help in the form of trumpet playing alligator Louis and a firefly called Ray.

Surprisingly it's fun. I enjoyed the Randy Newman soundtrack and the fact that the film - Disney's 49th animated adventure - was hand-drawn. The Blu-ray has some fascinating and very watchable short films about the process too.

It looks lovely on Blu-ray. Crisp and magical - just as a good animated film should be. Dr Facilier and his shadows are perfectly scary too - my six-year-old put her hands over her eyes for those parts.

It has a message (this is Disney after all) - you can get what you want from a bit of wishing and a lot of hard work but never lose sight of what is really important. Of course the froggy voodoo spell cannot be broken until Tiana and Naveen finally realise what really is important and only then do we get the happy ending.

We enjoyed it. It is simple and straightforward. There aren't the knowing over-the-kids'-heads-in-jokes that Pixar is so brilliant at but the characters - especially Ray and Louis - are funny and lovable. I much prefer it to Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, so it's currently vying for top spot with Cinderella as my favourite Disney princess film so far. It's highly entertaining and I'd recommend it.

STAR RATING: 4.5 out of 5.

Monday, 16 August 2010

When is "old"?

Age is something that creeps up on us all and a bit more is creeping up on me in a fortnight's time when I turn 44. We were talking about age on Sunday when the discussion turned to how some people embrace being 'old' and are quite happy to snuggle up into its slippers, cardies, daytime TV and regular trips to the doctor to see about their 'troubles'.

Others, it seems, are less likely to do that and we now have plenty of role models - in the form of the wild rockers of the sixties, Jagger, McCartney, Ozzie et al, and Jerry Hall, Joanna Lumley and Vivienne Westwood - who are ageing in a glorious mixture of gracefulness and disgracefulness.

Who was it who said the sign of a good life was when you fly through the Pearly Gates arse first, on fire screaming "woo hoo what a ride"?!

Anyway when I got home after my day out I discovered what my 72-year-old mother had been doing all day:

All of those were baled on our top fields (so called because we're down the bottom and the land slopes upwards to where we grow our hay). Then then have to be spiked and brought down the slope individually and lined up to be wrapped.

So my aged parent spent the day driving this up and down a steep slope with each of those huge bales of haylage spiked on the back of it:

Actually this isn't our tractor, this is the one from Shaun the Sheep, but to all intents and purposes it's identical.

I'd say it'd feel like a long old life if one decided that 44 was middle-aged (how I hate that term!) and sat on the sofa drinking tea watching daytime repeats of Cash in the Attic. I used to worry that ageing brought with it the need to wear fluffy slippers and watch game shows (shoot me!) but fortunately there's no sign of that yet.

I'm not sure when you become 'old' but it's obviously a state of mind rather than anything to do with what's written on your birth certificate. Hopefully it's genetic too. I'd like to think I'll be driving the tractor when I'm 72. I don't drive it now. Far too dangerous!

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Making friends with long ears

In which we visit The Donkey Sanctuary near Sidmouth, Devon.

The Donkey Sanctuary believes that supporters should be able to come and see how the money they donate helps them to care for their large family of donkeys, so they don't charge an entry fee to their headquarters at Slade House Farm. Instead you can turn up and amble happily around the farm's rolling acres cuddling all the donkeys - currently 483 - as you go.

We began with a visit to the older residents who live in the barn nearest the yard. Some of these donkeys are over 40, so they require extra special care and love (as all over 40s do!). We began by giving this pretty donkey a gentle scratch. When I stopped scratching he gently took my fingers in his lips and tried to make me scratch him again. Adorable. 

After lunch at the Hayloft restaurant - where they make the most delicious paninis (HUGE portions, very reasonable, so take a big appetite) - we headed off on Walk C. This took us on a lovely trek around the farm and its hayfields, meeting hundreds of donkeys along the way. Our aim was to visit the mighty Poitou donkeys - a big, hairy French breed - but we spotted a huddle of other donkeys by a fence and missed the turn to their yard.

This is the world's most beautiful donkey.

I think I've bored it to sleep. One donkey can only take so much of being told how beautiful it is. We really wanted to take this one home with us. We've probably got the room here too, with 22 acres and a nice warm barn or two. The sanctuary does encourage fostering of their donkeys in pairs, but not to homes where there are already other equines. This rules us out as we already have three Welsh ponies - although we have the space to manage the donkeys separately... I'm talking myself into this... a possibility for the future, perhaps.

When the first ones get tired of being patted, other friendly donkeys come on over for their turn. These donkeys have a steady stream of visitors but they never tire of human interaction.

The biggest, shaggiest (and most stubborn) donkey I have ever seen. When we had finished Walk C, we had an ice cream and then went back to the beginning of the same walk again to find the big donkeys. We met a pair of them going for a walk - or trying to. This one looks half donkey, half woolly mammoth and I think his name was Hercule, or something equally French. He was busy reminding everyone that a donkey of his size can generally choose where he goes and when.

We found Hercule's friends and, like the others, they were delighted to have visitors. The yard was empty when we arrived but the all donkeys came out to see who had turned up to pat them.

The biggest donkeys have the longest ears.

If one were to adopt a pair of donkeys, how on earth would you decide which ones? We fell in love all over again, this time with Fudge and his friends. 

Monday, 2 August 2010

On Chesil Beach and other delights

It's always a wise precaution to install friends in places you'd like to holiday and recently we went to stay with a couple of ours who have made the entirely helpful decision to live in North Devon.

Not only do they have a lovely house, thoughtfully completely redecorated for our visit, they also have the rather fabulous habit of plying us with the finest wine and excellent food. Of course we return time and time again, who wouldn't? I just wish they wouldn't insist on retelling the infamous Incident with the Grappa...

The first thing they did was take us along to their local National Trust property, Knightshayes - a huge favourite of ours - where we pondered a man wearing an orange skirt while A ignored 'No Entry' and 'this area closed' signs, his Canon lens firmly focussed on flighty blue butterflies. Then it was off to the Great Western canal at Tiverton where A (and N to an impressively professional extent) focussed their lenses on dragonflies - you sense a pattern here - and we gazed fondly at the horse pulling the narrowboat and snoozed along in the hot sun.

On Monday our hosts trailed off unenthusiastically to work (before we were awake) and we followed their advice and headed into Dorset, first to Montacute House...

...a National Trust property famous for its wavy hedges, where we had lunch and happy wander through the National Portrait gallery paintings.

Then it was back in the car for a meander through the Dorset countryside which included a brief stop to gaze upon the magnificence of the Cerne Giant. Eventually we found our way to the Abbotsbury section of Chesil Beach where we cooled down with ice creams and watched the mackerel flit past in huge shoals as the waves broke on the shore.

The edge of the beach was littered with silvery sprats fleeing from the mackerel.

For me it was pebble nirvana and I spent a happy afternoon turning over all the pebbles individually looking for pretty things and lovely shells. I would still be there now if I hadn't been lured away to eat pollack and chips on the beach at West Bay.

We bought our chips from one the kiosks on the harbour (second from the right, blue and white painted) and strolled elegantly (all right, we ran like hell) down to the beach where we plonked ourselves down and scoffed in an unseemly fashion. Afterwards we were surprised by the slope to the beach, we had dashed down it in such a greedy hurry. These two - the Morcambe and Wise of the gull world - were our supper time entertainment.